Since World War II, buddhist ideas have periodically surfaced in contemporary art. One such moment—enriched by a wonderful backdrop—is taking place right now. The backdrop is the Japan Society’s exquisite show of Buddhist art, “Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art From Korea and Japan,” in which the oldest works on view are more than 1,500 years old. The moment itself is epitomized by an important contemporary show, Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind, at the Asia Society. The gap between the two exhibits is narrower than one might expect. Boonma, a Thai who died in 2000, did not “appropriate” the past as postmodern artists do. Nor did he steep his Buddhist imagery in irony. He worked in the same tradition as those artists of centuries ago.
What’s true of Boonma is also true of some of his contemporaries in the art world. Buddhism may be diluted by sloppy New Age enthusiasms, and most non-Buddhist artists may revel in the narcissism, intellectual wool-gathering, conflict, and violence that the religion abhors. (I think there may be more artists working with roadkill than with Buddhist principles.) But more perhaps than the other great religions of the world, Buddhism remains an essential inspiration. It seems made to address the problems of narcissism and consumer culture. Some artists today prefer to concentrate upon what’s not there: They deflect rather than reflect society. Buddhism has a marvelous way of emptying out the modern answers.
The Boonma exhibit is just one of a number of Buddhist shows around town. A group of about twenty institutions in the New York area—led by the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, which is part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island—are collaborating on the yearlong Buddhism Project (buddhismproject.org). The program consists of a wide range of Buddhist-inspired events, including art exhibitions. Any walkabout through the galleries of Chelsea will also turn up Buddhist influences.
Today’s bottomless hunger for stuff and more stuff is an obvious subject for these artists. The hunger has inevitably infected Buddhism itself, a paradox explored at one of the project’s exhibits, “Commodification of Buddhism,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. As the religion has become fashionable, marketers have used it as an accessory. Movies romanticize its history. The Dalai Lama is a brand name. There is a Buddha Bar in Paris. In the Bronx exhibit, most of the artists satirize this vulgar use of the religion. A typical example is Rudolf Stingel’s polyurethane Buddha, whose many arms hold the most ordinary of objects, like scissors and a paintbrush.
It’s hardly news, however, that modern culture can turn anything into a commodity—and artists over the last century have constantly spoofed materialism. As a result, such satire is not particularly surprising or disturbing. The artists who can also convey something of the positive appeal of Buddhism—even as they confront the psychic ills of contemporary society—create a more complex and lasting impression. At five myles, an art space in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Yoko Inoue has made a shrinelike setting based upon the ritual worship of a deity named Mizuko (or water child) who traditionally comforts the spirits of aborted or miscarried infants in Japan. Since the legalization of abortion in Japan, this ritual has become a profitable mail-order business. In Liquidation, Inoue dresses up empty water jugs—which could also be bellies—with ceramic heads, bibs, caps, and other cemetery decorations. Inoue may critique the commercialization of the ritual, but its original impulse lives on in her haunting evocation of lost children and of the sensations of “empty” and “full.”
This edge between contemporary culture and genuine spiritual feeling was also important to Boonma, whose show is on view until May 11. Boonma took Buddhist ideas about impermanence seriously, and the very materials of his art, from rusted steel to earth and herbs, almost seem to decay in front of the viewer. His sense of flux—and, sometimes, illness—also acknowledged the modern conviction that we live in a scattered world of fragments and lost wholes. At the same time, Boonma formed images of healing, focus, and concentration. He liked to make enclosed, meditative spaces. He was especially drawn to the alms bowls of monks. To Boonma, the bowls brought together the skull, body, and mind. He once said, “I gazed into the bowl. After a while, the bowl gazed back at me.”
Boonma’s life was difficult. His beloved wife died young and then he himself—the father of an 11-year-old—died of cancer at the age of 47. While his art has a melancholy air, it also seems to aspire toward a peaceful center that transcends the issues of mortality. In House of Hope, he created a room containing thousands of strings of medicinal herbal beads suspended from the ceiling. The long strands, showering down from above, evoke prayer beads; the fragrant room is at once shimmering and still.
The longing for a centered place—where one can escape desire and its discontents—can also be found elsewhere in contemporary art, whether or not the artists themselves are Buddhists. The video artist Bill Viola, for example, will sometimes make works that contain an eruption that tears apart ordinary life. Nothing unusual about that. But Viola will include in the same works images of calming, or what a Buddhist might call mindfulness. In a piece called The World of Appearances at the James Cohan Gallery, we dimly see a body plunge into a watery milieu that both roils up and grows calm.
It’s rare, though, to find art that successfully expresses the Buddhist sensation of inner peace. Such a perspective may today seem unsophisticated, but it is actually remarkably difficult to create. (The painter Agnes Martin does it with her sublime grids.) While looking at contemporary manifestations of Buddhism, it may therefore be useful to keep in mind the early works at the Japan Society and the selection of great Buddhist art at the Asia Society. These ancient Buddhas have a stability—and, just as important, a smile—we seldom attain.