Archive for 'Special Exhibitions'

Goodbye, Terracotta Warriors


Jennifer with the truck that took the warriors away.

We’re all going to miss those wonderful Terracotta Warriors. But after their stay at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for several months, and then here at the Asian for 13 weeks, the warriors are finally on their way back to Xi’an, China.

Packing up the entire exhibition was a formidable job, as you can imagine, but we got it done in just four days — a minor miracle. We could never have accomplished this huge undertaking without the help of so many people working behind the scenes from the Preparation, Conservation and Registration departments.

We also had a team of three staff from Xi’an helping us pack the exhibition up–Messrs. Ma, Wang and Zhou–really nice guys who were very helpful in assisting us. Now that the warriors are in crates, registrars from Minneapolis Institute of Arts will travel on two separate flights with the crated exhibition objects. (Ship Art International, CASE Company and Exclusive Art Service have offered us excellent assistance as well.)


Packing objects into cases.

But now we’re getting the galleries ready for Larry Ellison’s wonderful Japanese collection. Of course, we’re looking forward to the shift into an entirely different exhibition. But I was the last to see the warriors as they drove away, and honestly, it was sad to see them go.


Sharon packing some of the treasures into a case.

Proximities in public

Proximities_25Proximities 1 is open to the public and it has been a thrill to see the first phase as an actual exhibition. It looks like it was intended to—lush, colorful, a little bit critical.

The gallery now seems a contemporary interjection between areas devoted to traditional galleries of Korean and Japanese objects, a spot within which to ponder notions of time and place.

As the show faces a public, this is also an opportunity for feedback. The week before the show opened, I began to hear, second hand, questions about who is included in the show—particularly why it is that there are mostly non-Asian artists in What Time Is It There?. The beauty of having the blog platform is that it allows for this issue to be acknowledged. Here are some curatorial notes:

One of the show’s goals is to create new connections between the museum and the local contemporary art public. As I began the process, I considered the idea that the museum was interested in broadening its audience and addressing a community of artists who live and work here.  I began with my own position: Why wasn’t I more connected to the venue? Partly it’s because I am not schooled in Asian art history, and partly because my interests are more focused on contemporary art, which is only sporadically presented at the Asian. I figured I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  (It turned out that a surprising number of the artists in the shows had never actually been to the museum before, and in that regard, the show has begun to do its job of broadening the scope of visitors.) And of course there is always the question of identity as an entry point: Does an artist or viewer have to be Asian or Asian American to consider the subject? Spending time at the museum, it’s clear that the audience and staff are a diverse bunch.

With the first show, I wanted to create entry points for artists and viewers of all stripes. There was a directive from the museum to address “Asia” as a totality, which is a huge, unwieldy theme. I considered artists who had some connection to this vast idea; the more unlikely the connection seemed the most interesting to me. When I told colleagues about the show, they assumed that it would only include Asian artists, making the idea of thwarting expectation all the more appealing. James Gobel, for example, seems like the last person you’d expect to be showing in this particular museum, and yet his abstract painting reveals fitting connections to the themes (Manila being his subject). Hopefully his work suggests more entry points to the museum, and who has a connection to it, than we might initially consider. There are Asian and hyphenate artists in the trio of exhibitions; the artists selected are those who had not exhibited in an “Asian” context before (in upcoming shows you’ll see Barry McGee, Kota Ezawa, Imin Yeh, Michael Jang, and others).

The first show is purposefully about distance from place, about imagining the far away. I was initially inspired by Raymond Roussel’s 1910 surrealist novel, Impressions of Africa, which revels in the notion of the imagined place through a formalized lens. In Proximities, we are viewing the concept of “Asia” from California, in a museum that is very much a constructed presentation of culture and an institution beset with unavoidable cultural baggage. I think the first show offers its criticisms subtly. It’s a small show, but hopefully one that will generate some productive discussion along with its aesthetic pleasures.

Proximities, getting closer

The upcoming exhibition, Proximities, takes place in a single gallery over the next several months, but it’s rooted in a larger dialogue, and metaphorically in various spaces. The show is ostensibly about conceptions of an unwieldy, geographically and culturally vast idea termed “Asia,” but it’s also about engaging different communities and considering the Asian Art Museum’s connection to contemporary art—from Asia and beyond. The series emerged from conversations about institutions and audiences, and how the museum is connected to the large community of artists who live and work in the Bay Area. I’m honored to have been invited to curate this project.

I began by questioning my own relationship to the museum and to the idea of Asian art. In many ways, it’s a specialized field, and one that has aspects of identity embedded—do you have to be schooled or part of the family in order to fully appreciate what is on view in the museum? Sometimes it can seem that way. You could do an informal poll and find similar questions about any number of cultural institutions in San Francisco—the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Mission Cultural Center— that are there to address an invested constituency. Each, however, is very interested in sharing a specific culture, and the set of concerns and ideas that emerge from their perspectives.

Contemporary art also has its degree of insider-ness, its issues du jour, and its rising stars. But these aspects of art tend to get more complicated when the overlays of globalism appear. I’m certain I’m not the only Westerner who calls Cai Guo Qiang the fireworks guy because I’m never quite sure how to pronounce his name. He’s an artist who emerged during a heyday of contemporary Chinese art, yet currently lives in New York. Does that still make him an “Asian artist”? It’s a fascinating question—where we are we in relation to “home”?– which is just one of the subtexts of Proximities. Perhaps a more salient theme is bridging some boundaries between the museum and artists you might not expect to see in it. “Asia” covers a lot of territory. The intention is to use this blog forum to address ways in which the show enters into various locations and ideas. We’re getting closer. Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? opens on May 24.

—Glen Helfand, Curator

After a Night Rain

Chen Xianzhang, After a Night Rain.

After a Night Rain by Chen Xianzhang, 1428–1500. China. Ink on paper. Museum purchase, B68D6.

Our librarian John recently translated a poem from a work in our collection. Below is the original Chinese text and his beautiful English translation; above is the calligraphy. We hope you enjoy it.

陳獻章  : (雨夜後詩)






After a Night Rain

—-Chen Xianzhang

When it rains in these blue-green hills

The pigeons become ghosts:




When sparkling-dry daybreak comes

& the pines and flowers,


Greet the brilliant dawn,


The birds, like the flowers, flutter


In the brilliant breeze,

Even now,

I hear their cries penetrate the

Bamboo gate.

Your Handy Dandy Holiday Gift Guide

If you’re still working on your holiday shopping, make our museum store the ultimate destination. Our wonderful wares are as diverse as their price tags, so you’re bound to find the perfect gift for the special people in your life. Here are some ideas for your gift giving needs:

Get Cozy

Who doesn’t like a warm pot of tea?  Brew a single serving with inlaid celadon (delicate, pale green ceramic) teacups from Korea. Got company? Share with Chinese Yixing (clay) or Japanese iron teapots. Get the most out of your brew with books detailing the history and highly codified ritual that surround the noble camellia sinensis, or just learn exactly how long you should be steeping your oolong.

Books on tea shown, $16.99-$32.50
Tea vessels, $30+
Tea whisk, $18.00

Practice, Practice, Practice

Begin your Chinese instruction one stroke at a time: Buddha Boards and Chinese Character a Day get you just a little closer to your goal of mastering the art.  If you’ve practiced calligraphy, you’ll know your mistakes can add up.  With the Buddha Board, all you need is water—your less-than-perfect work will evaporate, leaving you with a clean slate.  Chinese Character a Day offers 365 days of education: the journey begins when you want to begin.

Buddha Boards, $12.95-$34.95
Chinese Character a Day, $16.95

Make Your Own Adventure

Stir up storytelling time with robots.  Build Your Own Paper Robots comes with a CD that allows you to print 2D paper into 3D mecha fun.  Great for older kids or anyone with engineering acumen.  For fans of readymade cubic construction, Monster Village Sets include over 90 blocks that can make mobile monsters (includes manga storybook/instructions, not for children under age 3).

Build Your Own Paper Robots, $9.98
Monster Village, $27.50

Shine and Sparkle

Dim days and long nights call for a little added brightness.  Calligraphic-inspired jewelry in rhodium-plated silver glows white-hot.  Next to platinum, rhodium is the hardest of metals, ensuring that these one-of-a-kind pieces won’t tarnish or corrode.


The Lettering of Letters

Lee gallery, Out of Character

I find it fascinating that in China letters provide some of the earliest evidence of calligraphy being considered a visual art. As Bai Qianshen points out in a recent essay, the earliest extant personal letters in China date from the time of the First Emperor (221–210 BCE—be sure to visit our exhibition, coming in February). Early in the first century CE an emperor of the Han dynasty is said to have sent a special envoy to request ten letters from a famous calligrapher who was on the verge of dying. By the late fourth century, the famous calligrapher Wang Xianzhi (344–404) finished a letter he was sending to his emperor: “my calligraphy in this letter is quite good.  I wish it to be kept and stored away.” Letters like his and many, many others serve as an example of two different functions of calligraphy: as writing and as a visual art.  The content of most letters tends to be personal and private; on the other hand, the calligraphy is intended for public consumption.

By the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) treating letters as works of art was a well-established tradition. Special colored and decorated papers were designed specifically for them and letters were collected and bound together in large albums. An example of such a collection is on display in Lee Gallery. We can only show two pages each from two of the five albums in the collection, which features letters written by a remarkable array of Ming dynasty scholars, court officials and calligraphers. A discussion of these letters can be found in Xiao Yanyi’s essay in the exhibition catalogue (see pages 118-127).

Eighth Wonder: Eight Gifts

As you’re getting ready for the holidays, we’re getting ready to welcome the Terracotta Warriors to the west coast. Sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World, Xi’an’s famous denizens are unique and awe-inspiring. They will be appearing at the Asian Art Museum from February 22, 2012—perfect timing for a memorable holiday gift. Here are eight gift ideas to get your holiday shopping underway:

1. The most economical way to see the warriors is to become a member of the museum. Memberships start at $75 for a year of free entry for two adults (children under 12 are always free). Special exhibitions are always free for members.

2. If you’re a planner, you could grab some advance tickets for the exhibition. Tickets are already selling fast, so lock in your preferred date now. Adults $20 weekdays, $22 weekends (children under 12 free).

3. Big family? Bunch of friends? Book a group visit, with discounted admission for groups of 10 or more (adults $18 weekdays, $20 weekends). To make the experience really special, add a private tour of the exhibition.

Maybe you like a gift you can put a bow on. Luckily, the museum store is full of beautiful items—many of them artworks in their own right—for all ages.


4. Sterling silver jewelry from Johnson Hui  These hand-crafted pendants recall the graceful movements of calligraphy. Sleek and contemporary, each piece is unique and will add a dramatic look for a special occasion. $100 – $475

5. Zen Collection Jewelry.  Inspired by forms and designs of the Qin Dynasty, these sterling silver pieces are rhodium plated.  Rhodium, a member of the platinum family of metals, has been used for centuries to plate jewelry to create vibrant pieces.  Rhodium gives a very bright finish without the need to polish and is hypoallergenic. The collection includes earrings, necklaces, bracelets and even cufflinks. $25 – $185

6. Buddha Boards. Enjoy practicing your calligraphy or just painting to watch the board transform.  Slowly the image fades to create a blank canvas for new inspirations. Each set includes the Buddha Board, brush and water tray/stand. Everything you need for hours of artistic enjoyment. $34.95

7. Batik scarves from Java.  These beautiful scarves use a combination of hand drawing and stamping to create delicate patterns before they are hand dyed in a several step process.  Lightweight and dynamic these scarves are a perfect gift. $20 – $135

Batik scarves8. Gifts for kids.  We have a wide range of stories, with over 100 titles that explore the tales and cultures from across Asia. Other gift ideas for our younger visitors include dolls, puppets, puzzles, language blocks and more.  Ask our staff about their favorites.

Water Stains on the Wall

Xu Bing in front of his video installation 'Character of Characters' at the Asian Art Museum

Xu Bing in front of his video installation ‘Character of Characters’

Our book on Xu Bing’s fascinating animation The Character of Characters will be arriving in the museum store soon.  Featuring essays by Britta Erickson, a leading expert on Chinese contemporary art, and by the artist, as well as a version of the actual animation, its arrival will be something to keep on your radar.

We have just finished translating Xu Bing’s essay, which makes clear the artist’s intellectual as well as artistic depth.  It follows the order of the animation and makes many aspects much clearer; it is also full of delightful and sometimes challenging references to writings from the past.  An example is the simple sentence: “The stroke’s force should convey the aesthetic sensibility of ‘water stains caused by rain on the wall of a country cottage’.”

If you’ve seen Out of Character already, that quotation may sound familiar. Included in the exhibition is a video of contemporary dance work Water Stains on the Wall, by Cloud Gate Dance Theater from Taiwan.

The title of Cloud Gate’s work and Xu Bing’s reference both derive from a legendary conversation between two of the most respected Chinese calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907):

“Where do you get inspirations for your calligraphic style?” asked Yan Zhenqing, whose signature style of standard script brought Chinese calligraphy to a new height. “I observe summer clouds that resemble mountains with spectacular peaks,” replied Huaisu, the young monk who later became the most renowned master of wild cursive style. “The most exciting parts remind one of birds flying out of woods and snakes slithering into bushes. . .” “How about water stains on the wall?” asked Yan Zhenqing. “Right on! You old devil!” exclaimed Huaisu.

Water stains on a wall are the result of a long process of natural, organic, and fluid evolution. The legend of the conversation established “water stains on the wall” as a popular metaphor that represents the highest aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy. Inspired by this metaphor, choreographer Lin Hwai-min and the Cloud Gate dancers create an abstract work of spellbinding beauty and breathtaking technique that stands sublimely on its own.

We’re thrilled that in Out of Character you can experience both of these contemporary works in the context of the artform that inspired them. And be looking for the publication on Xu Bing’s The Character of Characters at the museum store soon.

A Tribute to the Giants

Here we are again, in a position that just three years ago seemed impossible: World Series Champions.

From 1954—when they still called the NY Polo Grounds home—until the charmed 2010 season, the Giants had not won a championship. Now, two years later, another one? After waiting 56 years, after watching even the Red Sox win (twice), after coming within eight outs in 2002, finally, two titles in three years seems almost greedy, an embarrassment of baseball riches.

For those that consider baseball a slow, even dull game, I ask you to reconsider. It is a game of finesse, of inches, of highs and lows stretched across a season of 162 games. It rewards those with patience. In fact, it is remarkably like the practice of calligraphy. Talent is helpful, of course, but more important is training, repeating each movement so that it becomes an instinctual reaction. There’s no room for error – one slip of the brush or a dropped ball and the game, or calligraphy, is dramatically changed. Both are tests of endurance and provide the powerful possibility of redemption. And if there was one overarching theme of this entire postseason—as opposed to 2010’s torture—it was redemption. From what was arguably Barry Zito’s greatest pitching performance of his (Giants) career, to Tim Lincecum’s resurrection out of the bullpen, to Gregor Blanco’s defense eliminating all memories of the disgraced Melky Cabrera, to Pablo Sandoval’s offensive streak (in stark contrast to his abysmal 2010), to journeyman Marco Scutero’s NLCS MVP performance, this postseason was about coming back from the brink of disaster to achieve greatness.

And achieve it they did. Despite what the media may have claimed, the Giants did not win with lucky breaks. Their performance in the World Series was remarkable in its simplicity: extraordinary defense, masterful pitching, and timely hitting. Executing each play to perfection quieted even the most skeptical of critics, and more, importantly, the Tigers.

So when you’re done celebrating all things orange and black, come by the museum (please note we’re closed on Wednesday for Giants festivities) and check out our current exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.

Designing “Out of Character”

Wen Peng Thousand Character Essay Installed

Strong visual impact was a primary goal for our exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.  This is not always easy to accomplish in an art form often intended for private viewings by small groups or individuals.  An example is Thousand Character Classic by Wen Peng (1498-1573), an album of 85 double leaves.  The album is a format that is meant to be viewed page by page, but we asked Marco Centin, our exhibition designer, Shiho Sasaki, our paper conservator, and Vincent Avalos, our mount maker to come up with a way to show all 85 leaves and the cover on a large curved wall.  As shown in the photograph here, their solution is ingenious and the result is stunning and magical.  It took almost the entire summer for the team to make this happen!