Friday, July 20, 2012

A walk through poverty to the museum




I thought I would walk to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco between three telephone calls and a lunchtime meeting.

I stepped off my now familiar blocks into a different world. It was black. It was poor. It was threaded with hopelessness. I have experienced many contrasts in my travels and been confronted by the stark realities of poverty but this was shocking, so close to wealth, so stark. It was a five minute walk to Union Square and Louis Vuitton.

The streets wreaked of urine. Every third person appeared deranged. The fabric of the buildings were frayed, faded, disreputable.

Just as soon as you had entered, you were out yet left wondering whether what you had seen was real. It was, sadly, it was.

Then you were at a palatial square and there was the new museum for Asian Art.

It was an excellent collection and running parallel to it was 'Phantoms of Asia' - examples of contemporary art that was responding to Asian religious traditions. There were two very simple, pure abstract Tibetan examples that were very beautiful. One was of receding archways in grey white, ethereal, like a doorway into a transcendent reality. The second was a box the surface of which was a geometric pattern of lines illuminated from within so that the light extended beyond the solid form, dissolving into the room.

But my favorite piece was from late eighteenth, early nineteenth century Rajasthan - a cloth painting of the cosmos. It was rough, primitive, naive but beautiful. Vishnu dreams worlds: one of gods, one of humans. Each populated by diverse, tiny figures, worshiping and delighting caught up in the swirling pattern held aloft by the figure of a cosmic man. The world is rooted in divine vision and consciousness: a consciousness that we share. Only the demons are outside its patterning, locked in their own worlds, by their own actions.


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