I’m Not Sure I Shan’t Become a Buddhist

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Bwog staffer Kabir Singh reviews the Asia Society’s Rockefeller exhibit.

In 1919 Lucy Aldrich wrote to her sister Abby Aldrich Rockefeller from Japan: “I’m not sure I shan’t become a Buddhist…the whole thing appeals so much more to my temperamental—or is it emotional—love of color. The gold and lacquer, the beat of the drums and even the smell of incense. I love it all.” This Rockefeller-in-law musing typifies the tone of the Asia Society’s current show A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects. The family apparently had a keen eye for appreciating Asian art, yet I’m not convinced that they entirely understood what they were collecting.

The Rockefellers played an integral role in founding The Asia Society, and the Upper East Side mainstay portrays its patrons in an especially generous light. Such a characterization is by no means undeserved: members of the family have devoted their lives to philanthropy in poverty-stricken Asian countries. Another member became so committed to Zen that the Dalai Lama personally gave him a Tibetan-Buddhist thangka, which is on display in this exhibit. But although the Rockefellers cannot be denied their contributions to Asia, or the art world in New York, or their good intentions, this exhibit proves them at least a touch guilty of cultural obliviousness.

Various photographs throughout the exhibit allow the viewer to picture how the Rockefellers displayed their collection in their home. I couldn’t help cringing when I saw they had placed a bronze Bodhisattva statue in front of a tiger-skin carpet, head and all. In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who live in the earthly realm specifically for the purpose of alleviating suffering. The juxtaposition of a compassionate spiritual leader with a piece of hunting memorabilia is nothing less than distasteful.

In another room, we see a nineteenth-century Turkish prayer rug made of beige, red, and blue dyed wool, which we are told was used as a floor covering. Undoubtedly, guests, if not Rockefellers themselves, must have walked on this ritualistic Muslim textile without removing their shoes.

While the Asia Society’s cold white walls fail to make pieces look any less out of context than they were in the Rockefellers’ homes, the collection itself is wide-ranging and for the most part exquisite. Featuring everything from a modern statue Mr. One Man by Isamu Noguchi to palanquin fittings from twelfth-century Cambodia, this is an undeniably comprehensive survey of Asian art.

One section of Passion for Asia contains numerous woodblock print masterpieces from the Japanese Edo period (1603-1867). A particularly stunning piece is Katsushika Hokusai’s “Rainstorm Beneath the Peak” from his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series. Stylized clouds in varying shades of light and dark blue, reminiscent of those found in Tibetan thangkas, span the left-hand side of the sky. Fuji is depicted asymmetrically at the right, in peach and brownish coloring. What brings the piece to life, however, are the dynamic lightning lines in the lower right, which mimic the shape of the ubiquitous volcano.

Viewing this collection is certainly worth braving the M66 crosstown bus, even if contextual propriety is often lacking.

Through September 3, 2006

To get there: Take the 1 train to Lincoln Center–66th Street. Transfer to the Eastbound M66, which stops at Broadway and 65th Street. Exit at the Lexington Avenue and 68th Street stop. Walk one avenue west and two streets north to 70th Street and Park Avenue, where the Asia Society is located on the Northeast corner.

Admission is free with a Columbia ID.

Asia Society Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, with extended evening hours Fridays until 9:00 pm. Closed on Mondays and major holidays.

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