Indianapolis Museum of Art
Just off the escalator on the second floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, look up and you’ll see wind chimes — still, of course, as these are indoors. But they’re here for a reason. When the IMA reopened its Asian galleries last November, curators sought the advice of a feng shui expert to ensure the good flow of the gallery spaces. The wind chimes were determined a necessity.
While I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t first spied the explanatory wall text, the fact that the museum had such an explanation at all speaks to its efforts at making its ever-growing collections more meaningful to visitors. And with the institution of free admission this month, the IMA is well on its way. A formidable barrier has been removed so that virtually anyone can visit and learn, or just enjoy the more varied fruits inside the museum’s expanded walls.
Asian art, it should be said, is a category broad enough to defy description: The continent, after all, is the world’s largest, and the cultures within it are many. The IMA, though, focuses its collections on specific areas that are more easily defined by curators and give us, the viewers, the opportunity to see the art from a more art-historical point of view, with the cultural perspective coming into play in varying degrees.
The galleries comprise nearly an entire floor of the museum, set up in a squared configuration with the escalator rising from off-center, but suggesting entry into another world — into the clouds, you might say, where one imagines a breeze setting wind chimes into song.
The art is in turns staid and alive with fantastical narrative. From thousands-of-years-old Chinese earthenware to more recent Japanese painted screens of tigers, there’s much to take in, but the museum does its best to group the work according either to chronology or motif, more or less.
Some examples: A Shang dynasty ritual wine server (“guang”) from around 1100 BCE, bronze, is stunningly preserved, intricate and almost forbidding with a mythical beast perched on top, displayed with other similarly ancient Chinese objects. Contrast this with “Kshitigarbha” (“Jizo Bosatsu”) from the 1100s (Kamakura period), wood and bronze, a solemn Buddha figure standing with scepter atop a lotus, displayed with other Buddhist-themed objects. Other collection highlights include masterworks from the museum’s 2004 major acquisition of Chinese paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The spaces themselves also change like moods. Walk into the south end of the Krannert Pavilion and the lighting is dark, tomblike; and this is no mistake — many of the objects here, centuries old, were retrieved from tombs, sent with the dead to protect and/or comfort them. Across the hall, the walls are painted yellow-gold to reflect the saffron robes of Buddhist monks. Feng shui doesn’t stop at wind chimes: Colors chosen for their symbolic meaning, along with other elements, offer a deeper layer to what’s being presented.
Visit the Asian galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road. Admission to these and other permanent galleries is free. Call 317-923-1331 or visit www.ima-art.org for more information.