BAM exhibit gives visions of human nature

Berkeley Art Museum/Courtesy

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From the far depths of the mystic East — where the seed grows strong, the jungles run deep and the artist stands proud — comes Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibition “The Elephant’s Eye: Artful Animals in South & Southeast Asia.”

BAM now houses a sublime collection of more than 30 pieces pertaining to different artistic disciplines that include painting, ink studies and sculptures. They form a sublime representation of Indian, Thai and Cambodian cultures. The exhibit’s gaze into Southeast Asia is focused on how culture emanates and intertwines with the artistic perception of animals. Ranging from the 11th century to the 21st, the most-recently created piece does not illustrate animals as the object of art but as the subject, as we are given the opportunity to admire visual art crafted by Ramona, an elephant herself. Go down Bancroft and into a part of our very own Berkeley architectural history to discover what secrets this exhibition can whisper to you.

“The Elephant’s Eye” invites us to rethink our nature. It provokes us to look through the illusion of humanity and into the beating heart of pure instinct. Through the ferocious depiction of nobility and solemnity, the elephant’s eye sees through everything. From the subtle inks and color washes on paper to stone sculptures and pigments on raw silk, we are shown how gods, animals and men are, in essence, unified in balance. The merciless piety and delicate savagery of the artistic traces will lead you along uncharted paths only to reveal what you needed to find within yourself. We are delicately pushed into the sophistication of battle as we see elephants and lions participate in the bloodshed and become the foundation of peace and war. Royals and vassals are equals, as we all receive the gift of staring into the destiny of fallen gods who never fell, for they live through us.

The consciousness of what this exhibition teaches transcends mere rationality. It purges and absolves the more animalistic and primitively genuine destiny that we are not given to decide, for it is not within our reach or our realm. The automatism of logic is deconstructed brushstroke after brushstroke, modeling infinity in the imagination of ancestors. Ancestry, tradition and myth blend to materialize all that’s ethereal into the symbolic institution of animals. The passionate and commanding serenity flowing out of the trumpets of the almighty elephants echoes through the halls of BAM as if art was in stampede.

Graceful in their simplicity and yet prominent in the complexity of the dormant details, the artists on display materialize celestial imagery, from Vishnu lying on serpent Shesha to the imperiously mundane and unembellished study of a leopard’s audacious movement. The foundation of the exhibition is the elephant, as it is illustrated as the pillar upon which crocodiles, fish and other animals exist. This is shown by the contrast of perception through which elephants are artistically identified. They provide mount for kings, and they are even represented as being chained, as if gods could be constricted.

In one of the most significant pieces, Vishnu and Garuda intervene in the mortal, material world to save the king of the elephants from a crocodile’s attack. Through this action shines the value of the elephant, for they are worthy of the most crucially significant act a deity can perform — the intervention in our realm, with the underlying assumption of their interest and a diffused acknowledgment of purpose and power.

The process of creation of this art is as divine as the creatures depicted in it. Nature swims through the pigmentation — the saturation of color and luminosity are conducted as if the artists were orchestra directors, leading a symphony that will never be played again. And yet it has been played and shouted throughout eternity, because this art is not only ardent decoration, but wise narrative. It pushes through the blood of a culture, through the reality of families, love and pain. It shows animals as the deities we long for while acknowledging that we are all truly animals in the authenticity of our egos.

Vibrant, yet tranquil, colors show us centuries in the figment of a roaring sigh. It is through the return to nature, the claim for our instincts to become void of humanity, that we are reminded we are truly human. We are reminded that the knowledge of our predecessors is timeless — that velocity does not have advancement as a necessary consequence. And as the seconds keep passing, the elephant’s eye keeps staring into you, and you wonder what it knows about you that you don’t know about yourself.

“The Elephant’s Eye” runs at BAM until June 29.

Contact David Socol at [email protected].