Photo by Peter Keller, Ph.D./ Courtesy of
Bowers museum of cultural artThe Bowers Museum of Cultural Art has a fine mission and pulls in crowd-pleasing spectaculars almost always laved in gold.
But the Bowers also has a complex. After giving us "Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur," "Splendors From China's Imperial Palace," "Egyptian Treasures From the British Museum" and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bowers brings us more than 200 shiny artifacts from the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace, sitting high atop the Roof of the World. So what's the first thing they did to "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World"?
Added some punctuation!
Like Oliver! Or Casual Sex?
It's a singularly odd word to be followed by an exclamation point. It should be hushed and reflective. It should be slightly dull, one of those righteous, good-for-you words, like kashi or soy. Maybe the good folks at the Bowers were trying to reassure those of us who like our treasures dipped in 24-karat that this wouldn't be just another snoozy round of mandalas and bowls for yak's milk. We wouldn't need to ohm our way through the exhibit. We could feel excited, and exclamatory!
The good news is that even though the Bowers is trying to force exclamations upon us, we can feel exclamatory at "Tibet!" There's not a mandala for miles; there's just what the Bowers does best. Gold, gilt and more gold, mostly with precious gems embedded. Also, there are pearls.
The opulence of the gilded statues (of slim bodhisattvas and seventh-century kings) and gemmy golden crowns and daggers and necklaces for Tibet's landowning nobles was a bit shocking, really, especially considering the down-to-earth, mildly ascetic image we have here of hippie Buddhists in tea-drinking, reflective quiet. There is a crown made of thousands of small silvery pearls. There is a robe made of peacock feathers, and a gilded cup made from a human skull.
I was gleefully reminded of the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom), before Jean Calvin ripped apart Geneva and ruined everyone's stained-glass fun. The Dalai Lama could take a few pointers about the soul-imperiling aspects of gilded religion. What'll he be doing next? Selling indulgences along with his infectious smile?
"Tibet!" is a fine way to blow some lazy misconceptions about Buddhism—that it's sterile, silent and self-denying, for three. Walking alongside beautiful silk tapestries kept immaculate centuries later by Tibet's refrigeratory altitude, and thousand-headed statues so intricate you'd think the eighth-century carvers had discovered proto-meth, you're given over to the incredible luxury available (to a few) even more than a thousand years ago. The Potala Palace itself—photos of which hang by the wall texts—was built on a crest in Lhasa, in the Himalayas, in the 600s. It's a fairytale castle above the clouds, topped by golden roofs and as amazing in its early engineering as the pyramids, except perhaps for those who had to build it. Then, Tibet was a powerful force in Asia, not a country in need of consciousness-raising concerts, and displayed at the Bowers are golden gifts from Mongol, Manchu and Chinese emperors never before seen in the West.
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Impressively, some beautiful images were captured by the Bowers' president, Dr. Peter Keller, who spent time there during 18 months of negotiations with the Cultural Administration of Tibet. His photos show both the Dalai Lamas' palace and the people who live simply around it. They're beautifully composed and riotous with reds and blues that must just get sharper the higher in the Himalayas you go until the colors are finally so bright they're almost supernovas.
And, in fact, the exhibit's as quiet as the colors. We were disabused of our notion that Buddhism is quiet and hushed from the time we stepped in and saw the films on the high walls. Showing parades of brightly dressed monks chanting and singing and on the move, the films were soundtracked with loud song following us around the galleries even as far as the separate rooms hosting the Bowers' long-running exhibit "Gems!"
With an exclamation point, of course.
"Tibet! Treasures from the Roof of the World," at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600. Through May 16, 2004.