It’s been over 100 years since Kandinsky first published On the Spiritual in Art, however in the ensuing century, the contemporary art world has taken on an increasingly materialistic bent. In opposition to this trend, for two weeks recently a group of artists at the Hammer Museum has been working on a project that is all about compassion, enlightenment and impermanence. So much so in fact that when they completed the artwork this past weekend, it was promptly destroyed.
The artists are four Tibetan Buddhist monks and the artwork is a painstakingly intricate sand painting representing a Mandala of Compassion. This is their third visit to the Hammer, following a previous mandala creation in 2010 and a healing ceremony in 2012. They worked on the piece in the museum’s lobby gallery which was loosely designed to resemble a Buddhist temple, with a shrine, traditional Shambu fabric, and walls painted in a color scheme chosen by the lamas. Visitors were able to watch the piece slowly take shape as the monks added colored grains of sand with the aid of a copper funnel called a zangpur. A live simulcast provided a glimpse for online viewers.
When the artwork was finished on Sunday, it was on view for timed 10-minute entries between 11am-3pm. Following a dissolution ceremony, the sand was swept up and taken to the beach, where visitors joined the monks as they distributed the sand into the ocean.
The Western avant-garde has long been influenced by Eastern philosophy, whether it’s Rauschenberg’s and Cage’s experiments with the i-Ching or Yves Klein’s fascination with the zen-like void. We asked Allison Agsten, the Hammer’s curator of public engagement, how this ancient artform functions in a setting normally reserved for contemporary art. “Something that our visitors are always interested in is when they have a chance to better understand process, and certainly a lot of contemporary art is process based. Here’s a chance to actually get to see that process at work,” she said.
There is also a serendipitous relationship between the Mandala and an exhibition of work by Jim Hodges, also on view. “The title of the Jim Hodges show is Give More than you Take and the lamas are making a mandala that represents compassion. It’s supposed to inspire and imbue all of us with a little bit more compassion, so it’s easy to see how those sentiments are connected,” Agsten notes. “Also Jim’s work is known for talking simple materials and making something extraordinary. I can’t think of a greater parallel than this group of lamas working with sand to make something very intricate and complicated and something that is truly high art.”