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What’s your mental disposition? In what type of climate do you feel uncomfortable? What does your tongue look like? What do you dream about and what colors are predominant in those dreams?
You’re bombarded by these questions both personal and strange upon arriving at the Rubin Museum of Art’s Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine, which opened this month. They’re presented in a questionnaire and also loop around in the central atrium. They’re meant as an access point to the two-floor exhibition that is the first to really delve in-depth into the art and history of Tibetan medicine, offering the kinds of questions you might be asked by a Tibetan doctor. Your answers categorize you into three forces of imbalance: phlegm, bile, and wind.
I got wind thanks to sleeplessness and mental unrest, and the structure of the show has information on how to apply these methods of bodily imbalance correction to one’s self. However, despite this active attempt at getting a personal engagement into the methods of Tibetan medicine, it’s really more a curation of some rare and beautiful objects from its practice, with the more real world applications a footnote to the visuals of the history of healing.
The 140 objects are from the Rubin’s own collections as well institutions like London’s Wellcome Library, the British Museum, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, from bloodletting tools to a 17th century illustration of a “Tree of Diagnosis” showing the unwell being examined through their pulse, urine, and tongue condition. In conjunction with Bodies in Balance, the Rubin is holding a series of interactive workshops with a Tibetan doctor on things like “urinalysis” and the diagnosis of dreams, and this coming weekend there’s a small symposium of talks on Tibetan medicine and well-being from practitioners, scholars, and other experts, such as the incorporation of Tibetan medicine in Western practice and the medical murals at Labrang Monastery.
The exhibition goes back to the 9th century and then all the way to present, touching on how Tibetan medicine is connected to Indian Ayurvedic medicine as well as knowledge from the Chinese, Greco-Arabic, its own local traditions, and Buddhism. It’s a practice simultaneously spiritual and scientific, which is why in the exhibition you get both serene statues of the Medicine Buddha cradling a healing nectar bowl in one hand and a piece of the myrobalan plant used as a cure-all in the other, as well as real surgical instruments. The visual art component definitely dominates, although unfortunately without a lot of interpretation. A painting of a Medicine Buddha Palace surrounded by an orchard of medical trees is stunning in its details, yet the symbology of the trees, a dominant sign in Tibetan medicine, isn’t thoroughly explained (to be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by an expansive catalogue by curator Theresia Hofer that goes into 360 pages of detail).
Likewise, the obvious audience favorite — the five, vivid, and gory “Protectors of Medicine” 19th century paintings — could use a bit more context. A “Red Wolf-Headed Protectress” riding a nine-headed bird through the clouds while holding an intestine lasso and skull cup with exposed brains, and another protectress riding her own nine-headed zombie man, are undeniably awesome. Yet why such visceral figures should be “charged with preserving medical tradition as protectors of Yuthog Yonten Gonpo,” the Buddhist master and physician who is believed to have been responsible for the influential Four Tantras manuscript, is something that could use more guidance for a Western audience unfamiliar with the often debaucherous Tibetan Buddhist pantheon.
That’s not to say that a casual viewer will be totally lost in Bodies in Balance. There is so much fascinating material, from beautiful bone-setting diagrams, to a 9th century illustration of the moxibustion burning treatment discovered in a cave, to antique anatomical illustrations based on the study of actual corpses, to the curious Daka statue used to consecrate medicines that are poured into its monstrous mouth before being given to a patient. It’s a really stunning exhibition to wander, and even if you might leave with questions about the details, it’s an exceptional chance to explore a centuries-old medical practice through the sometimes morbid allure of its art and artifacts.
Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine is on view at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 8.