I have this fantasy. It might seem a little odd, but it goes like this: I have made friends with someone who used to be famous and popular. Someone, who has stepped out of the spotlight. Perhaps because of age. Yes, he or she has retired from a glorious acting career in Hollywood. Now, the wrinkles have carved beautiful lines in the face and life has another pace. Now, he or she and I are sitting with a cold drink talking about this and that. (It could also be a cup of coffee). The point is that I have this very special person all to myself; enjoying the conversation and the company. It kind of makes me feel special. (I am not sure, though, why the person has to be retired or old, but that is how my fantasy goes).
This is how I feel right now – sitting in my office looking at a plastic box containing a pile of colored sand grains. The box is wrapped in an orange scarf with strange printed letters on it. To someone, who does not know the particular story of this sand pile, it might not appear special enough to write a blog post about it – but it sure is to me. All these colored sand grains had the attention of thousands of museums guests up until a month ago; breathlessly they admired how the grains were organized in beautiful, exotic patterns. They were well protected by thick glass, which again was protected by the museum guards and surveillance cameras. Now, they (or some of them) are placed a plastic box, awaiting to become something new – a museum artefact.
Four Buddhist monks from a monastery in Pokhara, Nepal had beautifully arranged the thousands of sand grains in a mandala. They made the mandala for the opening of the exhibition Museum of Impermanence, which was on display in Moesgaard Museum from February 9 to May 19 2019. The main subject of the exhibition, which formed part of the research project Precious Relics, was that nothing in this world is going to last forever. Everything will pass – inevitably. People, however, face this truth – this one central truth encompassing everything and everybody in the world – in different ways. Some people embrace it, more resist it, and most are somewhere in between. To make the central piece in the exhibition, we had invited the four monks to make a mandala. Now, you should know that it is a complicated affair to make a sand mandala. It takes hours and days of full concentration and awkward positions. It took the four monks a week to make it (although they could have made it in a couple of days if necessary), and it was beautiful. The funny (or should I say, interesting) part is that a mandala has not been completed until it has been ‘disassembled’ (most of the visitors would say wrecked). That is done with a paintbrush. Of course, the entire process is ritualized down to the detail.
So, on the last day of the exhibition, three monks returned to the museum to ‘complete it’. An estimated 3-400 museum visitors witnessed the last part of the ritual (which lasted for more than one hour), where the monks were chanting, praying and explaining what was going on. It was beautiful. Not in the hippie-like way, but it was ethnographic exhibition-making at its peak. We, the curators, did not have to explain anything; it was all self-evident. No interpretations, no boring texts – just three monks carrying out a ritual, which spell-bound the audience for as long as it took to see one of the last episodes of Game of Thrones (I had to carry my 5 year old son on my shoulders for 25 minutes (!) in order for him to see anything). I will tell you this much: a gasp was heard when the Vajra(a Buddhist ritual device) ‘interfered’ with the arranged sand grains the first time.
Subsequently, spearheaded by the monks the entourage walked down to the small water stream in the manor park, where some of the sand grains (now kept in a vase) was poured down to the water, and from there continued down towards the beach in the lake, and further out in the vast ocean. It was not all poured out of the vase, though. After the ‘family photo’ in the park (around 200 people), those who wished to have a small handful of the sand grains, had it, and took it home. The rest of it is going to be a museum artefact. And it is on my table right now. Life is beautiful, isn’t it? We should enjoy it, because it will end – inevitably. At least, that was what one of the exhibition texts in Museum of Impermanence said.
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen
Photos by Ulrik Høj Johnsen and Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen