CMA’s “Revealing Krishna” revives ancient Cambodian art with an inspiring modern twist


Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art

The CMA invites attendees on a virtual tour into the depths of Cambodia, culminating in an awe-inspiring vision of “Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan” as it once was.

Elie Stenson, Staff Writer

The weight of centuries rides on the smooth rippling of water as it washes against the boat’s hull, and the river, displayed on the three screens that flank the entrance of the exhibit, parts easily as we sail upon it. Issuing from these electric views of nature comes the rhythmic murmuring of human voices chanting in worship and celebration, singing to the land and sky of ancient stories unfolding into the modern era. This striking ingress to “Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain,” the Cleveland Museum of Art’s part-virtual, part-traditional exhibition of Cambodian sculpture, sets the tone for an expedition that is as much a journey through the records of human history as it is a gallery of exquisite Southeast Asian artifacts. 

The sandstone depiction of “Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan,” also dubbed “Cleveland Krishna,” is the crowning jewel of this temporary exhibit, but before one can see it, they must garner a deeper understanding of its significance. “Revealing Krishna” leads viewers through a chronological retelling of the statue’s past by introducing the powerful elements of augmented reality (AR) to the conventional museum-going experience, truly bringing the story of this monument to life by focusing on both the context of its former glory and its influence on modernity.

In the hall adjacent to the exhibit’s entrance stand several superb examples of Cambodian sculpture that are speculated to date as far back as A.D. 550. Here, too, the myth of Krishna, a Hindu god of great importance, is told.

As a boy, Krishna’s village was subjected to a terrible storm that threatened to wash it away. Before that could happen, however, Krishna lifted up the nearby Govardhan Hill to create a place of shelter for his people, who in turn deified him for his great compassion and wisdom. As Hinduism began to spread from India throughout Southeast Asia via the Silk Road, Cambodians adopted many of its practices—including the worship of Krishna—into their own culture. Along with worshipping Krishna, Cambodians also adopted a hierarchy resembling the Hindu caste system, elements of Indian design and art and religious myths from India, which later sparked the emergence of the Khmer Empire lasting from the ninth through 15th centuries. 

Following this introduction comes a fork in the exhibit’s path—either proceed into the main gallery where the coveted Cleveland Krishna awaits or participate in an AR tour brought to life through the support of CWRU and Sears think[box] faculty. Upon donning the AR headsets, a series of glittering bubbles hover in the air as the voice of a small child introduces themself as the Cleveland Krishna, offering to take us along on a trip through their lifetime. This almost otherworldly immersive experience reimagines the initial creation, fall, rediscovery and restoration of the Cleveland Krishna before our eyes using digital magic, weaving a centuries-old tale out of thin air. 

We are virtually introduced to the location of the statue’s original shrine on Phnom Da, a two-peaked mountain in southern Cambodia that is famed for its beauty and 2,500-year human history. The Cleveland Krishna, along with several other effigies of Hindu deities, were once ensconced in various caves on the mountain by local worshippers, but as the influence of the Khmer Empire and Hinduism wavered in the 15th century, the statues tumbled into disrepair. When French colonialism swept through the country in the late 1800s, many of the Phnom Da statues, including the Cleveland Krishna, were forcibly removed from their locales and brought to Europe, where they were sold to wealthy collectors or displayed at attractions like the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. 

How the fragments of the shattered Cleveland Krishna were unearthed in the backyard of a Belgian Art Nouveau mansion is best told by the Cleveland Krishna itself, but the story does not end there. Upon its acquisition by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1973, the statue was brought to Ohio for a complete refurbishment. Lingering confusion over the statue’s origins and ramshackle appearance prompted questions—many of which could not be answered as the despotic Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, had cut off virtually all communication with the West. Although the statue was roughly pieced together over time, mysteries continued to enshroud it, including the unexplainable presence of several pieces that didn’t seem to fit in with the rest. It wasn’t until recent years that conservators were able to restore the statue to the greatest capacity after a phenomenal discovery traced it back to its origins on Phnom Da. 

The AR experience closes with a breathtaking re-creation of the Cleveland Krishna as it would have appeared, lacquered and adorned with jewelry, holding up the ceiling of its Phnom Da grotto, reaffirming that this statue, although now a pinnacle of artistic standards, was once a deeply personal monument through which so many generations achieved deep spiritual and emotional wealth. 

With visions of celebrated grandeur still swimming in the mind’s eye, visitors are invited to behold the Cleveland Krishna itself. Bearing a gentle smile on its smooth, childlike face, the statue effortlessly stands in the position of supporting a great mass, though the present emptiness above its head echoes mournfully, as if the statue yearns for its former vocation, in the middle of a mountain. Other sandstone figures of Hindu deities, also obtained from Phnom Da, flank the Cleveland Krishna, their stories equally warped by the erasure of context through their removal from native lands. Yet the light issuing from the depths of their majestic carved faces has not been dampened, still spilling forth with venerable charm. The shattered backing supports, the broken joints, the missing limbs are all cause for recognition of Cambodia’s ancient history and serve as a reminder that despite being marred by oppression and violence, beauty will continue to shine through in the indelible fortitude of belief and culture so long as we look to the past in admiration. 

“Revealing Krishna” will be on display until Jan. 30, and admission is free to all CWRU students.