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. Our last post introduced Asian cosmologies; in this one, we continue through Hambrecht gallery to explore how art can connect us to hidden energies.
The most striking thing for most visitors in this gallery is the display in the center of the room of many pieces of religious sculpture from the museum’s collection. By including these pieces out of their original cultural context, the curators are intentionally countering the presentation in the upstairs galleries. The goal is to spark a conversation between the new works and the traditional ones, pulling the focus to the thematic similarities between them, rather than differences in time or space. This allows us to see the ways in which things that are ancient and traditional explore ideas artists are still grappling with. The experience is an arresting one.
Some of the connections are visual, such as the eyes in Varunika Saraf‘s paintings and our Vishnu and Lakshmi sculpture (which Chief Curator Forrest McGill discussed in an earlier post). Allison says that seeing Saraf’s intricate paintings in person has been one of the greatest surprises of the show for her. The artist packs in references—to Indian painting, to Renaissance art, to Frida Kahlo—there’s so much in it you’re bound to find something new every time.
Other works in this gallery aim to produce a spiritual response in the viewer. One is a new work created specifically for the show by New York artist Palden Weinreb. Weinreb aims to reduce his work to its simplest form in order to incite meditation. At the other end of the spectrum are NS Harsha‘s two pieces, Distress Call from Jupiter’s Neighbourhood and Distress Call from Saturn’s Neighbourhood, which bookend the gallery space with color and movement. “Garlands” of people suggest a collective universe, while drums situated at the base of the paintings represent the rhythm of the universe. Eggplants are also prominent in these works. Allison asked the artist about the meaning of the eggplants, and he replied that there is a certain absurdity in the universe, and he had wanted to reflect that by throwing eggplants into the painting. Allison admits that she’s not entirely satisfied by his explanation and she has enjoyed musing about the eggplants with colleagues and visitors.