Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 2

 This is Part 2 of a two-part series featuring Chris Fraser. Read Part 1 or check out his work live.

MM: How did the idea develop for Renewals/Returns?

CF: I’ve been preoccupied with the link between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library. If you walk in and around the museum you will find traces of the building’s former life. The names of literary greats, from Shakespeare to Goethe, adorn the outside. Epigrams line the perimeter of the central stairway, extolling the virtues of books. Get too bogged down in the details of the space, and it becomes difficult to see the museum housed within it.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Like many Bay Area residents, I’m concerned about the eviction crisis. What happens to a city when one group rapidly displaces another? Can a city preserve its civic memory? A city must be allowed to change if it is to remain vital. But do we have an ethical responsibility to preserve elements of the past? As a visitor to the museum, I might be struck by the history of the space. But as a resident, I am more concerned with stewardship.

Research for this project began at the new Main Public Library. I looked through archival materials, walked the space and paid attention to how people use the library. One of the librarians introduced me to a book on the history of the library. I was struck by the fact that the old library had reached capacity by the mid-1950s. Before renovations, the building at 200 Larkin Street had vaulted ceilings. It made for a beautiful space, but it also caused overcrowding. Officials had been trying to build a new library on its current site since the ’60s but were thwarted by budgetary constraints, apathy and a desire at one point to put the new opera house on that land.

I walked the space, inside and out. It’s incredibly vibrant, with a diversity I don’t usually associate with the city. The library is more than a collection of books. With classes and counseling centers, it serves as a hub for the community. Walking around the outside of the building, I noticed that the architects had made efforts toward introducing traces of the old architecture, most notably the cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows.

Cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows

I went from there to the museum. I was struck by just how busy it also was. I guess I’ve always been there on off hours. But on a Sunday afternoon, the museum matches the vibrancy of the library. With archival images of the old library in mind, I took a leisurely walk. I tried to imagine the Gottardo Piazzoni murals in the stairwell. During renovations, these murals were moved to the de Young. I tried to imagine the first-floor galleries as giant reading rooms and noticed that through a gap in the ceiling on the edge of the space, you can see clear up to the original ceiling. I lingered for over an hour in Samsung Hall, former home of the Reference Section. It is, in itself, a remarkable public space. It’s such a luxury. Rather than using it for exhibitions, it’s left empty. People walk in and stare. They look up, they walk, they interact. While I was there, two young women danced for at least 15 minutes. Evidently this was a ritual. They come often together.

This got me thinking about how the museum uses this space. Such care was put into preserving traces of the library, sometimes to the detriment of the work. Does the ornate ceiling on the third floor complement the art/artifacts? Do the inscriptions in the stairwell contribute to the appreciation of Asian art? I have my doubts on both counts. But they do perform the important task of maintaining civic memory. These elements prevent us from considering the museum as a place outside of time or place. They present the museum as a steward of heritage.

Interior of Main Library - Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: As you started your research for this project, you were telling me about conversations you have had with librarians who worked in this building when it was the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. What information did you gather from these exchanges and how did these conversations help to shape your thinking?

CF: The librarians I’ve spoken to are incredible. Not only have they helped me track down rare books, films and other archival materials, but they have also shared their own stories of the Old Main with me. Based on their enthusiasm, I would guess that no one else had inquired about the building in the past decade.

Andrea Grimes has a mind like a steel trap. She began working at the library in 1962 and was with the History Center at the Old Main. She directed me toward materials both in and out of the official catalogue, sent me home with a book on the inscriptions found in the Old Main/New Asian, and let me watch a documentary video from her own collection.

There is lingering angst over the move from the Old Main to the new. For all of its flaws, there is still great affection for the old, stately building. But the real ire is reserved for those library officials who presided over the move. In their zeal for an architectural marvel, they neglected to make enough space for the books already on hand. Upwards of 200,000 books were carted off to the dump to free up space.

On my second visit to the History Center, librarian Penelope Houston gave me a poem she had written in 2003. “On Visiting the New Asian/Old Main” recounts the poet’s first visit to the Old Main after its conversion to the Asian. In the poem, she senses the ghosts of the library—sounds of librarians shuffling and carts passing by—and mourns their absence. At the same time, she’s thinking about the newly waged war in Iraq. The library building is precious to her, but how does it compare to the preciousness of buildings, cultural histories and peoples the American forces were destroying?

Houston’s poem is reminiscent of the ode Edward Robeson Taylor delivered upon the dedication of the Old Main. In it, Taylor ties the opening of a new public library to the First World War. While Europe was destroying its cultural treasures, he observed, San Francisco was creating a new one for the ages. Separated by a century, the building remains personal for both Taylor and Houston. It’s more than a container for books or works of art or antiquities. It houses our fears and aspirations. It represents the collective memory of a people, needs and hopes.

Interior of Main Library - Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: What do you want to address through Renewals/Returns?

CF: I want these continuities and exchanges to be the subject of my project at the museum. The Asian Art Museum leaves the de Young but offers them the Piazzoni murals, as if in exchange. The Main Library moves to a new location but preserves elements of its former architecture. The Asian Art Museum renovates the former site of the library but preserves many of the former library’s most noteworthy features. Watching a video of someone walk through the old Main Library, I was drawn to a sign at the circulation desk that read “Renewals/Returns.” That phrase seems to encapsulate much of what I am hoping to suggest with this project.

Chris-Fraser-at-work

To mark these continuities, I will be covering certain windows in the museum with a daylight correction film that references the crosshatch window pattern. By emphasizing this one shared element, I wish to draw attention to all of the other ways in which the library and the museum participate in a linked history. Additionally, I will be reproducing a pamphlet made for the dedication of the building in 1917 for use as a tour map of sorts, emphasizing what remains and what has changed. Lastly, I will be adding ambient sound of some sort, taken from the new Main Library. Collectively, I am hoping these elements create confusion between past and present.

Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 1

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Inviting Chris Fraser to participate in the Artists Drawing Club was an exciting prospect, introducing a new challenge to the series. I never know how to describe his work, besides saying that he manipulates and crafts environments, creating the right situation to make light bend to his will. So the question for me, with all the constraints of producing an event in the museum, is how would this work? I was worried about the challenge and the potential frustration Chris might experience working on a project featured as part of the Artists Drawing Club series. Those worries quickly dissolved as Chris started to work with a keen sensitivity to the museum and the building’s history. While I am uncertain about what the final experience entails, the process of developing this project has been so rich and compelling that there is some excitement in not knowing what exactly to expect on April 24.

I spoke to Chris about his project and art practice. I wanted to gain some insight into how Renewals/Returns may or may not resonate with his other artworks and processes.

—Marc Mayer, Educator for Public Programs

 

MM: You are an artist whose work makes me really consider “artistic disciplines,” categories like photography, sculpture, installation because I do not know how to categorize your work, which is something I really appreciate. I know you work with light, but I am curious about how you would discuss your relationships to different disciplines.

CF: I enjoy being introduced to new people in social situations. It’s an opportunity to hear other people contextualize my work. Sometimes I’m an installation artist, other times simply a sculptor. I’m usually the guy who works with light. But one time I was accused of being a painter. I liked that.

My background is in photography. I don’t know that I was ever a terribly good photographer. I always preferred the act of photographing to the pictures themselves. So I began searching for ways of sharing that experience. My earliest installations can all be read as outsized camera obscuras. Light entered a darkened space through a small opening to create a picture of the world nearby. Viewers participated in an altered vision of the familiar.

Photography became situational. It existed in the space between opposing forces: light and dark, inside and outside, near and far. I found it in architecture, installation, sculpture, performance, video, and drawing. Eventually it ceased being photography altogether and emerged as a way of being, a way of engaging with the world.

MM: As a light artist, if I dare use that term, to put it plainly, what is your material?

CF: I’m not sure that I have a material in the traditional sense. I create frames for experiencing the ambient environment, for emphasizing the nearness of the near. What I mean by this is the way space becomes a “non-space” or a transitory space. I want to articulate that these “between” spaces are spaces in and of themselves. These partitions are often made of drywall, lumber or glass. But they can be made of anything, really. These secondary materials are meant to disappear, allowing the audience to linger on light, sound and motion.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

MM: Which artists or artworks do you find yourself coming back to for inspiration or to figure out how to approach a challenge in your work?

CF: I’m currently drawn to works that are not photographable. In the late 1960s, several artists working with sensorial environments took a stand against having their work documented photographically. Robert Irwin once started a very public fight with the editors of Artforum over the unauthorized publication of one of his disk paintings. He complained that the photograph was all surface and no substance. It described what the painting looked like, but said nothing of how it felt to look at it in person.

Irwin himself eventually abandoned this idealistic position. Concerned with his place in art history, he figured that a misleading record of accomplishments was better than no record at all. But some works defy visualization entirely. A photograph of Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor says nothing of value about the piece. Two walls face each other, forty feet in length, with a foot of space between. Green tinted fluorescent lights hang overhead. It seems like an obstacle course at first. You enter at one end and slowly, playfully make your way to the other. At some point the walls change color from green to white, but you fail to notice. The walk has distracted you. You emerge on the other side and everything you see is bright magenta. The corridor is a brilliant piece of misdirection. It provides a reason to stand in green light just long enough to change your color memory. The work resides entirely on your retinas.

Eric Orr’s Zero Mass similarly plays with the boundaries of perception. A large ribbon of white paper lines the walls of a darkened room, lit dimly from behind. You enter the space and sit in complete darkness for the first five minutes. But as your eyes adjust, shapes emerge. People become dim silhouettes. After twenty minutes in the dark, you see the room in stark relief. The black walls are now bright white. Dark, featureless people walk around the space. All the while, your eyes flit and jump as they scan the room. Vision becomes newly strange.

Of all the perceptual artists to emerge in the 1960s, only Maria Nordman has maintained her ban on photography. This may account for her relative obscurity, but it also affirms the value she places on embodied experience. Photography can approximate certain aspects of vision. But it denies change. It removes vision from time, from the body, from the other four senses.

MM: Working on a project for the Artists Drawing Club I imagine is a little different from making work in the studio. How is working on this project similar or different from your studio practice? What have been the challenges/payoffs?

CF: For me, the studio is less a place than a set of conditions. I make work when I’m relaxed, in a space with few distractions. I’m productive when I have no specific goals or expectations, when play is my sole activity. Observation and accident are at the center of my practice.

When working on a show, the exhibition site temporarily becomes my studio. I spend time in it, watch it change with the day, and notice how people receive or ignore it. I then develop a set of circumstances that call attention to the overlooked qualities of the space. I take things at the periphery of experience—the ambient, the stray—and place them at the center.

In that sense, my project for the Asian Art Museum fits easily into my working method. I’ve made several trips to the museum for the sole purpose of walking and looking. But I’ve also spent time offsite, researching the history of the building. My projects typically ground the viewer in the present moment. But my experience of the Asian Art Museum is as a place between times. The building is so rich in historical markers that it becomes difficult to appreciate the present without the past.

MM: I am really curious about your comment that observation and accident are at the center of your practice. How does that function day-to-day?

CF: Occasionally I go into the studio with a set of known materials, perform experiments, and restage the results as an aesthetic experience. But most of my work isn’t nearly so methodical. Projects usually grow from simple observation. My first large-scale light installation was inspired by a crack between two moveable walls. I was drinking beers with friends and had a lovely daydream about a thin gap in my studio wall that ran from floor to ceiling. I didn’t know exactly what that gap would do to the room, but it seemed worth finding out. I spent six weeks transforming the space and was only able to see the results after everything was completed. That element of risk has become a trait of my practice. Because much of my work is site conditional, I seldom have the ability to test it beforehand.

The materials I do end up bringing into the studio are often discovered through accidental encounters. One of my current projects uses tiny glass spheres to simulate visual depth. I discovered the material while riding my bike through the Haight on a sunny day. Something registered in the corner of my eye as I passed through an intersection. I walked back, and there on the ground, around the shadow of my head, was a rainbow. It followed me everywhere. A fine layer of glass dust coated the activated ground. I wasn’t sure why it was there. But I took a sample and spent the next several months figuring out what it was. The answer was simple. Caltrans uses these road beads to make paint reflective. I bought a bag of the stuff and sat on it for three years. After a lot of trial and error, and a fair bit of luck, I found a use for it.

This is Part 1 of a two part series. Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow where Chris talks about his project for the Artists Drawing Club.

We’re on Khan Academy

“Museums—having increasingly positioned themselves as educational resources—have the potential to fill the gaps left by the inadequate resources on Asia in schools throughout the nation.” – Bridge Program Evaluation

It has always been our goal to spearhead efforts to close these gaps. That’s why we’re really excited about our new online courses on Asian art history at Khan Academy. As a Khan partner, we are among world-class institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences, who are all doing their part to bring knowledge to the people in new and different ways.

If you haven’t heard of them before, Khan Academy is a non-profit educational website that aims to provide no-cost, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Courses range across all types of topics, from math to humanities. It’s not surprising that they reach over ten million students a month.

When Khan Academy came to us, they had little information on Asian art history. Once they saw our rich repository of videos, essays and more, they knew that we would be a good fit. We were likewise excited by the opportunity to reach a new audience, so we worked together to create the course. Now you can dig deeper into Asian art history while getting stats on yourself and earning fun badges. Check it out!

Khan Academy

Enter the Mandala

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

Here at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we conserve a wide variety of artworks related to mandalas – geometric meditation maps designed by and for practitioners of esoteric Buddhism. From a crowned Buddha in the shrine arches of a Pala-period stupa to a Chinese Buddha in whose open robes the universe appears, many of our art objects have a place in the history of the mandala. But what exactly is that place? At the risk of stating the obvious, it isn’t always easy to tell. For these objects come to us from across cultural and geographic space, and often their original contexts are obscured by time and its attendant ravages. So the question for us and our significant collection of mandala-related artwork is this:  how do we treat this immense diversity in a simultaneously integral and authentic way?

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

In exploring our collection several years ago, it occurred to me that the answer to this sphinx-like riddle lay within the collection itself, this time in the form of three Tibetan thangka paintings from what was originally a set of five Buddha images. Dating to about the year 1300, these paintings feature the deep detailing and cinnabar-red palette that characterizes the Nepal-influenced style; it became important in Tibet after the decline of the North Indian monasteries about a century before. Among the last and finest of their kind, these three paintings also represent the most nearly complete set of Five Buddha paintings known to exist in western museums. And when complete, they would have comprised a mandala known as the Vajradhatu or “Lightning World.” In their original context, the Five Buddhas configure architectural space as the cosmic space of the mandala by articulating the cosmos’ five symbolic directions: a central axial region surrounded by the four cardinal directions, with a Buddha representing each, in a form like the five-spot on a set of dice. So it occurred to me: could we find a way to let our paintings reveal their original, intended function of setting up a mandala-like space?

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Like the fivefold form of the mandala itself, the answer to this question was startling in its simplicity. First, find a roughly square gallery and array our three Buddha paintings in the center, north and south – the regions they would have originally represented. Then, find great mandala-oriented artworks from across esoteric Buddhist cultures and place them in the mandala regions with which they might be most readily associated. The result would be an architectural mandala that you can actually enter, rather than merely look at. I found this to be an elegant solution in another way, for such “entry into the mandala” is precisely the practice that Himalayan Buddhists use to develop insight into the nature of reality and our experience of it. First they visualize a specific mandala, then in the mind’s eye they enter it in full three-dimensional detail. As a result, I reasoned, the “enter the mandala” exhibition would not only give our visitors a taste of the immense range and genius of esoteric Buddhist art across cultures, it would provide simple, basic insights into an experience that would under ordinary conditions require decades of meditation practice to master.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

When you visit Enter the Mandala, you’ll find a variety of historical and visionary worlds to explore. On the gallery floor, we have created a virtual mandala that will familiarize you with geometries and regions of the Five Buddha mandala according to which we have organized the exhibition. We have also created a tablet computer interactive that reveals hidden patterns on the paintings themselves.

Honoring James Francis Cahill

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

The Asian Art Museum displays a landscape painting in Gallery 17, dated 1629, by Guan Si in remembrance of scholar and friend, James Francis Cahill (1926–2014), who passed away on February 14, 2014 at his home in Berkeley at age eighty-seven. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor. The painting will stay on view through July 13, 2014

The painter Guan Si was skillful at reinterpreting fourteenth-century masters, and his personal style evolved from complicated to simple. The subject of fisherman in landscape is a familiar theme in traditional Chinese painting, and the sparse brushwork and simple composition of this landscape exemplify Guan’s mature style. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of the influential art historian James Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor.

Cahill began collecting paintings as a Fulbright scholar in Japan during the 1950s. He served as a curator of Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, from 1958 to 1965, and then taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1965 to 1994, during which time he mentored many scholars of Asian art, some who worked and still work at the Asian Art Museum. Among his numerous publications, major works include his first book, Chinese Painting (1960), and a multi-volume series on later Chinese paintings, including Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976), Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978), and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). The College Art Association awarded him its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2007. In 2010 the Smithsonian awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art.

Cahill gathered his lectures and essays as well as other writings on a variety of topics at www.jamescahill.info. The Asian Art Museum also has a two of Cahill’s talks on iTunes that can be downloaded.

Cahill’s ashes will be scattered at his favorite beaches at Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.

Shinohara’s Boxing Painting Installation

Shinohara's boxing painting

Boxing Painting, 2009, by Ushio Shinohara (Japanese, b.1932). Acrylic on canvas.

The installation of Usion Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2009, now on view in the Japanese galleries, presented unique challenges.  The work is quite large (60in x 130in), and is painted on an unmounted piece of canvas. How does one convey the energy of making the piece through the presentation of the piece? The painting appears to be hanging by small wires, but that is not the case. Hidden behind the painting is an elaborate hanging mechanism, to  support the great length and weight of the canvas without a frame.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

The apparent simplicity of the mount is deceptive; its large size requires complex construction and planning. The goal of the design is to provide good support for the artwork, appear unintrusive, and install easily into the narrow glass cases.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

To ensure the safety of the piece four people were needed to support it during installation. Here, Shiho Sasaki carefully positions the rolled painting along the top of mount.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

Three assistants carefully unroll the painting as she secures it to the mount with Velcro. The work is slow and deliberate, to make sure the painting is level and secure.

Check the Asian Art Museum’s Conservation page to learn more about museum mounts.

It takes a village to create and install large paintings such as these. Shiho Sasaki (Conservator of Paintings), Marco Centin (Exhibition Designer), Evan Kierstead (Interim Head of Exhibitions), Vincent Avalos (Mountmaker), and Courtney Helion (Conservation Technician) collaborated on the concepts.  Shiho Sasaki created the final design and Courtney Helion built a series of maquette versions, as well as final design. Cathy Mano, Associate Head of Registration, assisted with the installation.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

When the Freer Sackler first approached us with the idea of creating an exhibition of yoga-oriented art, I was intrigued, but had lots of questions. What role did art play in the formation of yoga traditions? Did art inform philosophy and practice, or vice versa? And did the imagery of the yoga tradition change over time in response to historical and social circumstances? As I have learned, the answers to these questions can be very surprising.

For example, I had wondered when the full spectrum of yoga postures, asana in Sanskrit, was first depicted. Like many other yoga enthusiasts, I had assumed that they were present “from the beginning” of the tradition. But like so many of my preconceptions, this assumption was destined to be overturned. Far from emerging fully-formed, like Athena out of Zeus’ head in the famous Greek myth , many complex postures first appear in a 16th century treatise called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”) – a millennium and a half after the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. And there were more surprises. As it turns out, the Bahr al-Hayat’s accompanying text is not penned in any Indian script; instead, it represents a translation from a Sanskrit original into Persian by a Sufi (Islamic mystic) scholar. In this exhibition, you’ll have a chance to examine the imagery of the Bahr al-Hayat in detail; some of the postures will be familiar, and other may present you with your own puzzles to decipher.

As the exhibition took shape, I began wondering about how traditions of yoga art would depict the invisible aspects of yoga experience. How, I wondered, might artists envision an abstract concept like the Brahman, the impersonal deity of the Hindu texts called Upanishads? I was just as curious about the tradition began to depict the so-called “subtle body,” the network of energy centers and channels that yogis manipulate. I had assumed that these key yoga ideas appeared very early in the development of the tradition – but again the art of yoga surprised me.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Several paintings from Man Singh’s Jodhpur court appear prominently in this exhibition. In the early 1800’s, the king of the Indian city of Jodhpur, Maharaja Man Singh, commissioned a large set of paintings that depict both invisible and subtle aspects of yoga; one of these paintings, Three aspects of the Absolute, depicts the Brahman directly as a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold. Another series of Jodhpur paintings reveals different configurations of the “subtle body,” the interior system of energy centers and channels that figures so prominently in contemporary hatha yoga thought. Almost life-size, these Jodhpur paintings make it easy to see how the subtle, energetic body might map onto the physical body. A third set of Jodhpur paintings show the transmission of these teachings from guru to student in the Nath order of yogis. Such teacher-student contact was essential to the continuity and thus legitimacy of a lineage of yoga practitioners.  A final set of paintings from Jodhpur reveal that Man Singh commissioned these paintings for simultaneously political and religious reasons: the king understood his seemingly miraculous ascension to the throne of Jodhpur as the direct result of Nath intervention in history. In this way, Man Singh positioned his secular as having the legitimacy of divine sanction.

Chakras of the subtle body EX-2014.2.001

The chakras of the subtle body, page 4 from a manuscript of the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2376.

Another question that intrigued me is how imagery focused on the “subtle body” was assimilated into Western discourse and culture. As I have learned, there are at least two ways this happened: through mysticism, and through medicine. Charles Leadbeater’s image of the chakras initially looks similar to the imagery on Man Singh’s “subtle body” paintings, but closer examination reveals that Leadbeater’s image derives from Western attempts to map the seven planets of the Ptolemaic universe onto, or perhaps into, the physical body. Perhaps because such images have a long history in European mysticism, they could serve as a bridge between two quite different kinds of mystical systems – yoga and astrology. Similarly, yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body. One marvelous book, Chakras of the Subtle Body, contains an image that makes this equivalence explicit.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation has challenged my preconceptions about the relationship between art and yoga in many ways, but nowhere so much as regards the question of authenticity. I used to wonder: what is an authentic teaching or image, and what is spurious? Do lineages guarantee the integrity of a given teaching, or is there some other factor – maybe efficacy – at work? As with my other questions, the answer is often “yes” – in its transformations, the art of yoga can frequently be seen to occupy the middle ground between true and false, peaceful and violent, genuine and derivative. And it is that transformational zone between pairs of absolute opposites that I have come to recognize as the real homeland of this kaleidoscopic array of traditions we are pleased to call yoga.

Proximities 3 Evening Event

Proximities 3 talk

We held the last event for Proximities series on Thursday night, February 6, focusing on the last of the trilogy Proximities 3: Import/Explore. The exhibition, curated by Glen Helfand and featuring artists Leslie Shows, Rebeca Bollinger, Imin Yeh, Byron Peters, Jeffrey Augustine Songco, and Amanda Curreri, explores themes of trade, manufacturing, labor, value, and economy just to name a few. These ideas were really encapsulated in the way the curator frames the show, “that almost everyone on the planet touches something that is conceived, mined, manufactured, routed or outsourced in Asia.” This point really made me take pause and think about the work in the exhibition.

P-Play

It was a great event. Many of the artists from all three exhibitions were in attendance and there was a lot of excitement in the air. The music, provided by Jacob Sperber (P-Play), set the right atmosphere – bright, fun, and dynamic which even compelled a few visitors to even dance. Amidst the conversations, drinks, and a few funky moves, the focal point was the exhibition. Glen Helfand facilitated an in-gallery talk with exhibiting artists Imin Yeh, Rebeca Bollinger, Byron Peters, Jeffrey Augustine Songco, and Amanda Curreri. The gallery was packed intently listening to the discussion, a few attendees mentioned that hearing from the curator and the artists really opened up the exhibition for them.

Proximities 3 tea

Another important component for the night was a project by Atelier Dion. Jay and Rie Dion (the husband and wife team behind Atelier Dion), were interested in manufacturing a limited edition tea cup in conjunction with a tea tasting hosted by Song Tea & Ceramics.  Initial planning for the project took place a few weeks after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. This deadly and heartbreaking disaster made me highly aware of my proximity to the country and the people affected, as well as how the relief effort was also dependent on the same infrastructure that built industry and trade. In light of the typhoon, Jay and Rie were interested in introducing an exchange as a mode of raising donations for the continued relief effort. It became a tea tasting/cup exchange. Proximities tea cupsFor a donation participants received a cup for the tasting and would then own. Atelier Dion worked with the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, whose representatives were on hand to accept the donations directly and provide information about the organization. The hundred cups were sold out before the end of the event. Thanks to the efforts of Atelier Dion and Song Tea & Ceramics, over $700 dollars was raised for the typhoon relief.

Proximities 3-69

The whole evening became a real life confluence of the themes and our proximity to Asia through place and landscape (Proximities 1), people and community (Proximities 2), and trade and commerce (Proximities 3). Catch the exhibition before it closes on February 23. You will be happy you did.

Lunar New Year traditions

Lunar New Year is the most important traditional holiday in Korea. Many people return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives for the holiday. Among other traditions, we perform an ancestral ritual called “charye,” preparing fine foods and honoring our ancestors. We get up earlier than usual on the Lunar New Year and dress up in colorful traditional Korean clothing called “hanbok.”
For breakfast we eat “tteokguk,” soup with sliced rice cakes. We say that once we’ve finish eating tteokguk, we have gotten a year older.

Korean Culture day food

After breakfast, children wish their elders a happy New Year by performing a traditional deep bow and saying, “Have a blessed New Year.” The elders reward this by giving the children New Year’s money in luck bags made with beautiful silk designs and offering “deokdam,” or words of wisdom and well-wishing. Parents and grandparents might say, “I wish you health and no troubles,” or “I hope you get into the college of your dreams.”

Then family members get together to play “yunnori,” a traditional board game. Usually men and boys fly rectangle kites called “yeonnalligi,” and play “jegichagi,” a game in which a light object is wrapped in paper or cloth, and then kicked in a football-like manner. Women and girls play “neolttwigi” – a game of jumping on a seesaw.

Maybe traditional Koran culture seems complicated, but whenever I recall the days of Lunar New Year in Korea, it was always fun, warm, and exciting!

Written by: Mee Ran Hong

Mochi Pounding: A Reflection

Mochi pounding 2014

I think I’ve always taken mochi for granted. Mochi: the sticky, yummy childhood treat; something that my great-aunt always has at her house for Christmas. But I’d never given much thought to actually making mochi until I heard that the museum was hosting the mochi pounding celebration to ring in the new year. When I told my parents, they started to rave about the time they pounded mochi together in Japan, so I was excited for the day. We started in Samsung Hall, Polaroid cameras ready, looking on over the crowd of people. Little children bordered the front of the crowd, eagerly straining forward towards the demonstration. The members of Kagami Kai were all dressed in colorful red and blue robes. Happy colors for a happy celebration. I felt slightly out of place in my black outfit which was too somber a color for the occasion.

The demonstration started with an artist painting an ancient character for horse in front of the crowd. Seeing this performance was fascinating as it celebrated the new year by painting an old character. At the Asian, mixing old and new seems to hold a special place.

When the members of Kagami Kai actually started pounding the mochi, the room filled with the beat of drums, the ringing of bells, the happy sounds of voices chanting along, and of course, the deliciously nutty smell of the mochi. They were so enthusiastic while pounding the mochi, it was hard not to start clapping to the beat. As audience members volunteered, I sensed such gusto in hitting a mass of glutinous rice over and over again with a wooden mallet. Kids looked hesitant when they first stepped up but soon this feeling transformed into total bliss (I guess it’s not everyday that kids actually are allowed to play with their food). At the end of the demonstration, everyone lined up to pick up some mochi to eat. I’m not sure if it was the excitement of the celebration or the mochi itself, but the result, my little mochi souvenir, tasted amazing.

Check out our video from our 2012 ceremony:

Written by Nat Gable.