A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do

To Display Pilgrimage: Reflections on the Saikoku Thirty-three Kannon Pilgrimage Exhibition
May 29, 2009, 10:54 pm
Filed under: Thoughts and other poetries

And in fact memory is a sort of anti-museum: it is not localizable.

Museums have been associated, not only metaphorically, with temples or churches and the type of practice engaged in the museum has been considered to be characterized by a ritualized behavior. The argumentation brought to support such an understanding of a very common modern and contemporary phenomenon relies on overcoming any distinction between religious and secular ritual activities, to uncover the way culture is performed, metabolized, institutionalized and reproduced. In this sense we could say that the person going to see an exhibition will be in frame of mind, will relate to the objects on view, will walk, behave and experience in a “ritualized manner.” The layout of an exhibition is fixed just as much as that, for example, of a pilgrimage: it allows detours and stops, but ultimately it has to be completed. The objects on display in the galleries cannot be touched, are illuminated in a specific way, protected by screens and ropes that make it often quite difficult to get a close look at them: they have to be gazed from a certain distance, just like in a temple or a church. The most important works are obviously given relevance in the organization of the room with the intent of generating a sense of awe in the spectator. The art object, even when is something as desecrating as Marchel Duchamp Fountain or Joseph Beuys rotting food, is viewed, arranged and perceived as a sacred one.
On the other hand, religious objects displayed as works of art suffer from the opposite effect: the decontextualization of the sacred object that takes place when set out in a museum or an art gallery, depriving the object of its primary religious function, desacralizes it almost completely. The decontextualization is not necessarily caused by the taking of the sacred images outside its physical location, the temple or church, it is not the museum that strips the sacred image of its religious function, it is the way in which the viewer is encouraged to approach it that does. I am not suggesting that the type of practice is intrinsically and universally the same, but I often find myself asking: If we consider the museum as a ritualized or ritualizing space when displaying objects that are not religious in nature, could the exhibition of sacred ones, in turn, generate a type of religious practice? And if it did, what would be the incisive factor?
I do not believe that the key lies in reproducing the religious layout, as there are already enough parallelisms involved, but rather on the process of identification between the viewer and the practitioner. In the museum display formula, and certainly it its practice, the interaction between the object and the curator is crucial for the understanding of the general public, but is ultimately the viewer that determines what to make of the outcome or to choose how to perform the museum visit. It is even more so because the object per se, its production, existence and dissemination say very little about its use to those who are not familiar with it; therefore, if the viewer is able to identify with the practitioner, for example by relating to the object in a devotional way, by bowing, making offerings or praying, then maybe the original function of the object is not lost completely. For obvious reasons, it is easier if the museum viewers are culturally acquainted with the objects on display, but even here the intention of the viewers alone is not enough.
And so I start wondering through the halls of Nagoya City Museum, holding the exhibition Worshipping Kannon: Treasures from the Thirty-three Pilgrimage Sites of Western Japan (西国三十三所観音霊埸の祈りと美), organized in occasion of the 1000 anniversary of the death of Emperor Kazan 花山 (968-1008).
The focus of the Saikoku exhibition was to provide through the devotional objects a better understanding of the Thirty-three Kannon pilgrimage and several factors surely played in favor of the curators: the familiarity most of the viewers would already have with the types of objects and the practice, the fact that the objects were not culturally decontextualized, the possibility of creating a dialogue with the temples involved, and finally the intrinsic parallelism between the museum visit and pilgrimage.
In the first instance, it is quite clear that even thought not all the observers might be knowledgeable of Buddhism or might have done the pilgrimage, they are partially aware of the power and function of the objects (even when they think that this power is generated by an aesthetic value, which they are able to assess). In this sense the religious items are recognized by the viewers as such, something that would not always happen in a western art museum. In this case, the exhibition was also conceived as a sort of side-pilgrimage of the actual one: from September 2008 and during the next two years, the thirty-three honzon of the temples, all of which are hibutsu, will be on view in their original location. In doing so the curators worked with the temples in order to get access to images extremely rarely displayed, without taking them out of context, at the same time encouraging the museum viewers to visit the pilgrimage sites.
Furthermore, if the way a museum experience unfolds can be theoretically compared to that of a pilgrimage to a sacred site, as a journey in search of a place or a state that embodies a “valued idea”,  and where the person setting off to view the exhibition does so in a frame of mind of discovery, enriching and changing experience, the 33 Kannon exhibition had all the prerequisites to have a  successful outcome.
As far as the organization is concerned, there has been no attempt to translate the pilgrimage route onto the exhibition one by ordering the objects on display from temple 1 to temple 33, which makes even more sense if we consider that there is no prescribed way of doing the pilgrimage: it is not important to start at temple one and finish at temple thirty-three, as the location of the temples suggests, what is important is to visit them all.  Instead, the space has been divided into seven sections, each dealing with a particular aspect of Kannon faith along the pilgrimage route, trying to stress the implications of the religious practice by looking at the production of meaning created by the interaction of worshippers, objects, people and texts.  In this equation, pilgrimage clearly becomes the context and field in which faith is produced on a variety of levels and the thread along which the path unfolds, uniting each location, is the Bodhisattva Kannon. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the first section of the exhibition is dedicated entirely to Kannon sacred statues. Among the ones displayed, coming from fifteen of the 33 temples, the two most striking are the Kamakura period Seated Thousand-armed Kannon enshrined in Kiyomizudera 清水寺 (Image 1, Catalogue 11) and the Heian period standing Eleven-headed Kannon of Kongōhō-ji 金剛宝寺 (Catalogue 3), all designated Important Cultural Properties. As the honzon of the temples could not always be shown, the exhibition featured other Kannon statues coming from temples that are part of the saikoku route or that are in proximity of one of the Thirty-three temples.  This enabled the viewer to assess the impact that the faith in one the many forms of Kannon had in each location and even made me wondering wether the proliferation of a particular iconography or healing function of Kannon in a specific area could be derived from the power and popularity of that enshrined in the nearest saikoku Temple. This would also suggest that each station on the route in turn shaped the Kannon worship in the area, insofar as today we can witness a form branding. (A few days after the exhibition, I visited Matsunoodera 松尾寺 for research purposes. The main deity of the temple is Batō Kannon, a form of Kannon which is rarely enshrined as main deity. Interestingly enough, around Matsunoodera there are other two temples devoted to the same deity. Initially I thought there might have been a connection with horse breeding, usually an index for the proliferation of Batō faith. After some research it became apparent that the area is not famous for any horse-breeding activity and the temples itself do not really focus on the protection of horses: it rather seems that with the popularization of the saikoku route in the Edo period, Batō Kannon worship also flourished in the area, thanks to the importance of Matsunoodera, as suggested also by the dating of the Batō Kannon statues).
In this light, Kannon faith provides not only the link between each temple on the route, but is extremely important in the shaping of religious practice of every one of the sacred areas the pilgrimage cuts across. Consequently, the second part of the exhibition focuses on the origins and development of each temple in its original context, by looking at the foundation myths of the pilgrimage and its temples. The first object of the section is the Saikoku Sanjusansho junrei engi 西国三十三所巡礼縁起, the Origin of the Thirty-three Pilgrimage sites in Western Japan, a hand scroll dated 1536 ( Tenbun 5, Catalogue 25). According to the engi, the pilgrimage was instituted in the eight century by priest Tokudō, of Hasedera 長谷寺 temple in Nara, of which two Edo period portraits are displayed (Catalogue 26, 27). The revival of the route is attributed Cloistered Emperor Kazan and to priest Shōkū 証空. Catalogue image 27, four Edo period portraits, shows the thee personalities together with Butsugen 仏眼, and the exhibition also features a Kamakura period statue of Shōkū, originally held in Engyō-ji 円教寺 (Catalogue 32). From the objects displayed, it is quite clear that in this section, the curators wanted to give a certain prominence to the figure of Kazan and Shōkū. Through a number of beautiful Edo period engi of the Thirty-three temples and the association between the engi and the images displayed, there was a subtle attempt to maintain the centrality of the figure of Kazan in the development of the pilgrimage, so that he serves the purpose of creating a story-line for the institution and development of the pilgrimage.
The third section of the exhibition deals with how the role and power of Kannon faith along the saikoku route has been furthered, reinvented and kept alive through temple treasure, both those passed on from other temples and accumulated through times, and devotional objects produced by and for the faith of people. Both these aspects are extremely important in understanding the dynamics of sacred places and their ability of maintaining a tradition alive, which inevitably goes through the accumulation of sacred wealth, in turn a reflection of the faith and worship practice. Among these, surely worth mentioning are the exquisite Heian Period hanging scroll of Fugen Enmei (National Treasure, Catalogue 78) and two Kamakura period Guhari Amida. Unfortunately, not much attention is given to more common objects, which would have been used, bought or circulated among the pilgrims.
The exhibition further investigates the role of Kannon faith through the production and importance of sacred objects in the religious practice, in the fourth and fifth section, dedicated to the Lotus sūtra and to miraculous images and the transmission of benefits respectively.  These two sections look at the reproduction and circulation of sacred texts and images of the Thirty-three Kannon for meritorious or venerational purposes and the spread of their beneficial power throughout the territory. Through the variety of objects, such as scrolls, reliquaries, mandalas and statues the viewer gets the sense of the richness and variety of such miraculous images, yet it would have been even more complete, for the sake of the argument made, to show more “ordinary” types of objects circulated among people, such as talismans or portable images, fuda and pilgrims book. The transmission of benefits did not go through the most outstanding reproductions alone, its is often manifested through the proliferation of copied and less valuable items among people.
The sixth part of the exhibition deals with sacred geography and Mount Potalaka, the abode of Kannon. As in the previous section there is a prevalence of Kannon images, except for two miniature shrines and two scrolls from the Kegon sūtra 華厳経 describing the Pilgrimages of Sudhana. In this sense I believe the section was weaker than the others, not for the richness of objects on display, but because it failed to develop through the materials presented the association between some of the temples on the route and Potalaka.
The seventh and final section, attempts to contextualize all the above to the pilgrimage practice,   and it was one of the more interestingly developed sections for the way it was able to use different types of materials, from personal diaries to official temple documentations and records of donations, from map printing blocks to pilgrimage mandalas, from pilgrimage engi to pilgrimage guides and placards to examine the nature of the Saikoku pilgrimage, what attracted the pilgrims, which type of devotional practice it involved.
The exhibition richness of materials and they way it has been organized made it extremely thought provoking and critically engaging: the viewer is enabled to learn and reflect on each section thanks to the poignant explanations provided. Of course, as any good exhibition, it also raises a number of questions pertaining the nature of pilgrimage experience in the Japanese tradition and the way it can be best explained to museum viewers. To stress the importance of the objects, intrinsic to the museum experience, and to make visible the production of religious faith through the display of a variety of artifacts is one the most successful aspect of this exhibition. Yet the story-line of emperor Kazan, which has to be maintained because the exhibit was held in his memory, fails to address an important point: the diachronic development of the route. The objects on display are chronologically decontextualized. By putting on the same level the objects produced in different periods, without attempting any considerations on the way the saikoku pilgrimage has changed through time, and the lack of any reference to the way these objects where perceived and employed in different historical circumstances, gives the false perception that the saikoku pilgrimage has somehow maintained the same characteristics from the Heian period until today. Furthermore, it fails completely to investigate the type of people that did the pilgrimage: each temple on the route was initially the residence of ascetics and hijiri and those who embarked in the practice from the Heian throughout the Kamakura period, tracing the earlier saikoku route, belong to this category. Yet it is never acknowledged, nor is there any mention the first ascetics for whom we have written records of the saikoku practice. The way materials are presented never hints at the popularization of the route from the Fifteenth Century onward, a change that surely had deep repercussions on Kannon faith along the route and on the definition of the rout itself.
Given the almost complete absence, if not for the two diaries, of the practitioners, how could those visiting the museum relate or identify with the pilgrims? The sacred objects loose, behind the cabinet, their religious power not because they are misplaced, but because they are frozen in time, just as they had expired on the date shown on the explanatory tag. This clashes with the explanations of each section, which are accurate and raise important points on the popularization of Kannon worship along the saikoku route, and it would have been even more interesting to see such considerations somehow translate in the objects displayed.
My impression is, that by trying to create a mythical scenario for the saikoku pilgrimage, an idea that it is supported by the fact that only highly valuable materials have been put on display and with the little attention given to the type of people who have embarked, in different times, on the journey, the curators failed to show the most active and dynamic part of the pilgrimage practice. It is not enough to show the religious objects: pilgrims define the pilgrimage.
I recognize that the pattern chosen by the curators was not aimed at reproducing a religious practice, rather, through the value and of importance of the objects displayed and the centrality of Cloistered Emperor Kazan, they wanted to provide the viewer with a specific interpretative framework for the pilgrimage, which they surely succeed in doing. Yet while approaching the end of the last gallery I was still hoping to be surprised. After the cases and the cabinets orderly displaying objects of faith, sacred texts put momentarily on hold, living images in suspended animation, there is a map laid open on the floor. The visitors can stand in front of it, look down at it, try to make sense of directions, names of places, mountains and rivers they have just learned about. There are thirty-three temples on the map, and a route is sometimes visible, sometimes not, as if traced with a very light pencil, a labyrinth. If we take refuge in the rules of the game, we can walk it and have it mean something: a replica of a pilgrimage brings just about enough merit as walking it in real life. It grants a privileged point of view that obviously is not granted to the pilgrim, a vision of the whole, yet this is the only moment we can witness an identification between the visitor and the pilgrim. A group of monks passes by the hall quickly and exits the exhibition without looking at it, a young couple start carefully their journey on the map, and the two western scholars look at the scene. Here it is, after all, the ritual practice!

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