Archive of Posts by Thomas Christensen

Head of Publications, Asian Art Museum. Outside the museum I do writing, translation, graphic design, and other literary stuff. My books with Asian art-related content include River of Ink and 1616: The World in Motion.

Praise for Emerald Cities, and the best time to visit

The best time to visit is now. This exhibition had a relatively modest PR budget, so its opening was softer than that of some other shows. But everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it says it is fantastic. That means it will be a word of mouth show, where attendance is likely to build as time goes by. Visit soon if you like a little elbow room.

Okay, fair warning: as you may have gathered, I like this show, and what follows are excerpts from and links to some of the press and online reviews (and a couple of videos), which I hope might convey something of the quality of the show. If a litany of praise is not your thing, then you can stop reading here. But if you’re considering visiting and want to hear what others are saying, then read on . . .

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Invitation to a Discussion

In this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, David Henry Hwang, whose most recent play, Yellow Face, is making its Bay Area premier, talks about race and multiculturalism. Here is a bit of what he had to say:

Whenever we talk about race or culture in this country, the discussion usually immediately becomes quite rigid, and people go to their established positions and become entrenched there. When that happens, there’s no real room for exchange, for dialogue, for really opening one’s mind to other perspectives. And humor, it seems to me, does allow for that possibility. It allows for people to relax, to open their minds, because when you’re laughing at something, then you wonder, well why am I laughing at it, it gives you an opportunity to rethink some assumptions.

The Asian Art Museum has recently been at the receiving end of some biting humor. An anonymous person (or persons), concealing identity through a privacy service, has created an imitation of the Asian Art Museum website, giving it the domain name and calling it a parody.

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Burma or Myanmar?

Governments, news organizations, and others around the world have struggled with the question of whether to use the name Myanmar (pronounced “myan-mah”) to refer to the country traditionally known as Burma.
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Bird-men of Siam

Among the most intriguing figures in the upcoming (October 23, 2009–January 10, 2010) Emerald Cities show are these mythical bird-men.  These creatures inhabit an Eden-like forest of Buddhist legend. At the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok sculptures of bird-men and bird-women surround one of the major buildings.

These figures are made of wood, and it is remarkable that they have remained as well preserved as they have; still, each has suffered significant damage that has called for intensive repair work by the museum’s conservators. Similar wooden figures were used over several centuries in various sorts of ceremonies. In the late nineteenth century, under Rama V, such statues were placed high on poles and lamposts along the boulevards of the city.

In addition to these bird-men, the exhibition will also have a bird-woman on display. Another view of the image on left is used on the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Left: Mythical bird-man, approx. 1775-1850. Central Thailand, wood with remnants of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass inlay. H. 125.7 x W. 29.8 cm. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.24.

Right: Mythical bird-man, approx. 1775-1850. Central Thailand, wood with remnants of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass inlay. H. 128.3 x W. 27.9 cm. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.23.

Hiroshima survivor visits Samurai show

On August 6, 1945, eight-year-old Takashi Tanemori was playing hide-and-seek with friends in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell less than one mile away.

The blast killed his parents, a brother, a sister, and other members of his family. Takashi, whose father was of samurai class, became an Oyanashigo—a street urchin, who survived by scrounging from garbage cans and refuse piles.
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Shanghai: Art of the City
the catalogue cover

shanghai catalogue cover

When I showed pages from our upcoming Shanghai catalogue previously I was not ready to show a cover. It looks now like this cover will probably be it. The image is a detail from a poster from the deco period. The image below shows the front cover together with the spine and back  cover.


What do you think? What qualities does this convey to you?

Sneak peek: Shanghai, the catalogue

Readers of this blog are among a select group who can see the catalogue for our upcoming Shanghai exhibition (opening February 2010) in its early stages.

Even as we are proofing color on Emerald Cities, we’re editing and designing Shanghai. As part of this process we created stylized characters for the word Shanghai. The image at right shows them on the half title page (p. i) of the book.

I don’t feel ready to show the cover, and all of this is still tentative and subject to change, but I feel good about the direction the design of this book is going. So I am going to show a few spreads in the hopes you might find them of interest. They also offer some of the first views we have made public of the art that will be included in this exhibition.
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Proofing color

This image shows chief curator Forrest McGill and Wilsted & Taylor principal Christine Taylor proofing color for our upcoming catalogue of art objects from Burma and Thailand in conjunction with the Emerald Cities exhibition.
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The “nine planetary deities” and the Hosokawa family crest

Detail from Nine deities, 1000–1100. Cambodia, former kingdom of Angkor. Stone. emGift of Edward Nagel,/em B71S9

Nine deities (detail), 1000–1100. Cambodia, former kingdom of Angkor. Stone. Gift of Edward Nagel, B71S9

We discussed the nine-planet crest of the Hosokawa family in the context of the exhibition Lords of the Samurai. The Hosokawa daimyo family adopted a crest that consisted of eight circles appearing to orbit a larger ninth circle. The term nine planets might suggest the nine planets of our solar system (if we allow Pluto), but of course there is no direct correspondence between the nine-planet motifs of Asian tradition and the nine planets of modern astronomy.

The English word planet comes from a Greek word meaning “wanderer.”
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Emerald Cities: The Catalogue

Some of the Asian Art Museum’s books are designed by our very small in-house staff, while others are outsourced. This one was designed by Tag Savage of Wilsted & Taylor, and it is a delight.

One of the issues we regularly encounter with the museum’s publications is that most American designers are strongly influenced by a Japanese aesthetic, while they are likely to know little about the design aesthetics of other Asian cultures. Even within the East Asian area, for example, we must often correct an initial Japanese orientation in designs of books on Chinese or Korean subjects.

So when it comes to nineteenth-century art from Burma and Siam, most designers come at the project from a starting point that is very foreign to the topic.
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