Archive for 'Behind the Scenes'

Phantoms of Asia Tour, Part 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto

Visitor contemplating Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Five Elements".

A visitor contemplating Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Five Elements”.

In easy-to-miss Lee Gallery, visitors to Phantoms of Asia will find a row of tiny pagodas on plinths. These are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s vision of the cosmos, rendered in optical quality glass and photographs.

Sugimoto has been creating seascapes since the early 1980s. These seascapes have a personal connection for the artist because he uses the series, which is ongoing, to place events in his own life. It also has a larger meaning; the five-part Japanese pagoda represents the five elements of the cosmos, while the ocean is seen as the source of all life.

In displaying these objects, Sugimoto wants to create a sense of theater. He visited the museum a few times before Phantoms opened and determined every aspect of the room. The yellow didactic panel that explains the work is deliberately outside the room, and the fact that there is no seating was part of the artist’s design. The experience of seeing the piece is part of the work; in the intimacy of close looking the viewer can contemplate their relationship to these objects and to the universe itself.

Tour Part 1: Heman Chong
Tour Part 3: Asian Cosmologies
Tour Part 4: Hidden Energies
Tour Part 5: The Afterlife
Tour Part 6: Myth, Ritual, Meditation
Tour Part 7: Art from Home 

Asian | Education: Our New Site for Teachers

Education website homepage

Today we’re proud to announce the launch of our new site for teachers.

The new site features lesson plans, videos, discussions of artworks, activities, school tours, professional development, and everything else you might need to bring Asian art and culture into your classroom. You can even save the things you like so you’ve got your materials all in one place.

We’re adding more content all the time, so if you don’t find what you’re looking for today check back later or let us know and we’ll tell you when it’s coming. And we’d love to hear your feedback: leave your comments in the blog or contact our education team.

This site was made possible by the generous support of Bank of America and The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.







Phantoms of Asia Tour, Part 1: Heman Chong

Heman Chong, Calendars (2020-2096), 2004-2010, Offset prints on paper. 1001 sheets, each H: 11 3/4 in x W: 11 3/4 in. Installation view. Photo by Jay Jao.

Heman Chong, Calendars (2020-2096), 2004-2010, Offset prints on paper. 1001 sheets, each H: 11 3/4 in x W: 11 3/4 in. Installation view. Photo by Jay Jao.

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. First up, Heman Chong‘s Calendars (2020–2096).

In this work, Chong presents an imagined vision of the future through 1001 calendar pages starting in the year 2020. Chong started with that year because he felt that it was a kind of fulcrum: many of the big goals we hear about—around health, climate change, economic stability—take 2020 as their target date. It’s a year that could be a promise or an ultimatum.

Calendars (2020–2096) is presented with the pages attached directly to the gallery walls. Chong personally oversaw much of the installation, ensuring that the spaces between pages were absolutely uniform throughout the room. Allison commented that this uniformity put her in mind of the use of the grid in postwar art. Rosalind Krauss wrote in the Summer 1979 issue of October 9 that the “grid announces modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.” For others, the grid is about creating complexity from the simplest of formal structures. It’s an interesting context to use when thinking about Chong’s work, which deliberately shows scenes devoid of people, haunted spaces, suggesting that what we have created might outlive us. Although I’m guessing that an artist who considers social media to be part of his art practice is not entirely hostile to discourse.

The images that make up the work were all taken in Singapore. Chong wanted to use public spaces for this work, but he also never asked people to leave. He simply waited in the space until no one was around. It’s hardly surprising, then, that these images were captured over a seven-year span—including an entire year in Ikea. He did not seek permission for any of these photographs, which is significant in Singapore where the use pf public space is highly regulated.

Walking into the room that contains this work, I was at first overwhelmed. Then slowly I started to see patterns, repetition of the same location, similar locations across a single column. These are just a couple of ways you could think about it; spend some time with it and you’ll find plenty more.

Tour Part 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Tour Part 3: Asian Cosmologies
Tour Part 4: Hidden Energies
Tour Part 5: The Afterlife
Tour Part 6: Myth, Ritual, Meditation
Tour Part 7: Art from Home 

Related: Heman Chong on Sci Fi

Korean Objects Out on Loan

Sharon contemplating our Moon Jar in the National Museum of Korea's exhibition.

Sharon contemplating our Moon Jar in the National Museum of Korea's exhibition.

I just returned from delivering and overseeing the installation of 10 Asian Art Museum objects to an exhibition at the National Museum of Korea. The exhibition is called Korean Art from the United States and if you find yourself in Seoul between June 5 and August 5 you can see it for yourself.

Staff at the National Museum of Korea prepare our Standing Buddha for display.

Staff at the National Museum of Korea prepare our Standing Buddha for display.

The exhibition highlights the history and importance of Korean art collections in the United States and features Korean treasures  from museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Brooklyn Museum. For more, check out these reviews from The Korea Times and The Korea Herald.

Although we removed nine of our most precious Korean objects from display for this loan, including our Standing Buddha, the Moon Jar and Tiger jar, we have borrowed five objects from the collections of the National Museum of Korea to replace them. Come and see them soon in the Korean gallery.


Art and Science: Shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

We tend to think we see everything about an object when we look at it with our naked eyes. This gem-encrusted shrine from Nepal is a great example. Above, you see the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in a miniature shrine, with two attendants on either side. From amidst a sea of swirling filigree elements, they emerge from two dimensions into three as bodhisattvas literally made from gems.

At first you might think that the large colored stones might be rubies or sapphires. But the color of many of these stones is an illusion—they are simply transparent quartz crystals with colored foil placed behind them. And if you look at the shrine from the side, you can see how the illusion works.

However, the redness of the many small ruby-like stones on the plaque is no illusion. But are they really rubies? Ultraviolet photography reveals the truth: many of them glow yellow instead of red, which shows that they are foil-backed crystal. The real rubies glow red under UV light, and as you can see these gemstones have been strategically placed in the crowns of the two side figures. There are also real rubies in the parasol at the center of the shrine, and in the eyes of the makara, or mystic crocodile, who occupies the summit of the shrine. The rest are just rock crystal.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Exactly why the artist chose rubies in certain locations and crystal in others remains a mystery. Were these side figures more ‘sacred’ than the others? Or was the artist concerned with symmetry rather than any specific meaning?

While we can’t be sure about the rubies, we do know something about some of the other stones here. Red coral, for example, symbolizes the sun, and it turns lavender under UV light. Turquoise, for its part, turns pale blue under the UV light; in Tibetan medicine, this stone is thought to purify the blood and remove toxins from the liver. It is also seen as an index of health: the bluer and clearer a piece of turquoise, the better the health of its wearer. From this perspective, the shrine incorporates medical powers into its structure. And why not? After all, the central figure is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist figure who protects believers from all fears.

As museum researchers continue to examine this shrine and others like it in the collection, we’ll share our findings with you. But in the meantime, stop by the museum and examine this shrine in person. Who knows what details you’ll discover.

The Art of Packaging Art

Yoshihiro Suda, Kasuga Deer Deity, Japan

Kasuga deer deity. Deer: Heian Period,pigment on wood; Monju Bosatsu: Kamakura period,pigment on wood; Negoro lacquer tray: Kamakura Period, the second year of Tokuji (1307), former collection of Sankei Hare; With: Sakaki plant and antlers, 2010. By Yoshihiro Suda, pigment on wood. H: 13 3/8 in x W: 16 1/2 in x D: 11 5/8 in. © Courtesy of Private Collection.

One of the most interesting things for the exhibitions team is discovering the way the objects from Phantoms of Asia have been packed. Since we have loans from so many different countries—over a dozen—all the packing was really different.

Yoshihiro Suda Sakaki tree in its box

I was impressed with the shipment from Japan which includes an object from a private collection, Kasuga Deer Deity. It is a collaborative work: some of the parts are as old as Heian Period (794-1185) and some are as new as 2010. One of the newer parts is a tiny reproduction,  made by the artist Yoshihiro Suda, of the sakaki plant (Cleyera japonica), which grows in East Asia. The sakaki is an evergreen that is considered sacred in the Shinto religion. This piece is extremely fragile and we were concerned that it might not be able to withstand the rigors of traveling from Japan.

Fortunately some of the best packing in the world comes from Japan, including this amazing little box designed to protect the tiny tree in transit.

Ancient Modern

Ceramic vessel, Iran. 1200-800 BCE.

Two-handled vessel in the shape of a water skin, approx. 1200-800 BCE. Northern Iran; probably Amlash. Earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P2015.

What old objects in the Asian Art Museum strike you as modern (or contemporary) in some way? With the exhibition Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past opening, now is the time to think about this.

We’ve created a page on Tumblr with a few of my picks, including the vase pictured. You can also submit your own candidates, with a short statement for each saying what you find modern about it—see what others have added here. Take a look through our online collection; you may be surprised by what you find.

Light and Space: Reading Phantoms

Last week, staff at the museum were fortunate to have guest curator of Phantoms of Asia Mami Kataoka present to us on the themes of the exhibition.

While spirituality is a core part of this show, Mami invited us to approach it from another perspective, saying that we could think of Phantoms as being all about light and space.

Bronze hand mirror, China, Western Han dynasty, (206 BCE - 9 CE)

Bronze hand mirror, China, Western Han dynasty, (206 BCE - 9 CE)

Mami showed us some examples of works from the Light and Space movement that resonate with works in this show. But the most fascinating part for me was a more literal example. Filipino artist Poklong Anading creates arresting photographs by having people hold a small hand mirror in front of their face; a flash of light, reflected by the mirror, obscures the face and transforms the image.  In a piece of curation that strikes me as both whimsical and utterly inspired, also included in the exhibition are some Chinese hand mirrors from the museum’s collection, polished to regain their reflective properties. While the creator of the bronze mirror pictured probably wasn’t thinking about identity and transformation, it is such an object that enabled Anading to create compelling works exploring those themes.

Mami’s reference to light and space has given me a new entry point for thinking about these works. I know next to nothing of Asian contemporary art, but she reminded me that we are free to make our own connections: through time and space, across cultures, and between art and everyday objects. We hope you have the opportunity to do the same.


Poklong Anading, Anomymity series. © Poklong Anading, 2011; Courtesy Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill, Graz, Austria.

© Poklong Anading, 2011; Courtesy Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill, Graz, Austria.

Where is this Flower?

Yoshihiro Suda morning glory

Yoshihiro Suda, Morning Glory, 2010. Paint on wood.

The artist Yoshihiro Suda was here recently to help install his beautiful painted wooden flowers.  The flowers are stunning and actually look like they are real. The good news is that these flowers will last the entire length of the Phantoms of Asia exhibition.  It takes nearly a month to make just one of these incredible pieces.  Suda really enjoys challenging the viewer with his work so I challenge you to find this lovely morning glory in our galleries.

He also enjoys making leaves and weeds, some of which you can also find on display. He grew up working on his father’s farm and had to pull many weeds in his life, an activity which somehow inspired his art.

Yoshihiro Suda weeds

Yoshihiro Suda, Weeds, 2008. Paint on wood.

Suda told me a funny story of placing some of these weeds in another gallery setting: they were displayed out in the open, and to his horror when he returned the next day he discovered that the cleaning crew had thrown them away overnight. Thankfully our stellar staff are not likely to make such a mistake.


Jagannath Panda: Not Just Paint


Cristina and Katie with Jagannath Panda's The Cult of Appearance III

There are some very diverse contemporary pieces in the Phantoms of Asia exhibition. There is one that I especially like, The Cult of Appearance III, by South Asian artist Jagannath Panda. It is in two sections and the interesting thing—especially from the perspective of our exhibitions team installing the works—is that there are some separate elements that get attached to the painting.

Above is a photo of Assistant Registrar Cristina Lichauco helping our Head of Conservation Katie Holbrow during the installation. Katie is attaching a fabric and ribbon laden element to the piece.

One of the exciting things about contemporary art is that its meaning has not been fixed by scholarship. I cannot tell you that much about the painting or the artist’s intentions, but if you read his bio on our website it might give you more insight. You can also join us this Thursday night, May 17, for an after-hours preview of the exhibition and decide for yourself what it all means.