In this diverse exhibit, art is being used as a tool for social change with the difficult task of motivating people to pursue peace in their lives using the Dalai Lama as example. This is no easy undertaking when one considers just some of the reasons we devise to be combative, heavy topics such as territory, religion, race, class division, and gender. In The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama, 45 artists reflect His Holiness’ pacific message.
Upon entering the Frost Museum’s Grand Gallery, we are confronted with varying portraits of the Dalai Lama, some that are larger than life. Chuck Close’s highly detailed digital pigment print - The Dalai Lama (2005) – presents the subject bathed in resplendent light, smiling with piercing eyes that stare directly at the viewer. Richard Avedon’s His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Monks (1998) catches the Dalai Lama in front of his signature white backdrop, allowing the rich tonal range to come through. The subject is rendered without distraction, and he fully comes into focus. We are left confronting the potency of his gaze, which affirms an inner peace and wisdom. Aside from representational photography this section also includes video installations, high voltage Kirlian photography and paintings.
In the next section, two large, contentious paintings flank the viewer. These paintings take on the task of criticizing two controversial issues regarding China. In the work Brief History of Tibet (2003), by Tenzing Rigdol, the artist disputes China’s claim to Tibet by highlighting the chaos that has ensued since the start of Chinese occupation in 1959. There is a duality between the fragmented but peaceful mountain peaks, swirling water, and mandala against the awful crazed portrait of Mao, horses is turmoil, and a fleshless human body. The overlapping images entwine the narrative of Tibetan oppression against the depletion of natural resources. The somber subject matter contrasts against the artist’s vibrant use of colors.
Across from this image is Salustiano’s grandiose Reincarnation (2005). In it the figure of a Chinese girl with red hair in a red shirt is enveloped by a red monochromatic space. Rendered with careful attention, the subject seems to look over her left shoulder, in contemplation. She is a victim of China’s 'one child policy' that has caused disdain for female babies. By extension, Salustiano poses the hypothetical question: What if it were possible for the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama to be born female and in China?
Moving around the gallery, one encounters a massive sculpture that is initially hidden behind a partition. Paranirvana (1999), by Lewis De Soto, is a monumental, 25-foot long Buddha made from inflated painted cloth, showing him lying on his side at the moment of his death. The artist paints his own face on the figure, pondering how he himself will transition into the next life, and in turn, asks us to confront our own final moments. The scale and heavy stone color belies the illusion of sturdiness, as the Buddha is delicately constructed and literally full of hot air.
Other works in the show focus on the notion of recycling, transience, and transformation, such as El Anatsui’s Dzensi (2006), which is comprised of found aluminum bottle caps strung together with cooper wire to form a glimmering tapestry. Ephemeral Tibetan sand painting is updated in musician/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Sound Mandala (2006). The score incorporates vibrations that move sand and create a pattern that constantly dissipates and changes.
At the very end of the Grand Gallery is an installation from Laurie Anderson. One approaches a darken window to further encounter a holographic projection onto two model chairs that sit side by side on the floor. From the Air (2006) tells a motivational story narrated by the artist, who is there with her Jack Russell Terrier.
It seems we could learn a lot from the Dalai Lama on our way to finding peace, but artists aren’t too bad at leading the way either. Through their interpretations and personal journeys we are enlightened. Powerful subject matter like peace, compassion, transformation, ecology, life and death are presented so one can grow and become an instrument of peace. Mahatma Ghandi once said “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. So, not only is this exhibit visually stimulating, but to the open hearted, it can be truly life altering.
(Images: Richard Avedon, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Monks (1998), gelatin silver print; Salustiano, Reincarnation (2005) DETAIL, pigments and acrylic resins on canvas; Lewis De Soto, Paranirvana (1999), mixed media. All images courtesy The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum.)