Revealing Krishna

Making the dream

Revealing Krishna

An Interview with CMA Curator Sonya Rhie Mace

In partnership with Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), the IC has co-developed a mixed reality experience as part of the exhibit "Revealing Krishna - Journey to Cambodia's Sacred Mountain."

In preparation for the project, we took some time out with Sonya Rhie Mace, CMA’s George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, to talk about this opportunity to bring holographic storytelling to such an important piece of art from within the collection. Here are some excerpts from that interview, edited for clarity and length.


How did you get started with this project?

SONYA: I first got to work on the Krishna project with the Interactive Commons through Jane Alexander (Chief Digital Information Officer for CMA). She started by liaising with Microsoft, and talking with them about a new and exciting way that we can bring this exhibition about a sculpture from very long ago and far away and make its story really accessible and visible to audiences. It takes place over so many different continents, countries, time periods, and histories that are unfamiliar to many people, and would require a laborious amount of wall text to read through.

It's the kind of story that requires something really creative so that people can actually get what's happening and what the history of this piece was. I'm a huge supporter of the collaboration between Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve. It's such a rare proximity between two institutions of such high caliber. It's very exciting to be able to show that we are working together, not only sharing teaching or showing objects to students, but bringing the story of an object to our broad public using technology and expertise at Case.

Krishna Raising Mount Govardhan, c. 1780–90
Northern India, Himachal Pradesh, Pahari Kingdom of Kangra
Cleveland Museum of Artt

Can you tell us a little more about Krishna — the figure and the sculpture?

SONYA: Krishna has been one of the most beloved divine figures to come out of South Asia, and there have been many, of course. The history of the Krishna cult is very ancient — it goes back probably about 2500 years as far as we can tell from archaeological evidence. He's a human incarnation of a great god — even though he was born into a royal family, he was spirited away as an infant and grew up among cowherd villagers, so he's kind of this ‘God of the People’.

He has this charming, mischievous personality and a lot of his stories focus on his exploits as a child, the most important one is where he performs this miracle of raising a mountain and saving villagers from a disastrous flood and deadly storm. “Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan” is the first one of his youth  to be celebrated and worshipped on this extraordinary scale, and it also came at a time when the stories of Krishna started to transfer from India to Cambodia.

Krishna Raising Mount Govardhan, 1700s
Northwestern India, Rajasthan, Rajput Kingdom of Bundi
Cleveland Museum of Art

Why is this particular image of Krishna so important?

SONYA: The Cambodian people started making large-scale temples in the fifth century when there was an economic and political shift from coastal-maritime to inland-agrarian economies. This is the first part of the development of an interconnected network of kingdoms that then becomes the Angkorian Empire. This political shift also created a religious shift, and it just happened to be when this particular image of Krishna was experiencing its greatest popularity in India. That’s why it's so critical in the history of Cambodian Art — at this moment when historical Cambodian dynastic history begins, Krishna is right there at that beginning chapter.

Even though we've had the sculpture in the gallery since 1978, I think most people didn't realize that he was actually built into a mountain — he was in a cave, holding up the mountain itself. This is a way that the iconography is built into the land,  which creates a sacred landscape and a place of pilgrimage for people. That's why he's that size and why he is polished — he would have gleamed in the dark cave, and when you are wearing a HoloLens you can actually experience what that would have been like. That's just miraculous — to experience a sliver of that firsthand, of the art in its location with the understanding about how it got there and why.

"The Story of the Cleveland Krishna"
Photo credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

What do you think makes a piece of art in a museum moving?

SONYA: I think aesthetic experience is one way — a visceral reaction to an extraordinary visual presentation — but I also think it’s the human connection. Empathy with the people who had such passion of faith, and such love for this divinity that they would be able to take their resources, use their talents, and pour them into this work. The Krishna is probably at least six tonnes or so for the block, and then to carve such an incredible figure out of that... and this is in the 6th century, when there were no machines! There's a complete sense of body mechanics and the dynamism that it would take to convey this image of a child, who is an all-powerful God, who can raise up a mountain — as the text says, “as though it were a mushroom cap,” — and hold it up for seven days.

These are two contradictory elements that the artist has brought together larger than life-size in this huge block of stone, and this was done without a stone sculptural tradition before this. You would think that something at the very beginning would be experimental or tentative, but in fact all eight sculptures from Phnom Da are monumental. There must have been an extraordinary well of inspiration to have brought this about. It's a manifestation of an emotional movement on the part of the makers. If we then consider ourselves — what do we have to do to create something so beautiful and so difficult to make, and what would make it worth it? It just gets to this power of human capacity, when something is really worth it.

IC + CMA Creative Team, November 2021

What do you see as another opportunity for MR in the museum?

SONYA: In my area of South Asian Art most works are taken out of context. There was a push among specialists of the mid-20th century to say they're not just ethnographic items, they are extraordinarily beautiful objects that belong in an art museum. But they've been so sanitized in a way that we've lost a lot of understanding about what makes them valuable, and that human experience that makes them particularly moving. The 21st century Art Museum is going to say, “but what were they for, and where did they come from?" Trying to reclaim that human element... and how can we do that while we're sitting here in Cleveland?

I think HoloLens would be brilliant for that, if we can scan some of these altar spaces or even a spectacular Indian Hindu temple that has the stone sculpture still installed in place, then we can holographically bring the context to an object in the gallery — to “put it back” in a virtual way. That is what the curator tries to do with a 100-word label, and it falls miserably short. My dream is to be able to let people, in an instant, get why this is a great work. That's why it's so exciting that we're embarking on these collaborations. The IC is a place where there are people who can make the dream visible.

For more information on the exhibit, including tickets and times, please visit Cleveland Museum of Art online.