Three-Dimensional Mandala of Guhyasamaja Nepal; 20th century Metal Collection of Namgyal Monastery, Dharamsala, India (click to enlarge)

Three-Dimensional Mandala of Guhyasamaja Nepal; 20th century Metal Collection of Namgyal Monastery, Dharamsala, India (click to enlarge)

Gazing at this golden palace at the Rubin Museum of Art was at first riveting because the forms and style felt so fresh and unfamiliar. The roof with its tiara-like flourishes stands miles away from the tamer roofs of Chinese gardens or Japanese pagodas. The shrine’s proportions are not determined by the golden rectangle formula but by a system of interlocking cubes and spheres. Gothic gargoyles pale in comparison to the chimerical beasts that perch on the “porch” and at the foot of the stairs. A rich and gregarious relationship with ornament entices the eye.

But the rush chilled when the reason for the palace’s unfamiliarity hit. In an era when Artforum writers complain there is nothing left to discover in a globalized world, the Tibetan style conspicuously flies under the radar. This low-profile deserves suspicion. The coincidence is far to convenient that a Hollywood studio hasn’t pushed a big Tibet film for some time, that Japanese video games send you to vaguely European castles instead of Shangri-La, that Asian art dealers seldom brag about their Tibetan holdings with full-page color ads.

Everyone’s #1 Business goal this decade is to penetrate the Chinese market. But not even the mighty Google has leverage over China’s government. The fear of enraging the Chinese officials – i.e. by hanging Tibetan art in the fancy room where the deal gets cut – matters. Likewise, if any media content is tinged with a Tibetan story or image, the firm behind it will certainly be blacklisted and loose out on the next gold rush. The rich voice of Tibetan art is tragically muffled, and the Rubin Museum is courageous to take on the risks of exhibiting works like this palace from an exiled Tibetan monetary in India.

Mandala of Amitayus Tibet; 19th century Pigments on wood 12 1/4 x 12 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. Rubin Museum of Art, F1997.36.2 (HAR 553) (click to enlarge)

All the talk about Buddhist theology can get boring. The first draft of this essay took that stroll down the path of enlightenment. But it doesn’t hit the nail on the head when it comes to articulating the work’s appeal. Although art museum as Buddhist Sunday school has it fans, it is the Tibetan approach to ornament and color that hits the retina hard, which warms up the curiosity of the brain behind it. With its wild flourishes and outlandish architecture, this palace offers something so individuated and distinctive from the standard visual diet.

What a shame that boys will never explore this palace as a video game character in their Mom’s basement. What a loss that Disney’s Tibetan monk movie is on hold along with the addition of a Shangri-La area to Disneyland. This palace is part of an artistic tradition that deserves more attention.

Mandala closes January 11, 2010, at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY

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Daniel Larkin

A man once knocked Daniel Larkin off his bar stool and flung mean words. He got up, smiled, and laughed as the bouncer showed him out. He doesn't give anyone the power to rain on his parade. It's more...

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