Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Contemporary Art

Divine Bodies

Mar 9, 2018 – Jul 29, 2018
Bringing historical paintings and sculptures from mainly Hindu and Buddhist traditions together with contemporary photo-based work, Divine Bodies invites you to ponder the power of transformation, the possibility of transcendence and the relationship of the body to the cosmos.

The exhibition is organized into thematic sections that encourage us to look at objects not only as artworks but also as devotional images and ask, “How can we see the human in the divine and the divine in the human?”

The first section, Transience and Transcendence, reveals the implicit connection between time and eternity. Over 100 interviewees in David and Hi-Jin Hodge’s video work Impermanence reflect on how human lives, although transitory, can have meaning. Hauntingly beautiful photographs by artist Gauri Gill of ephemeral graves in the desert, as well as a Tibetan thangka that captures both the decease of the historical Buddha and his attainment of immortality, also speak to life and its eventual end.

Embodying the Sacred considers the body as a powerful form of communication, presenting a provocative juxtaposition of sculptural portraits of the Buddha from China, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Pakistan. A sensual bronze Shiva from Tamil Nadu, a beautiful gilded copper White Tara from Nepal, a stone sculpture of the ferocious Thunderbolt Tara and humorous depictions of the gods in Vivan Sundaram’s series Khajuraho bring to life the exhibition’s third section, The Many Aspects of Divinity. Pamela Singh’s composite photographs taken in urban landscapes also evoke this theme by simultaneously suggesting the presence and absence of the artist.

Divine Metamorphosis, the final section, groups together several distinct bodily forms of a single Hindu or Buddhist deity, suggesting the centrality of transformation to our understanding of the divine. The Hindu god Vishnu is depicted in various forms, from cosmic pillar to wild boar to flute-playing Krishna, while photographs by Dayanita Singh from the series Mona Ahmed document the lived reality of self-transformation in India’s eunuch community.

Ultimately, these diverse images of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas, humans and their landscapes — past and present — lead us to reflect on how to find meaning in an impermanent world.

Contemporary Voices

Videos and photo-based works by contemporary artists are displayed alongside traditional devotional art throughout Divine Bodies. The exhibition proposes that artwork made for a global, secular art world can also be understood as expressing the relationship between the human and the divine.

These contemporary works, by artists Gauri Gill, David and Hi-Jin Hodge, Dayanita Singh, Pamela Singh and Vivan Sundaram, address one of the exhibition’s central questions: How can we discover meaning in an impermanent world?

Meet the Artists

Gauri Gill

Based in New Delhi, Gauri Gill (b. 1970) is one of India’s most respected photographers. Her work often addresses issues of class and community in India and for two decades she has been engaged with marginalized communities in rural Rajasthan.

David and Hi-Jin Hodge

In their film and video work, David and Hi-Jin Hodge pose questions that probe individual hopes and resolutions. The husband-and-wife team is based in Sweden and creates video installations for museums across the globe.

Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh (b. 1961) began her career as a photojournalist, but she now considers herself “a bookmaker working with photography.” She works in interconnected photographic series that explore Indian life and culture.

Pamela Singh

Pamela Singh (b. 1962) uses photography to explore feminine existence through the relationship between her own body and the social landscape. Her painted photographs, “documents transformed into dreams” (New Yorker), use sacred patterning to elevate images to a mode of spiritual exploration.

Vivan Sundaram

One of India’s most distinguished contemporary artists, Vivan Sundaram (b. 1943) is known for politically conscious work. Working across mediums, he explores perception, memory and history and their intersection with social problems and popular culture.

You will find more contemporary art, paintings by Tibetan American artist and thangka master Pema Namdol Thaye, in the concurrent exhibition A Guided Tour of Hell. What happens to us when we die? A powerful series of paintings vividly portrays one man’s descent into the Tibetan Buddhist circles of hell.

Top Image: The Buddhist deity Guhyasamaja (detail), approx. 1400–1500. China; Beijing, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Bronze with gilding. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B64B23. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Organizers & Sponsors

Divine Bodies is organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, The Bernard Osher Foundation, Dixon and Carol Doll Family Foundation, and Warren Felson and Lucy Sun.