Tangka from Seeking Shambhala (Photo: MFA)

The MFA’s small show, Seeking Shambhala, is a quiet treasure chest opened up in a corner gallery of the Asian Wing. With a mythical utopian location at the heart of the exhibit, Shambhala (or as it is sometimes referenced in the West, Shangri-La) offers an open invitation to blend both the ancient and the contemporary. An exquisite collection of thangkas (gifted to the MFA in 1906) is combined with Buddhist objects as well as compelling works by two present-day artists, Gonkar Gyatso from Tibet and Tadanori Yokoo from Japan.

From Sebastian Smee‘s review in the Boston Globe:

Is it a real place? A mere state of mind? No one can say. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside I forget precisely what. The word derives from the Sanskrit, meaning “bliss arising,” or, less rousingly, “source of happiness…” Real or unreal, Shambhala has been described as a kingdom in Central Asia, obscured by a ring of snow-covered mountains and enveloped in fog, ruled by a succession of 32 kings…

The thangkas (there are nearly two dozen of them) are the beating heart of the exhibition; you could spend all your time with them alone. They’re magnificent—at once deliriously decorative, dauntingly potent, and laden with arcane symbolism…They make up one of the largest suites of paintings of the 32 kings of Shambala outside of Asia. And they have been lovingly restored for the occasion: Four MFA conservators…reportedly spent 4,000 hours on the job—removing them from old mounts, retouching faded areas, and adding silk borders, veils, and streamers.

The old is put in high contrast to the new. A series of silkscreens, called Shambala, were created by Yokoo in the 1970’s. They came into existence during a critical period in the artist’s spiritual journey when a monk came to him in a dream and spoke of the “King of Shambhala.” That mystical connection seems very fitting for the spirit of this show.

Gonkar Gyatso’s contemporary piece, “Shambhala in Modern Times,” offers another view from a different angle. His seated Buddha is haloed in the detritus of our noisy commercial world—throwaway images, logos, clippings, advertisements. From a distance it is a luminous and sacral portrait; it is only when you look closely that the nature of the elements making up the image are revealed.

The setting of this show is also in keeping with a spirit of the illusive and ethereal. Walking to the exhibit takes you through quiet galleries of ancient sculptures and meticulously detailed woodcuts. The show itself hangs in the foyer leading into the darkened space that is the Buddhist Temple Room, a space that holds its worthy silence with gravitas. Worthy of more visits, the show is up through September 30.

Gyatso’s Shambhala in Modern Times

Close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

Another close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

From Tadanori Yokoo’s series, Shambala