Phantoms of Asia Tour, Part 3: Asian Cosmologies

Indian Cosmological Painting

Cosmological painting, approx. 1750–1850. India; Rajasthan. Opaque watercolors on cloth. From the Collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., 2005.64.54.

Recently staff were treated to an exclusive tour of Phantoms of Asia led by Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Allison Harding. While Allison can’t personally escort every visitor around the galleries, we wanted to share the experience. We’ll be presenting a series of posts based on the tour, with Allison’s insights into the works and the artists who created them. In our third episode, we explore Asian cosmologies through some very different works.

As you enter Hambrecht Gallery, you’ll see a large Indian cosmological painting. Many people, including guest curator Mami Kataoka, name it as one of their favorite pieces in the exhibition. If you’re like many of us, you’ll be surprised to learn that the painting is not one of the contemporary works in the show; it dates from some time between 1750 and 1850. It has been in our collection for some time but has never been on view before; the video below gives a glimpse into the painstaking conservation effort that made it ready for this exhibition.

The painting uses a common geometry of interconnected spheres to represent the cosmos. It’s a convention that you also see in Tibetan thangkas, including an example that hangs opposite the painting. The work begs to be decoded—as with contemporary art, there is no single established reading of this painting, and the viewer is forced to let go of any expectation that they can have all the facts.

The connection between this painting and Poklong Anading‘s series Anonymity might not be immediately apparent, but these images also explore cosmological themes. In an earlier post we shared Mami Kataoka’s thoughts on the relationship between the Chinese bronze mirrors and Poklong’s work, a series of nine lightboxes. On her tour, Allison spoke about how these images turn traditional ideas of portraiture on their head by deliberately obscuring the subject’s face. She also pointed out the connections to other traditions in art history, where reflections of light can suggest a connection to the spiritual realm. The individual subjects are depersonalized and placed within a larger universe. The images are always shown in groups of nine, and were reduced in size for Phantoms so that they could be displayed together in this space. An interesting fact: Originally, the curators believed that all these photographs were taken in metro Manila, but in fact some were taken in Zurich.

Developing the exhibition has not only helped us make connections between different artistic traditions, it has also led us to artists we didn’t previously know. Allison had not encountered Poklong before planning this show—they were introduced by another Filipino artist whose work is also included in Phantoms, Ringo Bunoan. The show has given us a wonderful opportunity to tap into smaller art scenes where the community of artists is more important than the gallery system, and it’s these human connections that have enabled us to bring you such a diverse selection of works. If you want to learn more about contemporary art in the Philippines, join Ringo and Poklong In Conversation on August 18.

Tour Part 1: Heman Chong
Tour Part 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Tour Part 4: Hidden Energies
Tour Part 5: The Afterlife
Tour Part 6: Myth, Ritual, Meditation
Tour Part 7: Art from Home 


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