Review: Shinjo Ito’s Art @ Milk Gallery
I had seen the posters in subway stations, a golden Buddha shining in the darkness of the dank New York subway and was interested. Sculpture and Buddhist art are two things I am interested in, but when I researched about the life of Shinjo Ito I became slightly worried.
Shinjo Ito (1906-1989) was the founder of a school of Buddhism called Shinnyo-en, which sought to open up esoteric practices of Buddhism to the masses. Given the religious connections, I was somewhat wary that the show would be a veiled way of promoting the religion or raising money for it. I thought long and hard about the ethics of giving money to a religion and the way in which art in our media-savy, modern world, can be used to propigate religion.
I thought originally that Shinjo Ito was anachronisitic. After all, the 20th century was largely the story of religion fading from power and receding from the public domain. The last vestiges of state religion, at least in the modern/Western world, vanished and the idea of the separation of church and state became a norm of governments around the world. In the context of the virtual triumph of liberalism and capitalism, how can we see the life of Shinjo Ito as anything other than anachronistic?
But in another way, his life and work, including his art, foreshadowed the need for meaning and spiritual fulfillment that many modern day people now feel. At the end of the day, these two Western ideas offer little comfort to the soul, offer little to soothe the God-sized hole in our hearts, and Ito’s art, with its quiet devotion and its constant attention to craft, could speak to people of any age, despite the Buddhist themes.
But it is in spite of, not because of these Buddhist themes, that the show succeeds. Though we feel the relevance of the underlying message more than ever, it is the vehicle, Buddhism and organized religion in general, that has decayed. Buddhist art and religious art seems a minor, dying field in today’s modern art world, despite the increased need for some type of spiritual fulfillment. There is a thriving market for Buddhist antiques, but Buddhist modern art seems almost a contradiction in terms.
The art itself was engaging, and the arrangement of the gallery good; it led you around in an ever-tightening circle, while you viewed Buddhist sculptures in bronze and resin to your left and right, until finally the path emerged on the centerpiece, a large sculpture of Shakyamuni giving his last sermon before his death. But it was some of the smallest sculptures that gave me the most pleasure, the small rendering he did of Shotoku Taishi was special, because I lived in Taishi Town for several years. The town’s supposedly the resting place of Shotoku Taishi, who supported Buddhism in 7th century Japan when it was a young and likely controversial religion imported from continental Asia. Some of the other Buddhist sculptures were interesting for their fusion of classical and Eastern forms. He even dabbled in calligraphy and photography, though the later consisted of overly romantic depictions of rural Japan.
What bothered me about the show was the attention given to the life of Shinjo Ito himself. The show focuses so much on Shinjo Ito, explaining his life and having video of him. Even the gift shop featured childrens’ books with cute quizzes about his deeds. But if Shinjo Ito were alive today, he would most likely have a problem with this.
If Ito were just an artist, I would understand, but Buddhism is about repressing the self and extinguishing the ego, and this show was very much Western in the sense that a certain Hollywood-style celebrity status had been accorded Ito, who was described as a genius autodidact, accomplished in radio, photography, art, and aeronautical engineering.
Perhaps you fight fire with fire, and the organizers of the show felt the best way to introduce jaded Westerners to Buddhism nowadays was to elevate Shinjo Ito to star status, catching both potential converts and money. This would be the means justifying the ends. Another possibility is that the sect itself has succumbed to the fascinating life story and charisma of Shinjo Ito and are now more about perpetuating the image of the man rather than his fundamental message.
With the Buddha nowhere in sight, the art and life of Ito is something his followers can grasp, understand, and cherish, all things important for humans. With a subtle shift, suddenly this image and media-savy Buddhist sect seems very modern indeed, and just maybe these changes can reinvigorate it. Still, I wonder if this would have be alright with the devout Buddhist himself.
Leaving the gallery, I knew that I had enjoyed the art, but the key message and the meaning of the exhibit itself left me scratching my head.
Filed under: Art, History, Japan, New York City | 2 Comments