It flies and flows and creeps. You measure it, spend it, waste it. It’s on your side, or it’s not. We’re talking about time, and so is the Rubin Museum of Art, one of the biggest-thinking small museums in town. The Rubin is devoting its entire 2018 season and all six floors of galleries to time as a theme, with an accent on the future, a future which is making some of us nervous these days.
If you’re a Buddhist — and much of the historical art at the Rubin is Buddhist, from the Himalayas — time is an especially complex subject because it’s not linear. It’s layered and cyclical, with past, present and future snarled up together. And that’s the way the Rubin presents it. So where to begin?
I started at the admissions desk where, along with my ticket, I was handed a letter handwritten by an earlier visitor. (You’re invited to write a “Letter to a Future Visitor” of your own before you leave.) Mine was from someone named Bill who suggested I start my time-travel on the sixth floor with the exhibition called “The Second Buddha: Master of Time.”
This was good advice, first because the show is gorgeous (and, with 41 objects, ideally scaled), but also because various strains of time meet here. The Second Buddha, Padmasambhava (“lotus-born”), believed to have been a transcendent being, arrived on earth in the 8th century, lived as an itinerant yogi in India and initiated a powerful wave of Buddhism in Tibet. Among other talents, he could see time in a panoptical, wraparound way: past, present and future simultaneously.
Judging by images of him in painting and sculpture he was a genial, if mercurial, teacher, alternately baby-faced and beaming or stern in a nice-dad way. From accounts of his life, we know he was for sure a hard worker. In the interest of spreading the faith, he is reputed to have visited, on foot, every valley in Tibet.
Padmasambhava eventually moved on, taking up residence in a mystical mountain palace. (There’s a fabulous gilded-wood model of it on view.) But looking eons down the line he saw there were hard times for virtue ahead. People were prone to be crass and forgetful, so he took the precaution of planting emergency supplies of his teachings in secret places for rediscovery, by generations of teachers called “treasurer revealers.”
In the “Second Buddha,” organized by Elena Pakhoutova, the museum’s curator of Himalayan art, we encounter some of these spiritual EMTs. We meet, in a painting, a jovial, silk-swathed Terdak Lingpa, founder (in 1676) of the deliciously named Mindrolling Monastery; and, in a sculpture, the mustachioed, bare-chested Tangtong Gyalpo, who looks as if he’s just parked his Harley and is settling down to a beer.
All the revealers are karmic extensions of Padmasambhava, reaching from the past into the present, to change the future. This era-leaping dynamic is operative in all parts of the Rubin’s multifloor thematic installation. And it’s brought closer to our own time in a contemporary show called “A Lost Future” on the fifth floor.
The centerpiece here is a dreamy film by the two-person London-based Otolith Group (Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun). Titled “O Horizon,” it might be described as a species of creative nonfiction, an interpretive documentary. It was shot at Santiniketan, in rural West Bengal, India, where the poet Rabindranath Tagore established a utopian school in 1921. It gave equal weight to the arts and sciences and promoted the notion that all learning should take place outdoors, in parklike settings.
In the century since, Tagore’s “tree-schooling” project, intended as a departure from British colonial education, has been criticized as elitist and nationalist, a retreat from progressive political action in India. Although the school continues to be a training ground for traditional art, music and dance, it functions, some say, strictly as a museum.
The filmmakers don’t say that. They suspend judgment. They find beauty and let it be.
The confluence of past and present is detailed clearly in a spinoff series of digital prints that overlay color photographs of the present-day school with black-and-white images from a century ago. But the single most gripping demonstration of the school’s continuing relevance is in the film, which opens with a hellish explosion of fire and smoke generated by trucks working near the campus. The clamor subsides but later returns to punctuate scenes of dancing, singing and teaching under the trees.
Santiniketan is about 100 miles north of Kolkata. It can take a while to get there and that was part of Tagore’s plan, to simultaneously slow down and stimulate travelers as they approach what they know will be a life-altering place. Relax and excite: This is how pilgrimage works, and it has a timeless history in India. To Buddhists, the subcontinent is a geographic mandala defined by sacred sites. To visit them is to clock up frequent flier points for a final trip to the afterlife.
Such journeys, small and large, are the subject of a show on the fourth floor, organized by Beth Citron, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. In a sculptural installation called “The Road to Sanchi,” the Israeli-born American artist Ghiora Aharoni embeds videos of his trips to four South Asian holy places — Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim — inside vintage Indian taxi meters: Even on the path to bliss, time is money.
And in a two-screen video, “Saga Dawa,” the Taiwan-born American artist Jawshing Arthur Liou, documents a journey he made, in memory of a daughter who died, to a popular ritual site on Mount Kailash in Tibet. It’s natural to think that the emotions inspired by Mr. Liou’s arduous trek would be relief and joy, but you don’t find that here. Filtered through a distorting lens, his view of Kailash feels surreal; the mood depressed. It’s a scene of disintegration: of clouds of ashes; scattered papers; milling, dispersing crowds; a slow-motion falling-apart.
There’s a counterweight to this image in a Buddhist shrine room installed nearby. With hundreds of objects arranged in symmetrical groupings, its altar is a study in spiritual neatness so grandly fastidious as to feel cosmic. And this interplay of order and chaos continues on the second and third floors, which have displays of historical objects from the museum’s permanent collection interspersed with digital animations by the Brooklyn artist Chitra Ganesh.
The presiding deity here is the bodhisattva Maitreya, the Future Buddha, embodied in a blazing-gold late 18th- or early-19th-century copper sculpture. Slender and hip-slung, he looks as self-absorbed as an iPod listener doing a cha-cha. He’s a serious presence though: The savior who will show up when morality as we know it has been all but extinguished.
And has that time arrived? A short animation by Ms. Ganesh suggests as much. Titled “Silhouette in the Graveyard,” it’s a jittery montage of news clips of wars, protests and forced immigrations, interspersed with dancing skeletons. Playing directly behind Maitreya, it becomes the universe he exists in, and resists.
Ms. Ganesh, the 2018 artist in residence at the Rubin, is best known for bold large-scale drawings that weave references to South Asian religions, Indian pop comics, and 21st-century feminism into a genre sometimes called Indo-Futurism. She has seven fantastic samples in the museum’s lower-level gallery, along with work by younger artists whom she invited to join her.
Together they’ve cooked up the equivalent of advertising posters for futuristic films. Most of those films are set elsewhere, beyond the West, but in our globalized world, elsewhere is everywhere. All futures are shared, and all feeling is tense with threats of damage. It really may be time for Maitreya to stop solo dancing, pull out his earbuds, secure his seatbelt and prepare for descent.
Through Jan. 7, The Rubin Museum of Art