The Asian Galleries

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales is distributed over four eastwardly descending levels, composing Vernon's classical structure and the wings of 1972/88.
The temple-inspired design of the 1990's Asian Gallery is square in plan and forms a podium for the 2003 glass pavilion. This upper level has a lofty interior with natural light regulated by dropped ceilings and plasterboard wall segments. The configuration delineates a central volume and the perimeter verandah for the permanent collections.

The Asian collection began with a number of Japanese items from the 1879 International Exhibition, however, a curatorial department of Asian art was not established until 1979.

The article has adopted a number of organisational schemes in order to structure its cultural, historical, and religious content. In this, the obvious classification of most art objects (while departing from the problematic Asian art umbrella term) should begin with their country of origin. Another approach is to 'unpack' the exhibition object, thereby associating it with a larger cultural context ... The Gallery's Indian temple stele, for example, became the keystone around which to structure textual blocks of meta information, including a delineation of Hindu temples in general. The article similarly integrated sections on Buddhism, the Mandala, and the temples of Angkor before closing with a paragraph on Museum Architecture and design.


1 Hindu Temple

The shift from sacrifice to devotion, the existence of relic mounds and caitya halls, and certain Hellenistic influences in Ghandaran, all contributed to the design of the Hindu temple. Ritual and symbolism were developed by the Brahmins during the 5th/6th centuries AD, perfecting a square plan and repertoire of dimensional transformations around the cosmological order of Mt Meru. The sanctum of the Hindu temple - the garbha grah where the deity resides - was raised by a moulded platform, surmounted by the central tower, and elongated by pillared halls [mandapa]. The superstructure of North Indian (Nagara) temples is generally tower-like, with walls characterised by niches and projections, while the South Indian (Dravida) temple is more pyramidal in shape. Part of a 3-dimensional concept, the façade reveals a system of converging lines and [mantric] oscillation based on self-similar geometric, architectural, and sculptural elements as well as reductions in scale offset by multiplicity.

The lavish, sometimes erotic sculptural adornments of the temple, rock-cut or free-standing, were carved directly into structural stone. One such block in the Gallery's collection, a stele from the Chandella dynasty (c. 900-1100), depicts Visnu and his Avatars where the Preserver stands jewelled in the centre holding the wheel, the sphere, the conch shell, and the lotus.

2.1 Buddhism

Prior to the Gupta period, the [supramundane] power behind the Buddha revealed itself through symbols of the bodhi tree, the wheel of life, and the pillar surmounted by disks. When the quest for enlightenment and transcendence began to be rendered in figurative terms, Theravada Buddhism focused on the life, the great events, and the teaching role of the historical Buddha, or Sakyamuni.
Mahayana artists, believing Sakyamuni to be just one of infinite manifestations of the Buddha, placed his image in a heavenly setting where synonymous with Clear Light and cosmic harmony his body was covered in gold.

An esoteric form of Buddhism called Vajrayana was brought into Tibet from India during the 7th century. It gradually merged with existing Shamanic traditions and many Bon demons were converted into fierce protectors of the Buddhist faith. The Tibetan pantheon is organised into five groups, each emanating from one transcendent Buddha and in turn divided into quarters pertaining to the cardinal directions. The arts of Tibet have combined the meditator of the Yoga philosophical school and the diversity of Indian iconography (such as multiple arms like wings) with local divinities, spirits, and mythical creatures.

[Buddha statue carved from nutmeg wood]

2.2 The Mandala

Artefacts of great complexity, the mandala is a diagram of the sacred space, centered by the axis mundi of Mount Kailasa that leads to the formless world of cosmic awareness, and protected from the outside by a circle of flames. The mandala generates a perfect meditative architecture that reflects the Buddha essence, progressively revealing a multi-dimensional realm - composed of circles, squares, colours, anthropomorphic images, symbols, and sound - for all layers of being. The Gallery's Bhaishajyaguru thangka is painted in the Menri style (c. 800's) with distemper and gold on cloth. It shows the Buddha of Medicine seated upon a lotus throne and holding a bowl of myrobalan. He is flanked by his disciples and surrounded by magical landscapes, dragons, and a water goddess.

3 Art of Southeast Asia

The first millennium of mainland Southeast Asia [Burma, Thailand, and also Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, once French Indochina] was dominated by three ethnic groups - the Cham people, the Cambodians, and the Mon peoples. Given the acceptance of Hinduism and then Buddhism, and the influence of Indian prototypes from the Gupta period, the arts of Southeast Asia are distinguished by the devaraja cult (godking) and its architectural expression based on the cosmology of Mt Meru - namely the towers, pyramidal substructures, successive enclosures, and elaborate gateways of the temple complex. One example is the city of Angkor where the classical phase of Khmer civilization culminated in the temple of Angkor Wat. Some of the carved statuary of this period is elongated, graceful, and of modest expression, with hollow eyes a reminder of silver and gemstone inlays. Only the smaller bronzes have usually survived and this includes the Hevajra statuette (1100's-1200's) exhibited in the Asian galleries. Evocative of Bayon, and surrounded by dancing dakinis, the Hevajra has eight heads (distributed over three levels) and sixteen arms.

Mon speaking populations living in the peninsular section of Southeast Asia founded the kingdom of Dvaravati [Sanskrit,= city of a hundred gates] that came under the hegemony of the Khmer empire during the 11th/12th centuries before the establishment of Sukothai, the first Thai state. Balancing the spiritual and physical worlds in accordance with Buddhist iconography, Sukothai artist-monks did develop a unique sculptural idiom of symmetrical gestures - a gilded medium the devotee could meld with to transcend [darsana]. The standing Buddha in the Gallery's collection is from the Lopburi school (in northwest Thailand) active between the 10th and 14th centuries. This smiling bronze figure displays the gesture of reassurance [vitarka] with a symbol of the wheel inscribed upon each raised palm. He wears a crown and the robes of a monk to be at once World Ruler and World Renouncer.

4 Art in China

Chinese ritual bronze vessels date back to Anyang and the Shang dynasty (c. 1750-1045 BC). Cast in sections with both naturalistic and abstract ornament, the inscriptions on vessels from the Zhou period onwards frequently present a clan name or describe an official event. Form, sound, and sense of this "bearer of cultural meanings" extend from its primary function and archaeological physicality to the pictographs, phonetic borrowing, and semantic combinations of the calligraphy.

Shamans of Central Asia believe in the mirror soul of man, found by looking into water, and the shadow soul which is rendered by the sun. When the cosmological mirrors of the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) first appeared, the philosophers had discussed the means of reflection to counter an illusion - such as dragons in the shape of other animals or speaking humans. To this effect the reverse side of a polished bronze disk was typically engraved with a circle and square, the animals of the zodiac, a variety of dragon motifs, and Chinese characters. A kind of cosmographic reference system to interpret the captured image, the energetic progression of the mirror involves the axis of the world, yin yang dualism, and the elements of Water [snake], Fire [bird], Metal [tiger], Wood [dragon], and Earth [tsung].
The inscription on the Gallery's TLV-type mirror reads:"Ascending to the great mountains to encounter the immortals, you will drink from the sweet jade spring and will soar into the sky."

In China, the introduction of Buddhist art and religion under the auspices of the court would be compatible with an existing contemplative tradition. The painted and sculpted image - from Sakyamuni to Maitreya, Amithaba, and the bodhisattvas - quite precedes the translation and development of Chinese Buddhist texts, eg. the Lotus Sutra of the Tiantai school. During the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) the Buddha statues in the caves at Yungang, accessible to the few, and thousands of monasteries throughout the empire, were being built, followed in 672 by the colossal stone Vairocana at the Lungmen shrines. The Amithaba Buddha and Pure Land beliefs gained popularity in the 5th century, inspiring many portrayals of this figure amidst the attendants of a celestial palace.

The classical landscapes of the Sung period (960-1279) were informed by Confucian and Buddhist relationships - a universal system extending from the still of the mountain. The underlying fabric of this augmented natural world thus depended upon the ancient elements [function, direction, symbol, colour] apart from the painting essentials of spirit, rhythm, thought, and scenery.

The calligrapher's monochrome of night and day, derived from his diligent study of nature as it passes through the seasons, was to result in a poetic landscape on paper - once made from lotus threads - which balanced the inner feelings of the artist with realistic representation. The same brush soon isolated and framed the detail of a bird-and-flower, a phonetic-semantic allusion, perhaps, to the score of the scroll [or music of the spheres].

The Gallery's album leaves (1668) by literati artist Cheng Sui contain several ink landscapes. Painted in remembrance of Ming glory, this work conveys distance, emptiness and melancholy - a nameless monastery in the mountains, or the boat between a waterless river and unfinished sky.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) painting in the scholar tradition became an integrated system of personal expression, naturalism, and a revival of the old masters. Literati artists wanted to escape from society in order to pursue their poetry, calligraphy, and painting in a sheltered aesthetic environment. They were also collectors and connoisseurs who developed an intuitive metaphoric framework, drawing from and encoding natural forms so as to convey an appropriate sentiment or thought.

5 Art in Japan

In Japan, the 53ft Buddha of Nara (729-48) was cast in bronze and gilded, then destroyed by the civil wars of the 12th century only to be rebuilt not long after the acceptance of Zen Buddhism. Based on Chinese models, the spirituality and arts programme of Shingon, a Buddhist school founded by the monk Kukai in 807, focused on the Dainichi (Vairocana), deities from several pantheons including the native Shinto religion, and ritual objects. The Amida Buddha (1000's-1100's) on display at the Gallery is carved from nutmeg wood and portrays the Blessed One in the gesture of meditation. Religious statues were also made using the dry lacquer process, either over a solid timber core or armature. Wood block prints were sometimes placed inside a statue, while the Heian period introduced a cut goldleaf technique in painting. Next to the imperial court at Kyoto, the samurai rulers of the Kamakura period (late 12th-14th century) promoted a revivalist, austere, and pragmatic style. They were adherents of Zen Buddhism which declined religious imagery in favour of portraits, calligraphy, and rock gardens.

By moving their capital to the castle town of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate played a certain final role in this imperial Shinto custom although the Confucian component of Zen Buddhism - the product of an older imperial political philosophy - eventually led to unresolvable legitimacy issues and the end of almost 700 years of military rule. Artistic patronage of the Edo period (1615-1868) was competed for at Buddhist religious institutions, the court in Kyoto, the castles of the shogun and the daimyo, as well as the 'floating world' of the townspeople.
A panorama of this world might follow the path of the sun, commencing with the eastern part of the city, and be so distributed over the segments of a room partition or six-fold screen. Many gold ground landscape paintings are composed of successive layers of meaning, i.e. conceptually superimposed mandalas, simulacra of famous landmarks, and poetic associations [the transience of beauty and mono no aware]. The six-panel screens entitled Maple Trees in Spring and Autumn (by Sakai Hoitsu) and Flowers of the Four Seasons (Rinpa school) epitomize the Japanese veneration for the symbolism of flowers. This cyclical concept of time elegantly unites the flowers of each month in one continuous scene using colour, ink, and sprinkled gold on paper.

6 Museum Architecture

During the Renaissance, Campanella's city inspired an abstract machine called the memory theatre. It comprised the operator and a certain room with cabinets and artefacts symbolically related to the macrocosm of the physical world. While the Salon Carré had presented contemporary art to the public before the conversion of the Louvre into the Musée Central, the resulting environment was based on inherited palace architecture and academic classification of the exhibits by schools and date. New museum architecture of the early 19th century aimed for select commemorative grammars in order to frame its artefacts with a Temple to the Muses. This edifice would be constructed from the Greek classical prototype, itself a codification of the human measure where Ionic imitates a slender woman and the Doric order man. Uninterrupted experience of the oeuvre, time, and place - around an inertial axis or atemporal origin - was approached with a spiral structure in both Le Corbusier's Musée Mondial and the [cosmic pathway of the] Hayden Planetarium. Lest their narrative content merge with overdesigned decorative schemes some institutions have created a perfectly neutral environment. The discursive system developed through post modern museum architecture, however, adaptively promotes the collection and evolves together with its urban context.
A material art object is fixed - yet for a digital resource meanings often change due to proximate images, text, and sound. In non-linear discovery, the programmatic objects and events driving an interactive electronic screen are assembled as titles, icons, pictures, paragraphs, etc. according to real-time and cumulative user actions.

Concept, Text, Coding (c) Marcel Ritschel, Sydney 08.04.2005

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