From Shrine to Plinth: A change of meaning through the transference of a Hindu idol from a temple to a museum setting
C Atha (external supervisor)
Prof JM Woodham
In this practice-based research I am comparing the metaphysics of the Hindu temple and the museum, and studying the role of the Hindu deity in the two contrasting settings through my artworks. By exhibiting them in a multi-sensory, and meditative environment created in the museum building, I invite the visitor to physically engage with my artworks and consciously experience the tensions between the religious and secular identities of the deity.
The collection and display of Hindu gods and goddesses in museums in the UK from the Enlightenment till the present day convey their anthropological and iconographic significance. The role of the museum has been established as one that educates the public, conserves, displays, and stores artefacts for future generations. Hindus believe in the cyclical nature of time in which creation and destruction are followed by renewed creation. Such a belief contrasts with the practice of conservation and preservation in the museum, within which the natural cycle of artefacts is arrested. Worshippers have a close relationship with their deities: they bathe, anoint, decorate them and perform rituals that celebrate the survival of the soul over the inevitable cycle of life and death. Hence, the deity’s shift from the multi-sensory temple environment into the ocular-centric museum is a reflection of its role as a living embodiment of divinity in the temple and as a visual signifier of culture and history in the museum. However, its true interpretation in the secular context is problematic as the focus is on its material existence, which is of secondary importance in its religious context.
The creation and exhibition of a series of interactive ritualistic artworks for the museum visitor is at the core of this thesis. In video, Ganesh, circa 1900 one of several practice-centred elements of my research, I record and present the dissolution of Ganesh in an upturned vitrine. I directly refer to the Hindu ritual of worship and immersion of the deity but use the glass case as a container of the narrative. Kinetic Shiva is an interactive installation inviting the visitor to perform a mechanised ritual act of circumambulation in an archetypal sacred space. Through Tactile Ganesh, I encourage the audience to touch, feel and explore the form of Ganesh, whereas in video Gods in Storage, I stage the slow deterioration of an idol in a museum store. I explore the three-way relationship between the physical space (temple and museum), the idol, and the individual (worshipper and museum visitor) through my artworks and their exhibition. I simultaneously reveal the gradual erosion of the deity as a result of these ritualistic interactions.
This research explores the use of multiple senses in experiencing the artworks in their exhibition space, and offers a fresh way of interpreting the Hindu idol. Methods employed in making the work, the ritualistic actions of the audience, and the resulting changes occurring in the artworks critically address conservation and interpretation of the museum artefact. This research reveals the potential of artistic intervention in museums that explores ways in which generating performance in the audience can open up new ways of constructing meaning and creating narratives for the manifestation of non-material ideologies.
How do you perceive a worshipped idol in a museum?
Is it art?
Is it a source of knowledge?
Or a symbol of the past?
'From Shrine to Plinth' explores the life of the Hindu deity in the temple and in the museum. It showcases four artworks that compare its conserved status as a valued artifact in the museum to its live divine presence in the temple created by worshippers. The artworks come alive with meaning when interacted with by its audience. This exhibition creates a multi-sensory and meditative environment to reflect upon and experience the cosmic sound of ‘Aum’, engage in a ritual and confront the life and death of stored gods.
This exhibition is the outcome of Megha’s practice- based PhD research.
Megha’s artworks act as catalysts for her research. They investigate the identity and meaning of the Hindu idol in the museum whilst comparing it to its former life and meaning in the temple prior to its relocation.
The artworks are visual dialogues comparing the role of the museum object within material culture with the liturgical function of the temple deity.
The process of making the artworks (constructing and deconstructing form, use of time- lapse filming and the layering of the tactile god) is a metaphor for the life, death and re-creation of the idol within its temple compared with its conservation in the museum.
The act of touching the artwork in the gallery and thus changing form of the ‘tactile god’ is an integral part of the artwork.
Exhibited in the Croydon Clocktower’s museum building, the artworks converse with the existing display of the Hindu shrine in the museum gallery and with their audience as a result of their interaction with them. A dotted path leads the museum visitor from the shrine to the exhibition and vice versa.
A Hindu idol in its shrine is bathed in milk, showered with flowers, anointed, serenaded with lamps and treated as a live being. The idol in its shrine lives and deteriorates as any other being: living or non-living. The physical presence of the idol is vital within worship, but its role transcends the physical.
In the museum, it becomes a part of the collection, a cultural symbol and is treated as an embodiment of knowledge. It is conserved and its physical existence is of greatest value.
The contrasting attitude towards idols in the museum and the temple is where the paradox lies, since both processes, worshipping for spiritual enlightenment and viewing to learn, transcend the physical. From Shrine to Plinth is a visual proposition of these comparisons.Experiencing ritual and meditation in the exhibition space
The worshipper in the Hindu temple performs rituals to achieve closeness with the deity. The museum visitor performs rituals such as using an audio guide, reading interpretive panels or simply walking over from one object to another to view them.
The artworks comment on museum and temple ritual. ‘From Shrine to Plinth’ provides an immersive experience for the visitor as it engages him to perform and view certain Hindu rituals in the museum gallery space.
Kinetic Shiva and Tactile Ganesh installed onto plinths can be touched like the idol in its shrine. Museum visitors take a flower each from the Tactile God with them. The sound of Aum flowing through the gallery blends with the breathing sounds creating a quiet and meditative environment.
The Bigger Picture
All objects in the ethnographic museum possess biographies of their previous use and meanings.
How complete is the knowledge we receive by viewing or following their interpretation?
How best can contemporary art deliver experiences and meanings in the same space to give a more complete understanding of the use and meaning of the objects being viewed ?
Is the physical presence of the object of greater importance or the knowledge of its cultural use and meaning?
The aim of this exhibition is to generate a response in visitors that causes them to question important museum issues dealing with topics such as conservation and interpretation of artifacts.