Archive for 'Special Exhibitions'

Installing Calligraphy

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng's Thousand Character Essay

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng’s “Thousand Character Essay”. Photo courtesy of Jerry Yang.

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy opens next week, and installation is in full swing. This is always a frantic, stressful, and exciting time for us, especially for the people at the coal face: curators, registrars, conservators and the preparations team.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to walk past one of the galleries while the team was installing. I felt compelled to press my face against the tinted glass doors to try to get a better look. Although unfinished, the display in the galleries is breathtaking. I must confess, I had trouble getting excited about an exhibition of calligraphy at first. But having seen the exhibition take shape over the past few months, I can’t wait for it to open. It’s going to be amazing.

Luckily for you, our photographer has been snapping some images of the installation, so you can have your own sneak peek on Flickr. Out of Character opens on October 5, but we’re kicking off with artist Xu Bing and collector Jerry Yang in conversation with museum director Jay Xu on October 4. See you there.




Chinese Calligraphy: What’s the Point?

It was a Friday night at my house, and to celebrate I was watching hit 1970s British period drama Upstairs Downstairs. Suddenly, a scene unfolded that reminded me of our upcoming Chinese Calligraphy exhibition and my confusion about the whole thing. Let me tell you about it.

I’ll set the stage: we have Mr. Hudson, a servant and strict adherent to the Victorian era’s hierarchical social values. And then there’s one Thomas—young, handsome, iconoclastic and, significantly, a chauffeur of motor-cars. When the two meet, sparks fly!

One day, Mr. Hudson is hunched over at the table, writing inexplicably with ink and quill. Just then, Thomas comes in from an afternoon drive, takes off his motor-car gloves, and peers over Mr. Hudson’s shoulder. “What’s this?” he asks.

“It’s handwriting,” answers Mr. Hudson in an imperious tone, “something of a hobby.”

“Handwriting! That’s very nice,” Thomas says. “What sort of stuff do you write, apart from Christmas cards?”

Mr. Hudson, a little flustered, replies, “What do I write? Well, I copy out passages from newspapers.”

“Copy!” says Thomas. “What’s the point?”

Which is what made me think of our Calligraphy show and my original question about the thing: what’s the point?

But where Thomas was right, I was wrong, as I’ve since discovered. Chinese calligraphy often reproduces poems that already exist, but it’s not a craft as with Mr. Hudson’s handwriting. It’s something abstract and amazing, once you get it: each character is an image in itself, and each style unique to the calligrapher. Seeing Guernica for the first time, you might not know its name, but you’ll know it for a Picasso. (Speaking of which, guess who was mad into Chinese calligraphy? Yes, Picasso.)

A lot of the museum’s materials on Chinese calligraphy emphasize the rigorous discipline of the art. That of course is important and interesting to some, but whatever—just think about making each letter of a poem a masterpiece in itself, so that beautifully written takes on a double meaning. One final thing: you know what else is beautiful to look upon? Thomas of Upstairs Downstairs. Just sayin.

Bamboo artwork: preparing to say goodbye

Charwei Tsai, Bamboo Mantra, 2012. Black ink on bamboo. Site-specific installation.

Charwei Tsai, Bamboo Mantra, 2012. Black ink on bamboo. Site-specific installation.

Charwei Tsai’s Bamboo Mantra continues to reinvent itself. Last time I wrote about a thumb-sized sprout that had emerged from the soil. Look how big our shoot has become! You have less than a week to see this work as it was created because Phantoms of Asia will close on September 2. Once it is de-installed, it will only exist in photographs and memories.

New shoot on "Bamboo Mantra"

Xu Bing: The Character of Characters, coming soon

One of Xu Bing's sketches for The Character of Characters

One of Xu Bing’s sketches for The Character of Characters.

One of the most exciting things about Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy is without doubt the new work acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing is creating for the exhibition.

Xu Bing’s work is an animation, but as it is being created right now there’s not a whole lot more we can tell you about it yet. However, we did just receive some amazing stats from the artist.

Each day 14 people (including Xu Bing) are working on the project. They work 10 hours per day and have worked 35 days thus far; a total of 4900 person hours to date. Given that work will continue through September, they expect a further 5600 hours to be added to this number.

Xu Bing has drawn approximately 50 drafts and more than 1000 hand drawn sketches. There could be thousands more sketches by the end of the project.

Given all of that, we’re expecting something extraordinary. Don’t miss it.


Chinese Calligraphy: Beneath the Surface

Thousand Character Essay in Clerical Script, Wen Peng (1498-1573). China. Ink on paper. Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. 2012.2.028_01

Thousand Character Essay in Clerical Script, Wen Peng (1498-1573). China. Ink on paper. Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. 2012.2.028_01

Sometimes it seems like Chinese calligraphy is everywhere. From David Beckham to Din Tai Fung to Hero, calligraphy has found its way into popular culture in the West. But calligraphy isn’t just a design element to be used in decor and tattoos. And it’s not just writing. Calligraphy is China’s highest art form, and our next exhibition, Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, will show you why.

We’ll have plenty to share as we approach opening day on October 5, but we want to start by showing you a video we created a few years back. Enjoy this taste of what calligraphy has to offer; we hope it whets your appetite for more.

What Poets Conjured for MATCHA: Phantoms Arise!

Farnooshi Fathi reading in Phantoms of Asia

Farnoosh Fathi reads her poem to the Matcha audience.

As a recent addition to the education department at the museum, I was excited about planning public programs for Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past, as well as cultivating new collaborations. For our latest Matcha event I considered how the museum could tap creative communities in the Bay Area in order to help demystify contemporary art and illuminate ideas and connections between artworks, but also open up the museum as a platform to present new works.

I was curious about the role poets and writers play in the exploration of themes and ideas around different cosmologies, the after-life, myth and ritual, and sacred spaces. For MATCHA: Phantoms Arise! I was lucky enough to collaborate with Litquake, the organization best known for organizing San Francisco’s Literary Festival.

I worked closely with Robin Ekiss, Poetry Curator and coordinator of Litquake’s Lit Crawl SF, a “bar crawl with literature—where hundreds of literati get drunk on words!” Robin and I assembled a list of artworks and a roster of poets to invite. We wanted to stay true to the spirit of Lit Crawl, but instead of jumping from bar to bar, participants would gallery hop around the museum. We commissioned new work from seven Bay Area poets: Justin Chin, Paul Hoover, Arisa White, Farnoosh Fathi, Kevin Simmonds, Mari L’Esperance, and Truong Tran. Robin and I assigned each poet an artwork from the exhibition, but we didn’t provide any information about the artwork or artist. We wanted to privilege each poet’s experience with the piece, allowing the art itself  to serve as the initial spark of inspiration. Here is Paul Hoover reading his poem “Krishna Takes a Picture”:

You can explore more poetry from the evening on YouTube.

Please join us for MATCHA: Shamanism featuring artist Dohee Lee on Thursday, August 23.

Art of Cultivation, Cultivation of Art: Tending Charwei Tsai’s “Bamboo Mantra”.


Laurel watering Charwei Tsai's Bamboo Mantra

Laurel never expected to turn gardener when she joined the Art and Programs team.

The label for Charwei Tsai’s Bamboo Mantra states that the canvas of the work, twelve potted bamboo plants, will inevitably wither and die, as an example of the Buddhist precept of nonattachment. It is my job, however, to make sure the inevitable is staved off until after September 2, when our current exhibition Phantoms of Asia closes. Therefore, I can be found every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning with a big yellow watering can, making sure the bamboo gets the water it needs to stay alive.

Despite appearances I am not actually the staff gardener. As an assistant in the exhibitions department, most of my day involves administrative work ensuring the success of our exhibitions—scheduling, budgeting, and planning for the shows we will be hosting in the New bamboo shoot, with a fallen leaf featuring Charwei Tsai's calligraphy beside it.coming years. When we added Charwei’s work to the object list for Phantoms, there were many questions to answer—was it safe to have living plants in the galleries? Would the bamboo come with any insects that might pose a threat to artworks? Would they get enough sun? And, finally, who was going to take care of them? As the staff member with the most confidence in her green thumb, I happily volunteered.

It’s been fun to take care of this artwork for the last two months. Bamboo, which is actually more closely related to grass than to trees, grows very quickly. In its native environment, it has been observed growing up to 39 inches in one day. Due to the foggy San Francisco summers, our bamboo has been performing considerably worse than that, but its vigor is still impressive. In the last few weeks I have watched stalks grow from new buds to towering eight-foot shoots. Just this morning, while tending to the grove behind Ganesh on the third floor, I spotted a new sprout emerging from the soil. I look forward to watching it grow. At the moment it looks just like this Japanese lacquered netsuke from our collection. There’s something very satisfying about the plump shape of this bamboo bud—brimming with life, possibilities, or, in some cuisines, deliciousness.

As part of her art practice, Charwei delicately painted the heart sutra on the surface of the plant itself. Eventually, the plant will outgrow all the calligraphy, shedding old leaves and stalks. Every day, one or two painted leaves fall from the plants, but they are always replaced by new, fresh green leaves. The heart sutra describes the temporary nature of all things. There is flux at the heart of this artwork. It’s been rewarding to visit it so often. Every time I see it, there is something new.

Phantoms of Asia Tour, Part 7: Art from Home

Adeela Suleman with Untitled (Peacock with Missiles)

Adeela Suleman with “Untitled (Peacock with Missiles) with added elements”.

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. In this, the final in our series of posts based on the tour, we look at four works rooted in the artists’ home towns.

Jagannath Panda‘s The Cult of Survival II is a response to modernization and development in Indian cities like Bhubaneswar, where Panda was born, and Gurgaon, the satellite-city of New Delhi where he currently lives. Panda explores these themes using traditional icons built from industrial materials such as sewage pipes. This work was created specifically for Phantoms, and is now a larger series.

Opposite the sewage-snake is another of Panda’s works, The Cult of Appearance III, which is being shown for this first time. The painting includes collage elements made from traditional Indian fabrics. For those who know Indian textiles these fabric pieces would be identifiable as being from a particular region; thus the artist has used the very materials of the work to create an additional layer of meaning. The piece depicts scenes from epics alongside contemporary images of Indian life. The figures at the bottom of the painting show people fleeing from floodwaters in Bhubaneswar in 2011. Some experts claim that the floods were caused by the mismanagement of water from a nearby dam.

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates an eerie otherworld in Phantoms of Nabua. The film is set in the artist’s hometown, which suffered in the military crackdowns from the 1960s to 80s, forcing the men of the village to flee. There is a legend in the area of a witch who abducts the men of the village, and this intersection of myth and reality has earned the village the name “widow town”. In the ten-minute film we watch the rituals of young men hanging out, kicking a soccer ball, but in the film the ball is on fire; this peaceful activity holds the seeds of destruction. The film reminds us that  notions of home can be destroyed, burned down.

Another artist with a complex relationship with home is Pakistani Adeela Suleman. Suleman lives in Karachi, where she holds the Chair of Fine Arts at the Indus Valley University of Art and Architecture. She is also a mother of three. Her steel reliefs are based on the metal decorations used in the city’s delivery trucks and buses, and is strongly rooted in the everday live of the city. But for people in Karachi, death is a part of everyday life, and Suleman’s work powerfully confronts the reality of living surrounded by violence. She says that when her husband goes to work each day, she never knows if he will come home. Her juxtaposition of symbols of violence such as missiles and suicide vests with images from nature and scenes from myth are unsettling, and tell a powerful and disturbing story of home.

Tour Part 1: Heman Chong
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

Phantoms of Asia Tour, Part 6: Myth, Ritual, Meditation

Adrian Wong planning feng shui installation at the Asian Art Museum

Adrian Wong in our library during the planning of his feng shui installation.

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.

Osher Gallery is the final room of the exhibition and also the largest. The diverse collection of works here deals with the overarching theme of myth, ritual and meditation. These works ask how we can commune with spiritual.

As you enter the room you are confronted by Motohiko Odani‘s masks, which are styled on the masks worn in Japanese no theater. These, though, are half anatomical, half trapped here on the physical plane. There seems to be a tension as well as a communion between the physical and the spiritual. On the opposite wall is a selection of traditional masks from our collection; old and new confront each other across the room. I wonder what they make of their counterparts from another time.

As you continue through the gallery you reach one of the most unusual—and funniest—works in the exhibition. Canadian artist Adrian Wong
has created two rooms using the principles of feng shui, one auspicious and one inauspicious.  Wong is trained as a research psychologist, and his art practice is a fusion of science and art.  He was inspired to create this work after learning that many people wouldn’t come to the Asian Art Museum because they believe that our building has bad feng shui. He began researching feng shui with a scientific eye, interviewing many experts from the Bay Area and becoming along the way a leading expert on the feng shui of our building. Walking through the rooms, with their linoleum floors creating a cheesy 70s aesthetic, you get the feeling that the artist’s tongue is firmly in his cheek.

From the somewhat ridiculous to the sublime, you next encounter Prabhavathi Meppayil‘s white panels. Meppayil is from a family of traditional metalworkers. Using traditional tools and techniques, she blends 1960s minimalilsm and her own cultural tradition to create these meditative pieces. The works are created by embedding copper wire in the panel; you need to get low  to see the metallic quality of the wires and really appreciate the detail of the piece. Achieving this kind of simplicity is a complex process; maybe that’s why these tend to be favorites among the artists that come through the exhibition.

Tour part 1: Heman Chong
Tour Part 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Tour Part 3: Asian Cosmologies
Tour Part 4: Hidden Energies
Tour Part 5: The Afterlife
Tour Part 7: Art from Home 

Whose Space? Our Space!

An unusual rotation is taking place in the Museum Store, one that re-imagines space and meaning, collaboration and inspiration, politics and culture.  It all sounds rather weighty and intellectual, but in fact is the start of a really good time culminating in our next MATCHA on Thursday, July 26. Thanks to Space Bi, Bay Area artists will be Taking Up Space.

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