The Power of Intention: Reinventing the (Prayer) Wheel
New YorkThe Rubin Museum of Art
March 1 – October 14, 2019
The Power of Intention: Reinventing the (Prayer) Wheel, curated by Elena Pakhoutova, brings together contemporary artists making work about intention, belief, and prayer with historical prayer wheels and related images from the history of Himalayan arts. The show runs the risk of a celebratory New Ageism around prayer that is often scrupulously avoided by the Rubin Museum, whose exhibits have long worked to show that Himalayan art is not just about spiritual themes, but also medicine, power, politics, and war. Fortunately, however, the show turns that risk into an affirmation of simple but important values that are often forgotten when discussing the politics of art.
The “prayer wheel” is a not unfair translation of what is most commonly called “ma ṇi ’khor lo,” or mani wheel (mani means “jewel,” and the jewel referenced here is associated with the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara). The wheel is a kind of technology of prayer commonly used in Tibet and the Tibetan exile. In effect, it is a small wheel that has a mantra inside written thousands of times. Most often the mantra is dedicated to Avalokiteśvara, hence the name. Each turn of the wheel is the equivalent of reciting the mantra however many times it is written on the inner scroll.
While this might strike outsiders as some kind of religious cheating, the use of prayer wheels is very complex in Tibetan culture. The wheel is not meant to be swung mechanically, but as part of a broader program of spiritual practice aimed at embodying the compassionate ideals of the bodhisattva. It is also used in more mundane, ordinary religious practice to allay fears and hope for good results and blessings. And, of course, in spite of intentions, the ritual may often become merely mechanical, though not just in the way one might expect. According to the historian of technology Lynn White, the wheels first came to attention outside Asia in the 15th century, when they were carried to Italy as part of the Central Asian slave trade. There, White suggests, they may have had a revolutionary impact on Italian machine design.
Visitors are not greeted with the complex elements of this history, however. Instead, we see the interactive Wheel of Intentions (Potion and Ben Rubin, 2019), in which visitors inscribe and share their intentions for how to live better that are then projected onto a galactic-looking screen. When I arrived, it was like a textbook of New Age mantras: “listen and connect”; “shed anxiety and focus on the moment”; “allow myself to be happy”; “be calm”; “enjoy life.” All fine sentiments, but ones that can feel as eerily adrift as they appear on the starry screen in times as tumultuous as ours.
Throughout the rest of the show, contemporary works are paired with artefacts and paintings from the museum’s collection. In one of the cleverer pairings, Monika Bravo’s Landscape of Belief (2012), a series of morphing glass panels whose city landscapes are constructed through arrangements of texts from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is placed in conversation with a 16th-century double-sided thangka painting on which written prayers are arranged into the shape of a stupa. We see here how the relation of form and content, of vision and embodiment, has a long-standing history that may complicate how we understand works both new and old.
Elsewhere, continuing to build on the activity of the prayer wheel as religious practice, there is a strong focus on interactive works throughout the show, such as Scenocosme’s Metamorphy (2014), a circular membrane activated by touch to produce “mandala-like images,” and Charwei Tsai’s Spiral Incense (2014), which uses the smell of Taiwanese incense to reach viewers, who can take home parts of the piece to burn after the exhibit’s closed. While the themes of the works may sometimes appear like rather banal spiritualism, their structures thus embody complex ideas about transmission through multiple senses and temporalities.
Works like these do not take up questions of power or intention in the way contemporary art-goers might expect, or as the other current show in the Rubin does (Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism). But while this moves away from the Rubin’s longstanding interest in complicating our ideas of Buddhism, perhaps there are reasons to approach the show without the expectation that it will deal with the issues of political power so prevalent today. After all, global Buddhism (which was often degraded in early contact with the West) is suffering perhaps its greatest public relations defeat in over a century through the Buddhist-sanctioned attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar. This is a moment where the stereotypes of Buddhism may remind us of why they were invented in the first place: to create a modern world religion purged of the violence that has otherwise become so pronounced in religious history.
And perhaps this is why it is worth “reinventing the (prayer) wheel.” We take the wheels of New Ageism for granted, assuming that being calm or happy or present is a hopeless enterprise in a riven world. While it’s true that presentness alone won’t save us, it is equally true—as more political artists who have shown in the Rubin in the past like Theaster Gates and Sanford Biggers —that politics cannot progress within a population perpetually fracturing on its own anxiety and struggles. Works like Bravo’s or Scenocosme’s or Tsai’s may not fulfill the hopes of critical art, but if we approach them without cynicism, we may find that their messages of intention, calm, awareness, and communal connection are as central to an aesthetics of the present as any more avowedly critical forms of art.