Nine men in red robes, golden wraps, and tall hats stand silently in a line behind tables carefully arranged with dozens of small silver bowls, decorative scarves, and a few oranges. They hold a wide array of objects: eight-foot-long horns, castanets, cymbals, and a large, colorful drum. Someone near the middle of the line inhales deeply, then exhales a chant—one deeper than a croaking frog and much more powerful—that signifies the beginning of a treasured spiritual tradition.
The men are monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, but they aren’t in Tibet. They’re in the Blanton Museum of Art‘s Rapoport Atrium at UT, kicking off a ceremony where they will begin to create a sand mandala—a spiritual work of art created by the careful placement of millions of brightly colored sand grains on a wooden surface—over the next four days.
“Not all sand paintings are the same,” says Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs. “Mandalas have very distinct meanings.”
The design of the mandala under construction at the Blanton is called avalokiteshvara, or the personification of compassion. It was chosen for its connection to the Blanton’s current exhibition of Tibetan artworks, Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Bernard Collection.
Following today’s chanting, preparation of the site, and blessing of the mandala, the monks began to sketch the design for the avalokiteshvara. Over the next four days, they will carefully place colored grains of sand into the design during museum hours until the mandala is completed at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan 13.
More like a film or play than a painting or sculpture, the mandala will only remain in its complete state for half an hour to serve as a representation of the impermanence of all things. The monks will disassemble the sand painting in a consecration ceremony, where they will distribute one half of the sand to the audience. The other half will go into Waller Creek, where it will follow the current of the water to distribute healing powers around the world.
Bennett hopes that this impermanence brings a new perspective to museum-goers.
“I hope that [visitors] will appreciate that art can be temporary,” Bennett says, “that performances that take place in a limited time period can have value that is different than art that lasts for centuries.”
To see a full events schedule for the Blanton’s Sand Mandala Project, click here.
Photos by John Fitch.