Ancient Gandhara – a multilingual and multiethnic mountainous region at the crossroads of Asia – once linked the lucrative trade routes of Central Asia and North Africa with those of the Mediterranean. Located roughly between the boundaries of modern northern Pakistan and central Afghanistan, Gandhara witnessed not only the exchange of goods, but also the conquest of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century BCE and that of Alexander the Great in about 327 BCE. As traders and invaders alike passed through the region, a diversity of cultures and traditions helped to shape its multilayered identity. Gandhara thus became the centre of a uniquely Indo-Greek kingdom, its art reflecting the coalescence of Greco-Roman style and its anatomical realism with the Indic tradition and its idealised forms.
From the Mountains, on view at Rossi & Rossi Hollywood Road, Hong Kong, from 16 July to 27 August 2021, showcases a selection of sculpted heads from Gandhara created between the fifth and fourth centuries AD. These works were fashioned from clay and embellished with painted details, each one revealing a distinctive expression, hairstyle and facial features. The soft nature of the clay made these incredible details possible to mould; however, it also left the works vulnerable to erosion. As a result, many of the sculptures in the exhibition have a timeworn appearance, yet the range of emotions emanating from the lively faces remains palpable.
Buddhist subject matter featured prominently in Gandharan art, and it is believed that the first representation of the Buddha Shakyamuni in human form emerged from this region. (In earlier depictions, the Buddha was often portrayed by aniconic symbols, such as the dharmachakra [Wheel of the Law], the Buddha’s footprint and the Bodhi Tree.) The lively faces of the works featured in From the Mountains – showing bodhisattvas, monks and laymen – fall into various categories that make up the Buddhist pantheon.
Alongside the Gandharan sculptures, a series of black-and-white photographs taken in the mountains of Iran by late renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) is on view. Kiarostami captured these wintry landscapes, titled Snow (2002), during solitary escapes into nature as a form of therapy, a break from the urban sprawl. He painstakingly chose his frames, at times during an uninterrupted 3,000-kilometre journey, activating his shutter only three times during the entire trip. Through the gaze of his camera, Kiarostami offered a contemplation on nature, encased in its tranquillity and divorced from the actualities of everyday life.
'The work of an artist resembles his sentiments, contradictory or not. In fact, either we resemble our work or not at all. Even if I belong to the second category, it is apparent that my photographs are made of the same substance as my dreams’, Kiarostami once noted. By associating his images with dreams, the artist not only sought to capture what the eyes see, but, even more important, to preserve the essence of the object and the scene as it may be perceived.
The belief that an image has the capacity to render the true spirit or essence – the tao – of its subject is inherent in classical Chinese ink paintings as well as Iranian miniatures. For example, the depiction of a hill is not merely about the pictorial accuracy of the hill; rather, it symbolises the idealised form of the hill as conceived by the Creator. As independent curator and writer Vali Mahlouji put it in the 2013 brochure that accompanied Photographs from the Snow Series at Rossi & Rossi Hong Kong, ‘[I]t is a similar notion of abstraction towards the essence, distinguishing between the figurative and the conceptual, that is intended across the photographic expressions of Kiarostami’.