Art review: ‘Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain’ at the National Museum of Asian Art

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“Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain” focuses on a single ancient artifact: a damaged but still towering statue of the Hindu god, which holds up part of the ceiling – still attached – to the Cambodian cave he once occupied. Yet other sculptures from the same site can be considered present, if only in spirit.

The 6th-century sandstone Krishna on display in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the National Museum of Asian Arts is one of eight statues taken from Phnom Da, a twin-peaked granite outcrop that towers over the Mekong floodplain. The sculpture commemorates how the god protected people from a torrential storm by raising Mount Govardhan in India.

This informative and imaginative show includes photographs of the other statues and tells the intertwined stories of two of them. Pieces of this and another Krishna, now in the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, have long been confused and clumsily cobbled together. The two museums eventually exchanged the misattributed fragments and reassembled the statues, ending in 2021.

It’s one of the twists in the story of “Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan” told by the exhibit curated by the statue’s owner, the Cleveland Museum of Art. This institution acquired the sculpture in 1973, two years before Cambodia was plunged into the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule. But the Krishna had left the country long before that, to be auctioned in Belgium in 1920. The museum purchased the “Cleveland Krishna” from the estate of the granddaughter of the 1920 buyers; among the challenges of restoring the statue was the excavation of abandoned parts of a garden in Brussels.

“Revealing Krishna” is structured like a journey, with abundant wall text as well as multiple video displays. The first gallery offers an extensive history of the statue and its context, told in part by Angelina Jolie. The Phnom Da sculptures, mostly carved in man-made cave shrines, are among the earliest known examples of Cambodian art. they were chiseled about 600 years before the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat was created. Eventually, the coins of Phnom Da were looted and some were remade to commemorate a more recently arrived religion: Buddhism.

From the show’s intro space, a left turn leads to a viewing room for “Satook,” a 30-minute video about maintaining religious tradition in Cambodian American communities. (The “Krishna” exhibit is part of “The Arts of Devotion,” the museum’s five-year initiative to increase understanding of religion.) To the right is a room dominated by three wall-mounted video screens that document a passage meandering along – moving rivers. The chirps of nature help evoke the approach of Phnom Da.

The final cave-like gallery contains two Krishnas: the stone one, framed by photos of rocky cave walls, and a video simulation. The virtual Krishna comes to life and regains its likely original appearance when someone stands on the word “explore” projected on the ground.

This room also tells how pieces of the figure were intermingled and then extracted from this other Krishna statue. The Cleveland Krishna, a god celebrated in the act of saving his people, was himself saved by a team of scholars and restorers.

Five Facts About the Cleveland Krishna

Although pieces of the Krishna statue are missing, the surviving parts tell a fascinating story:

  1. Just as Hinduism was brought from India to Cambodia, the Krishna statue – although made in Cambodia – speaks of India. His pose recalls a tale set at Mount Govardhan, now a place of pilgrimage near New Delhi. Symbolically, the two mountains, Mount Govardhan in India and Phnom Da in Cambodia, have become identical.
  2. The god is a youthful figure and he wears his hair in a bun which can be interpreted as a sign of royalty (or just being a boy).
  3. Now gray and weathered, the statue was probably once dark and shiny, and adorned with gold jewelry. The long lobes of the god’s ears are pierced, suggesting that they once wore earrings.
  4. Krishna does not tire like Atlas, the Titan who supports the world on his shoulders in Greek myth. He holds the mountain effortlessly and even casually, with just one flexed hand. His other hand, which is missing, was probably resting nonchalantly on his hip.
  5. Nor is there any struggle reflected in the face of the god, who wears a gentle smile. The statue was dispossessed, fractured and exiled and is now only partially restored. Through it all, Krishna retained his benevolent serenity.

Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain

National Museum of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. asia.si.edu.

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