James Robson: "Asian Images Inside-Out"
James Robson, Harvard
Museums throughout the world are filled with a variety of Asian religious images and icons, depictions of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, guardian deities, and saintly figures, which are usually rendered in stone, metal, wood, clay or lacquer. The Chinese icons and images in those collections tend to be examples of what is termed "elite" or "high" art and are often representations of gods and deities from a standard pantheon comprised of popular national deities and common Buddhist figures. It is now clear, however, that a different class of images and icons also circulated at a more diffused level of society and we are now also aware of a variety of images that were filled with different kinds of contents. The contents of those images might include Buddhist texts, relic fragments, symbolic organs, or consecration certificates. In this talk I intend to ask what can we learn when we shift our gaze from external aesthetics to explore what is found inside images? That is to say, what new insights can be gained when we shift our concerns from traditional issues about the genesis and aesthetics of images, to the function of icons as they are deployed in social and ritual contexts, such as in regional pilgrimage circuits?