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Lights at a roadside shrine

In his introduction to Tantra Song (written about previously here) Lawrence Rinder invites us into the world of Tantric images by describing how he feels when he is out in the countryside, looking at the trees and the stars:

I have little idea what I am looking at, even though I might be able to give it a name, or perhaps recall some principle of nature that has made it as it is. What I see is color, texture, shape. I see energy, evidence of change, and the transforming powers of life and death.

He goes on to draw an analogy to the experience of looking at mystical images such as those contained in Tantra Song:

Franck André Jamme’s collection of Tantric images affects me in a similar way. Just little scraps of paper really with barely a mark upon them. Simple. Anonymous. Repetitive. But utterly riveting. I can’t begin to say what these images are. I know virtually nothing about the tradition from which they spring…In these divine images, I find an echo of art.

It helps that I have a very broad definition of art…Maybe art isn’t quite the right word: let’s call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be.

Rinder’s response to Franck André Jamme‘s collection of sacred Tantric images parallels my own response to those exquisite forms. It also played out for me again during my weeks visiting living Hindu temples in southern India.

Much has been written to denigrate the dark side of our Western proclivity to be idea tourists, shopping for concepts and tokens inappropriately stripped of their sacred cultural context. But there is a significant distinction between insensitive, sacreligious appropriation and the open mind/open heart position that Rinder describes. His words have helped me find a place of integrity to stand as I encountered these deeply moving rituals and celebrations. And even though I am not an expert on Hindu thought and will always be an observer looking in from the outside, I feel the connection to the “transforming powers of life and death” that are played out every day in these ancient shrines.

Inside the temple at Madurai

Chanting in the ancient temples of Hampi

Offerings of coconuts and flowers, ready for the pilgrims at Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Jain priest at the foot of the immense statue of Lord Gommateshwara

Hindu variation on milagros

Temple entrance, Madurai

Altar at Madurai

Nandi in the Shiva temple at Madurai

Generally inclusive, Hindus have their limits too

Puja procession at Madurai

Putting the gods to bed…Madurai

Temple elephant at Thanjavur: A coin offering gives you a gentle tap on the top of the head

Sacred lingam at Thanjavur

Brahmin family’s prostrate offering at Kanchipuram

Gods adorned, a sign of being cared for

Pilgrims in Chidambaram, a part of life

Wise men in the digital age

Ornamenting the tree

Offering to Nandi, in Kanchipuram

Reader at Sri Kanchi Kamakshi temple


Two women stroll among the walls of Halebid, built in the 9th century

Sharing experiences from travels is a bit like sharing dreams: The iconography and narrative are personal and not well suited for public discourse. So other than sharing the rudimentaries, my report on my time in India will be succinct.

A phrase or two from Mira Schor‘s juicy and very personal book, A Decade of Negative Thinking, captures much of what I am feeling now that I am back home: “I’ve wished that I could give my students and myself the gift of time, time to work or not work in the studio, and, more importantly, to forget about ART; time to just take a walk…”

That is what this trip to southern India was for me: time away from the studio, a hiatus in thinking about art making and the world we have created around that rarefied activity. Yes I took 2600 photographs which serve as a kind of quick capture sketchbook/scrapbook. But making art was not on my mind at all. In a culture that old and that confoundingly complex, stepping away from my life was a much better way to offer up an open, fertile, receptive spirit. The resonance is outside of language and still echoing.

Hindu shrine at the top of the Fort hill in Hyderabad

Hampi’s Vittala temple, known as the musical temple because striking the columnns produces musical tones

Inscription at Hampi

The exquisite Chitrangini Mahal (or Lotus Mahal) in the Zenana Enclosure, Hampi

Figures from the 12th century goparum at Belur which effortlessly incorporate images from the Kama Sutra

The lacey Chola temples at Thanjavur

Entrance to the Ekambaranathar temple in Kanchipuram

Enchanting and sacred Madurai, pilgrim site

Rajasthani pilgrims at Chidambaram

Meal time at the Children’s Aid Society in Hyderabad

Lord Gommateshwara, the world’s largest monolithic stone statue, at the Jain temple in Shravanabelagola

Students at Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy)

Hampi, from a distance

Sign to the pilgrimage site, Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Altar for Saraswati

A shamsa (literal meaning, “sun”) from the Met’s new Islamic Art wing

One of my favorite books right now is Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. I have so much more to say about this book, and hopefully I will write about it in more detail later on. But right now I want to share an excerpt that is particularly pertinent to my current preoccupations.

This exchange was captured in Michael McMillen‘s interview with Kim Abeles:

McMillen: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is that you reach into history and culture and drag out and synthesize things into someting that’s not quite historical or formalist but more interesting than both.

Abeles: I’m interested in making my art interdisciplinary because usually you see history as a package deal in a museum, especially in the United States. In Europe you can walk the streets, and history surrounds you. Because I grew up in this culture, the only sense of history I ever had was if I went to a museum and paid for my ticket. I would go in, and history was in a little box, neatly labeled. That makes it hard to get a feeling for your position in history.

McMillen: The fact that an object is in a museum represents one person’s point of view or a school of thought, whereas that’s not really what history is. It’s only one of many views.

Abeles: Right, because when people see history like that, or when they read a book, they assume that a fact is absolute. They forget that there’s poetic license, that there are editorial changes, so in a sense, it’s not real history, even though the packaging looks real.

The new Islamic Art wing at the Met (the official name, “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue) is a perfect example of the problem Abeles discussed. I have no frame of reliable reference with regard to the 13 centuries of elaborate, highly developed and complex culture covered in these rooms. It IS history in a box for the likes of me. But oh what a telling. I was utterly enthralled by every room. The advice a friend gave me was well taken: You can’t do it in just one visit. Plan to make pilgrimages repeatedly.

From Peter Schjeldahl‘s review in the New Yorker:

Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the Met wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many—very many—are beautiful. Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums, and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The logic of Islamic art isn’t iconographic. It is poetic and all but musical. The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference.

What did the curators do to make every room feel so beguiling? The sensibility in the choices of artifacts and how they are assembled together feels especially aligned with contemporary Western tastes and aesthetics. A modern bent towards minimalist design and more subtle expression is evident. As a result, I have never felt so at home among objects and artifacts so far from my own Western cultural milieu.

Knowing so little but loving these objects so much, I think the best approach is to show, not tell. With no context to share other than the utter pleasure of the eye, I am like the opera goer who can’t understand a word of the lyrics but loves the music so much it doesn’t seem to matter.

Some images never grow old, never fade in color on that screen of our life that lives at the back of the mind. Some of the images that live on for me were created 18,000 years ago, in southern France.

I remember the first time I saw ever saw cave painting art. I was a young art student and eager to soak up everything while hitchhiking through Europe and Asia with my best friend, devouring every museum and monument to visual culture with an energy and appetite typical of the 18 year olds we were. We spent two solid weeks systematically studying every gallery in the Louvre, camped our way down the Turkish coast to the ancient site of city of Troy, wandered through the Casbah in Algiers, sat on the stones of Stonehenge before anyone had the good sense to preserve that Neolithic treasure from the wear and tear of careless tourists like us.

But the cave paintings at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in France. That was something of a completely different order. Primal and yet elegant, ancient and yet timeless, overwhelming in its scope and yet so intimate and personal. I was stunned how the painters (many experts believe that these images were actually made by women for reasons that I won’t elaborate here) incorporated the topography of the cave surface into the paintings—an actual “hump” in the wall becomes the hump of a beast’s back.

The legendary caves at nearby Lascaux were discovered in 1940 but had to close down in 1963 due to damage from the breath of visitors. Later on I toured the ambitious replica that was created alongside the original cave and found the images spectacular. And of course big discoveries have happened since then, most spectacularly the cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc.

Thanks to Sally Reed for flagging a set of “unpublished” images from Lascaux on Life. The slide show’s intro:

A warm afternoon in southwestern France. As two schoolboys hunt rabbits on a ridge covered with pine, oak, and blackberry brambles, their dog chases a hare down a hole beside a downed tree. Widening the hole, removing rocks, the boys follow — and enter not merely another world, but another time. Underground, they discover “a Versailles of prehistory” — a series of caves, today collectively known as Lascaux, boasting wall paintings up to 18,000 years old. In 1947, LIFE’s Ralph Morse went to Lascaux, and became the first photographer to ever document the astonishing, vibrant paintings. Here, on the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the cave and its treasures, in a gallery featuring rare and never-published photographs, Morse — still vibrant himself at 93 — shares with his memories of what it was like to encounter the long-hidden, strikingly lifelike handiwork of a vanished people: the Cro-Magnon.

Female Figurine (front and back), Cucuteni, Drăguşeni, 4050-3900 BC, Botoşani County Museum, Botoşani (Photo: Marius Amarie)

Anthropomorphic Vessel, Gumelniţa, Sultana, 4600-3900 BC, National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest (Photo: Marius Amarie)

John Noble Wilford has written a fascinating article in the Science section of the New York Times (its location in the paper is telling) about an exhibit currently on view at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Entitled “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” the show includes more than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania. These treasures are being shown for the first time in the United States and will be on view through April 25.

This is the culture that was of particular interest to the legendary archaeologist, mythologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas. Two of her books have been on my shelves since they were first published—The Language of the Goddess (published in 1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (from 1991). Introduced to her work by Stephanie Hobart and Deborah Rose, I was stunned by the exquisite images of artifacts that she included in her publications, the likes of which I had never seen before.

Why was this culture so relatively unexplored, particularly when compared to our knowledge of Sumerian, Egyptian and Prehistoric Greek cultures? Part of Gimbutas’ explanation for this was encapsulated in her strong statements about who these people were. She promulgated a view that the culture of Old Europe was matristric (woman-centered), a term she invented, and that its stories were lost when androcratic (male-centered) cultures invaded the region. Her theories were controversial when she first made her case, and the controversy continues even now, 15 years after her death.

That ongoing debate is referenced in Wilford’s review of the show as well:

An arresting set of 21 small female figurines, seated in a circle, was found at a pre-Cucuteni village site in northeastern Romania. “It is not difficult to imagine,” said Douglass W. Bailey of San Francisco State University, the Old Europe people “arranging sets of seated figurines into one or several groups of miniature activities, perhaps with the smaller figurines at the feet or even on the laps of the larger, seated ones.”

Others imagined the figurines as the “Council of Goddesses.” In her influential books three decades ago, Marija Gimbutas, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered these and other so-called Venus figurines as representatives of divinities in cults to a Mother Goddess that reigned in prehistoric Europe.

Although the late Dr. Gimbutas still has an ardent following, many scholars hew to more conservative, nondivine explanations. The power of the objects, Dr. Bailey said, was not in any specific reference to the divine, but in “a shared understanding of group identity.”

As Dr. Bailey wrote in the exhibition catalog, the figurines should perhaps be defined only in terms of their actual appearance: miniature, representational depictions of the human form. He thus “assumed (as is justified by our knowledge of human evolution) that the ability to make, use and understand symbolic objects such as figurines is an ability that is shared by all modern humans and thus is a capability that connects you, me, Neolithic men, women and children, and the Paleolithic painters in caves.”

Or else the “Thinker,” for instance, is the image of you, me, the archaeologists and historians confronted and perplexed by a “lost” culture in southeastern Europe that had quite a go with life back before a single word was written or a wheel turned.

Wherever you come out on the extrapolation of who these people were, the artifacts deserve much more attention than they have received previously. Hats off to NYU for mounting this exhibit.

Set of Twenty-one Figurines and Thirteen Chairs, Cucuteni, Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru, 4900-4750 BC, Neamţ County Museum Complex, Piatra Neamţ (Photo: Elena-Roxana Munteanu)

Zoomorphic Figures, possibly bulls, Gold, Varna, Varna, Grave 36, 4400-4200 BC, Varna Regional Museum of History (Photo: Rumyana Kostadinova Ivanova)


The latest “venus figurine” find from the Hohle Fels cave in Germany is an extraordinary portrayal of the female form. Wow. This one is a knock out. So expressive, so wildly physical.

What baffles me is the word used in much of the press coverage of this 35,000 year old sculpture: pornographic. Hello? Pornographic because it is explicit in its portrayal of breasts, belly and vulva? If the definition of pornography is sexually explicit material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal, is that the intention of this piece? I’m not getting it.

We can never know what these images meant or how they were used in their original context, so that reaction is more a reflection of our current cultural predilections and point of view. That hackneyed response aside, this piece carries its own archaeological significance.

From a piece in the Times Online:

Paul Mellars, of the University of Cambridge, wrote in a commentary for Nature: “The figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman, with an exaggeration of sexual characteristics, large, projecting breasts, a greatly enlarged and explicit vulva, and bloated belly and thighs, that by 21st-century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic.”

He added: “It is clear that the sexually symbolic dimension in European, and indeed worldwide, art has a long ancestry in the evolution of our species.”

While abstract designs carved into pieces of ochre are known from at least 75,000 years ago in Africa, Dr Conrad said: “This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art.”

The Venus has radically changed archaeologists’ views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic, or Stone Age, art, he added.

The figure is at least 5,000 years older than similar figurines found in the same part of Germany. Dr Mellars said that the sexual imagery was consistent with other carvings made at a similar time, such as depictions of the vulva scratched on rocks in western France and phallic symbols made out of bone.

The figure is headless and a ring placed where the head would be suggets that it was worn as a pendant.The ivory has been discoloured a reddish brown over thousands of years.

Dr Mellars said that the discovery shed important new light on the art and belief systems of the Aurignacian period, during which Homo sapiens spread through Europe.

Aurignacian art generally features animals or figures that are half-human and half-animal. Representations of a duck-like bird, a horse’s head and a human body with the head of a lion were found in Hohle Fels cave in 2003 and dated to about 30,000 years ago. Dr Conrad said that the Venus challenged previous views that “strong aggressive animals or shamanistic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even of Europe as a whole”.

Dr Mellars said that the discovery added to the evidence that “fully representational, figurative art seems at present to be a European phenomenon, without any documented parallels in Africa or elsewhere earlier than about 30,000 years ago”.

This, he said, could potentially be linked to the evolution of the modern human brain.

“How far this ‘symbolic explosion’ associated with the origins and dispersal of our species reflects a major, mutation-driven reorganisation in the cognitive capacities of the human brain — perhaps associated with a similar leap forward in the complexity of language, remains a fascinating and contentious issue.”

For another report on this find, I’ve posted an article from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting.


One of the most beguiling things I found while in India was palm leaf “books,” made from thin strips of dried palm leaves and threaded together to fold up accordion-style. Copies of this ancient tradition have been made into tourist souvenirs, but the early versions that we saw in museum collections are stunning. We also watched as monastery monks leafed through their own palm leaf texts while chanting.

Usually dealing with topics of a spiritual nature, these miniature commemorations pack a lot of power in the painstaking detail of the images as well as their compact and concentrated form.

Palm leaf books at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh

So it was with delight that I read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of a small new show at the Met, “Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Such practical features — size, resilience, portability — help explain why a similar form of palm-leaf art, the illustrated book, was popular in India between the 10th and 13th centuries. And they suggest why such books and their illustrations have survived into the present, while painting in more perishable media has not.

Even these books, though, are rarities. Of the huge numbers that must have once existed, only a fraction remain…Just under three inches high, it’s packed with detail. Each figure is dressed, as if for a hot summer day, in beaded see-through attire. The disciple, her skin a mango gold, smiles up at her savior while he makes a coy gesture with his hands as if playing a game of shadow puppets for her amusement.

All the palm-leaf manuscripts we know of are religious books, transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. A few sutras were favorites, and by far the most frequently copied one was “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita,” or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses.”

Said to have been written — or spoken — by the Buddha himself, it was more likely compiled over centuries. Like many texts generated by an ardently proselytizing faith, it simultaneously had its head in the clouds and was down to earth.

On the one hand, the sutra defines wisdom as a transcendent consciousness, a state of ego-erasure so profound that the reality of emptiness as the ultimate fact of life becomes clear. To reach this understanding was the goal of monastic practice. It was to gain Buddha-level knowledge, which was the knowledge you needed to gain before you could do the one thing worth doing, which was to help others in need.

Balanced against this high-minded goal was another. “Perfection of Wisdom” also implied that a smart devotee might use the sutra as a kind of existential survival kit, a magical talisman. With its help you could ward off illness, accidents and other material harm. And you could acquire things: money, a spouse, an extra cow, healthy children, and lots of them.

So palm-leaf manuscripts, like most art, had multiple uses. They circulated spiritual information. They functioned as protective charms. They served as religious offerings, gifts from which karmic returns were expected. And they became objects of worship.

Prajnaparamita was not only a form of wisdom, but also a female deity who had roots in ancient goddess worship and was identified with the Buddha’s mother. The sutra itself explains that if the Buddha is kind enough to give you a book like this, you should “revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, unguents, parasols, banners, bells, flags and rows of lamps all around.”

A sheet from the palm-leaf book “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (“Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses”), includes a tiny painting of a female disciple playing a game with a bodhisattva, a being who embodies perfect wisdom and love. The religious books, which originated in northeastern India, are transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras.