Today I had a first experience – for the first time I found myself preferring an art catalogue to an actual exhibition.
The exhibition has already displayed at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, is currently at the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco), and thence to Musée Guimet (Paris), Museum of East Asian Art (Cologne), and finally the Museum Rietberg Zürich. I saw in San Francisco. Some highlights of the exhibition can be found here; see also the entry point here.
An example of the problem can be found with this piece, one of a series of 12 18-19th century thangkas showing scenes from the Jātaka Tales, stories of the Buddha’s previous life. Take a quick look at the link, and ask yourself what you are looking at. It is almost incomprehensible to a Westerner. In fact, there is a central of the Śākyamuni surrounded by 10 different stories. The charm of the painting is improved by a knowledge of the stories, but the museum signage for the thangka is not annotated with an explanation. Even worse, the exhibit had poor lighting (perhaps to protect the thangkas, but more likely out of a casual disregard for how art was displayed, since other thangkas were well illuminated). (I have read portions of the Jātaka Tales in the Pali text society edition; but the explanation in the exhibition’s catalogue was concise, well illustrated, tasteful, and clear.)
Another example – an important part of the exhibition is the recording, apparently for the first time, of a type of tantric yoga dance: “cham.” This is represented in the catalogue by a 40 minute DVD containing highlights of more than 300 hours of recorded dances. The DVD itself is particularly well annotated and is one of the most gripping examples of religious dance that I can remember seeing. In the museum, these dance sequences were represented by LCDs hanging all over the museum, blasting out music – creating an effect midway between going to a children’s science museum and one of those tourist trap Times Square stores (e.g., M&M World).
In fact, the catalogue, which was printed and bound, allows for many of the pieces a better view than possible in the museum – for sculpture, the illustrations are usually enlarged in the catalogue, and with a magnifying glass, it is possible to discern far more detail than one could see in the poorly-lit exhibit.
This experience has made me think more about the advantages of simulacra. My next post is about more levels of simulara.