August 15, 2012

Art: Bhutan exposed

Crane House offers a glimpse into this unique corner of the world

“Mysterious, rare, endangered, beautiful — all of these adjectives are used to describe Bhutan.” —Linda Leaming, “Married to Bhutan”

Tucked away among the Himalayas, nestled between India and Tibet, there sits a tiny country, the size of New Hampshire plus Vermont. Enigmatic and ancient, Bhutan spent 11 centuries isolated from the rest of the world. And while the past 50 years have seen a trickle of modernization — the country’s borders opened to visitors in 1974, and television was introduced in 1999 — Bhutan, the world’s only independent Buddhist nation, still retains an antique quality.

The Crane House offers Louisvillians a glimpse of this unique corner of the world in its exhibit “Bhutan: The Cloud Kingdom,” which combines photographs by Tom Sterling with textiles and other artifacts from the collections of Bob Jones and Stewart and Abby Lussky, as well as additional photographs by Nancy Mato, Kathleen Sweeney and L. Samuel Wann. Together, the diverse collection provides a snapshot of life in what Crane House’s executive director Bryan Warren calls “a country in transition.”

“It’s exciting. This is a country people don’t usually know about,” he says. “Just the other day, I asked our lighting designer if she knew of Bhutan, and she joked, ‘Sure, it’s that thing you twirl.’ They have lots of very old traditional practices, but at the same time, there’s lots of change and transition.”

The push and pull of past and future are evident in the images displayed at the Crane House. Gilded temples and masked dancers are juxtaposed against babysitters with chubby-cheeked toddlers strapped to their backs and laughing teenagers hanging over a railing, their robes billowing in the mountain breezes.

Cognizant of most viewers’ ignorance of Bhutan, the Crane House includes informative captions with each photograph, offering insight into the cultural traditions of the country. Particularly interesting tidbits: Bhutan has only one road, snaking throughout the entire country; there are no stoplights, not even in the capital, Thimphu, where the tallest building tops out at five stories; and the country, more than 40 percent of which is made up of national parks, has so little air pollution that its sunsets are nearly colorless.

Photographer Sterling’s technique contributes to the Old World quality of the images. An interpretive field naturalist by training, Sterling shoots on Ektachrome film. “This gives his photos an old National Geographic kind of look, very classic,” Warren explains. “His sensibility comes through, and you get warm, detailed images.” The combination of film aesthetic and subject matter makes the photographs seem much older than they are. In fact, Sterling captured these images during two trips to Bhutan with his wife Nancy, in 2004 and 2007.

In addition to images of youth, which highlight the transitional status of Bhutan, Sterling includes several images of nature, which are also fitting, given the country’s position as a global model for conservation and biodiversity. A monk strides across a rolling hillside, dwarfed by the white peaks of the Himalayas, while the vibrant crimson, deep azure and glimmering gold of the Bhutanese temples and dancers provide a stark contrast to the gentle greens and blues of the mountain landscape.

This exhibit is one in an ongoing series that Warren calls “steeped in tradition but with a contemporary cultural context.” Crane House strives in particular to showcase the cultural traditions of the local Asian community. “We want to give them the capacity to showcase their own cultures and to help them preserve their cultural artifacts for the future,” he says.

Lonna Versluys, director of Public Program & Outreach, finds this exhibit particularly rewarding, since few Kentuckians realize the size of the state’s Bhutanese population. Comprised primarily of refugees, the Bhutanese community numbers somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 in Louisville alone, plus an additional thousand in the rest of the state. Versluys adds, “It’s a significant, growing population, made up mostly of Nepalese refugees. They’re not the majority culture of Bhutan, but they still bring so much of the geography, beauty and interesting traditions of their home with them. We’ve loved this chance to connect with the local community.”

“The Cloud Kingdom” brings a unique artistic offering to Louisville, showcasing a far off and largely unknown nation. A country of yaks and monks, a land where prayer flags trickle from ancient monasteries down sheer cliff faces. Not a twirling prop or a manufacturer of disposable lighters, but the only place on earth where an entire nation measures its success in Gross National Happiness.

‘Bhutan: The Cloud Kingdom’
Through Sept. 28
Crane House
1244 S. Third St. • 635-2240
cranehouse.org 

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