Art & Culture / Arts

Buddhist Art Exhibit

‘Endless Knot’ at BAMPFA explores core Buddhist tenet

Buddhist Art Exhibit
Do Ho Suh’s 2004 inkjet print, "Karma Juggler"

The ultimate truth is that there is nobody separate from anybody, that there is not one single thing that exists by itself.

Tenshin Reb Anderson, in Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains

The concept of “dependent arising,” or, as some traditions refer to it, “dependent co-arising,” is one of Buddhism’s central beliefs. It states that all entities are interdependent, in a state of constant reemerging, or arising. 

On Dec. 14, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) will open a new curated selection of Buddhist art, from antiquity to the present, “Endless Knot: Struggle and Healing in the Buddhist World,” featuring works focused on this concept.

Thirty-three works, drawn both from BAMPFA’s own Asian art collection and from private collections, that have never previously been exhibited in a museum setting, are part of the exhibit. They include artworks that are thousands of years old, alongside new works by living artists such as Binh Danh, Takashi Murakami, Sopheap Pich, Tsherin Sherpa and others. Of BAMPFA’s extensive permanent collection of Buddhist art, more than a dozen unique works will be on view.

“The contemporary art will be juxtaposed with the historic,” said associate curator Elaine Yau. “There will be a thematic flow throughout.” 

Yau noted that many exhibitions of Buddhist art concentrate on pieces from China and Japan, but “Endless Knot” will instead focus on a “geographically expansive approach,” including art from present-day Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand. “The exhibit uses Buddhist ideas to explore geopolitical circumstances, such as the cataclysm of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodian society,” Yau said. This is designed to present a diverse picture of both Asian and Buddhist cultures.

The show will feature the art of internationally renowned Tibetan-American artist Tsherin Sherpa, who will be contributing a new work. The piece will feature a figure of the Buddha gazing towards a protector deity, painted in the artist’s distinctive style, which is based on his digital manipulation of a traditionally rendered image. A new, never-before-exhibited video installation by French-Tibetan artist Marie-Dolma Chophel, entitled Resilience, will also be shown. The five-minute, 20-second video is part of the third section of “Endless Knot.” 

Other pieces are “transcultural,” said Yau, such as an enshrined Buddha, in which the Buddha image is from the Indonesian island of Java, but the shrine itself is from Myanmar.

Visitors will walk through “Endless Knot” in three sections. The first “examines how artists have grappled with political terrains and cross-cultural encounters,” according to BAMPFA materials. 

The second section’s artworks “highlight the relationship between actions and consequences,” or, in other words, the functioning of karma. This section will include Do Ho Suh’s 2004 inkjet print, Karma Juggler, said Yau. The section is also designed to illustrate “the conveyance of knowledge through interpersonal relationships.” Yau added that another exhibit is a “calligraphic poem of the ‘dharma of the butterfly,’ which is a catalyst for a line of thinking, undermining human-centered experience.”

The last section will explore the ways that people “living within the Buddhist world have attempted to obtain a degree of security in their lives, whether through practices in divination, praying to specific deities for health and wealth, or a pre-modern combination of science and religion,” BAMPFA materials explain. The depiction of the last-listed category includes anatomical illustrations from a Thai Buddhist medical text.

“Endless Knot” is guest-curated by Dr. Rosaline Kyo, a professor of art and Chinese studies at Davidson College, who has previously collaborated with BAMPFA on multiple exhibitions. 

“‘Endless Knot’ ties together the deep strengths of BAMPFA’s historical Buddhist art collection with the fresh perspectives of living artists from the global Asian diaspora who are influenced by Buddhist thought,” Kyo said. “The vast historical scale of this exhibition encourages viewers to step back from the cacophony of present-day concerns and reflect on the enduring concept of Dependent Arising, which has been a grounding force and creative inspiration for artists in the Buddhist world for more than 2,000 years.”

A new essay by Kyo will illuminate the themes of “Endless Knot,” which will be made available online and via a QR code in the exhibition gallery.

BAMPFA is also offering multiple public events in conjunction with the exhibition.

Gallery Talks with Kyo will be presented on these dates:

  • Sunday, Jan. 15, 2pm 
  • Friday, Feb. 24, noon
  • Sunday, April 16, noon
  • Friday, May 12, noon
  • Sunday, June11, 4pm

The Lijin Lecture will be given by Tsherin Sherpa on Sunday, April 30, at noon. The Lijin Lecture is BAMPFA’s annual endowed lecture on Asian art, featuring a contemporary artist.

Tsherin Sherpa was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1968. He currently divides his time between California and Kathmandu, where he established the Himalayan Art Initiative to foster the preservation of the traditional thangka painting methods he learned from his father, Master Urgen Dorge. His contemporary work draws from Tibetan Buddhist iconography to comment on his diasporic experience, and on the intersections of the sacred and profane.

In his lecture, Sherpa “will explore how contemporary Himalayan artists have found innovative ways to combine the traditional and the contemporary to reflect on both everyday life and global affairs, and will situate his work featured in ‘Endless Knot’ within this larger context,” according to BAMPFA materials.

…if we seek the permanence of an object as something existing from its own side, we discover something inexpressible. If we take three sticks and place them together in a certain way, they will all stand up. If each of the sticks could stand under its own power, it would remain standing even if the others were removed, but they cannot. In this way we must understand dependent arising precisely.

 Zongtrul Losang Tsöndru, Chöd in the Ganden Tradition: The Oral Instructions of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche 

‘Endless Knot: Struggle and Healing in the Buddhist World,’ UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), 2155 Center St., Berkeley. 510-642-0808, www.bampfa.org

On view through June 11, 2023.

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