Crossing Threshold: A Dance with Perception

Teresa Williams, public programs intern at the Asian Art Museum, interviews artist Sanaz Mazinani about her recently exhibited work “Threshold”.


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015

The soft murmurs of conversation faded as the dancer entered the space. After drawing the attention of her audience, Bobbi Jene Smith began to dance. Complementing and reflecting the dancer’s movements, Threshold, an exhibition alive with
moving mosaic images and reflective surfaces, was the perfect partner.  Bobbi’s dramatic gestures and movements captivated those watching. When she was done, the dancer slowly walked out of the space.

Visitors were only speechless for a moment.  After which, they burst into applause and conversation. As the conversation about the dance and the exhibition started to grow, Sanaz Mazinani, artist and creator of the exhibition Threshold, happily moved amongst the audience, engaging visitors and answering questions about her work.

Both before and after the Artist Drawing Club  program, I had the opportunity to speak with Sanaz Mazinani about her exhibition, her fascination with explosions and how her work challenges our perceptions of the world.  Excerpts from our discussion are below:

Much of your work critiques the perception of photographic images as “truth,” and the interpretation of a photograph as a reliable account of an event. In Site, Sight, and Insight, I am interested in the strategies you use to make work that provokes viewers into considering how they read and interpret photographic images? 


Photo: Qunicy Stamper 2015

Site, Sight, and Insight is an ongoing project where I use different techniques to express the limitations of the photographic medium. For example, I created a lenticular work that uses three photographic stills   of a beam of light. As the viewers moves past the framed photograph on the wall the beam of light moves with them. Another work shows two identical images of a pine tree, except that they are completely different shades of green, a shift as a result of the white-balance setting on a digital camera. Both pieces focus on the significance of light as a function of recording photographic images. For me, it is always important to think about the incredible transformation that a subject goes through in order to become a photograph. What are the effects of photographic representation and perception? How much of what we know about historical moments, or far off locations, are derived from the photographic representations that are widely circulated?

Your work often features images of explosions. What draws you to these images?

In practicing conceptual and documentary strategies side-by-side, I hope to investigate the context in which meaning is negotiated. By re-presenting the image of an explosion as a metaphor, I hope to discuss the symbolic value contained in media images in general. The explosion’s ability to obfuscate becomes a metaphor for my concerns with politics, a symbol for the veils of deception that simultaneously obscure and complicate reality.


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015

An explosion is a rapid increase in volume with a simultaneous release of energy. The symbolic likeness of an explosion stands in for an act of violence, but also for depictions of power that are sublime and awe-inspiring. We are surrounded by a culture of fetishism of weapons. The explosion is a compelling form made from a high-intensity chemical reaction. It is simultaneously magnificent and consuming, a sublime entity to be feared and admired

Through reference, repetition and representation, I examine the transformation of a momentary point in time into the two-dimensional surface of a photograph. Identifying auto-critique as an important tool, my work focuses on how translation through photography informs our relationship to war.

Threshold marks a new direction in your work. In the past most of your works have been photo-collages utilizing found images from a variety of sources, yet with Threshold, you chose to use video clips, specifically action sequences from recent Hollywood movies. What was it like to work with this material? How would you describe its effect? 


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015

I have been collecting video clips from news broadcasts and citizen journalists for five years now. I’ve amassed a collection of footage that deals specifically with explosions and bombings taking place in the Middle East that range from American soldiers blowing things up to the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza. However, this footage just seemed too raw and overwhelmingly disturbing to use, so I opted to take a step back and work with a more sterilized version of violence. The footage culled for Threshold is from a database of Hollywood movies that I have watched, such as G.I. Joe and The Avengers. I am captivated by the incredible draw that I feel towards the power of an explosion, which in turn leads me to think about the militarization of our imagination and culture.


How do you want visitors to engage with Threshold? Have you witnessed any ways people interact with the work?


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015

I aimed to create a space where visitors could perhaps see themselves in a slightly different way than how they might see themselves reflected in a mirror. The video and sound component of the installation adds another layer and sets the tone for that personal interaction with the mirrored surfaces. I really love watching everyone interact with the work. My favorite is when visitors use the sculptural form to see themselves while they see through to the other side. This becomes especially poignant for me when visitors are interacting with friends and see themselves and another person simultaneously, so that the normal model of perception from one’s singular point of view is challenged.

For the Artist Drawing Club, for your exhibition Threshold, you wanted to invite dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith to experience, interpret, and respond to your work. This collaboration and performance you two titled Crossing Threshold. Can you tell us why you chose to work with Bobbi?

Bobbi is incredibly talented and has danced with the internationally acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv since 2006. The first time that I saw her move and create was through documentation of a performance she choreographed titled “Arrowed.” Her performance digs deep into the human psyche and draws from a dark, existential place that we might all relate to, but may choose to ignore. Once I saw the performance I knew that I had to work with Bobbi, and that is when I asked her if she would be interested in collaborating with me. What was amazing about working with Bobbi was that we never really discussed the details, but had long and in-depth conversations about politics, human rights, and the creative process.


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015


What did you think of her performance? Why was it special?

I could not have imagined a better response to my piece. Bobbi understands the simultaneous anxiety and self-inquiry that I hope to translate through my installation, and takes these ideas and expresses them through time and space with her potent movements. I think that we are speaking the same words but through two uniquely different languages from our own perspectives. So for me it was rather special to realize this and wonder about potential future collaborations, and what we might be able to do for our audiences.

I wanted to follow up on our conversation about how, so many times, the topic of geometries in your work is only discussed on a cursory level. I wanted to know more about these geometries, your interest in them, and how this part of your work has developed both formally and conceptually. 

The geometries in my work are a means through which I try to understand our contemporary existence. For me, they become analogous to the networks of our digital domains, information linking us to one another through bits and bytes. The patterns that I use are inspired by my cultural background, but also relate to the power of repetition, circulation of information, and the forces that proliferate some details while censoring other facts.


Photo: Quincy Stamper 2015

I should also note that, for me, Islamic geometries and ornamentation are not merely a superficial decorative element but a vital dimension of objects, buildings, and textiles. The use of these patterns in the Islamic world has cosmological and metaphysical meaning that alludes to ideals of harmony and transient beauty. I use Islamic ornamentation from a secular position, to speak to the power of change and the potential of what the world could really be, so that we may look at a pattern beyond the beauty of its decorative elements… as a visible symbol of the invisible ideal to be achieved.

Threshold was on view at the Asian Art Museum from March 27th May 3rd, 2015. If you did not have a chance to see the exhibition in person, or missed the Artist Drawing Club program Crossing Threshold, you can watch the video below to get a sense of it.

Join us for the next Artist Drawing Club event The Testimony Project Kickoff: A Night of Interactive, Audience-Led Research” with Eliza Gregory on Thursday, June 25th, 2015.



Draw it like you throw it

photo by Quincy Stamper 2015.

photo by Quincy Stamper 2015.

Teresa Williams, public program intern, interviews artist Erik Scollon about his work and his Artists Drawing Club project which took place at the museum, March 19, 2015.

Stepping close, visitors gathered around the Korean moon jar from the Joseon dynasty.  As their eyes swept across the ceramic’s form, taking in its smooth and elegant shape, its simplistic beauty evoked great appreciation.  Erik Scollon, ceramicist and professor, allowed for the object’s beauty to captivate the visitors for a moment before beginning  to describe the process behind creating the object before them. . As Erik described the way the ceramist’s hands slowly created the form, the visitors developed a deeper respect for the work.

Leading the group back downstairs, Erik brought visitors to a long table stocked with ink, watercolor paper, and paintbrushes. He asked the group to imagine themselves in the potter’s seat, building and forming a ceramic piece from scratch. Taking his brush, Erik dipped it in indigo acrylic ink and touched it to a piece of paper to create a blue dot in its middle. He then slowly added simple brush strokes, swirling tightly around the dot, to create the form of a circle. He asked the group to follow his lead. As each slow, methodical brush stroke completed its rotation, the dot grew larger and larger, expanding outward from its center.


photo by Quincy Stamper 2015.

photo by Quincy Stamper 2015.

This simple drawing exercise helps Erik meditate on building form in his work. I had the pleasure of interviewing Erik both before and after his Artist Drawing Club program. During these discussions, I learned more about his career as an artist, how he helps shape the next generation of artists, where he finds inspiration, and what he means by “draw it like you throw it.” Here are excerpts from our discussions:

photo by Quincy Stamper, 2015.

photo by Quincy Stamper, 2015.

Teresa: When did you decide you wanted to become an artist? What is it about ceramics that spoke to you?

Erik: I’m not really sure when I decided I wanted to be an artist. I was always interested in making things, I guess because of my Midwestern background. My dad had a workshop in the basement, and he showed me how to use tools. I thought this was something everyone did. In junior high school I had wood shop and metal shop. I don’t think I saw those classes as vocational training—I thought of them as art classes in a different format. So I was always making things. In high school, I took a ceramics class at the local community college and knew that I loved it. I liked ceramics because it was a very physical kind of art making, and it spoke to the athlete in me. I was used to the discipline of being on a swim team, so the years of practice it took in order to make a good pot on the potter’s wheel didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, I liked that you could only get good through discipline.

Teresa: When you were starting your career as an artist, whose work did you find most influential in shaping your practice? Which artists inspire you now?

Erik: The first artist I remember being really excited about was Jonathan Borofsky, who I discovered during my freshman year of college. My work is not very much like his, but his vision and way of working really excited me. Being exposed to his work expanded my ideas about what art could be, what it could look like, and how it could function in the world.

Today, picking a short list of influential artists is really difficult. I’m overexposed to, and possibly overloaded with, work that I love through sites like Tumblr and any number of art blogs. Lately, I’ve been thinking about color and how slippery and difficult it is to put words to describe it. I’ve been looking at painters and the way they use color to help me think about color in my own work.

Teresa: Can you describe to me the process that you call “draw it like you throw it”?

Erik: Making a sphere on the potter’s wheel is a process where the form emerges slowly. I find the process of meditative drawing feels similar to the way that I throw pots on the potter’s wheel, where I get to evaluate, respond, and adjust until I feel out the form and it feels “right.”

Teresa: You teach students at UC Berkeley and at California College of the Arts. How does your teaching practice shape your artistic practice and vice versa?

photo by Quincy Stamper, 2015.

photo by Quincy Stamper, 2015.

Erik: I think teaching and art making go hand in hand. Each of the projects I assign the students starts with my particular interests, and I teach the kinds of skills I value. But, hopefully, students can find their own voices within the constraints of the assignment. And, because so much of my time is taken up with teaching, I get to keep my mind and hands active by proxy of what I do in the classroom. More than once I’ve realized that I was getting a little too involved in a class demo, because I hadn’t had enough studio time of my own. But watching the students work is always a revelation. They approach something that I think that I know in a different way, in a way that expands my ideas and helps me understand them better. I often get really excited about what they do, which in turn gets them excited about what they’re doing.

Teresa: Can you tell me about your work Using Erik Scollon? How did the idea come about?

Erik: Using Erik Scollon came about when I was invited to participate in a figurative clay show in Ohio. At that time I was making mostly vessels and functional objects, often with a participatory twist to them. So, I just fused the ideas of “figure” and “vessel” together. At the start of the show there was a wall of cups; when placed together, the paintings on them created my figure. One by one, visitors would take a cup from the wall if they agreed to make a video of themselves using the cup. In this way the portrait slowly disappeared. I was interested in how people responded and interpreted the simple cup object. Some of the response videos were stunning and enlightening. The idea underneath the whole thing had to do with a subtle queering of the objects and how that provoked viewer responses. There was one person who created a really beautiful video of a cup being used a bunch of different ways during the day.

Join us at the next Artist Drawing Club event on May 28, 2015, as we welcome artist Ma Li to the Asian Art Museum. We hope to see you there!

Tradition on Fire

UntitledT-071, 2007, by Akiyama Yo(Japanese, b.1953).	Stoneware. Courtesy	 of the Paul and	Kathy Bissinger Collection.

Untitled T-071, 2007, by Akiyama Yo (Japanese, b. 1953). Stoneware. Courtesy of the Paul and Kathy Bissinger Collection.

We’ve transformed our Japanese painting gallery on the second floor into a contemporary ceramics gallery. This exhibition, titled Tradition on Fire, introduces works from the Paul and Kathy Bissinger Collection. It includes twenty two works by twenty artists. This is our first large Japanese contemporary ceramics exhibition at the Asian Art Museum.

The twenty artists included in this show carry on the long tradition of Japanese ceramics, but at the same time depart from the tradition in search of the new. They fired new and innovative ceramics—hence the title, Tradition on Fire. Moving beyond the role of artisans who repetitively produce traditional utilitarian vessels, these artists use clay as a medium of personal expression.

Cornucopia 03-III, 2003, by Tashima Etsuko (Japanese, b. 1959). Stoneware, pigments, glass. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, Promised gift of Paul and Kathy Bissinger.

Cornucopia 03-III, 2003, by Tashima Etsuko (Japanese, b. 1959). Stoneware, pigments, glass. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, Promised gift of Paul and Kathy Bissinger.

An exciting piece of news is that Paul and Kathy Bissinger have donated a major piece by Tashima Etsuko to the museum. It is one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition. I especially like the opposing qualities of opaque white ceramic and translucent blue glass with which she masterfully composed a unique and intriguing sculpture. We are grateful for this generous gift, which will enable us to better tell the story of contemporary Japanese art to our visitors.


All images © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Dual Natures in Ceramics: Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea

Yeesookyung 2

“In modern art, as everyone knows, the beauty of deformity is very often emphasized, insisted upon. But how different is Korean deformity. The former is produced deliberately, the latter naturally. Korean work is merely the natural result of the artisan’s state of mind, which is free from dualistic man-made rules.”

– Bernard Leach (1887–1979)

Have you been to San Francisco Airport lately? If so, you’ve probably seen these gorgeous pieces on display while walking to your gate.


Our very own Hyonjeong Kim Han, Associate Curator for Korean art at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, served as a guest curator of Dual Natures in Ceramics; Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea. She explains it best:

“It is extremely exciting to see Korea’s past and present through beautiful ceramics come together at SFO gallery in Terminal 3. It is the first time that the Asian Art Museum and SFO Museum together present Korean art in one of the busiest places in the city.

We live in a world of dual natures, such as departure and arrival; yin and yang; existence and nonexistence; beginning and ending; past and future. I hope people appreciate how the eight Korean artists in the show transcend this duality in our lives and art.”

Duel Natures in Ceramics

Catch this exhibition before it takes off for good on Feb. 22, 2015.


All pictures in this post: Private Collection, Photography courtesy of SFO Museum.

Making Korean Ceramics

When is the last time you saw something creative and beautiful that you just had to share? Last week, I was privileged to visit the California College of Arts to join a ceramics class presenting their final works of the semester. This class consists of students in their first and second years and introduces to them historical ceramic works of art led by their instructor, Erik Scollon. And guess what was chosen as the subject this time around? Korean ceramics! The artworks covered celadon, buncheong, and blue-and-white porcelain—the history of Korean ceramics in one room. I felt like I was entering a gallery space in a museum. From far away, the works these students created looked just like our museum’s collection. Can you recognize any?


It was amazing to see one artwork transform into different pieces of art, showing off these students’ skills and creativity. One work they chose was the Asian Art Museum’s vase decorated with peonies and butterflies. Funny enough, the students used our online collection to view photos but we do not provide an image of the reverse side, meaning they could not see the butterfly! Each student created their own butterfly to decorate the vase. Look at how diverse the results were.


This class really inspired me to learn beyond my art historical background. The students demonstrated for us how two artworks in our collection would have been thrown on the wheel. One artwork would have its foot trimmed out, while the other would be thrown separately and then attached through slipping and scoring.



Many visitors to our museum ask the question, “How was this made?” I’ll admit, many times I don’t know the answer. These students answered many of the questions I had and have heard over the years. What causes the beautiful crackling on the celadon glaze? The answer: Reduction. It occurs when the glaze and clay dry at different rates, the clay drying faster than the glaze. Did you know that cobalt blue is actually a pink powder?



I’d like to share with you some of their works in detail.

Amazing, right? This class is an inspiration for our museum to work harder to display beautiful artworks that can then be interpreted by people today. This hands-on experience was a true privilege and I can’t wait to see what the next semester brings! Thank you to Erik and his wonderful students!


The Plight of the Wild Rhino

Update May 22, 2015: Rhinoceros poaching continues to escalate in South Africa according to National Geographic. The slaughter continues despite news reports — National Geographic and PBS – that rhinoceros horns have no medicinal value nor curative properties. The Asian Art Museum does not condone nor promote the slaughter of rhinos.

The contest to find a nickname for the beloved rhino-shaped bronze vessel allows the museum to offer insight on the significance of art works made from rhino horns, as well as the endangered state of today’s wild rhino.

The rhinoceros was of special importance to the ancient Chinese, as the museum’s famous rhinoceros-shaped vessel, which dates from 1100–1050 BCE, attests. It is an awkward fact that great artworks are sometimes created amid deplorable circumstances. It is hard not to think of the current plight of the rhinoceros when viewing artworks made from rhino horns, or indeed of that of the elephant when viewing objects made of ivory. The rhinoceros was almost extinct in China by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) due to hunting and habitat destruction. On November 10, 2011, the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and all rhino species are currently endangered. So what are we to make of rhino horn art?

Rhinoceros horn was (and still is) valued for its medicinal properties, and considered an antidote to poison. Often carved into cups, it became a prized medium of artistic expression, and Chinese artists created great works of art from it; the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of particular excellence.

Examples of rhinoceros horn objects are on view in the museum’s Gallery 17, on the second floor. By displaying these objects we hope to improve understanding of traditional Chinese art and also to heighten awareness of the current threat to an animal long esteemed in Chinese culture, and admired by people the world over. For more information about rhino conservation, visit the World Wildlife Fund.

Small Things

“Monumental” is how I would describe much of the exhibition, Roads of Arabia, with its colossal stone sculptures to the massive gilded doors of the Ka’ba, putting the small things at risk of being missed. So I want to draw your attention to three pint-sized artworks for the next time you visit the exhibition.

Male figurine, 2500–2000 BCE. Probably Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1177.

Male figurine, 2500–2000 BCE. Probably Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1177.

This small figurine (cat. no. 39) in Gallery 1 (Osher Gallery) was discovered by chance on the island of Tarut in northeastern Arabia. It represents a seated man, wrapped in a cloak; his deep-set eyes, long hair, and beard are characteristic of statues of worshipers associated with Mesopotamia. The figure is carved in lapis lazuli, a highly-prized semiprecious stone imported from a region in present-day Afghanistan.

Scarab, 1st millennium BCE. Egypt. Tin-glazed earthenware and gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2227.

Scarab, 1st millennium BCE. Egypt. Tin-glazed earthenware and gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2227.

The scarab (cat. no. 185) in Gallery 2 (Hambrecht Gallery) was brought into Qaryat al-Faw in southern Arabia from Egypt. The scarab is made of tin-glazed earthenware and set into a gold mount. The back side (flat side) has Egyptian hieroglyphs that unfortunately have not been deciphered. And standing only 1.5 cm (less than an inch) tall, this object is the smallest artwork in the exhibition.

Dinar, 778–779. Saudi Arabia; Darb Zubayda, Ha’il site. Gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1/A H.

Dinar, 778–779. Saudi Arabia; Darb Zubayda, Ha’il site. Gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1/A H.

And finally in Gallery 3 (Lee Gallery) is a group of ten coins made of gold and silver. They were found along one of the major pilgrimage roads, and each was minted outside of the Arabian Peninsula; one as far away as Samarqand, in present-day Uzbekistan. Each gold coin is called a dinar and has a specific weight equivalent to 4.25 grams (0.15 ounce); each silver piece is called a dirham and has a specific weight equivalent to 3.0 grams (0.10 ounce). Dinar and dirham coins remained official currency until the early 20th century.

Though small, these objects testify to the Arabian Peninsula’s role as a cultural crossroads over the thousands of years that this exhibition covers.

Visualizing Consciousness: Hybrids, Fractals, and Ritual

Enter the Mandala gallery view

Mandalas are geometric maps of Vajrayana Buddhist visionary worlds. Whether painted or sculpted, they typically consist of nested squares and circles whose fractal geometries define the center of the cosmos and the four cardinal directions. Minutely detailed and saturated with philosophical meaning, mandalas are a feast for the eyes and the mind.

For Buddhist meditators, however, mandalas are not just images to view, but worlds to enter. To work with a mandala, practitioners first re-create it in their mind’s eye, and then imaginatively enter its world.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation?

The Asian Art Museum’s mini-exhibition Enter the Mandala says ‘yes.’ In this exhibition, three historically important, largely unpublished 14th century paintings from an original set of five align gallery space with the cardinal directions, thus virtually transforming open space into an architectural mandala. In this way, visitors can literally ‘enter the mandala,’ exploring dimensions of Buddhist art and philosophy in a manner that is simultaneously immersive and transformative.

One of the most important aspects of mandala-oriented artwork is its emphasis on fractal geometries. Formally, a fractal is an image composed of microcosmic copies of itself. Under these conditions, the image in question repeats at multiple scales. Beautiful fractal imagery such as the famous Mandelbrot set is generated from an iterated mathematical formula. Such patterns appear throughout nature, from the structure of the nautilus shell to the California coast.

Fractal geometries are also a key component of Buddhist art production across time and culture, too. Perhaps the best example of Buddhist artwork employing fractal geometry is the mandala. The intricately nested squares and circles that comprise mandala space are hypnotically beautiful. But there is a big difference between something like the Mandelbrot set and the mandala.

For Buddhist meditators, the mandala is not merely an image to view, but a world to enter. In mandala practice, meditators first visualize the mandala precisely in their mind’s eye. Subsequently, they imagine themselves as entering the geometries of the world created in this manner. Typically, such procedures involve intense training undertaken over many years.

For museum visitors, our question is this: is it possible to recreate this kind experience without years of meditative discipline, while remaining as authentic as possible in our presentation? In other words, can we use traditional artworks to create a situation where visitors find themselves inside the nested geometries of the mandala, such that they experienced themselves as immersed in a fractal? We think so, and we also think that an exhibition conceived in this manner is quite authentic to prominent perspectives within Buddhist tradition.

Indeed, the creation of an immersive, fractal environment such as that of the mandala has a long history in Buddhist meditative culture. Perhaps best known are ‘immersive’ cave environments at Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province. These caves were excavated in order to catalyze visionary realizations corresponding to those described in certain Buddhist texts. Here, mirrors were placed around meditators to create infinitely receding, mutually embedded perceptions of oneself. This was apparently done in an effort to help meditators perceive the fundamental structure of awareness, such that the entire environment becomes a “mirror hall that bounces the reflections of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in all directions and projects the visualizing individual’s own presence to the Buddha assemblies,” according to Harvard Buddhologist Eugene Wang (1995: 265).

Enter the Mandala’s installation is obviously not an attempt to reconstruct any specific physical or architectural environment like the Dunhuang caves. However, the nature of its construction does create a visual parallel to Wang’s description of the Dunhuang mirror-meditation environment. Standing at the center of the mandala gallery, visitors can see reflections of the gilded Nepalese Stupa recede infinitely in all four directions, mandalas in mandalas as far as the eye can see – a situation in which visitors themselves are immersed. In this way, visitors not only experience an exciting visual effect, they can potentially learn a powerful lesson about awareness from the environment: that it always refers to and contains itself, and thus mirrors the situation visually perceived in the mandala room.

Tonight, I will be speaking with visual artist Saya Woolfalk at UC Berkeley about creative influences and religious content in the exhibition and the performance made in response to it. One of the things that has excited me most about Saya’s work is how effectively it dovetails with and sheds light upon some of the most important aspects of the Vajrayana – especially its emphasis on transformative virtual environments that prominently feature the fractal phenomenon. Just as so many of Saya’s work involves large-scale imagery composed of smaller elements of itself, it has much in common with the nested, fractal geometries characteristic of the mandala environment.

Beyond formal considerations, I’m fascinated by Saya’s idea of the hybrid beings she calls the Empathics. Their key characteristic is that the term Empathics refers both to a species hybridized from human and non-human elements, and to the artworks that facilitate such hybridization. For as it turns out, Vajrayana artworks like mandalas are also all about hybridization. For example, many of the images found in mandalas represent composite beings, a type of imagery that reflects the fundamental Buddhist philosophy that all modes of existence, from the mineral to the plant to the animal, are potentially inter-connectible. Indeed, one of the purposes of the ou-topia, the “non-place” of the mandala environment, is to allow the meditator to visualize enlightened beings, and in the wake of the practice actively and physically to identify with the visualized being. Under these conditions, the meditator becomes a hybrid, part human and part something more “awake” (which is the verbal root the word “Buddha” comes from).

There is another parallel here, this time between Saya’s artwork and the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism as a whole. That is, Saya’s emphasis on hybridization of beings parallels the fact that the Vajrayana is itself the product of a hybridization of Asian cultures. In fact, it might also be called a meta-tradition, since it transcends – on its own understanding and in its own history – any specific culturally-defined religious system. Similarly, Saya’s Empathics also transcend species specificity. Accordingly, the Empathics are a parallel example of a meta-being, one whose constitution transcends that of any specific natural kingdom. Finally, the notion of an Empathic is compelling as well, since a similar awareness of the sentience of others (called karuna in Sanskrit) forms one of the linchpins of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and practice. For all of these reasons, I look forward to a fascinating “meta-dialog” between these ostensibly diverse worlds of contemporary and traditional artworks – a project essential to developing models of artistic creation and usage that apply across what we typically recognize as contexts.

Jung Ran Bae breathes a dream into the museum

"TEAter-Totter," 2014, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Porcelain. Lent by the artist. Photo courtesy of Michael Rauner Photography.

“TEAter-Totter,” 2014, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Porcelain. Lent by the artist. Photo courtesy of Michael Rauner Photography.

I distinctly remember my first meeting with Jung Ran Bae last year and her response to Samsung Hall. She was in awe of the space. As I learned about her work, so many possible project ideas entered my mind, from engaging her practice as a ceramicist in connection with the museum’s collection, to developing a project around time, which is an element that seemed to creep into many of her works. Trying to contain my excitement, I realized again that I had to give myself over to the artist and her process, keeping my own ideas to myself. The artist was going to have to drive the project. As we walked around the space, she puzzled, “How could I possibly fill up this space?” We talked about installation, light and sound. This question became the touchstone of the project, something from which Jung Ran Bae could build. As we embark on the final project of the Artists Drawing Club of 2014, I sat down with the artist to discuss her art, including her performance work and her upcoming project Breathe, which will take place on Thursday, August 28 at the museum.


Marc Mayer (MM): What is it about ceramics that appeals to you?

Jung Ran Bae (JRB): I consider myself a sculptor who works mainly with clay for its pliable quality. When I first went to school, I wanted to be a fashion illustrator or go into fashion business. In the curriculum, you had to take mandatory classes of 3-D art. I took a ceramic class and fell in love with the material. I was hooked by clay. Like when you fall in love with someone, you don’t know why. But I realized that one thing I liked about it was how malleable it is—you can create anything you want. In visual images like illustrations for sewing designs or architectural drawings, they use dotted lines to show an unfinished shape. When I work with clay and imagine a sculpture, I constantly see those types of dotted lines. Then, I can make exactly what I imagine with clay because it is moldable, supple.

MM: Are there any works of ceramics that are touchstones for you? What are some other sources of inspiration?

JRB: I have always really liked images of Salvador Dalí and surrealism. I find inspiration in Robert Arneson’s and Claes Oldenburg’s work. Viola Frey was my teacher. I was inspired by her passion, scale and devotion to her work. Later, Ann Hamilton’s impressive installations sparked something in me. I like life-size and large works with delicate details. Large-scale objects excite me and feel more real. I like for my work to give visual pleasure and provide visual impact.

MM: You were part of the affiliate artist program at Headlands Center for the Arts, in Marin, for two and a half years, where you started to develop a new performance-based practice. In what ways are your ceramics related to your performances?

JRB: In graduate school, I spent about seven months challenging myself by creating the biggest ceramic installation possible. This blobby piece was 12 x 10 feet and 8 feet tall. It was huge. I was so proud to show my work to my professor. She listened to my explanation and said to me, “Ran, if someone just walked into your space, what if they could sense your story through just an image or through their sense of smell? Wouldn’t that be great?” I was shocked. I felt like she was telling me this was not enough.

Yet her comment was a totally new concept for me and led me to experiment with exactly what my teacher was talking about. I wanted to experience performance art, because it seems it is the total opposite of making objects, and it made me think differently about “art.”

The environment at Headlands led me in a certain direction. I always wanted to do something more experimental and wondered how I was going to capture people’s attention. It was through performance. I later realized that my ability to make sculptures and my experimental mind in performance merged naturally.

MM: For you what is important about creating an environment that appeals to the senses?

JRB: Emotions play an important role in creating work, and my desire as an artist is to share that with viewers. My favorite part of performance art is connecting directly with my audience. Even though I don’t do as much performances these days, I still have the desire to connect with the viewer. So creating a sensorial experience offers the viewer a way to connect. Art is such an emotional and thoughtful practice. Whether viewers are aware or not, I believe emotions play an important role for artists. I like to create the same emotion in the viewer’s mind. If I’m able to do this, I feel like my artwork is fulfilled.

"Human Betweens," 2014, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Ceramic. Lent by the artist. Photo courtesy of Michael Rauner Photography.

“Human Betweens,” 2014, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Ceramic. Lent by the artist. Photo courtesy of Michael Rauner Photography.

MM: TEAter-Totter and Human Betweens are on view in the museum’s Korean art galleries. Can you tell us more about each work?

JRB: Human Betweens includes several small houses with differently posed figures placed on top. The surfaces of the houses are scratched, textured. The figures do not have mouths. I tried to create a unique human experience through each of the gestures and postures.

TEAter-Totter has three stacks of teacups, ranging from 3½ to 6 feet. They are very stable as a piece itself but look off-balanced and unstable. It creates a sense of tension. I actually made this teacup tower as part of another installation. For TEAter-Totter to become an independent piece, a fulfilled artwork itself, is exciting. Somehow these components of the installation became centerpieces. It both pleases and surprises me. But again, you never know what life will bring when you do something new.

MM: Local Korean artist Yoong Bae was a mentor for many Korean artists in the Bay Area before his death in 1992. Can you tell me about your relationship with Yoong Bae?

JRB: I met Yoong Bae in my second semester at college. My first spring show was scheduled so I called and told him about my show. We hadn’t met at this point, but I had heard about him from the local community. I didn’t expect him to come but he came! When I visited his studio, I asked him what he thought was the most important thing for a successful artist. He said that if you can manage to go to your studio every day, then you are able to create work. If you are able to create work for a long time, then that is success. He wasn’t really a talkative type, but I could tell that he was sincere. I think he believed that it was his role to encourage young, enthusiastic artists. I am so honored that my new works are on view with his paintings.

"Portable Years," 1997, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Paper Cups, aluminum and nylon wheels. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

“Portable Years,” 1997, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Paper Cups, aluminum and nylon wheels. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

MM: Time has a kind of haunting presence in Still, Portable Years, and TEAter-Totter. What role does time play in them?

JRB: There are a lot of elements of dealing with time in my work. Yet I don’t consider time as the initial concept for any of my works. Still took twelve years, but I never planned for it to take so long. For Still, I was excited by the contrast between significant and insignificant deaths, combining dead insects and obituaries. But if I only had a few of these together, I realized it was not going to have the impact I wanted. So it became part of my daily routine, a simple act of collecting an insect and cutting out an obituary. It was a small act, but after fourteen years it resulted in twelve long coffin-shaped frames filled with dead insects together with obituaries. To me, the most important part of this artwork is my experience over those fourteen years. It started out with simple curiosity but after three years, I had created an art form. I started feeling greedy. I wanted as many insects as possible, to fill up those twelve coffins. I realized that I couldn’t rush this process without going out and actively catching insects; I had to find a way to settle and feel satisfied with the daily ritual.

"Still" (detail), 2005, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Insects, pins, newspaper obituaries, fabric, wood and glass. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

“Still” (detail), 2005, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Insects, pins, newspaper obituaries, fabric, wood and glass. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

MM: Since long spans of time seem to be an inherent element in your process, do your works ever become “complete” or feel finished?

JRB: At a certain point, I do feel my works are complete and finished. Before I start any work, I spend quite a long time thinking about how I will frame this work into an art form. When I have a clear vision, there’s no hesitation at all. You just have to keep going, keep repeating. I’m not sure why, but I tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. I don’t think it’s about the material I’m collecting; I think it’s about that moment. I like to save or collect the moment. Whether I’m having a sad thought or good day, I am collecting my moments. Moments of reflection. Moments of thought. Moments of wisdom. Moments of insight. Moments of emotion.

"Still" 2005, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Insects, pins, newspaper obituaries, fabric, wood and glass. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

“Still” 2005, by Jung Ran Bae (Korean, b. 1955). Insects, pins, newspaper obituaries, fabric, wood and glass. Photo courtesy of the artist. © Jung Ran Bae.

MM: What was the inspiration for your Artists Drawing Club project Breathe?

JRB: The whole idea was inspired by the space and scale of Samsung Hall. It’s grand. I wanted the challenge to figure out how to fill up that huge space. I think the only way I could do it is with sound. The room is beautiful and elegant, but at the same time it is rigid and cold. I wanted to play with contrasts of textures. The room is Beaux Arts architecture, so it is very classical style. I wanted to continue to play with visual contrast by using some kitschy material in the project and tease those sensibilities a little. The fake white fur I am using is soft, playful and kind of cheap looking.  I really wish the contrast of these materials with architecture enhance the beauty of Samsung Hall. Textural, visual, and conceptual contrast inspired me for the Artists Drawing Club.

Jung Ran Bae’s studio, in preparation for "Breathe."

Jung Ran Bae’s studio, in preparation for “Breathe.”

MM: How would you describe your project, Breathe, for the Artists Drawing Club?  What experience do you imagine a visitor might have?

JRB: Imagine walking into Samsung Hall and hearing the sound of deep, soft breathing or a heartbeat. Viewers will see a landscape of white fur hills, creating pathways through the space. While walking these paths visitors can touch the fur hills, feeling the softness on their hands or even their faces.  Finally the path leads to a tiny house.  As each person approaches this 7-foot-tall house, also covered in white fur, there is a small door at face height and the viewer is invited to open it. Looking through, he or she will see a breathing face at the end of the corridor, corresponding to the sound in the room.  When visitors turn around, they will find a hidden heart on the back of one of the fur hills and can touch the gently beating heart and feel it beat. I want sound of breath and heartbeats to help make the experience sensual and give life to Samsung Hall. I also want to create comfort and inspire a sense of playfulness in contrast to the impressive architecture. For example the shapes of the hills look like some sort of creatures making humorous gestures. My desire is to create a sensory experience, much like a dream.

Michael Arcega’s “Rerereading Arrangements” Scores the Museum

When I conceived of the Artists Drawing Club series, Michael Arcega was one of the first artists I envisioned working with to create an event. Rarely have I looked at an artwork and thought, “Wow, what a wicked sense of humor!” I think it is something I have experienced a total of three times in my life, once looking at a Mike Kelley work, another looking at the work of Rachel Harrison, and most recently looking at works by Michael Arcega. It is Arcega’s mastery of humor and language that compelled me to see his lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute last year. The artist’s talent at unfolding and exposing language and modes of expression is remarkable, but when it is handled with comic precision akin to Richard Pryor or George Carlin, the work becomes sharp, funny, and poignant. I was enthralled by each project he spoke about.

With the help of summer intern Jessica Modine Young, we composed a few questions to ask the artist to get a better understanding of his work through humor, language, and history as well as find out what he has planned for the Artists Drawing Club on July 24.

Marc Mayer: Language, the alteration of language, the act of translation, and occasionally a misreading/misunderstanding seem to be constantly at play in your works. How would you describe your relationship to language? In what ways does it inform your practice?

Michael Arcega: My relationship to the idiosyncrasies of language is largely cultural. Wordplay in the Filipino culture is ubiquitous. Punning, flipping, inverting, slicing, and splicing words were common games when I grew up in Manila. This combined with multiple long-term engagements with many nations and colonizers had contributed to the complexities of these games. As a fledgling artist, I felt a kinship with artists like Marcel Duchamp, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, Paul Kos, and Carlos Villa. Their exploration into words really opened up my creative world. I started likening them to objects, composing with language, ideas, and loaded objects to make sculptures and installations. Words became another material.

MM: Something I am struck by is the humor that emerges from your work. Conveying humor through visual art, I find one of the most difficult feats to accomplish. Can you describe the impact that humor has on your practice and finished work?

MA: Humor is deeply connected to wordplay. So there is a natural intermingling of the two. What isn’t obvious is how the mechanics of jokes are present in the work. Jokes have a wide range of formats, there’s the timing, a tone, the delivery and a punch line. Also, jokes do not happen in a bubble—it’s a dialog. When I’m crafting a work, I consider the format (context and materials), pacing, tone, delivery (the work revealing itself), and the punch line (hopefully, it keeps unfolding afterwards). Also, there needs to be a balance of legibility and opacity. If the references are too esoteric, no one will get it. But if it’s too obvious, it will be boring.

MM: It sounds like prepping for a performance as a stand-up comic, in a way. Along those lines, how, if at all, do you consider viewers as part of your practice?

MA: Yes, I make work with the intention that someone else will be looking at “this” thing. My practice is built upon a dialog with others who participate in the arts, and any viewer is a participant.

Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction)by Michael Arcega, 2008. Single Channel video, audio, and framed lyrics, size varies per installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction)by Michael Arcega, 2008. Single Channel video, audio, and framed lyrics, size varies per installation. Courtesy of the artist.

MM: While researching your work, there are two artworks that linger in my mind. One is Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction) and the other is Decreolization: an arrangement from dark to light. I’m wondering if you would speak about each of those works.

MA: Both these works have a transformative element applied to them. There is a hidden rule that the original has succumbed to. Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction) was produced by taking the Philippines national anthem, Lupang Hinirang, and processing it through Microsoft Word’s spell check. Decreolization: an arrangement from light to dark was processed through a hierarchic system that favors light over dark, standard over odd. Although, they seem conceptually distant, both works are metaphors for colonization and assimilation. The transformations are driven by an external ideal, one that is imposed by the dominant hand.

Decreolization: an arrangement from dark to light by Michael Arcega, 2013. Rejected Bahraini pottery. Courtesy of the artist.

Decreolization: an arrangement from dark to light by Michael Arcega, 2013. Rejected Bahraini pottery. Courtesy of the artist.

MM: Metaphors of colonization and assimilation seem to unify a lot of your work, which engage with narratives of colonialism directly, or if it is more subtle it really explores histories of cultural hybridity. Can you elaborate on what holds your interest and attention to keep exploring these metaphors in conceptual frameworks as well as the materials and objects you use?

MA: My relationship to colonialism and post-colonial issues has shifted over the years. I’ve explored it from the perspective of the colonized, then as the colonizer, as the assimilated, and now as an explorer. Overall, the crux is the complex relationship between two or more cultures. Often, one is more powerful than the other—it’s asymmetrical. I feel that this collision and collusion are perfectly embodied in contact languages—Pidgins and Creoles. This is very different from hybridity, which presumes that there is a symmetrical relationship. Contact languages are almost always generated from contact situations where one dominates another. Our contemporary power struggles are far more complicated. It is this system that I’m trying to understand with my current work.

MM: Rerereading Arrangements is a project in collaboration with composer and experimental musician, Chris Brown. Is this your first time working with sound or music?

MA: I’ve always been interested in sound and have had a high respect for those who compose and perform sound/music. I explored it pretty seriously during my undergrad, but it phased out of my practice as I progressed. But lately, my explorations into translations and language have naturally brought me back to sound. Works like Nacireman Inventions: Cultural Phonemes conflate the object with sound (or the idea of sounds). In that piece, I treated each object as sound—like a phoneme (a word fragment), each object was an idea fragment.

This project starts with an examination of the Asian Art Museum’s permanent collection. The history of museums and collections is a colonial one. By looking past the individual items and focusing on the presentation and the taxonomy, we can start to ask questions about the institution. In this scenario, we are trying to reveal the framework through sound.

MM: What role do you hope collaboration plays in the context of this project? What roles has collaboration played in previous projects?

MA: Chris Brown is an extremely talented and knowledgeable artist. I was honored that he agreed to collaborate with me on this work. When Chris and I were in a residency at Villa Montalvo, he was working on a piano piece tuned to a South Asian sensibility. It was later finished as 6Primes. (It was premiered recently at the Center for New Music.) He and I share an interest in drawing together disparate cultural references. This project fits seamlessly with our shared interests.

I haven’t placed many expectations, but I have asked a few questions. Hopefully this collaboration will tease out answers or draw out more questions. In the visual arts, collaborations are difficult. However, in the sound/music world they are essential. Surprisingly, this collaboration has been fluid and fun (as a visual artist, I expected it to be harder—just one expectation). We are finding ways to deconstruct the arrangements at the museum. As a seasoned experimental music player, Chris is able to guide us through the more complicated displays and complex objects. We also chose our own instruments for the project and rehearsing with them has been quite enjoyable.

Chris Brown and Michael Arcega rehearsing "Rerereading Arrangements." 2014.

Chris Brown and Michael Arcega rehearsing “Rerereading Arrangements.” 2014.

MM: Where did the idea for Rerereading Arrangements originate? How has it developed? What contributions have arisen through working with Chris?

MA: Rerereading Arrangements is a continuation of a project/question. It’s an investigation of Western culture through a Pacific-centric lens. The repeating of the first syllable comes from the conjugational rules of Tagalog—repeating turns the root word into a verb. By absurdly applying a Tagalog conjugation to an English verb makes it sound like a scratched record. It also emphasizes a repetitive event. Arrangements is used as a pun that refers to the museum displays and also the musical score.

Chris and I grew up in the Philippines and we share a love for crossing over. Already, our rehearsals have been giving shape to the arrangements that are unexpected. With each display, we wonder—what would that sound like? It’s exciting because neither of us know. The displays inspire their own rules on how they are interpreted. Chris is deftly skilled at finding those rules. He brings a deep insight to improvisation, experimental scores, and music history. In many ways, he has been a sonic translator.


Michael Arcega is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in sculpture and installation. Directly informed by historic events, material significance and the format of jokes, his subject matter deals with sociopolitical circumstances in which power relations are unbalanced. As a naturalized American, Michael incorporates a geographic dimension to his investigation of the cultural markers embedded in objects, food, and architecture. Michael was born in Manila, Philippines, and migrated to the Los Angeles area at 10 years old. He received a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and attended Stanford University for his MFA. He is an assistant professor of art at San Francisco State University.

Chris Brown is an American composer, pianist and electronic musician who creates music for acoustic instruments with interactive electronics for computer networks and improvising ensembles. He has invented and built electroacoustic instruments and performed widely as a pianist. In 1986 he co-founded the pioneering computer-network music ensemble The Hub, and he has received commissions from the Berkeley Symphony, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the Abel Steinberg Winant Trio, the Gerbode Foundation, the Phonos Foundation and the Creative Work Fund. He teaches composition and electronic music at Mills College in Oakland, where he is co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music.