Docent Speaks on Sculpture
The Sunday before break I walked into the Allen Memorial Art Museum looking for the “object talk” on the Chinese Wei Dynasty Bodhisattva. The security guard pointed me to a group of people clustered around an unspectacular statue that looked like something you could find in any Asian flea market for 12 bucks. I could see right away that this was not going to be the sedate, informative experience I had expected.
The talk, given by sophomore Bret Nolan, was both intimate and formal. Directly to the side of the vacuous main space one first encounters upon entering the AMAM, the Bodhisattva statue proved to be as storied a piece of art as any Warhol soup can or Picasso Cubist owl. Nolan maneuvered the relic into her small audience’s imagined memory of third century China. Though she was a bit nervous at first, Nolan let her material carry her, and it became readily obvious that she was highly conversant in both the Chinese historical aspects of her subject as well as the Buddhist facets of its conception.
If you don’t know what a Sunday “object talk” entails, it is simply an exercise in good museum practice. On any given Sunday, student docents give 15 to 20 minute presentations on a work of art on which they’ve done extensive research.
When I spoke with her after the talk, Nolan stressed the need for docents and knowledgeable museum staff to the overall experience of appreciating art.
“It’s important to be able to educate people about what’s in the museum,” she said. She encouraged museum-goers not only to stare slack-jawed at the artistic achievement of others, but to actually learn about the incredible collection that the AMAM exhibits — for free.
The Bodhisattva statue itself — far from a cheap flea market pick-up — comes from the Wei Dynasty period of China, which split into distinct North and South dynasties in 386 B.C.E. In the four decades before the Northern Wei took over, more than two thousand caves were hollowed out, serving to house valuable relics such as this.
You might call to mind the Terracotta Army of recent fame. These structures were renovated by later generations through the eighth century.
The statue was built in one of these grottos, placing it in the third stage of the period’s aesthetic techniques. The art of this stage patterned itself after Western aesthetic practices, as opposed to the Indian influence seen in earlier stages. Resplendent in shawl and pleated skirt, the Bodhisattva shows its Greek non-colors; drab grey is the uniform that belies the statue’s colorful history. Also, its androgynous features and lack of crown jewels distinguish it from depictions of the maitreya, the messianic coming of the next Buddha.
Evident in her approach to the object talk, Nolan’s interests lie across the microcosms of social, economic and political influence behind artwork. Though she is not an art history major, her experience in both Buddhism and Chinese history extend through coursework and even into family experience. Through her passion for a holistic understanding of art, I was convinced that each piece in the AMAM could be elevated in personal significance if only I might take the time to learn more.
In the scramble to dash off papers and cram all existing knowledge possible into our expanding awareness, it might seem unconscionable to undertake such an involved appreciation of art. But that’s what the docents and staff are for.
Object talks happen most Sundays, and museum tours are available for any interested Obie or gallery-goer. Like the empty spaces that house the art we admire, this object talk provided an optimal space for new engagement with and appreciation of artwork I had only paused to consider before.