Following the third panel of the Inaugural Conference, Harvard graduate students led a workshop at the Harvard Art Museums on the afternoon of June 3rd. With Kyushu University Professor and Harvard 2022 Visiting Scholar Cynthea J. Bogel and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona Rae Erin Dachille as interlocutors, students continued the panels’ discussions and inquiries by centering them on museum objects.
Professor Dachille guided an exploration of the body and representation as inspired by lessons from the Sakya tradition, considering issues such as the inevitability of representation, the use of the body as metaphor, and the concept of ten (a container or support that could house a presence) which is applicable to images, texts and bodies. Inspired by Professor Dachille’s new book publication on the ritual practice of the body mandala, the conversation regularly returned to the theme of productive tension, such as between the need for boundaries to construct meaning and the desire to transcend them. Professor Bogel guided an inquiry on the issue of embodiment and projection as based on an understanding that the work of art and the viewer can do both. As Professor Bogel’s current research project delves into the elaborate pedestal of the central icon at the Yakushiji temple in Nara, she encouraged consideration of modes of self-representation during formative periods. How can iconography and spatial ontology enact metaphors that effectuate the conversion or transformation of an emerging identity?
The conversation began with an image of Tara in the Harvard Art Museum galleries. Professor Dachille asked questions such as: How is the body an instrument of transformation? When looking at an image, how do we read a body? Professor Bogel oriented our viewing so as to accommodate the parasculptural aspects of the work: how do we consider a body in space? And as Tara results from the choice to be female, how can we reconcile the gendering of deities such as Tara and Prajnaparamita in the Vajrayana tradition and the absence thereof in the Mahayana tradition?
Sarah Laursen, the Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Harvard Art Museums engaged these questions from the curatorial perspective. In an exhibition space devoted to Avalokitesvara/Guanyin, placed naturally in between one exhibition on women and another on bodhisattvas, different versions of Guanyin from various periods in Chinese history were selected to capture the deity’s gender transformation and highlight the difference between biological sex and gender as a social construct.
The graduate students selected objects that grounded a rich exploration of the various facets in the relationship between gender construction (or deconstruction) and visual art. For example, building upon Professor Kaminishi’s presentation on paintings of the Courtesan Eguchi, does the increased sexualization and innuendo of paintings of the Courtesan Eguchi reflect the oppression of women, or is it more reflective of the way in which enlightenment was understood historically? In viewing a Korean image of Avalokitesvara, the group discussed the way in which sexuality and sacrality meet one another on the surface of images with evident attention to the rendering of diaphanous and luminous material over the flesh of the body. Professor Wargula’s panel presentation paved the way for a close examination of an embroidery depicting the descent of Amida Buddha and the haptic visuality involved in a work likely made with human hair: how might the directionality of the stitching and the tactality of animal fibers and materials (be they from the silkwork, the human head, or peacocks) bear meaning for a journey to the Pure Land? An investigation of a painting of Vajrayogini, which may be considered to demonstrate the centrality of femaleness in Buddhist antinomianism, revealed the difficulty of beholding an image that is intimately related to sadhana ritual practice without allowing one’s interpretation of it to be overdetermined by ritual context. Finally, a deconstruction of the complex Hevajra Mandala revealed the prominent inclusion of several gendered and outcaste figures (in male/female union, transgressive mahasiddhas, non-celibate monastics, etc), who are defined by color-coding and garment details; the different shades of blue for the male Hevajra and female Nairatmya in particular reveal an interest in differentiation, not superiority/inferiority, in the interpretation of gender in this context.