The new Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the Arts of South and Southeast Asia are the Metropolitan Museum of Art's (New York) first permanent galleries of South and Southeast Asian art. Its over 1,300 works, many on display for the first time, quickly cover five millenia on a land mass twice the size of Europe, pausing once in a while to give more expanded attention to Chola bronzes or Angkor-era sculptures.
The architecture of the reconstructed rooms apparently accords to the aesthetic norms of the periods of work housed in them, but this effect is sometimes diminished in the jostling of different styles. The much-criticized Jain teak ceiling, for example, provides an odd entree to a gallery of Persian-influenced paintings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana. The magnificent Angkor-era sculptures, large figures from early mediaeval Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, benefit the most from their setting. The gallery that houses these works has a glass panel ceiling that allows sunlight to flood in and literally highlight the sculptures. The generous size of the room, open to the sun, and its cool beige sandstone floor; reinforce the sensation of being in the open air. Like the Arthur Sackler Gallery of Chinese Sculpture, which provides the main entrance to the Irving Galleries, the spaciousness of the gallery allows the individual works room for individual attention. Other rooms, particularly those housing the South Indian metalwork, are unfortunately much more cramped.
The flow of the galleries is structured to maximize the associations between different eras and regions, particularly the spread of Hindu and Buddhist imagery. That the main entrance to the Irving Galleries is a gallery full of Chinese bodhisattvas is not incidental, this is a view of South Asian art that looks due east. Despite a nod or two to the influence of Greek ideas about muscular definition, the rooms have been laid out to move from the ancient India (contemporary Pakistan) of Mohenjodaro and Harappa to later Burma and Thailand on the lower level, and Tibet and Nepal on the upper level. The steady stream of Buddhas and bodhisattvas—from 3rd century Pakistani sculptures of surly mustachioed bodhisattvas to a 12th century Tibetan portrait of a bemused lama surrounded by yipping goats to more familiar images of Buddhas with enigmatic smiles, describe both the continuity and the heterogeneity of a tradition that ties South, Southeast and East Asia. At a time when some people question whether the term 'Asian-American' is anything more than a political fiction that masks the enormous differences between various Asian communities, the work in the Irving Galleries draws out historic connections.
All of the Asian unity breaks down, unfortunately and explicitly, at the border of the 'Islamic' world. Despite the fact that contemporaneous objects are set side by side in many parts of the galleries, an 11th century bodhisattva beside a 12th century Shiva, and a 19th century Keralite jasmine-bud necklace in the midst of earlier illustrations of Hindu epics, the Met's collection of Mughal work is not to be found in the Irving Galleries—they are relegated to the Islamic galleries on the other side of the museum. This bizarre segregation promotes an entirely false dichotomy between 'Muslim' and 'Hindu,' when in fact the aesthetic of the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana paintings are deeply influenced by Mughal art, and the Mughal paintings in the Islamic galleries are themselves not particularly religious depictions of birds and princes. It also completely belies the cross-pollination epitomized by a lovely Mohammed Ustad painting of a Radha-Krishna scene, shown recently at the Equitable Gallery.
The Met's faux pas seems particularly strange in light of its overtures towards political correctness: the Met's press packet for the Irving Galleries makes noises about the tri-state South and Southeast Asian community finally having a place to, "...bring their children here and rightly point to the heritage of which they are so vital a part...just as those of European and African descent can visualize their heritage throughout the Museum." It requires only a small stretch of the imagination to suppose that the positioning of the Irving Galleries is in the service of that noble cause, Asian-American unity (which also has a tendency to ignore West Asians). The Met has yet to emphasize the Cambodian sculptures of Shiva-Ardhanarishvara, which depict Shiva in the half-man, half-woman form that gay South Asian groups have adopted as their symbol. The fleshy early sculptures, which lack muscular definition because they are meant to exemplify the life-giving sacred breath, could be pitched to fat liberation groups. Feminists would no doubt be eager to see the dynamic 9th century Durga slaughtering the buffalo demon or the Nepalese temple relief of a woman dancing on a man's head. The possibilities are endless.