January 8, 2022

Want to change your life? A new exhibition offers a path.

This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.


Are you mad at someone? Consumed with envy? Maybe hold a grudge? Viewing an art exhibit can provide a temporary distraction. But now a new installation continues at Rubin Art Museum proposes to do something much more radical with these negative emotions: transform them into wisdom.

This is the purpose of the mandala laboratory, a 2,700 square foot space in this downtown Manhattan museum specializing in Himalayan art. Open, airy and filled with an ambient glow, the laboratory contrasts with the darker galleries of the Rubin. As Tim McHenry, deputy executive director and director of programming for the museum, playfully put it, it’s “like a lemon palate cleanser for a very dense chocolate cake.”

The lab, which opened on October 1, is certainly sensory. In addition to the creative contributions of artists as diverse as Laurie Anderson, Sanford Biggers and the musician Pierre Gabriel, it offers a library of scents, a breathing exercise and a sound installation mixing water and gongs. During a pre-visit with Mr. McHenry and the architects of the lab, Miriam Peterson and Nathan Rich, the married directors of the Brooklyn-based facility Peterson Rich Office, I have become a laboratory subject, which is less a traditional exhibition than an interactive guide to Tibetan Buddhist thought.

“It’s almost like a series of tools to put into practice the ideas that are all over the museum,” said Ms. Peterson.

The design of the lab reflects one of these ideas. Mandalas, which are geometric diagrams of the universe – both its outer and inner worlds – serve as “visual toolboxes for navigating and surviving in uncertain times,” McHenry said. Buddhist meditation aid and enlightenment map, a mandala usually has four quadrants and a circle at its center. The third floor of the Rubin already had a circular heart: the building’s spiral staircase. However, it was the stress of the pandemic that led the museum to redevelop this space, which will also host community and family programs, on a particular piece: a Tibetan painting from the 17th century by Sarvavid Vairochana Mandala.

Teaching the mastery of unruly emotions “met the needs of the day in the most compelling and urgent way,” said McHenry.

But while the painting is teeming with religious iconography, the clean-lined lab renders “the visual visceral,” he explained. Like the sections of the mandala, each part of the laboratory is associated with a klesha, or distressing emotion; an element (earth, fire, air or water); a color; and wisdom. The lab, however, aims to educate visitors through direct action rather than silent study.

“Passive learning only gets you so far – you’ll lose it,” McHenry said, adding that this observation came from one of the many neuroscientists consulting on the project. “But if you just press a button, or better, go into the storyline itself and play it, then it will stay with you.”

So, was I ready to step in?

We started with the South Quadrant of the lab, or Journey Portal, a yellow-bordered space of which the klesha is the pride. It features a large mirror and four transparent vertical cylinders, each labeled with a phrase like “I think I’m better than the rest”. If I identified with one of the statements, I would have to drop a disk (there is a huge amount of it) into the associated cylinder. But “I think I’m worse than the rest” seemed like a confusing option. How proud was this nagging worry?

Mr. McHenry explained that feelings of inferiority were still egotistical. The task of this quadrant is to get rid of self-centeredness and move towards the wisdom of equanimity, which embraces others as equals. (The associated element is earth – level ground.) The ability to see how previous visitors have reacted is intended to reinforce a sense of collective purpose.

This goal also posed a challenge for architects. Rather than separating the quadrants of this three-dimensional mandala with walls, Ms. Peterson and Mr. Rich used light effects and translucent metal mesh screens. Reminiscent of the falling rain, they allow you to see the other participants and “the next step in the sequence,” Mr. Rich said.

Our next stop was the West Quadrant, associated with red and light. Here, the goal is to overcome attachment: passionate desires to cling to places, things, ideas. I sat at a counter with six computer stations, each exploring a scent meaningful to an artist and recreated by Christophe Laudamiel, a master perfumer. The artists – Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tenzin Tsetan Choklay, Amit Dutta and Wang YaHui, as well as Ms. Anderson and Mr. Biggers – also made two-minute concluding videos on their scent choices.

At one station, I pressed a button to release the scent Mr. Biggers had selected. Was it floral – or maybe spicy? On-screen prompts asked me to examine the emotions the scent aroused in me, read how others responded to it, and then identify the scent from a series of possibilities. No spoils here: I will only say that I chose wrong.

“There is no wrong answer,” said Mr McHenry, noting that the aim was to recognize the diversity of the reactions of others and then, if I wanted to, enrich the library by recording an olfactory memory. staff. (The quadrant offers blank books.) This, he said, is an exercise in discerning wisdom: “to understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the point of view of different people.”

We have moved on to the North Quadrant, or Breathing Alcove, dedicated to transforming envy. “You feel like you’re almost entering a hug or a protected space,” Mr. Rich said. This sense of embrace comes from a dark green semicircular back wall that displays “Untitled (Coalescence)”, a large, site-specific light sculpture whose concentric discs rhythmically lighten and darken. During a telephone conversation, the artist, Palden Weinreb, said he based the design on a sculpture of offering bowls he created, but wanted to “re-envision these shapes in a more modern aesthetic.”

The activity of the sector is also modern, requiring visitors to achieve body-mind balance by synchronizing their breathing with the growth and decay of light. (The element of the quadrant is air.) According to Mr. McHenry, contemplative practices all over the world use the same rhythm: about five seconds of inspiration, six of expiration. I found it remarkably calming.

This exercise, he said, allows “a totally secular visitor to understand what it is like to come to a sense of oneness with others.” In Buddhism, it is the wisdom of achievement, in which green does not mean jealousy, but growth.

After this calming prelude, I approached anger through the “Gong Orchestra” in the eastern quadrant, where eight of these percussion pieces are suspended above a huge water reservoir (part of this sector and source of its blue signage). The Rubin asked eight musicians choose the gongs, which have mallets next to them.

Because you can strike a gong powerfully or softly, “it contains both wrathful and peaceful aspects of healing,” said Samer ghadry, a drummer and sound trainer who consulted on the installation and joined us there. He added, “It’s like a sound manifestation of inner awakening.”

Wandering in the orchestra – it includes a Korean brass gwangari (chosen by Bora yoon), a large bronze gong (M. Gabriel), a nickel silver coin (Billy Cobham) – I was asked to imagine something that annoyed me. (I keep it to myself, thank you.) I then struck the imposing bronze gong which Evelyne Glennie had selected. As soon as the thunderous reverberation started, I pushed a pipe up, dipping the gong into the tank. The sound turned into a hum and then stopped. But the last step was to wait until there was still enough water to reveal my reflection.

“The idea here is to translate your anger, the energy of your anger, into something deeply useful,” Mr. McHenry said, “and it’s called mirror-like wisdom.” The conceptually poetic exercise was much better than hitting a punching bag.

On leaving, the lab offers an antidote to one last klesha: ignorance. Here, touch screens allow you to select an emotion and receive associated instruction to help manage it. The Rubin also invites you to email wisdom you have discovered.

As I approached the stairs again, I noticed that we had come to the end. Mr. McHenry kindly reprimanded me. “There is never an end,” he said. “This is actually just the beginning.”


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