An exhibition review by Brent Rodriguez-Plate
New exhibition at the Rubin Museum demonstrates a range of possibilities in the human confrontation with death
Is there anything more universal about the human condition than death? And is there anything that shows human diversity more than responses to death?
The latest exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan begins to offer such queries. Death is Not the End (on view now through January 14, 2024) pulls from twelve centuries worth of Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist art and European Christian art to show the convergences and divergences of ways of imagining, demonstrating, and codifying death’s impact on human life.
The works on display include hanging scrolls, paintings, sculptures, ornaments, illuminated manuscripts, and more. Whether we call these things “art,” or “ritual implements,” or “scripture,” is another question that I’ll leave aside for now. What brings the objects together is the way they confront viewers, even here in a clean modern museum, with images of death.
I love thematic exhibitions that cover large swaths of human history across vast geographical regions. Sure, an exhibition on French Impressionism from 1870-1890, or Japanese scroll paintings from the Heian period, might be fascinating to explore, but I relish the big questions of human existence that an exhibition like Death is Not the End provides.
The show’s curator Elena Pakhoutova has already created several cross-cultural exhibitions at the Rubin, including Count Your Blessings: The Art of Prayer Beads in Asia and Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books. Such shows are goldmines for those of us teaching religious studies and who work to get our students out of the word-centrism of higher education, as they bring us into a world of sight, sound, and touch. The Rubin has consistently created ways that bodily engagement can occur with objects and I hope to write more about the interactive Mandala lab in the future.
Death’s inevitability has shrouded the lives of conscious beings at all times, though it may be more pronounced in certain periods of history. The fact that the Rubin’s latest exhibition was scheduled to be unveiled in 2020—and was postponed due to Covid-19—is testament alone to the lingering aura of death in our lives. This is not a show about pandemics, but there is something about a global death threat that makes it more poignant.
Death is a condition of being alive, and so the first part of the exhibition focuses on that theme , suggesting that it is our inevitable and shared fate. Memento mori remind of our impending deaths: Tibetan prayer beads made from a human cranium sit next to an ivory skull from northern Europe, a snake crawling through the eye socket.
Even so, there are ways around death. It can’t be cheated, but maybe it can be gamed, played with, as long as one knows the rules. There is help, and the religious practitioner might evoke the Mongolian Yama Dharmaraja for protection, or find Jesus Christ overseeing the resurrection of the body.
Christianity and Buddhism both developed in-between states such as “purgatory” and “bardo.” Many images in the exhibition center on these liminal sites, further depicting the demons, angels, beasts, and deities in all their horrific and salvific modes. Torture, blood and guts, and monstrous hybrids become part of the religious traditions themselves.
To transform death into something positive, or to find ways to conquer it, requires ritual, devotion, bodily practice, and aesthetic discipline. A Buddhist might travel with a shrine of a Bodhisatva who help us mortals achieve enlightenment, or blow a leg bone trumpet (made of human leg) as a way of “cutting the ego.” A Christian might seek intervention by the Virgin Mary.
By framing two religious traditions from two continents, viewers are provoked to think about how death comes for us all. The pairing of the two could have been extended indefinitely, pulling in images from Yoruban traditions, Judaism, and Sikhism, though that would have been unwieldy for a single floor of the Rubin. There is enough here to show the constancy of fate across the ages and cultures, and enough here to tease out the sometimes subtle differences from one realm to the next.
It would be wrong to suggest these objects and images are “expressions” of some deeper theological or cosmological understanding, as if people think first and create later. Instead, what we see at the Rubin is that these things are the cosmologies; the images create a engagement with death that then evokes some secondary cognitive response in the viewers. Theologies get framed later, after the stark confrontation with death’s reality, imaged and imagined through the artist’s skills.
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