CLEVELAND, Ohio — Art museums are understandably fixated on the idea that there’s nothing like seeing authentic works of art in real time and space, rather than glowing images on a screen.
But the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has a global reputation for digital innovation, is taking its deepest dive yet into educational uses of technology in a new show that unfurls the fascinating story behind one of the most prized items in its collection: a rare, 7th-century Cambodian statue of Krishna.
“Revealing Krishna,’’ which opened a week ago, mixes real works of art with video projections, motion-activated displays, and holographic simulations. The goal is to narrate the discovery of the head and torso portion of the Krishna in southern Cambodia in the early 20th century, and multiple attempts to reattach it to fragments of arms, legs, and feet later unearthed at the same site.
The technologies used in the show are vivid and compelling. But instead of upstaging the real artworks in the show, the digital displays are likely to leave viewers feeling more impressed, better informed, and perhaps even awed, by the survival of Cleveland’s 1,500-year-old Krishna and the museum’s admirable quest to reassemble it.
Ravages of time
Originally installed in a cave sanctuary in southern Cambodia, the Cleveland Krishna is believed to have been smashed apart centuries ago by looters searching for gems and gold hidden in its base.
Until the early 20th century, its fragments lay in obscurity under mounds of bat guano in one of five sanctuary caves near the top of Phnom Da, a sacred mountain that rises abruptly from a vast plain of rice paddies in the Mekong River delta.
The sculpture’s torso, head, and upraised left arm were exported lawfully from Cambodia to France before World War I, although the details remain hazy. In 1920, the piece was acquired by collectors Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet, members of a wealthy Belgian banking family.
With the help of a sculptor who lived next door to the Stoclets’ palatial Art Nouveau mansion in Brussels, the owners tried unsuccessfully in 1938 to reattach the Krishna torso and head section to some of the 17 pieces of fragmented legs, thighs, and feet later discovered at Phnom Da and shipped to them in 1937 by a French architect and art conservator working in Cambodia.
After failing in their project, the Stoclets allowed their neighbor to bury the unused pieces in his garden as the foundation for a cistern, and as edging material for planting beds in a garden. That’s where Stan Czuma, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art in the 1970s, found the fragments and had them retrieved and sent to Cleveland.
Conservators at the Cleveland museum then completed a new reconstruction in 1978-79, using some of the recovered pieces found in the Brussels garden. That job remained the last word on the Krishna until the revelations documented by the current exhibition prompted the latest and most convincing reconstruction.
As part of that project, the museum discovered that the legs and feet it had attached to the Krishna torso in 1978-79 actually belonged to a different Krishna sculpture from Phnom Da, which now belongs to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Both sculptures, now reassembled correctly with their respective pieces, are on view together in Cleveland for the first time.
Changing a narrative
Apart from its artistic revelations, the show represents an attempt to change the narrative of political and legal conflict over the rightful ownership of antiquities that may have been looted before ending up in Western art museums.
The Krishna exhibition makes the point that the reassembly of the Cleveland and Phnom Penh Krishnas would not have been possible without strong collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art and the government of Cambodia.
Collaboration isn’t always the norm. Last month, for example, The New York Times reported that Cambodia is pressing the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to share details about the provenance, or ownership history, of 45 works in its collection that it suspects were looted. The museum responded that it is happy to respond to any inquiry.
Just days before that article appeared, Chhay Visoth, the director of the National Museum of Cambodia, was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post as having praised the Cleveland Museum of Art for its work on the Krishna project.
Special credit is due here to Sonya Rhie Mace, the Cleveland museum’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art.
After joining the museum in 2012 Mace discovered that its monumental 10th-century statue of the semi-divine Hindu monkey general Hanuman probably had been looted before the museum bought it in good faith in 1982. She recommended that the museum should voluntarily return the work to Cambodia, which it did in 2015.
As a result, the National Museum of Cambodia entered an agreement with the Cleveland museum to exchange artworks, expertise, and research.
The big “tell’’
The first big payoff came in 2017 when the Cambodian museum loaned to Cleveland a nearly 5-ton slice of a medieval temple wall from Banteay Chhmar in northern Cambodia carved with a bas-relief sculpture of the 10-armed Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, Lokeshvara.
Cambodian curators accompanying the work to Cleveland noticed a problematic detail in the museum’s reconstructed big Krishna statue: the hem of the pleated garment worn around Krishna’s waist was several inches longer on the sculpture’s right thigh than on the left leg.
To the visitors from Cambodia, the difference was a “tell.” It meant that the right thigh belonged to another Krishna, not the one in Cleveland.
That revelation led to additional research which led, in turn, to the exchange of fragments between the Cleveland Krishna and the Phnom Penh Krishna.
Looking back on the episode, Mace said it wasn’t surprising that the Cleveland museum’s conservators overlooked the differential in the hem lengths on Krishna’s garment in the 1970s.
“It’s very hard to see something if you’re not prepared to see it,’’ she said. Cleveland’s conservators had nowhere to turn in Cambodia for advice about reassembling their Krishna in the late 1970s. Numerous staff members of the National Museum of Cambodia had lost their lives under the bloody Khmer Rouge regime, and the country was cut off from the outside world.
“It’s very difficult to work in isolation and really get it right,’’ Mace said. “You need a team.”
Journey through time and space
The six-room Krishna exhibition, which demonstrates the museum’s recent close teamwork with Cambodia, is organized like a pilgrimage, or a “Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain,’’ as the show’s subtitle puts it.
Visitors first enter a room splashed on three walls with virtually seamless, 180-degree video projections of a canal boat ride and a drone flight approaching Phnom Da mountain, accompanied by ambient sounds of chirping birds and temple gongs.
A roomful of sculptures on loan from museums in Cambodia and France then helps establish the religious context for the Krishna sculptures, which date from a period when Hinduism and Buddhism flourished side by side in the Mekong region.
Next, visitors are invited to don Microsoft Hololens 2 headsets enabling groups of up to six at a time to see each other while experiencing the same 3-D projections. It’s a “mixed reality” experience, not the full wraparound created by a virtual reality headset. (Visitors may opt out if they choose).
Groups will be admitted every two to three minutes. The 10-minute tour, broken into five, 90-second segments, is narrated in first person from the viewpoint of Krishna, beautifully voiced by a young Cambodian actor identified solely as Emi, because she’s a minor.
Using a child’s voice makes sense because the Cleveland Krishna represents the moment in Hindu lore when the 8-year-old deity asserts his supernatural powers by raising a mountain overhead in a deluge like an umbrella to shelter humble villagers among whom he had lived in secrecy to avoid a death sentence imposed by a brutal tyrant.
The five stops on the Hololens tour center on an animated, 3-D reassembly of the Cleveland Krishna and the companion Krishna statue from Phnom Penh. Viewers watch as the sculptures magically exchange shattered parts.
Chunks of carved sandstone representing legs, feet, and thighs magically fly through space from one sculpture to another before fitting into place with the soft “tink” of a chisel ringing on stone. It’s a visualization of the actual exchanges undertaken by the museums in Cleveland and Phnom Penh.
The final stop in the Hololens display depicts a life-size digital reconstruction of the Cleveland Krishna in its original sanctuary cave at Phnom Da, which still exists.
Visitors are invited to walk 360 degrees around the sculpture, with its dark, polished surfaces gleaming softly amid lamplight and its left arm and hand raised to hold up the cave roof, just as Krishna once raised Mount Govardhan in India to reveal his extraordinary powers.
The real things
After seeing the virtual Krishna, it’s a shock to enter the exhibit’s next room to see the actual Cleveland Krishna and the Phnom Penh Krishna standing side by side.
Both sculptures are heavily damaged, suggesting the violence of ancient looting, the slow-motion assault of dripping water in the Phnom Da caves, and the chipping and peeling caused by freeze-thaw cycles in the Brussels garden where pieces of the sculptures lay buried in the 20th century.
Big chunks of the Cleveland sculpture, which now includes its correctly reattached upper left hand and arm, are missing, including its right thigh, lower left leg, and feet, now attached correctly to the Phnom Penh Krishna.
But the Phnom Penh statue exhibits a special kind of damage.
Scholars believe that early 20th-century Vietnamese Buddhist settlers in southern Cambodia broke off the sculpture’s raised left arm and carved its shoulders to turn it into a depiction of Buddha, not Krishna holding up a mountain. As reassembled today, with chisel marks where its shoulders have been reduced in size, the work resembles the disjointed appearance of a wooden anatomy doll used by art students to learn how to draw the human figure.
The Cleveland Krishna may have narrowly escaped such harm when it was exported from Cambodia before the Vietnamese Buddhists in the Phnom Da region were able to break off its raised left arm and recarve it as a Buddha, Mace said.
Beyond the damage, however, there is beauty. The stance of the reassembled Phnom Penh sculpture is graceful, elastic, and confident. His physique is slimmer and more boyish than that of the Cleveland Krishna, which has a thicker and more manly chest, and beefier shoulders.
Together, the works represent a sequence in which worshippers would have seen how Krishna the boy attained manhood and became a god.
The milieu at Phnom Da is further suggested by two additional monumental sculptures from the site, depicting the Hindu deities, Harihara, on loan from the Musee Guimet in Paris, and Balarama, on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia.
All four works, plus another four found at Phnom Da, are represented virtually at full scale in a room-size, motion-activated display that rotates each sculpture 360 degrees and zooms in to explore selected details. It’s a grand reunion of works from the sacred site.
The show concludes with a documentary timeline narrated by actor and director Angelina Jolie, and Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father,’’ a nonfiction account of life under the Khmer Rouge regime. The chronological display recapitulates the history of the Cleveland Krishna in detail, underscoring the points made throughout the show.
To own or not to own
Cambodia has never claimed that the Cleveland Museum should return its big Krishna because, as Mace points out, the work was legally exported in the early 20th century.
The Cleveland museum, however, contains numerous antiquities with uncertain ownership histories or works removed from former Western colonial empires by force. Examples include five Benin brass and ivory carvings and plaques looted by British soldiers after a bloody military expedition in present-day Nigeria in 1897.
Museum Director William Griswold said in an email that the museum is participating in discussions about the fate of the Benin works, hundreds of which are scattered among museums around the world. And the museum has created a new display with labels acknowledging the violent history behind the objects.
Mace, like Griswold, argues for a case-by-case analysis of every object whose ownership history might include evidence of wrongdoing. But she also argues against fighting to retain ownership at all costs.
“We have to let go a little bit of worrying about whether we’re going to own something forever,’’ she said.
Referring to her nine-year engagement with Cambodia, she said that if the Cleveland museum hadn’t returned the Hanuman monkey sculpture to Cambodia in 2015, its big Krishna sculpture “would still have the wrong legs,” and she wouldn’t have been able to organize “Revealing Krishna.”
“This happened because of the transfer of Hanuman,’’ Mace said of the exhibition. “As soon as that happened, the door opened wide.”
What’s up: “Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain.’’
Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art.
Where: 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.
When: Through Sunday, Jan. 30.
Admission: Timed tickets, $15 for adult nonmembers. Call 216-421-6350 or go to clevelandart.org.