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Michael Buhler-Rose: Post-Modern Artist/Hindu Priest

Somewhere Between Aura and Prana

It is impossible to separate art and religion. Although the two have been entwined for centuries, many contemporary artists regard religion as off-limits. But not so for artist and Brahmin priest, Michael Bühler-Rose. He sees the two as inseparable in his work — they both communicate and both transcend.

Through the lens of the camera, his work frames then re-frames representations of traditional Indian art and religion within a very familiar western landscape. It challenges static views on spirituality, identity, and place and shows how even today art and religion still relate and reflect one another.

Sara Hubbs met this Professor from the Rhode Island School of Design at his studio in Brooklyn to find out how he weaves the ancient and the contemporary into his art and his life.

Sara Hubbs: You are a part Catholic, part Jewish guy from New Jersey — how did you become a Hindu priest?

Michael Bühler-Rose: When I was fourteen my neighbor gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and it spoke to me. I started going to a temple and I took first initiation when I was seventeen. When I graduated high school I lived in an ashram in India, and this all happened after my Bar Mitzvah. When I returned from India, I started performing life cycle rituals, or samskaras, in the temple.

SH: When did you realize you could be both priest and artist?

MBR: I was always into art. The entrance essay for undergrad said, “Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess, what would you give up art for?” I had been living in an ashram for a number of years and hadn’t thought about Marcel Duchamp! I wrote that I did give up art and I realized that I don’t have to. In the Bhakti tradition you don’t reject your gifts, you dovetail them.

It is a gift that I have a way of communicating things visually, creating an aesthetic experience, and I’m engaged in that, so to deny it is inappropriate. I use it as a part of my spiritual practice.

Of course, how to do that, that’s the trick. Krishna says to Arjuna: better to do your own duty imperfectly than someone else’s duty perfectly. For me, doing art is my dharma, my nature.

SH: How did you start making work related to your experience as a priest?

MBR: When I started grad school I was awarded a Fulbright, my application focused on traditionalism and modernity. I did this work on western Hindus and that made me realize that I have my own thing that could be interesting.

Then in grad school I photographed a community of Western women who were all traditional south Indian dancers born or raised in India. I saw this relationship between Orientalist painting, the idea of exoticism, and this third culture. At first “Constructing the Exotic,” was more about the idea of cultural transportation, how Eastern and Western cultures mix together, and how those things come out visually.

My professor Max Becher and I came up with this term called New Geographics, it is a play on the famous “New Topographics” photography exhibition in the late 70’s where photographers were trying to create an objective photograph. They came after and reacted to photographers like Ansel Adams and these utopian views that didn’t actually exist. It was a really important exhibition because it was about photos as a document of a place.

Now with New Geographics the idea of a place is much more fluid and as experiences of place become more fluid it becomes a whole new geography. How you describe a place gets mixed up with other places.

After this, I started thinking about how certain ideas about imagery don’t translate as well in contemporary theory — like Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura. (Ed note: Philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin coined this term to describe the sense of awe a viewer felt in the presence of a work of art that relates to its authenticity, history, originality, and cultural value.)

SH: You explore theories about imagery in your video piece, “I’ll Worship You, You’ll Worship Me,” a piece based on the bathing the deity ritual.

MBR: In Hinduism you have this tradition with thousands of years of complex theory about imagery and image worship, and you don’t really get into it in contemporary art until the 20th century, like with Duchamp’s idea of the non-retinol image, the image as idea or as concept. In Hinduism there is the idea that you can worship the deity in the mind even before you do your external worship. It is actually more important than the external worship; you have to really inhabit it and focus.

With this piece there is a parallel between the artist as priest, the art object as deity, the gallery or museum as a post-enlightenment temple, the installation of the artwork as a ritual consecration, and then you have this aura. I would translate this to the prana of the image: the life force.

SH: In the piece you explore the concept of darsana. Can you explain what that is?

MBR: It means literally to see. When you go to the temple, you are going to go take darsana. The deity sees you—they have eyes—so you are both a mutual confirmation of each other’s existence and more importantly of your relationship.

With “I’ll Worship You, You Worship Me,” I was interested in playing with the idea in a contemporary art sense, where the viewer is this pilgrim coming to the temple to see the art work or the deity. As a thank you for coming to see it, the image worships the viewer. So using this thing that’s used to venerate the deity, the image itself, venerates the viewer. Because if there is no viewer in contemporary art—

SH: Then there is no art.

MBR: Exactly. It needs to have some conversation about it to create an aura again.

SH:Is making art a spiritual experience for you? MBR: I don’t believe the art is Vishnu or Krishna, but I do believe there is an aura to an artwork like Benjamin talked about. In the sense that if someone talks about it enough, then there is a ritual aura and historical aura. A way to translate it is the rituals create the most intense aesthetic experience and within the temple community it is a divine experience.

SH: When you make your work or look at art do you have a reverence for the experience or the intention?

MBR: If it’s done right! [Both laughing] SH: That’s how you know it’s good, when you want to worship it!

MBR: You see a good piece of work, it is a similar experience, there is an awe to it. I do believe art objects have an aura.

SH: It is easy to see how your work as an artist is influenced by your work as a priest, but is your work as a priest ever affected by what you do in your art?

MBR: One of the reasons I really liked working like this is it helps me to integrate my spiritual and artistic practice rather than doing this for my art and this for my spiritual life. I can do my ritual research without feeling like I really need to be in the studio.

Michael Bühler-Rose is currently a Critic in the Department of Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He performs life-cycle rituals in temples around New York City where he lives with his wife and child. To see more of his work, click here.

To see more about Sara Hubb's yoga and art, click here.

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