The newest exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery may not feature strobe lights or lasers, but it will nevertheless blind your retinas. That’s because almost all the pieces on display are entirely made of gold.
“Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection” showcases about 200 gold objects from the Indonesian island of Java which form a large part of the 500-piece collection donated by Valerie and Hunter Thompson in 2007. Located in the Asian art wing on the second floor, the items on display will eventually have their own permanent space when the gallery’s renovation are finalized in 2012. The pieces, dating between the seventh and 14th centuries, include courtly jewelry, coins, religious and personal artifacts, as well as sculptures and textiles.
The natural centerpiece of the exhibit is a Buddhist crown top, or usnisha. Engraved are tight curls, meant to symbolize the snails that protected the Buddha’s head from the sun. At the peak is a large crystal that invokes his wisdom. The crown top is meant to represent Buddha’s attainment of spiritual satisfaction.
Historically, gold has been used to symbolize wealth in Western artwork, but this piece shows that the precious metal held a much more spiritual place in classical Java. When the usnisha was made, sometime between 650 and 1000 A.D., Java was dominated by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. Given the antimaterialistic foundations of both doctrines, the crown top is a perfect example of how gold was used to convey religious depth and not merely status.
The exhibit succeeds in conveying the gravitas associated with these objects: The image of a sparsely dressed ascetic wielding the 3-by-2-inch solid gold pendant known as the Kala Demon Rattle is indeed quite provocative. Just as thought-provoking is one of the standouts of the collection, a gleaming kendi spout. In the shape of a makara, or sea monster, it is terrifying before one realizes it was meant for everyday use on a water vessel.
As precious and luxurious as gold seems to contemporary viewers, it was available to even villagers in medieval Java. At the very least, they adorned themselves with golden ear ornaments and used gold as currency. One piece in particular, a replica of a Byzantine coin, demonstrates just how connected Indonesia was to the rest of the world. The Hunter Thompson collection thus comments on the immense wealth and cultural capital of the people of Java while their European counterparts experienced the Dark Ages.
Other highlights of the collection include two kris handles on display. Kris are ceremonial daggers believed to protect the owner with supernatural force, and if the handles in the exhibit — cast in the form of demons with menacing expressions and threatening stances — are any indication, they were intensely intimidating.
The most noticeable drawback of the exhibit is the organization of objects by function. While preferable to an exclusively chronological arrangement, the setup of “Old Javanese Gold” is like a collection of medieval gowns exhibited next to modern lingerie in a display about 14th- to 20th-century fashion — topically understandable, but tremendously misleading. This curatorial decision makes it hard to comprehend, for example, the staggering difference between the simple preclassical funerary masks and the elaborate ceremonial objects of classical Java. A more nuanced structure would better frame the story of Javanese art before and after the advent of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In a contemporary art context that values minimalism and rejects the ostentation of materials like gold, these ancient Indonesian works may at first glance be easy to write off. The exhibit’s attraction is more than just glitter — it offers a glimpse into a world where gold had, above all, a mystical importance. Artisans used the metal to imbue pieces like the usnisha with transcendental significance and not just material worth. For our wealth-preoccupied society, “Old Javanese Gold” provides an alternative perspective that can spark a much-needed conversation on non-Western values and civilization.
For centuries, Java was the location of a thriving empire. It was a place of great artistry and rich cultural revelations. Today, that society is largely forgotten. Even if the image of spectacularly crafted artifacts holds no appeal, visiting the exhibit is still well worth the time: The objects are far more intriguing and mysterious in person than on a laptop screen, and the ensuing discussion of non-Western culture and art is worth its weight in gold.
“Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection” will run through Aug. 14.