Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum

The rebellious spirit of Tantra, with its potential to disrupt prevailing social, cultural and political establishments, remains ripe for the reimagining.

British Museum, text on a label describing a sculpture of the Tantric goddess Chinnamasta and her attendants at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India.

Following Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, I headed to the British Museum to discover the Tantra: enlightenment to revolution exhibition that just opened, on display until the end of January.

The last time I went to the British Museum for an exhibition was for Troy, which was absolutely amazing (so amazing I still think about it). I also caught the Munch exhibit quickly when I was there for work – and Tantra happened in the same exhibition space.

Upon entering the exhibition, it felt very dark. The lights were dimmed, the walls were black, it was basically like being on the British Museum’s website, but in real life (do not get me wrong: their site is fantastic).

I am no expert in history or art from India – it’s incredibly rich though and I have an amazing memory of an exhibition I saw in Paris a few years ago about the Kamasutra books. I guess I expected the same, or something very similar.

To me, what was memorable about this exhibition was the last room, full of modern and contemporary art related to Tantra. This is where I learnt that the Rolling Stones’ famous logo is inspired by the Tantric goddess Kali! Next time you need a new topic of conversation, just use that.

Information

The exhibition was full of information and knowledge – I always find it very hard to see exhibitions about Indian history and culture due to how rich and intricate it is, and because there are so many elements at play.

To me, Tantra was always a form of energy, of synergy between body and mind – this exhibition puts the feminine power at the core of Tantra, specifically with the goddess Kali (who now you know is represented with an open mouth and visible tongue, though it represents her thirst for blood).

As I said earlier, my favourite part of the exhibition was the presence of Tantra in modern and contemporary art, which made me look at those pieces in a different way. I particularly enjoyed Penny Slinger’s Rose Devi and Chakra Woman, which played on the relationship between ‘the physical and the spiritual’ (in her own words) and which are, to be honest, just beautiful to look at.

Quality of the objects

The British Museum exhibited some beautiful pieces and there was such a huge variation of media – sculptures, illustrations, posters, paintings, etc. One thing the British Museum does know how to do, is exhibiting a sculpture (and lighting it properly) – watching them always makes me tingle a bit.

This particular exhibition perhaps did not present as many opportunities as the Troy exhibition to add in some digital elements – but the digital temple was a very nice touch, using audio and visual effects, showing some mantras.

Design of the exhibition

The exhibition space was a bit tight, however the British Museum was very careful in its crowd management (they apologised for a 10 minute delay, but to be honest I’d prefer waiting than not being able to see anything because of the crowd).

The colour environment went from black to white at the very end (as if somehow emerging from a tunnel) with always a red dominant to echo the power it holds. I thought the last room (again…) was very powerful in the way it presented the pieces, specifically the last one, Housewives with Steak-Knives by Sutapa Biswas, magnificent painting that stares at you as you are leaving the display.

The finishing touch

Tantra was not as big an exhibition as Troy (and was never meant to be), and I think I still had the hype from the latter and was expecting as much. I did enjoy going, and particularly enjoyed the applications of Tantra to modern and contemporary art.

I’d say another highlight was to see the following written on a wall:

If diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice.

Dattatreya Yoga Shastra (Yoga Treatise of Dattatreya), India, 1200s

That should get me going for my yoga practice.

Kyoto to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Last weekend I was finally able to go visit an exhibition in London. A month ago (or maybe a bit more) I managed to book tickets to the Victoria & Albert Museum, my favourite museum in London, to visit their exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk and for about 90 minutes… I felt I was in Japan.

I visited Japan back in January, for about 3 weeks. To date, it was one of the best trips of my life, and both of us kind of want to go back at some point.

Well, on Saturday, we did. If I had to describe that exhibition in one word, it would be ‘phenomenal’. The exhibition was impressive in terms of information, scenography and design, and quality of the pieces.

I would have thought that visiting an exhibition in times of a pandemic would be different to normal times, but honestly not so much. The only difference was having to wear a mask. The V&A, along with all the museums in the UK (and the world to be honest) made their best efforts to control the crowd and ensure the space wouldn’t be too full – it is a VERY difficult thing to do, because the one thing you can’t control is whether people stall or not (and spoiler: they do – which is annoying, because it means that often you have to skip a piece to try and not be part of the congestion).

Information

The V&A is notorious for presenting major high-quality fashion exhibitions (has anyone seen Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams more than me?), and Kimono was certainly no exception.

I absolutely love to see how objects, things, are made, and I did get that at the exhibition, through a very ingenious animation of how the strips of fabric are assembled to make a kimono. My photos are not very good but that was definitely one of my highlights.

The exhibition was incredibly informative and touched on every aspect of kimonos: what they are, how they’re made, when they are worn, who they are worn by, etc. There was an incredible amount of information on the history of Japan, the different styles for each period, and any question you may have on kimonos.

It starts you off nicely: kimono means, in Japanese, the thing you wear – so does not designate something specific (I love the Japanese language), something I never knew but will definitely stick with me.

Quality of the objects

Exhibiting nice pieces is one of the ways to get an amazing exhibition – and Kimono definitely delivered. I took so many pictures of all the different kinds of kimonos on display – every time I found a favourite, I changed it a second later. Prepare to be amazed by the richness of fabrics, patterns, and colours of the garments – I never wanted to wear one so badly.

But of course it wasn’t only kimonos there – the V&A explained how these were worn and also put on display items that were related to them. I have an announcement: since Saturday, I have a newfound passion for combs. Yes, you read that right – seeing vanity objects such as combs and mirrors, so magnificent, I just wished I could have them with me.

It was also incredible to look at a few paintings where the subjects were Europeans but wore kimonos – something I hadn’t seen before for sure. It’s always interesting to see how even 300+ years ago, some people were so interested in clothing from other cultures that they were wearing them too.

Design of the exhibition

One thing I ALWAYS look at when visiting an exhibition is how it is presented – the scenography, design, colour palette, how objects are exhibited, everything. The Victoria & Albert Museum has not to date disappointed me – and certainly not this time.

The exhibition space is made to appear like a house in Japan, with shoji (doors or room dividers typical of Japanese architecture, with thin paper sheets) dividing the rooms. I particularly enjoyed that, as they allowed the rooms to be separated and the visitor to breathe and feel like they are visiting a Japanese home.

How each section was introduced also caught my attention: the text was displayed on scroll-like panels, again using a Japanese aspect, simple and elegant.

The V&A dedicated the last part of the exhibition to haute couture showcase pieces – I recognised the space that had been used to display Dior’s paper patterns for instance, which displayed kimonos in different colours in a cylinder-shaped room.

The last pieces allowed to see the Japanese inspiration for all haute couture designers and see how to make such a traditional garment a modern piece to wear in an elegant and timeless manner. An absolute delight for the eyes.

The finishing touch

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed that exhibition and if I could, I would go another time. Sadly it is sold out – but I am delighted to see the success it currently knows.

If you’ve missed it, the V&A has of course published an article, Inside the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk Exhibition, and also several videos on their YouTube channel, with a total of 5 Curator Tours, bringing a digital version of the exhibition to everyone who wishes to see it.

I of course spent a long time in the shop and as usual got some postcards and the exhibition’s book, also available online. I love mementos and every time I go to an exhibition, I get at least one postcard (ok, 5). I have a massive box (or is it 2?) containing every single postcard I ever got from a museum – because I never send them. I’d rather keep them as souvenirs.

Monthly highlights – September 2020

Every month I do a roundup of the most interesting items and articles I saw about art and digital.

Welcome to the first DigitArt news roundup!

Every month, I will gather news articles, accounts to follow, things to do, anything that I find interesting in the fields of art and technology/digital. You will find information about everything and anything, and this month it includes marketing, the epic curator battles, digital preservation (applied to 3D), artificial intelligence, interactives, and even a Virtual Reality event to attend…

Cultural sector+digital: After the storm, Medium

Ash Mann was a speaker at last Friday’s Leeds Digital Festival event, and talked about the priorities for the cultural sector in relation to digital activity. If you don’t already follow Ash on LinkedIn or Twitter, please add it to your to-do list, which should be as follows:

  1. Read his article
  2. Follow him
  3. Follow his advice

Done!

The impact of #CuratorBattle, York Museums Trust

If you haven’t seen the epic #CuratorBattles on Twitter during the lockdown, you have MISSED OUT. This was honestly one of the best examples of social engagement I have ever seen (along with the MERL’s Twitter feed of course). YMT’s Millie Carroll put together a great infographic showing the impact of the battles on their audience – something to check out. And good news: the battles are back in October…!

Experiences Preserving 3D data at the Digital Repository of Ireland, Digital Preservation Coalition

3D is everywhere nowadays – I’ve had the immense opportunity to work with 3D scanning and 3D printing of objects in a museum environment (AWESOME – something you can see here on the website dedicated to my university project, Treasures of the Kingdom) – and unfortunately, it presents some issues in the context of preservation.

There is a very real concern over how we can ensure that the wealth of 3D data currently being produced will continue to be accessible and available for viewing and interacting with in the future.

Mashal Ahmad & Kathryn Cassidy

How are museums using artificial intelligence, and is AI the future of museums? MuseumNext

Lauren Styx goes over what AI really is and its applications to the world of museums – whether it is with robots in the museum experience, audience engagement (my personal favourite definitely is Google Arts & Culture’s Art Selfie), but also behind the scenes. This article is a good opportunity to brush up on the different forms of AI in museums, definitely check it out.

Museum interactives, Victoria & Albert Museum

I really enjoy reading the V&A’s blog articles – and this month, front-end developer Patrick took the stage to walk us through the installation of the interactive for the Concealed Histories exhibition. As someone who thoroughly enjoys museum interactives and ALWAYS has a play (no matter the age range it is aimed at, and of course Covid permitting) I particularly liked reading about how it came to see the light.

And speaking of the V&A… I signed up to their VR event for the upcoming exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser (cannot wait for that one).

I think this should be a good preview of the exhibition, a little sneak peek for the curious ones among us.

From rabbit holes to psychedelic mushrooms, flamingoes to hedgehogs, Wonderland is the perfect world to explore in virtual reality. 

V&A blog

Alice in Wonderland is bonkers enough as it is, but now I must say I am curious(er and curiouser?) about the mushrooms, flamingoes and hedgehogs.

Consider signing up if you are interested in VR!

That’s it for this month – thank you for reading.

Who am I?

I’ve been toying with the idea of having a new website for a while now, and after much hesitancy, I was talking to my boss who simply said ‘do it’. So… I did.

If you fancy seeing what my first website was like (in 2015), you should click here. Every time I go back there I think I should revamp it, make it more 2020’s, more actual, use it like I should.

But then again… Maybe it’s time to start something afresh and keep this as a memory of what my first steps in the digital world were? Sure, let’s go with that.

So apart from having built a website back in 2015, I am a Digital Analyst working at One Further. One Further is a digital consultancy working in analytics and user research – and we work with mostly cultural institutions! (If you’re one and need people to do stuff for you, give us a shout).

I am based in London, and moved there after I finished my Master’s degree at the University of St Andrews in 2015 – a Master’s in Museum and Gallery Studies (yes it IS a degree, I say with a smile whenever someone asks me this question in total disbelief).

Funny thing is… I lied above: my first website was actually this one, which I built for the exhibition I curated with 5 other people during these studies.

And before that, I studied History of Art and English at the ICP in Paris.

And apart from that… I am fascinated by art and culture. I love museums (they are my happy place – if I am stressed, that’s where I go), I love theatres and ballets, I love art. There is a sort of peace and quiet in art that I love, something soothing, and there is so much to know.

And when I was studying in Scotland, in between whiskies (for real – I am an aficionado, so if you want to talk about whisky, please tell me which one is your favourite), I started getting interested in technology applied to the arts.

It’s not just digital art – it’s more how technology impacts the arts, specifically museums using digital technology to enhance their activity. I love seeing them innovate with digital displays, VR and AR, but also using technology to further investigate art. Yes, I am one of these people who LOVES looking art painting scans, infrared technology, 3D imaging of objects, etc. I really do.

So that’s me in a nutshell. If you share those interests, let’s connect.