The upcoming Met Museum Presents talk Journeys to Divinity, along with the current exhibition Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations, touch on how imagery functions to convey complex social and religious meanings—a concept occurring today in a myriad of contexts, as the Internet penetrates deeper into our communal experience. Gonkar Gyatso considers just such media in his construction Dissected Buddha, which draws from fragments of pop culture, mass media, and advertising in a way that appeals to a broad audience and breaks down both language and geographic boundaries.
I would argue that the imagery Tibetans encountered in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in North India had a related type of impact. Tibet was looking to India to purify their understanding of Buddhism, and the sculpture and painting they encountered were effective in expressing ideas of enlightenment, in the sense that an image of great beauty and refined form has the potential to evocatively capture sentiment and make it apparent to a new audience.
The idea that the perfected form of the Buddha was an expression of his refined actions undertaken over the course of countless lifetimes is indeed a powerful one. Or, to put it another way, perfect control of one's body is fundamentally the same as control over one's mind; thus, enlightenment can be expressed by physical perfection. Historians also look to the textual tradition to understand the Buddhist ideology of the time, and fortunately a wealth of such sources survive. Still, it is always difficult to fully understand how such texts were used and understood.
Lavishly illuminated texts were produced in North India, and many of these were brought to Tibet, where they were translated and interpreted. In fact, the Tibetan libraries of this period preserve a wealth of Buddhist sources that would otherwise not be known. The embedded imagery in the North Indian palm leaf manuscripts probably also had a profound impact on the emerging painting traditions of Tibet.
In this context we are fortunate that so many large and important paintings survive from the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Tibet. The power and dramatic presence of such works is undeniable, and it is easy to understand their importance for the growing Tibetan Buddhist public that encountered them.
Building on this longstanding and evocative tradition, Tenzing Rigdol's Avalokitesvara resonates with a similar kind of power. Although grounded in tradition, it is interesting to consider how he has chosen to personally express Buddhist ideas in new ways. Perhaps purposely enigmatic, we find his image lacks eyes and is fractured by a grid of red lines, which also act as the structure upon which the image is conceived. As in the twelfth century, Buddhist ideas are finding new expression as a reflection of changing times and an increasingly global audience.
To purchase tickets to Journeys to Divinity on May 20, 2014, at 11:00 a.m., or any other Met Museum Presents event, visit www.metmuseum.org/tickets; call 212-570-3949; or stop by the Great Hall Box Office, open Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m.