Archive for 'Special Exhibitions'

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.

Which Gorgeous artwork are you?

You know, you’re a real piece of work—a work of art, in fact! Are you calm or chaotic? Tacky or tasteful? Grotesque or genteel? Take this quiz to find out which Gorgeous artwork you are!

See Gorgeous in person – the exhibition opens today!

The Twilight Zone: Visionary and Geographic Space in the Mandala

Enter the Mandala gallery view

When you enter the mandala, you are entering a kind of twilight zone. Certainly this is literally true of the lighting in the gallery. Beyond this, though, the system of Buddhist practice that informs so many objects in the exhibition is based on a kind of language called “twilight” speech. This is symbolic language, twilight in the sense that it is halfway between the metaphorical and the literal, just as the gallery itself is halfway between light and darkness. For example, in the “twilight language” of esoteric Buddhist practice, a ritual bell (ghanta) stands simultaneously for the female reproductive apparatus and mystic insight into the truth of emptiness (shunyata). Similarly, the stylized lightning bolt called a vajra stands both for the male reproductive organ, and for the strategies (upaya) used to realize that emptiness. Under these conditions, art, philosophy and physiology mutually inform and illumine each other. In this sense, then, you might say that twilight language stands at the threshold between concrete image and abstract insight.

In an analogous way, the Enter the Mandala gallery lies at the threshold between the geographic space of ordinary experience, and the visionary space of meditative experience. Consider the mandala shape, which consists of a central axis surrounded by the four cardinal directions. Now an architectural mandala structure in physical space would typically be oriented towards magnetic north, but Enter the Mandala is not so configured. Why? The answer is simple: in the visionary space of the mind’s eye, there is no magnetic north that might correspond to conventional geography. Instead, the directionality of the visualized mandala is predicated solely on the mandala form itself, with no external referent. In such a space, the four directions are relative to one another and to the mind of the meditator, rather than to any objective touchstone. Enter the Mandala is thus both architectural and visionary, again lying in the twilight zone between apparent opposites.

Enter the Mandala straight view

In our ordinary daily experience, twilight is halfway between day and night; it is neither just light nor just darkness. Instead, it concentrates both of these apparent opposites within itself. In a similar way, the goal of esoteric Buddhist mandala practice is to consciously experience a vision that is devoid of any actual physical substance (it is “empty,” shunya in Sanskrit) and yet still appears to the perceiver. In esoteric Buddhism, a vision of this type is a hieroglyph of the ultimate reality of the cosmos, which consists in the following insight: there is no physical substance in existence, but still appears to the mind. Precisely this insight is deemed to produce full awakening (bodhi) in meditators, dissolving the illusion of objectivity and catalyzing the insight that mind (not matter, which does not exist in visionary space) is the central formative reality in the cosmos. And with “enter the mandala,” we hope to give our visitors  a taste of what it might be like to find oneself halfway between opposites, at that magical point where we wake up to our actual situation as  consciously creative beings.

What is the Vajrayana?

The Vajrayana is literally the “Lightning Vehicle” of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word yana means “vehicle” – a means of transport capable of taking the practitioner from ordinary awareness to the experience of awakening (bodhi).  For its part, the word vajra means “lightning,” a translation that emphasizes the power and swiftness of its methods.

Although the term vajra does signify lightning, Vajras don’t typically look much like typical lightning bolts. In fact, some of the earliest images of vajras in Indian art come from Gandhara; a strangely Zeus-like figure carries the cudgel-like vajra in an important frieze in Gallery 1 (below). Eventually, the vajra took on its classical Vajrayana appearance, which you can see in the Southeast Asian galleries.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Look closely at a classical vajra below and you’ll notice a characteristic form at each end: a central axis surrounded by four cardinal directions. You can immediately tell that the form of the vajra and the form of the mandala echo one another – both consist of a central axis with four radiating directions. So it will be little surprise to discover that Vajrayana techniques involve a journey through the geometric meditation maps called mandalas, along with an emphasis on verbal formulae called mantras and hand gestures called “seals” (mudra). Employed together, these interwoven, multi-media meditation techniques are deemed so advanced that they can produce enlightenment “in this very life,” instead of the eons it takes through ordinary practice.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

From a historical perspective, the Vajrayana was the last of the three great Buddhist systems to emerge; its texts were compiled only by the seventh century. On the surface, you might think that its relatively recent vintage would be a problem for the Vajrayana’s legitimacy. On the contrary, though, the Vajrayana understands itself as the most comprehensive and advanced of Buddhist systems, at least partially because its philosophy includes that of other schools.

The most important meditative technique of the Vajrayana involves visualization. In the first stage of Vajrayana meditation, practitioners build up an image of a mandala-dwelling deity – usually a form of the Buddha – in their mind’s eye. In the second stage, practitioners visualize themselves as that same Buddha. In this way, the meditative procedure or “path” explicitly involves seeing oneself as already in possession of the “goal,” namely obtaining the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. In Vajrayana thought, this procedure is therefore called “taking the goal as the path.”

Enter the Mandala

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary. Thangka; colors on cotton. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1.

Here at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we conserve a wide variety of artworks related to mandalas – geometric meditation maps designed by and for practitioners of esoteric Buddhism. From a crowned Buddha in the shrine arches of a Pala-period stupa to a Chinese Buddha in whose open robes the universe appears, many of our art objects have a place in the history of the mandala. But what exactly is that place? At the risk of stating the obvious, it isn’t always easy to tell. For these objects come to us from across cultural and geographic space, and often their original contexts are obscured by time and its attendant ravages. So the question for us and our significant collection of mandala-related artwork is this:  how do we treat this immense diversity in a simultaneously integral and authentic way?

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

Svayambhu Stupa, 1700-1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212.

In exploring our collection several years ago, it occurred to me that the answer to this sphinx-like riddle lay within the collection itself, this time in the form of three Tibetan thangka paintings from what was originally a set of five Buddha images. Dating to about the year 1300, these paintings feature the deep detailing and cinnabar-red palette that characterizes the Nepal-influenced style; it became important in Tibet after the decline of the North Indian monasteries about a century before. Among the last and finest of their kind, these three paintings also represent the most nearly complete set of Five Buddha paintings known to exist in western museums. And when complete, they would have comprised a mandala known as the Vajradhatu or “Lightning World.” In their original context, the Five Buddhas configure architectural space as the cosmic space of the mandala by articulating the cosmos’ five symbolic directions: a central axial region surrounded by the four cardinal directions, with a Buddha representing each, in a form like the five-spot on a set of dice. So it occurred to me: could we find a way to let our paintings reveal their original, intended function of setting up a mandala-like space?

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Taima mandala, approx. 1300–1400. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+.

Like the fivefold form of the mandala itself, the answer to this question was startling in its simplicity. First, find a roughly square gallery and array our three Buddha paintings in the center, north and south – the regions they would have originally represented. Then, find great mandala-oriented artworks from across esoteric Buddhist cultures and place them in the mandala regions with which they might be most readily associated. The result would be an architectural mandala that you can actually enter, rather than merely look at. I found this to be an elegant solution in another way, for such “entry into the mandala” is precisely the practice that Himalayan Buddhists use to develop insight into the nature of reality and our experience of it. First they visualize a specific mandala, then in the mind’s eye they enter it in full three-dimensional detail. As a result, I reasoned, the “enter the mandala” exhibition would not only give our visitors a taste of the immense range and genius of esoteric Buddhist art across cultures, it would provide simple, basic insights into an experience that would under ordinary conditions require decades of meditation practice to master.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

A gallery view of the Enter the Mandala exhibition. Picture by Kaz.

When you visit Enter the Mandala, you’ll find a variety of historical and visionary worlds to explore. On the gallery floor, we have created a virtual mandala that will familiarize you with geometries and regions of the Five Buddha mandala according to which we have organized the exhibition. We have also created a tablet computer interactive that reveals hidden patterns on the paintings themselves.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

The Theosophical Body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). Illinois. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972.

When the Freer Sackler first approached us with the idea of creating an exhibition of yoga-oriented art, I was intrigued, but had lots of questions. What role did art play in the formation of yoga traditions? Did art inform philosophy and practice, or vice versa? And did the imagery of the yoga tradition change over time in response to historical and social circumstances? As I have learned, the answers to these questions can be very surprising.

For example, I had wondered when the full spectrum of yoga postures, asana in Sanskrit, was first depicted. Like many other yoga enthusiasts, I had assumed that they were present “from the beginning” of the tradition. But like so many of my preconceptions, this assumption was destined to be overturned. Far from emerging fully-formed, like Athena out of Zeus’ head in the famous Greek myth , many complex postures first appear in a 16th century treatise called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”) – a millennium and a half after the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. And there were more surprises. As it turns out, the Bahr al-Hayat’s accompanying text is not penned in any Indian script; instead, it represents a translation from a Sanskrit original into Persian by a Sufi (Islamic mystic) scholar. In this exhibition, you’ll have a chance to examine the imagery of the Bahr al-Hayat in detail; some of the postures will be familiar, and other may present you with your own puzzles to decipher.

As the exhibition took shape, I began wondering about how traditions of yoga art would depict the invisible aspects of yoga experience. How, I wondered, might artists envision an abstract concept like the Brahman, the impersonal deity of the Hindu texts called Upanishads? I was just as curious about the tradition began to depict the so-called “subtle body,” the network of energy centers and channels that yogis manipulate. I had assumed that these key yoga ideas appeared very early in the development of the tradition – but again the art of yoga surprised me.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

Several paintings from Man Singh’s Jodhpur court appear prominently in this exhibition. In the early 1800’s, the king of the Indian city of Jodhpur, Maharaja Man Singh, commissioned a large set of paintings that depict both invisible and subtle aspects of yoga; one of these paintings, Three aspects of the Absolute, depicts the Brahman directly as a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold. Another series of Jodhpur paintings reveals different configurations of the “subtle body,” the interior system of energy centers and channels that figures so prominently in contemporary hatha yoga thought. Almost life-size, these Jodhpur paintings make it easy to see how the subtle, energetic body might map onto the physical body. A third set of Jodhpur paintings show the transmission of these teachings from guru to student in the Nath order of yogis. Such teacher-student contact was essential to the continuity and thus legitimacy of a lineage of yoga practitioners.  A final set of paintings from Jodhpur reveal that Man Singh commissioned these paintings for simultaneously political and religious reasons: the king understood his seemingly miraculous ascension to the throne of Jodhpur as the direct result of Nath intervention in history. In this way, Man Singh positioned his secular as having the legitimacy of divine sanction.

Chakras of the subtle body EX-2014.2.001

The chakras of the subtle body, page 4 from a manuscript of the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824, by Bulaki. India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2376.

Another question that intrigued me is how imagery focused on the “subtle body” was assimilated into Western discourse and culture. As I have learned, there are at least two ways this happened: through mysticism, and through medicine. Charles Leadbeater’s image of the chakras initially looks similar to the imagery on Man Singh’s “subtle body” paintings, but closer examination reveals that Leadbeater’s image derives from Western attempts to map the seven planets of the Ptolemaic universe onto, or perhaps into, the physical body. Perhaps because such images have a long history in European mysticism, they could serve as a bridge between two quite different kinds of mystical systems – yoga and astrology. Similarly, yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body. One marvelous book, Chakras of the Subtle Body, contains an image that makes this equivalence explicit.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation has challenged my preconceptions about the relationship between art and yoga in many ways, but nowhere so much as regards the question of authenticity. I used to wonder: what is an authentic teaching or image, and what is spurious? Do lineages guarantee the integrity of a given teaching, or is there some other factor – maybe efficacy – at work? As with my other questions, the answer is often “yes” – in its transformations, the art of yoga can frequently be seen to occupy the middle ground between true and false, peaceful and violent, genuine and derivative. And it is that transformational zone between pairs of absolute opposites that I have come to recognize as the real homeland of this kaleidoscopic array of traditions we are pleased to call yoga.

Proximities 3: Import/Export

Paper Bag Project, by Imin Yeh (1983). Handmade paper bag. Courtesy of the artist.

Paper Bag Project, by Imin Yeh (1983). Handmade paper bag. Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve come to name my computer files related to the third and final Proximities exhibition P3. I get a little kick invoking Playstations (PS4, the it gamer gift for 2013), Terminator movies (T3, from 2003), and the holiday blockbuster season that is usually cluttered with franchises and their sequels. There’s a second Hobbit film that just hit theaters—H2 (also the shorthand for a junior size Hummer). You certainly won’t mistake this art exhibition, Import/Export, for a cinematic extravaganza, but the show focuses on the material and immaterial aspects of the international ventures that those entertainments very much are.

The inspirations for the artworks in this show reflect the ironies and menacing multi-pronged connections behind objects like the PS4. This piece of hardware, designed and manufactured by Sony, a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation, is a staple brand at the all-American Best Buy retailer (which also sells in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, and China). The software is code produced by outsourced offshore coding in any number of countries. Similarly, many major movie studio titles, particularly those with loads of special effects, are currently huge international productions, with multiple CGI companies in different countries working simultaneously to erase stunt wires or to render digital ice crystals.. The economic implications are intriguing – note the a flurry of controversy when a California-based effects house lost its shirt by underbidding its services for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.

In the Western season of stuff, it’s fascinating to look at product labels that reveal the site of manufacture. No big surprises there—I just checked and my Uniqlo down jacket was, as expected, made in China. But can this information actually communicate to me anything about China, this product’s country of origin? Can this article of clothing literally bring me in physical contact with another place? It might be easy for some people to ignore the implications—Do I really want to know if I purchased a shirt that came from the collapsed Bangladesh sweatshop? And what would I do if I did?

The artworks on view in this exhibition question aspects of raw material, factory production, craftsmanship, value, outsourcing, and the circulation of objects and ideas. I’ve approached the Proximities series with the intent of using different lenses to look at its themes. The shows have presented very different profiles, from colorful (P1), to audibly boisterous (P2), and hushed elegance (P3). The elegant profile of P3 may seem surprising considering the subject of import and export. Perhaps a more expected tone would resonate with Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent photograph from 1999—an irresistibly iconic image of global capitalism and all it’s insidiously kaleidoscopic eye candy—or Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of landscapes ravaged in the service of industry, which, like Hudson River paintings, depict ‘progress’ as luminous and grandiose.Amanda Curreri works

In contrast, the works in Import/Export are monochromatic, prosaic, and abstract in form and meaning. The lighting is moody, and, as Byron Peters’s image of the open sky reveals, the space maintains a quiet grandiosity that feels almost contemplative. Like being in a hall of mirrors, we can see ourselves quietly reflected throughout the gallery space as we engage in breathing, looking, and hopefully rethinking scenarios of production and consumption .

The gargantuan nature of the worldwide system of making and consuming is too unwieldy for neat pronouncements. The environmental, social, physical, and psychological implications are things to ponder, but difficult to reconcile. The goal here is not resolution. The show might be an inconclusive conclusion, but there’s something thrilling about how these artists process the fray into something thoughtful—and strangely beautiful.

Happy Holidays!


Proximities 3: Import/Export opens today. For an insider’s perspective, come to the Proximities Evening Event where the curator, Glen Helfand, will be giving an in-gallery talk.

End of Summer

Michael Jang's photograph adorns the banners outside the museum. Photo courtesy Michael Jang.

Michael Jang’s photograph adorns the banners outside the museum. Photo courtesy Michael Jang.

Museum staff are currently installing the second Proximities show, and in the midst of that comes a wonderful sense of discovery. We finally are able to see how the works hang together and interact with each other. I liken the process to the old school photo lab, when sliding an exposed piece of paper into the chemical baths begins to reveal an image. Things come into view gradually, with a thrill in seeing the contours emerge. Knowing Me, Knowing You (a title that was suggested by Proximities 1 artist James Gobel) is named for a melancholy pop song by ABBA. And while I won’t go so far to place the tone of the upcoming show on the gloomy side, the colorful exuberance of the first show is replaced here with a more muted and domestic demeanor.

Mik Gaspay’s tatami mat installation sets things close to the ground in a way that evokes any number of films by Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese film director whose cinema speaks so simply and elegantly of shifting relationships, between generations and between East and West. In the installation, there is a sense of using the agency of Japanese aesthetics evoke the slippery nature of ethnic and cultural identity in more recent days. Looking across Gaspay’s piece at Michael Jang’s black and white photographs of his family in 1973 adds to that Ozu connection, as so many of his films are black and white and tug on the heart strings as they access those loving tensions between elders and youth. Jang’s photos evoke that feeling one gets while paging through a photo album that was just found in the attic.

We expected the images and sounds would blend into something new, but that tone is impossible to predict until the works meet each other for the first. The melded audio to the show is evocatively homey—the grumble of televised voices pervades the room from Kota Ezawa’s animation and via Pawel Kruk’s video reenactment; the bubbling soup pot in Gaspay’s piece signals a family meal; while the high tones of Chinese opera seep from the headphones that accompany Anne McGuire’s video. It’s as if the sounds of a clan are blending together in a house, an abode where everyone is in their own corner before convening for dinner. As in any household, the connections are formed through individuals who reside together, their noises, their obsessions, and the idols they selectively uphold, like posters in a teenage bedroom (Charlene Tan’s nod to Yayoi Kusama, Kruk’s Bruce Lee, Jang’s David Carradine in Kung Fu), and the different emotional tenors they strike. Barry McGee’s installation is yet to come—he’s installing a newly reworked piece that will certainly add another layer of the interpersonal to the exhibition. We’re getting close. The picture develops before our eyes.

Proximities, piecemeal

World on puzzle pieces

Pulling together a multi-part exhibition is an interesting animal, the notions of time and linkages don’t operate in the traditional manner—particularly when there’s a summer hiatus with another exhibition (the fascinating Cyrus Cylinder presentation)  in between. We are more accustomed to quick hits, in getting our curatorial premises out there in one shot. Allowing something to unfold in component parts requires trust and commitment on both sides of the equation—institution and audience—of being able to imagine how things will resonate over time, and space. I like the way SFMOMA’s current SECA exhibition takes place in different locations, allowing for the idea of a group of works to make sense the more pieces you encounter.

In a way, this reflects the challenge of considering Asia as a totality—the term itself encompasses multiple nations, borders, styles, land masses, terrains, religions, ethnicities, languages, foods—the list goes on. The term/concept doesn’t make sense with just one.

Similarly, the Asian Art Museum is an institution that serves a range of publics, each approaching the contents with different filters and expectations. It’s not an easy location to occupy. At the end of the run of the first Proximities show, it was exciting to see a flurry of web and social media conversations that raised some key issues. Questions about the museum’s mission were raised, these bringing to the surface the complicated expectations that audiences place upon the Asian. It was rewarding, though not always easy to parse the implications attached to the project. This was part of the plan, though each show is always a surprise when it makes the shift from something on paper to actual artwork in a space. The component parts bounce off each other in surprising, wonderful ways.

The intention of the Proximities series is that each show stand alone visually, but also that each will add aesthetic, social, and thematic concerns as well as deepening and complicating the questions raised previously. From the back end of the project, it’s an intriguing, shifting view, trying to anticipate how the series will create a complete picture. It’s exciting to see it happen.

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You, which opens in a little over a month, will have a very different feeling than the first show. Where What Time Is It There? was purposefully colorful, hallucinogenic and clouded by the fantastical, Knowing Me is more retro in feel, nodding to ideas of nostalgia as a way in which we know each other. It’s a very different group of artists, with a whole other range of ‘proximities’ to the show’s themes. Further discussions will be raised, but also there will be the opportunity for some celebration—in honor of the show’s title, and its reference to ABBA, we’re celebrating the show with a karaoke afternoon on October 19. It will add a soundtrack to the exhibition, the set list something that may not reveal its meaning until all the voices have sung. Stay tuned!