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Review: 'The Missing Peace' asks artists to ponder the Dalai Lama

December 19, 2007

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, December 17, 2007

"The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama" at Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts disturbed me: not its intended effect.

It represents an unfortunate tendency in contemporary exhibition
practice: asking artists, or interrogating their works, for responses to
some event, topic or personality on which the culture at large has fixated.

The last memorable example seen here was "100 Artists See God," a
touring exhibition that visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum in 2004.
That show had both gravity and humor - like the Dalai Lama - while many
of the works in "The Missing Peace" take nothing more seriously than
themselves.

Having seen the Dalai Lama up close, as well as through the media
telescope, I can confirm that he conducts himself with remarkable
modesty and dignity for someone on whom people around the world project
myriad notions, from deific ancestry and supernatural powers to
perfidious statecraft.

To Buddhists, his embodiment of the doctrine of wisdom and compassion
probably matters most. Perhaps everyone else should prize most his
transmission - not mere espousal - of relaxation, basic freedom from
fear, in every setting where he appears. No other public figure of his
prominence does this so well.

We find it here most obviously in documentary passages of Robin
Garthwait and Dan Griffin's brief video portrait and in the Dalai Lama's
response - reported, like so much else here, in label copy - to Sylvie
Fleury's Kirlian photograph of a well-worn pair of his shoes.

Kirlian photography purports to render the afterglow of a person's aura
visible. Sure enough, the shoes appear in Fleury's picture with light
radiating from their soles and stitches.

Asked to lend the shoes themselves to the exhibition - they appear here,
touchingly unradiant, in a vitrine - the Dalai Lama reportedly remarked
that since they had been resoled more than once, their aura probably
comes from his cobbler.

Does Fleury know that the Buddha's footprints have a prominent place in
the iconography? I'd like to think so, but nothing on hand confirms it.

Artworks selected to illuminate themes such as "Impermanence," "The Path
to Peace" and "Spirituality and Globalization" cannot - or anyway never
seem to - occupy a common plane of high accomplishment.

Some topical shows can stand up under the consequent implication that
consistency in the quality of ideas and attention does not matter. But a
show centered on Buddhist precepts necessarily sponsors the notion that
the uses of our attention and thought do matter.

Most of the works on view that succeed as art fit uncomfortably into the
demonstrative program of "The Missing Peace."

In "The Scribe" (2005), Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison present a
characteristically strange image in the form of a color photograph that
measures more than 3 by 7 feet. It pictures a hand fitted with a
makeshift device for drawing with its own blood, as it does on the snow
of a wintry landscape.

This piece comes under the rubric of "Unity," for reasons never made
clear enough.

Laurie Anderson contributes a very engaging work, "From the Air" (2006),
in the form of a performance video of herself and her dog, projected on
tiny ceramic figures. It offers the strange sensation of watching
theater in miniature.

Her narrative, taken from a performance called "The End of the Moon,"
concerns seeing her dog undergo a change in awareness of the world, like
that of her neighbors who witnessed the World Trade Center's
destruction, after vultures nearly made a meal of the terrier.

This piece falls within the "Transformation" section of the show,
reasonably enough. Yet Anderson does not need the context provided by
the show nearly as much as the show needs her.

Dove Bradshaw's mound of Himalayan salt being slowly eaten away by
dripping water fits as easily into the present setting as it does into
its endemic context of concept and process art.

But a few other things, besides Anderson's piece, will stay with me long
after "The Missing Peace" moves on, notably Seyed Alavi's
black-on-yellow comic pictograms. They look like street signs to
designate conditions such as being of one mind with someone else,
passing unnoticed and being in someone else's thoughts.

The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama: Works in various
media by 88 contemporary artists. Through March 16. Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. www.ybca.org.

E-mail Kenneth Baker at kennethbaker@sfchronicle.com.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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