Cleveland Museum of Art’s ‘Revealing Krishna’ brings ancient Cambodian art to life with an inspiring modern twist

The weight of the centuries rests on the gentle lapping of the water as it rubs against the hull of the boat, and the river, displayed on the three screens that flank the entrance to the exhibition, easily separates as we navigate it. From these electric views of nature comes the rhythmic murmur of human voices singing in worship and celebration, singing to earth and sky ancient stories set in the modern age. This striking entry in “Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain,” the part-virtual, part-traditional exhibition of Cambodian sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art, sets the tone for an expedition that is as much a journey through the archive of human history as it is a gallery of exquisite Southeast Asian artifacts.

The sandstone depiction of ‘Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan’, also dubbed ‘Cleveland Krishna’, is the crown jewel of this temporary exhibit, but before they can see it, they must gain a deeper understanding of its meaning. “Revealing Krishna” guides viewers through a chronological narrative of the statue’s past by introducing the powerful elements of Augmented Reality (AR) into the conventional museum experience, truly bringing the history of this monument to life by focusing both on the background of its past glory and its influence on modernity.

In the hall adjacent to the entrance to the exhibition are several superb examples of Cambodian sculpture believed to date back to 550 AD. Here too, the myth of Krishna, a Hindu god of great importance, is told.

As a child, Krishna’s village was subjected to a terrible storm that threatened to sweep it away. Before this happened, however, Krishna raised the nearby hill of Govardhan to create a place of shelter for his people, who in turn deified him for his great compassion and wisdom. As Hinduism began to spread from India across Southeast Asia via the Silk Road, Cambodians adopted many of its practices, including Krishna worship, into their own culture. . In addition to worshiping Krishna, Cambodians also adopted a hierarchy resembling the Hindu caste system, elements of Indian design and art, and religious myths from India, which later sparked the emergence of the empire. Khmer from the 9th to the 15th century.

After this introduction comes a fork in the exhibit path – either head to the main gallery where the coveted Cleveland Krishna awaits, or join an AR tour facilitated by support from CWRU and Sears.

Faculty. Donning the AR headsets, a series of shimmering bubbles float through the air as a small child’s voice introduces itself as the Cleveland Krishna, offering to take us on a journey through their lives. This immersive, almost otherworldly experience reimagines the initial creation, fall, rediscovery and restoration of the Cleveland Krishna before our eyes using digital magic, weaving an age-old tale out of nothing.

We are virtually introduced to the location of the statue’s original shrine on Phnom Da, a twin-peaked mountain in southern Cambodia famous for its beauty and 2,500 years of human history. The Cleveland Krishna, along with several other effigies of Hindu deities, were once installed in various caves on the mountain by local devotees, but when the influence of the Khmer Empire and Hinduism waned in the 15th century, the statues have decayed. When French colonialism swept the country in the late 1800s, many Phnom Da statues, including the Cleveland Krishna, were forcibly removed from their places and brought to Europe, where they were sold to wealthy collectors. or exhibited at attractions like the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

How the fragments of the shattered Cleveland Krishna were unearthed in the backyard of an Art Nouveau Belgian mansion is best told by the Cleveland Krishna himself, but the story doesn’t end there. When acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1973, the statue was brought to Ohio for a complete renovation. Continued confusion over the statue’s origins and its dilapidated appearance prompted questions, many of which went unanswered as the despotic Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, had virtually cut off all communication with the West. Although the statue was roughly pieced together over time, mysteries continued to shroud it, including the inexplicable presence of several pieces that didn’t seem to fit in with the rest. Only in recent years have restorers been able to restore the statue to its greatest capacity after a phenomenal discovery traced it back to its origins in Phnom Da.

The AR experience culminates in a jaw-dropping recreation of the Cleveland Krishna as he would have appeared, lacquered and bejeweled, holding the ceiling of his Phnom Da cave, reaffirming that this statue, although now a pinnacle of the artistic standards, was once a deeply personal monument through which so many generations have gained profound spiritual and emotional richness.

With visions of celebrated grandeur still swimming in the mind’s eye, visitors are invited to gaze upon the Cleveland Krishna himself. Wearing a sweet smile on its smooth, childlike face, the statue stands effortlessly in the position of supporting a great mass, though the current void above its head rings sadly, as if the statue yearns for its former calling, in the middle of a mountain. Other sandstone figures of Hindu deities, also obtained from Phnom Da, flank the Cleveland Krishna, their stories similarly distorted by the erasure of context by their removal from native lands. Yet the light streaming out from the depths of their majestic sculpted faces has not died down, still pouring out with venerable charm. Broken supports, broken joints, missing limbs are all grounds for recognition of Cambodia’s ancient history and a reminder that despite oppression and violence, beauty will continue to shine in the indelible strength of belief and culture. as long as we look to the past with admiration.

“Revealing Krishna” will be on display until January 30, and admission is free for all CWRU students.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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