Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Symmetries of Εικόν (Eikόn)

The Rubin Museum of Art has been intriguing enough to host a remarkable exhibition entitled Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. It tries to shed some light on parallels between the Eastern Orthodox Christian and Tibetan Buddhist sacred traditions in function, subject matter, composition, and story telling strategies. Pairing some 63 icons from important private collections and the Museum of Russian Icons (Clinton, Massachusetts) with 26 from the Rubin Museum of Art and other collections, the authors wanted to intrigue our skepticism and see whether orthodox icon paintings, iconostases, and crucifixes or Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings with embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity), and reliquaries are essentially serving the same functionality. The possibility of salvation, battles of good vs. evil, notion of heaven and hell are the concepts introduced by these works of art from 2 very remote and separate regions of the world.

Although unconvinced in the beginning, I began to see some symmetries between the two realms of depicting the Holy. Exhibition shows us the different notions of compassion manifested in the iconography of Mary and Jesus and that of Tara, the goddess of Tibet and the feminine embodiment of compassion. Parallels are also seen in the depiction of ‘’family trees’’, such as Christianity’s Tree of Jesse and Buddhism’s diagrammatic charting of the deities and teachers connected to particular historic figures.

An 18th century Byzantine icon from Greek Asia Minor depicting Christ adorned in flowing red robe, rising from the tomb amid fields like blue and green waves is exhibited nearby 19th century Tibetan thangka in which the life stories of the Buda are depicted in colored profusion. A considerable number of works on view, show us the canonic representations of saints and teachers from the Russian or Greek Orthodox Church. This impressive collection is juxtaposed to an impressive collection of images of Tibetan lamas, ascetics and yogis represented in a group of 18th century paintings or sacred statues.

The exhibit tries to explore for the first time, how two very different religious traditions have used very analogous visual language and iconography to express fundamental religious narratives. The symmetry of both Buddhism and eastern Orthodox Christianity translate their written and oral traditions into symbolic imagery for the same sole purpose to convey the religious message. Viewed through Peirce’s sign typology, such imagery (Tibetan or Christian Orthodox) is, in fact, based on a convention that personifies iconic similarity no matter how distant and isolated these two realms of religious thought might be.


Nature vs. Urbanity

After Katie’s post on the highline, I began to wonder about the nature of the High Line park. As a public park it occupies a curious liminality between an urban space reclaimed by nature and a ruin reclaimed by human residents. After the High Line fell out of use and into disrepair in the 1980’s the track was abandoned and became a bubble within the city devoid of human contact. As dirt and seeds accumulated on the structure it became a bastion of unmanaged, wild flora. Grasses and flowers considered unwanted weeds in the many small, manicured plots of earth around the city flourished there unchecked.

In 2003 an open ideas competition was held for “Designing the High Line,” which solicited any and all proposals for the space’s reuse. 720 teams from 36 countries submitted their entries and hundreds of them were put on public display in Grand Central Terminal (1). The competition was narrowed down to four finalists, whose proposals can be seen here.

The winning team – James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro – proposed a park that would celebrate the “melancholic, unruly beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure.” Rather than changing the line into a recaptured urban space, the team proposed an objet-trouvé approach: to integrate pathways and seating into the existing dialectic between nature and urban decay. The atmosphere and plantings would reflect and emulate the “self-seeded landscape” with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of native species. The team’s vision calls for a perpetually unfinished park, where plants and walkways can evolve and change over time, stressing the ephemeral nature of human construction. The plan was lauded in current architecture magazines and termed “Agri-tecture,” where “relationship rules between organic and material alternate.” (2)

Yet what does it say about our urban culture that when faced with hundreds of choices for the design of the park, the one chosen most closely reflected urban decay and the transitory nature of human environments? Why is the visible manifestation of nature’s reclamation of a once-urban space considered a peaceful and delightful excursion destination? In most cases the vision of crumbling cities overrun by nature is reserved for science fiction movies or the aftermath of catastrophe. Images of the city of Chernobyl permeated by grasses and trees evoke stark feelings of desolation and perhaps nostalgia.

However, I must admit I find curious satisfaction in the idea that if humans were to disappear the constructions of humanity would be claimed and subsumed into nature. So perhaps the answer lies not in the fear of the ephemerality of human construction, but the comfort of the resiliency of nature.