If you are going to see the exquisite Hokusai showcase at the National Gallery of Victoria, or even if you aren’t, the temporary exhibit Buddha’s Smile is worth a look, and a listen. I’m not suggesting a direct link between the exhibits, by the way or even a broad, ‘let’s lump all the Asian art in together.’ For myself, I saw both Hokusai and this exhibit on different days for different reasons.
The Buddha’s Smile brings together items of many different purposes, in different styles, using different media, of various ages, from recent pieces from Australia to ancient textiles and timbers from across Indonesia, India and China and beyond. Each captures something unique about Buddha and Buddhist practice.
I’ve noted before, but a gallery can be an ocean of calm amid a bustling city. But calm doesn’t mean silent, nor empty. This exhibit has a sound track, and the room echoes with chanting. Rather than being a distraction away from the pieces, the sound-scape adds to the atmosphere and anchors the works to what is both a living, changing tradition, and an ancient one.
There are statues, worn by time, metal work figurines, betel items, and ceramics, along with newer interpretations of the figure of the Buddha, through painting and digital works. The one below, is quite striking:
But my favourite bit is a hidden nook, so shadowy it seems candle-lit.
I want to compare it to the inner sanctum, or a reliquary, and it reminded me of the 2014’s excellent Eikon: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. And yet, Buddhism has its own language. Or perhaps the religious purpose of the art – its context – imbues it with significance? As in all art that is perhaps for each person to explore for themselves. But these votives and statues did seem to speak to me in ways the more modern works of this exhibit did not. Maybe it is the staging, as each communes with others?
Maybe it is not spirituality at all but the passage of time that lends a certain air to these artifacts. I do seem to be drawn to such things and the feelings they evoke. However, with these items, I wonder how much more powerful their effect is when located not in a gallery or museum, full of casual browsers, but in a temple or shrine, the sole focus of people who see and use them for their original purposes? As per usual I have no answers, but this time, I can see Buddha’s response: a smile.