With So Many Eyes

We all connect to art in our own way, depending on place, time, and temperament. A wonderful perk of my job comes with the territory: repeated visits to an artwork over time. I used to worry about this. How can I keep a fresh approach to artworks when I have to bring groups to the same pieces over and over again? After many gallery experiences under my belt, I now know that this is a self-imposed obstacle. Sure, I may tell the story of the historical Buddha many times in a week, but when I stand with a  group of people in front of a thangka painting of Buddha Shakymuni, or any other artwork, I make a choice in that moment: Will I say the same thing again? Will I ask the same questions? Will I go through the motions, or will I use this moment to open myself up to the individuals standing with me? Will I risk not knowing what might happen?

Yes! I will risk it! And for this simple reason: it’s just more fun. Save the parachute jumping and hang gliding for someone else with more expendable income that me. I’ll take asking a truly open-ended question in front of a group of 4th graders or seniors or first-time visitors, and find my thrill.

Recently, I guided a group of 7th graders from a local girls school. I mapped the tour route to include an old favorite of mine: Shiva Vishvarupa. This large painting includes the Hindu god of creation and destruction and his consort, Parvati, in union—yab yub. The colors are so fiery and warm; you can literally feel heat coming off of this painting. Shiva stands powerfully in the center, with a bold red Parvati angled away and down from him. Multiple Shiva and Parvati heads extend from each, above and below, and Shiva also radiates hundreds, if not thousands, of arms and hands. What an energetically-charged painting! On this day, I had to make a stop here, because the exhibition, From the Land of the Gods, was due to close in the coming weeks, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing this painting for a while. Up we went to the 3rd floor, and then around the corner where we were greeted with a wave of heat radiating from the reds, oranges, and yellows on the wall. Upon encountering a work of art, I almost always have the group pause and take it all in with their eyes, with no talking, for at least 15 seconds. I find it settles the group and sets the tone for a nice group experience. So after we turned the corner, I took a deep breath and turned to the group, ready to give this instruction. And there they all were, every single girl with her cell phone camera out and positioned to capture Shiva for all eternity. (Note: I reviewed the photography policy before the tour got underway, and the girls knew it was allowed in this gallery. Check out Marcos’ last post for more about photography in museums!) Giggling ensued, and I let the “silent looking” instruction fall away from my mind. Instead, I listened to the chatter, to see what I might pull out of their excitement to get a larger group conversation going. Among the comments was this treasure: “Oh my gosh, my phone doesn’t know which eye to focus on! It’s putting little boxes around all of his eyes!” Indeed, her cell phone camera lens was working overtime, with focusing boxes appearing around as many eyes as it could spot in the painting (compact digital cameras are often calibrated to look for the white of a person’s eye to focus the image—you can understand why the camera was confused here.).

Shiva Vishavarupa

And that is where our conversation began. I asked the girls about all those eyes and all those arms and hands. What might this mean? What should we focus on? They had plenty of good ideas, many of which aligned beautifully with the concepts of power and strength inherent in this image. And we ultimately had a great discussion, with a cell phone camera’s confusion as an ideal, and unexpected, “lens” into the overwhelming nature of things outside our control.

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