Visual essays

Visual essays

Bronze highlights

Visual essays

From whatever vantage point we look, if we are prepared to look historically, civilisations reveal themselves to be processes and not things.” These true words by Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of Sanskrit and Indian history at Columbia University, also apply to art.

As fixed and solid as they seem, art objects never stay still. They are not the same from one century, or second, to the next. Not only do they change in meaning and value through time, but they also change physically. With their molecules flying off into space, they grow lighter and smaller and, if we’re paying attention, more insistently alive.

So if on a visit to “Gods of Angkor: Bronzes From the National Museum of Cambodia,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, you imagine Buddhas and Shivas hovering and buzzing around you like so many emerald green hummingbirds – here, gone, here again – you won’t be entirely wrong.

This compact exhibition of 36 metal sculptures is literally about change, or rather about attempts to reverse and forestall it. Between 1975 and 1979, the National Museum of
Cambodia in Phnom Penh, one of the jewels of Southeast Asia, was all but destroyed.

Khmer Rouge purges wiped out much of its staff; its buildings, abandoned, were disintegrating. The art that didn’t disappear was severely damaged. In the decades since, the museum has struggled to become again what it was, but also something different, more modern. And other institutions have lent a hand in the recovery. In 2005 the Freer and Sackler galleries, collaborating with the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, provided financial and technical support for the Cambodian museum’s first metal-conservation laboratory, primarily for the care and study of the collection’s magnificent bronzes.

This Sackler show – organised by Paul Jett, head of conservation at the Freer and Sackler, and Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics there – demonstrates some of the results of that care. It is also a reminder of how crucial is the search for fresh news from the past, a past that is every bit as much in flux as the present, and just as easy to miss if we’re not looking.

For ancient art from Southeast Asia, we need every scrap of news we can get. Even the most basic facts elude us. We have no clear idea, for example, of when metal casting arrived in Cambodia, or where it came from when it did.

A prehistoric bronze urn in the exhibition, pear-shaped and stamped with fiddle-head scrolls, has stylistic links to China, but with its archaeological recovery spot unrecorded, there’s no way to tell where it was actually made, or why. All we know is a little about its peripatetic recent history: before it came to the National Museum, it was being used by farmers to transport water.

Cambodian traditions for casting figures in metal seem to have had two influences, Chinese and Indian. Seven pintsize bronze Buddhist figures, dating from the sixth and seventh century, point to both. Dug up in a village garden in 2006, these little statues were the first beneficiaries of the museum’s metal conservation and they glow, their patinas a powdery, succulent green.

Two are pretty clearly Chinese imports. Of the other five, three show evidence of Indian-inspired art trends from central Thailand. The remaining pair are in a homegrown Cambodian Khmer style. Together, they form a visual essay in cultural volatility, from a time when people everywhere were on the move.

Chinese monks were making their way through Southeast Asia to the Buddhist holy spots in India, toting sculptures and leaving some en route. In India, the Buddhist monastic universities were sending missionaries, equipped with icons, eastward by sea, while Hindu priests from temple cities like Chidambaram were heading east too.

With so much commotion, change was inevitable, both within indigenous Southeast Asian religions and within  Buddhism and Hinduism. Art was changing too, though seldom in easily definable ways. The only thing you can say with absolute certainty about those village-garden Buddhas is that no two are exactly alike. In religious art, variety and experimentation were the names of the game, within certain bounds.

Cambodia’s religious history was not, it should be said, only or even primarily Buddhist. The favored religion of the Khmer empire during much of its span from the 9th through the 13th centuries was Hinduism. The fabled city of Angkor Wat was a Hindu monument with Buddhism folded in. Angkor Thom, built later by the ruler Jayavarman VII, was Buddhist but with a Hindu overlay.

And the intermingling of faiths came with complications. Hinduism and Buddhism were each divided into separate strains. Cambodia’s ancestor-centered native religions were vital and popular. So were royal personality cults promoted by self-celebrating Khmer kings.

In short, the varieties of religious experience available in ancient Cambodia were many and interlocking.  Little wonder that the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, visiting Angkor in 1296, mistook a colossal Vishnu for a Buddha. It was easy enough to do.
Visual distinctions between religions, like doctrinal differences, were often vague. This is true at the Sackler.

One impressive 10th-century figure of a broad-shouldered, four-armed male deity could be either Hindu or Buddhist.  We might be able to tell if we could see the symbols in his crown. But at some point his head was knocked off and lost, so we’ll never know.

Even intact sculptures can be baffling. Another multi-armed figure, dressed in a hip-hugging kilt, is for sure a Hindu god, but which one? The items in his hands – an orb, a conch shell, a disc, a mace – belong to Vishnu. But the towering Ronettes hairdo says Shiva loud and clear. As it turns out, he embodies three separate but equal aspects of Vishnu, one of which resembles Shiva in his crazy-sadhu mode.

But to learn the identity of this symbol-stoked icon is only to begin to know it. The closer you look, the more meanings emerge, and, for a devotee, the more intense the mystical potential grows. In some ways, the art experience and the religious experience are similar.

In both, specific objects reveal their vitality and agency. They can change you, and you, with your attention, change them. You create them as surely as the artist did because psychically you complete them, make them fully exist.

The trinitarian Vishnu, with its avian features and miss-nothing eyes, has been in Washington before, in 1997, in a much grander exhibition called “Millennium of Glory: Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia” at the National Gallery of Art. Some half-dozen of the bronzes at the Sackler were in that show too, including the exquisite figure of a kneeling woman with upraised hands – she probably supported a mirror – and a sculpture of the Buddha seated on the coiled body of a snake and flanked by a male and a female attendant.

This intricate ensemble may have been made for Jayavarman VII, the last major Khmer king. And its image, combining absolutist politics, divinity and autobiography, became a sort of logo for his reign. He routinely commissioned idealised portraits of himself; in stone sculptures, the faces are so inhumanly smooth and serene that they seem bathed in mist. And he peppered his domain with them.

In this bronze – small enough for a private shrine or for carrying in processions – he’s depicted as the Buddha, with his mother and father, in the guise of bodhisattvas, standing on either side.After the king’s death, the imperial enterprise began to wind down.

In 1431 Thai armies seized Angkor, which was then abandoned as the Khmer shifted their capital to what is now Phnom Penh.  In that city, centuries later, the bronzes visiting the Sackler have found a museum home, where they continue to be works very much in progress, losing substance, but also gaining it thanks to conservation, as they purposefully float, ever-changing, through time.

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