Taipei is no stranger to exhibitions of Buddhist artifacts, but both for quantity and quality, the National Palace Museum’s latest exhibition, Tibet, Treasures From the Roof of the World (聖地西藏—最接近天空的寶藏), is something out of the ordinary. It is the product of a growing cooperation between the museum and its counterparts in China, which has allowed works of the very greatest artistic and historical importance to be exported from China and exhibited in Taiwan.
The exhibition is divided into four areas: the Tibetan Empire, which provides a glimpse of the high plateau’s little-known history, Golden Treasures, which showcases the fine metalworking technology that was brought to bear on the making of religious images, Cultural Exchange, which features gifts given and received, highlighting the active role that Tibet played as a regional power during periods of political strength, and Customs in the Land of Snow, in which fine examples of relatively familiar ritual objects are displayed.
There are a total of 130 items, many of them leaving China and Tibet for the first time. These are drawn from major centers of Tibetan Buddhist religion and art, most notably the Potala Palace, formerly the main residence, and Norbulingka, traditionally the summer residence, of successive Dalai Lamas. There are also objects from important monasteries and items borrowed from museums in Tibet and Beijing.
The curators of the National Palace Museum have done a fine job in putting together a show that presents Tibet in the light of its highest artistic achievements, and many of the works on display are breathtaking in their intricacy and artistic mastery. The work that stands at the entrance of the exhibition is a gilt bronze statue of the thousand-armed Buddha with inlays of turquoise. It stands 77cm high and has 998 arms. The final two arms, to make up the thousand, belong to the viewer, a potent symbol that Buddha-hood is achievable by all. The intricacy of the workmanship is astonishing, and the rich symbolism that it embodies provides much to appreciate.
The exhibition ranges across the history of Tibet, with the Tibetan Empire section opening with a simple guilt-copper seated Buddha from the 13th century, to the splendid 20th-century painting Demoness Lying on Her Back that forms a pictorial map of Tibet. Kashmiri, Nepalese and Chinese influences can be seen in a variety of works, but one emerges from the exhibition with a strong sense of the unique world view that was developed through the grafting of Buddhism onto Tibet’s own shamanistic foundations of Bon. Works such as the 14th-century Kalacakravajra in Yab-Yum from the Xialu Monastery in Shigatse, is a magnificently dynamic evocation of the male and female elements of the universe in a sculpture of great figurative beauty. Yamantaka in Yab-Yum displays another side of the Tibetan imagination, with its many-handed demonic figure that draws more deeply on indigenous artistic influences. Pages from Tibetan medical treatises also provide a glimpse into other aspects of Tibet’s intellectual life.
The exhibition focuses primarily on Tibet’s Buddhist culture, and it goes out of its way to show the many international influences that came together to create this Tibetan high culture. There are only a small number of items from Tibet’s indigenous religious tradition, and they are too few in number and fail to provide a meaningful context for the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism.
Unlike the exhibition Gold and Glory: The Wonders of Khitan From the Inner Mongolian Museum Collection (黃金旺族:內蒙古博物院大遼文物展) earlier this year that did such a remarkable job of bringing to life a culture that has virtually disappeared from the pages of history, issues of Tibetan identity and national aspirations have largely been ignored in this exhibition, with the focus being placed firmly on its unique form of Buddhism, which is experiencing a massive revival in China and around the world.
Tibet, Treasures From the Roof of the World sets out to wow viewers with the cream of Tibetan artistry, but the political and military power of Tibetan society are left largely left out of sight.
What: Tibet, Treasures From the Roof of the World (聖地西藏—最接近天空的寶藏)
Where: Library Building, National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院圖書文獻大樓), 221 Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Shilin Dist, Taipei City (台北市士林區至善路二段221號) Open daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm. Until Sept. 19. Tel: (02) 2881-2021
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