Plundered wonders: Rubbed-out Buddhist stone sculptures

Head of a Bodhisattva Northern Qi dynasty (550577) Limestone, with traces of pigment
Head of a Bodhisattva Northern Qi dynasty, limestone, with traces of pigment.
Photo by Maggie Nimken, Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University.

I have a love/hate relationship with zoos. (Zoos? Isn't this an art column? Just stay with me.) On the one hand, I revel in the chance to see animals from foreign lands that I will probably never visit, and I appreciate zoos' role in preserving species at risk of extinction in the wild. Then again, it depresses me to see animals, forcibly removed from their natural habitats, living in alien environments, so viewers, like me, can gawk at them.

I have similar conflicted feelings (what you psych majors call "cognitive dissonance") about the University of Virginia Art Museum's spectacular new exhibition, "Treasures Rediscovered: Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University." The traveling exhibit comprises 20 Buddhist stone sculptures, donated to Columbia University by prolific collector Dr. Arthur M. Sackler. Ranging from small marble altarpieces to colossal heads to carved funerary monuments, the works date to the late sixth century, revealing aesthetic and devotional trends from the Han through the Tang Dynasties.

The show also includes numerous ink-on-paper rubbings that highlight the exquisitely detailed designs inscribed on tablets and monuments. Not just a contemporary means of studying carvings, ink rubbings were especially popular in China during the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to preserve stone texts. A short video demonstrates the technique.

When I visited the show, I wandered wide-eyed through the timeworn carvings and rubbings, admiring the craftsmanship and learning interesting facts from the exhibit's informative signage (e.g., during the Han Dynasty, underground tombs replicated the deceased's home). But a thought kept nagging at me: "These are not where they belong."

For instance, the serene limestone "Head of a Boddhisattva," from the Northern Qi Dynasty, is impressive sitting on a museum pedestal. But it's severed from its carved body, which remains in the Buddhist rock-cut caves of Xiangtangshan. In the bodhisattava's forehead, an empty pit marks where a jewel once sparkled.

Especially poignant is a Northern Wei Dynasty funerary stele that commemorates a family's young son. The limestone slab's elaborate carvings abound with acrobats and musicians, presumably entertaining the little boy in the afterlife. Although it's wonderful to see, when the exhibition ends, the stele will return to Columbia University not to the boy's grave.

The works in "Treasures Rediscovered" are glorious- beautiful, historical, and curious- but they have lost their functional meaning. No longer foci of religious devotion or in situ memorials to the dead, they have become exotic objects for gawking.

"Treasures Rediscovered: Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University" is on display at the University of Virginia Art Museum through March 14. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.

1 comment

One wonders if Ms. Parsons has ever been to an art museum before if she's surprised to see art object removed from their original context.