Buddhist composer Philip Glass in dialogue with a rich collection of Tibetan art


The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art asked minimalist composer Philip Glass to create a hypnotic 90-minute performance that responds to the artwork in its long-term exhibition Meet the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia, which features more than 240 sacred Buddhist objects, including pieces from the collection of New York collector Alice Kandell.

Kandell’s lifelong 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 autonomous region (now part of India) between China and Tibet that was a hotspot on the “Hippie Trail”, a popular overland travel route between Europe and the South Asia which became more difficult with the advent of political unrest in the Middle East in the late 1970s.

Kandell was at the time a psychology student at Harvard University and, despite her parents’ wishes, skipped her exams to make the trip, with encouragement from her professor. “He said history was being made and someone from the ministry should be there to witness it,” she said.

Kandell acquired most of his collection firsthand. “I bought a few coins at auction, but gave them all away over time,” she says. “The Tibetan people did not 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.

Detail of the hall of the Tibetan Buddhist shrine from the Alice S. Kandell collection Photo credit: John Bigelow Taylor (2017)

The immersive room of the Buddhist shrine at the National Museum of Asian Art, the institution’s most visited exhibition, was assembled in 2010 with works from Kandell’s personal collection and was expanded in 2017 with items that have never been shown in public. But Kandell has built an even more awe-inspiring sanctuary in the basement of his own Upper East Side apartment, which features around 250 objects that engulf space and stun the eyes. She kindly asks visitors to be quiet when they visit the shrine.

Kandell has donated the objects from the Smithsonian Shrine to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, and plans to donate its entire collection of Buddhist art to a US regional museum, although the official announcement or still to come because the negotiations are in progress. “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 now focuses her attention on Russian icons.

In a video published by the Smithsonian this week, Philip Glass, a practicing Buddhist, and his ensemble present a gripping performance highlighting select works from the Kandell Collection, with small intermissions where Glass offers wisdom about 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.

  • Meet the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia, until January 17, 2022 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC


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