Kaja M. McGowan is an associate professor of the History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell.

A giant eye, wide open and fully dilated, is projected dramatically on the ceiling of the sculpture court at the Johnson Museum of Art. Visible night and day, not only on campus, but also from the city of Ithaca, this seemingly calm moment caught on camera in what can only be called a storm of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), is taken from a site-specific installation by artist Leo Villareal. Entitled Cosmos, it is an homage to Cornell astronomy professor Carl Sagan.

This continuous play of light and shadow on the exterior ceiling of I. M. Pei’s now classic 1973 building affords students a visceral engagement with the exterior spaces of this dynamic museum as classroom, and an invitation, both performative and participatory, to the interior riches of the museum’s permanent collections within.

Like that proverbial eye of calm found at the center of a tropical storm, museums can provide a haven, a space for contemplation, but they have also long been sites of controversy. It was Sagan who argued forcefully in his 1980 popular science publication entitled Cosmos—the inspiration for Villareal—that of all the world’s great faiths, it is the Hindu religion alone that is committed to the idea that the cosmos experiences an infinite number of births and deaths. Sagan maintains that it is the only religion in which these cycles of time appear, perhaps accidentally, to correspond with those of modern scientific cosmology.

Accidental or not, vivid examples of these longer time cycles of birth and death can be found reflected in objects held in the Asian collections at the Johnson Museum and in the Hindu-inspired texts that are their source of inspiration. I have the great pleasure to work with Ellen Avril, the Johnson’s chief curator and curator of Asian art, to build certain areas of the collection, particularly masks, puppets, textiles, and story cloths. The high point of my teaching experience at Cornell has been introducing these objects in my seminars.

Comparing as a method of discovery is a staple of art historical analysis. Villareal’s site-specific ceiling installation serves as a powerful point of contact with the Balinese embroidered ceiling canopy (leluhur, meaning “ancestors”) used in Hindu ceremonies.

The sacred script in the center of a double vajra thunderbolt points to the invisible presence of the god Siwa, who wields the weapon. With his female consort, he is that powerful eye of the storm where birth and death, creation and destruction are eternally at play. In the corners, four holy men stand, each clasping a flower and one a bajra (sacred bell), used in meditation and prayer. It is the fringed mirrors beneath their feet that allow a play of light and shadow in line with Villareal’s cosmic installation.

Each reflective surface exercises a formative influence over that which is expressed through it. Displayed ritually on the ceiling of an ancestral shrine, these mirrors beg the question of who or what will bear witness? Each pool of light projecting in a sacred cardinal direction is not necessarily intended for one’s own recognition of self, but for a whole community of beings seen and unseen. Harnessing this canopy’s compositional complexities to a cyclical story—a spatial practice of continual renewal—not only connects students with Southeast Asian, specifically Hindu Balinese sensibilities, but also encourages them in the process to linger over this ceiling cloth with its richly embroidered and reflective surfaces, while being urged to consider a series of cross-culturally engaged assignments using mirrors.

Excerpted from

“Architects in the Eye of the Storm: Reflections on Teaching Southeast Asian Art in a University Museum” in Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 4, no. 1, March 2020: 207–20.

Full issue: https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/42136

Published by NUS Press Pte Ltd
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/sen.2020.0000


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