The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art commissioned minimalist composer Philip Glass to create a hypnotic 90-minute performance responding to the artworks in his long-term exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asiawhich features more than 240 sacred Buddhist objects, including pieces from the collection of New York collector Alice Kandell.
Kandell’s fascination with Buddhist art began when she traveled to Sikkim in the 1960s to attend the coronation of her friend Hope Cooke, a former classmate of Sarah Lawrence who met and married the Crown Prince. of Sikkim, a previously self-governing region (now part of India) between China and Tibet that was a hotspot on the “hippie trail”, a popular overland route between Europe and South Asia that became more difficult with the advent of political unrest in the Middle East in the late 1970s.
Kandell was then a psychology student at Harvard University and, despite her parents’ wishes, skipped her exams to make the trip, with her professor’s encouragement. “He said history was being made and someone from the department should be there to witness it,” she says.
Kandell acquired most of his collection first-hand. “I bought a few pieces at auction, but gave them all away over time,” she says. “The Tibetan people didn’t want to sell these things. A few years after the Chinese annexation, their children and grandchildren had to let them go – they wanted televisions, refrigerators.
The immersive room of the Buddhist sanctuary at the National Museum of Asian Art – the institution’s most visited exhibit – was assembled in 2010 with works from Kandell’s personal collection, and was expanded in 2017 with items that have never been shown to the public. But Kandell built an even more awe-inspiring sanctuary room in the basement of his own Upper East Side apartment, which features about 250 space-engulfing, eye-stunning objects. She kindly asks visitors to be quiet when visiting the shrine.
Kandell donated the Smithsonian shrine artifacts to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., and plans to donate his entire collection of Buddhist art to a regional US museum, although the official announcement is still pending. come while negotiations are underway. “These things don’t belong to me. I just took care of them for a few years, but they belong to the world,” she says. The collector adds that she is now turning to Russian icons.
In a video published by the Smithsonian this week, Philip Glass, a practicing Buddhist, and his ensemble present a captivating performance highlighting selected works from the Kandell Collection, with short intermissions where Glass offers wisdom on meditation, the power of mindfulness and present to the world, and how technique and inspiration must come together to create something truly useful and transcendent.
- Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asiauntil January 17, 2022 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC