Imagine wandering into a quiet, 2,700 square foot sanctuary of a room, tucked away from the busy, boisterous streets of Manhattan. The room is filled with a self-directed sound bath, a light-guided meditation room, and a perfumery of sorts to trigger past memories through your sense of smell.
While many people venture to museums in order to escape reality or to be transported to another time and place, the Rubin Museum in New York City has a different agenda. Two exhibits at the museum, the “Mandala Lab” and “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey to Enlightenment,” are pushing boundaries about how we interact with the concept of enlightenment on a day-to-day basis. The two exhibits ask questions like, how can we turn emotion into wisdom? How can we search for spiritual enlightenment and become more aware of our surroundings? In a time where mental health is the zeitgeist and spirituality and religion are perceivably dying, the Rubin Museum is combining the two and bringing a new conversation to the table.
The first thing the “Mandala Lab” exhibit asks you is not exactly a softball question: “How does your sense of pride impact your behavior?” The exhibit is designed for people to interact with sometimes difficult topics by using your different senses. While in the lab, you draw, write, smell, listen, and touch. It uses all of our senses while immersing you in five unique exercises, with the common goal of leaving you more enlightened than when you first entered.
The five immersive exercises of the “Mandala Lab” are as follows: examining pride to recognize our sameness, experiencing smell as a gateway into the past, practicing meditation and breath work, cooling your anger with a self-led sound bath, and overcoming ignorance.
“Trying to explain enlightenment is always a bit of a challenge,” said Tim McHenry to Observer, the head curator of the Mandala Lab. “You don’t know what it is, I haven’t experienced it. But that’s the beginning. So I think if we just use a, maybe the term interconnectedness. In other words, being totally at one with everything there is.”
Enlightenment, McHenry says, is a feeling that really can’t be transmitted in any verbal sense. And that’s what makes what the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and what the “Mandala Lab” is trying to convey so interesting: they use visual mediums as a tool for allowing your imagination to change your perspective and mental state. Essentially, the way Tibetan Buddhists use a Mandala is as a way to conceptualize and imagine what it is you’re striving for in the center of this architecture of possibilities, then you can picture yourself working your way through the obstacles placed in your way obscuring you from achieving that goal.
“With the Mandala Lab, we’re using Buddhist wisdoms coupled with creative and interactive artworks and experiences to understand, unlock, and heal these difficult emotions within ourselves,” said Tenzin Gelek, Senior Specialist of Himalayan Arts and Culture. “This ‘mental gym’ invites us to face life with renewed wisdom and insights.”
“We as a museum, are not trying to sort of give you a Tibetan Buddhist teaching as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher would. That’s not my job,” said McHenry. “My job is to say, these paintings that we have in our collection, from this extraordinary culture, have a really helpful aspect to them that are intended as tools to help you navigate life.”
The concept of the “Mandala Lab” was created during the beginning of the pandemic, and they collaborated with a number of different psychologists and neuroscientists to test clinical knowledge and understanding.
McHenry also explained how Covid and last year’s racial reckoning helped influence the “Mandala Lab.” “During this time of lockdown, we had George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, those sort of racial prejudice issues come immediately to the fore,” said McHenry. “And it was perhaps more important to reveal to the visitor the attachments we have, that we’re not even aware of unconscious biases that are formed through our cultural upbringings.”
The “Mandala Lab” helps stimulate this internal growth by making you consider your pride: do you think you’re better than others? Worse than others? They also use smell to show you how each person’s unique relationship to a certain smell can uncover completely different memories. For example, one of the smells is meant to be laundry detergent, and for some, this smell can bring back happy memories of growing up, and for others it can uncover painful memories of difficult childhood experiences, like the visual artist Tenzin Tsetan Choklay portrayed in his video to accompany the smell.
“I suppose one of the best examples of that is the light sculpture piece in the northern sector,” McHenry says, “which is made to help you recognize that if you’re jealous or envious, see, you’re not in a good position to collaborate and the wisdom of accomplishment is all about collaboration and letting go of competition.”
The sculpture is a light that dims and brightens in the course of 10 seconds, which has the purpose of controlling your breath to the rhythm of the light. Researchers have found that that particular breathing pattern is where the mind-body connection is at its most balanced. In other words, by optimizing oxygen levels, you’re optimizing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in lay-terms, helps you focus and calms your blood pressure and heart rate.
While many immersive museum exhibits are using high-tech projection systems to tell their story, like light installations at The Shed and Van Gogh’s paintings you can walk through, The Rubin tried to keep “The Mandala Lab” as low-tech as possible. The beauty of the “Mandala Lab” is that there’s no right answer. If you enter it with an open mind, there’s no way you can mess up the experience.
The “Awaken” exhibit at the Rubin Museum has a similar goal but uses a completely different approach. The exhibit’s purpose is to invite the visitors to think of important questions of human experience, such as the one related to our fear of death, for example. It isn’t, however, meant to teach, but to prompt, and shows how Tibetan Buddhists do this through a Buddhist Tantric path.
Elena Pakhoutova, senior curator of the “Awaken” exhibit and Himalayan Art, explained to Observer how they adapted “Awaken” from the much larger show at the VMFA and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, while preserving the overall content and mission. The exhibit opened at the Rubin during Covid, so the texts and graphic themes reflect a world that has been moved to a highly digital, remote world.
“We hope that the visitors make a connection to these universal notions,” explains Pakhoutova, “relate to them in their own way, and appreciate the art which is largely created to be either a focus for religious practices, an inspiration for personal development, or as an actual ritual/religious object to be used in rituals and practices.”
“The Rubin is uniquely suited to refresh the dialogue between Buddhism and contemporary art, and I feel particularly aligned with the Mandala Lab’s innovative approach,” says artist Palden Weinreb in an exhibition statement. “It’s an honor to participate and hope my work will prove to be an inspiring addition to this thoughtfully reimagined space.”
“I think the most important thing was they gain some sense of this time and space that it takes to become a little more self-aware,” said McHenry. “And by being a little more self-aware, they’re also giving themselves space to be aware of others, and come away with a sense of potential connection.”