Ajit Chauhan explores memories of memories of the memory

Untitled (Memories) by Ajit Chauhan. 2014.

Untitled (Memories) by Ajit Chauhan. 2014.

I discovered Ajit Chauhan’s work while I was reading about an upcoming exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum titled The Possible. I came across a work that still lingers in my memory, titled RERECORD. The artwork included 162 record album covers, altered through erasure, abstracting the images. I was haunted by how images were obscured, and started to fade away. I was intrigued, which led me deeper into the artist’s work. I was excited by his interest in language, pattern, poetics and forms of abstraction, and I knew that working with Ajit would yield an interesting and thoughtful project. I have been so impressed with his care for materials, language and audience that at moments it has forced me to rethink a certain perspective I might carry. I wanted to learn more about his work, process and upcoming Artists Drawing Club project, Palimpsest.   

 Marc Mayer (MM): If someone were to see your work for the first time, what work(s) would you want them to see? Can you tell us a little about those artworks or projects?

Ajit Chauhan (AC): Well the title of this project is Palimpsest. Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsēstos—scraped again; from palin + psēn—to rub, scrape; akin to Sanskrit psāti, babhasti—he chews, literally meaning “scraped clean and used again.” I was thinking of the echoes of this building’s former life as the Main Public Library. I don’t know if it was Robert Duncan or H.D. who said, “Palimpsest is not only that of image over image or person over person, but of time over time.” To answer your question I’ve often wished I could forget my past work, or at least relive the memories without cavities. I suppose that’s more tabula rasa than palimpsest. If I were forced to choose, it would most likely be something from the show From the Pencil Area at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York. I felt like that was a very conscious decision to try to make something more restrained, more poetic; that was the intent. Maybe an erased piece titled Last Address. It was a grid so the emphasis was on where the lines cross, their relationship to one another, basically a drawing of a weaving. I remember my friend Kevin Killian telling me, “You’ve pulled all the sense out of me,” after he saw the show, and that made me laugh.  It made me think about the word bewilder, be + wilder. I would like people to see the show Larry Rinder curated with Colter Jacobsen and myself at SVIT Gallery in Prague, Inner Sleeves. Jiri Kovanda made the poster (which was also in the show) for the band that played at the opening.

Inner Sleeves by Ajit Chauhan. 2012. Erased Record (Album) Covers

Inner Sleeves by Ajit Chauhan. 2012. Erased Record (Album) Covers

From the Pencil Area by Ajit Chauhan. 2011. Erased Record (Album) Covers.

From the Pencil Area by Ajit Chauhan. 2011. Erased Record (Album) Covers.

Inner Sleeves, 2012, by Ajit Chauhan. Erased record (album) covers. Courtesy of the artist.

Inner Sleeves, 2012, by Ajit Chauhan. Erased record (album) covers. Courtesy of the artist.

MM: Your work and practice seem to have an important and dynamic relationship to language. What role do words, text, and writing play in your work?

 AC: I’ve always had an interest in misreadings. At times I’ll read an entire passage in a text that isn’t there, shifting the words that are there into a new order and context, that carries over to a kind of visual dyslexia as well. English is my father’s fourth language, so he would always combine clichés, which I appreciated. It made me spend time with them. Words are really loaded, and I don’t mean that just with negative connotations. Norma Cole has poems or meditations on single words, tracing them back with all their entanglements and shifts in meaning over time (Yellow and…: A Response to the Poetry of Marjorie Welish). I’ve just been reading the George Lakoff book Metaphors We Live By, which talks about the pervasiveness of metaphor in our lives and how we perceive and process the world through them, so really how they govern our lives. When I’m at the library sometimes I’ll need a break so I’ll spend time with the Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color book that is part of their reference collection. It’s really a series of individual folders but it emphasizes the point of the transitory nature of color, how it’s largely based on context, and if color itself is that way you can imagine how slippery language can be.

Writing has come up in my own work most directly through concrete poetry, with typewriter patterns or typesetting, playing with palindromes and anagrams. When one titles work and it doesn’t serve as an interpretation or explanation but as a part of the piece, I think that’s an important part of language in an (art) practice. Mostly I think just reading or listening to poetry helps but I couldn’t tell you specifically how or why, but it probably has something to do with what Marianne Moore said: “So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”

 

Untitled, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Typewriter carbon on paper. 5.5 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Untitled, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Typewriter carbon on paper. 5.5 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Untitled, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Typewriter carbon on paper. 5.5 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Untitled, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Typewriter carbon on paper. 5.5 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

MM: You were recently part of the exhibition The Possible at the Berkeley Art Museum. Can you tell us about the exhibition and your experience there?

AC: When I talk about the exhibition I refer to it as the “dreamtime.” It was nice to regularly spend time in the Berkeley Art Museum, which is a distinctive modernist building. There’s a great tumblr, http://fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com, if you like brutalist architecture. I remember during a few of the thunderstorms the acoustics of the space were incredible. Everyone was extremely generous. I would surmise that was what the exhibition was largely about, that exchange. I was a complete novice but spent the majority of the time in the weaving section, and we’ve become pretty knit. I selfishly appropriated a loom and spent the majority of the time weaving. There was a lot of crosspollination though and I learned how to bind books with the Publication Studio equipment. I spent time in The Reading Room with Barbara Guest books and in the library that Anzfer Farms furnished. The mail-art correspondences for The Possible were on display next to vitrines of fluxes art boxes, the S. M. S. publications by William N. Copley, General Idea’s FILE magazine and others. Ultimately I think it was that dream we’ve all had, that ideal we all thought school was going to be, a place full of encouragement and direction, with hands-on learning. I think it was an opportunity for all the participants, and we controlled the parameters of our involvement but everything was available. 

MM: You mentioned a new interest in weaving that came about while using the studios that were part of The Possible. What is it about the medium and the process that resonates for you? Do you think there is a relationship between weaving and writing? If there is, how would you describe it, in the context of your work?

AC: It’s a slippery slope! There is a kind of alchemical instant gratification in seeing two materials interlace and be “woven” together. I was grateful to be introduced to weaving during The Possible exhibition. As I mentioned earlier with certain grid pieces I was essentially making drawings of weavings so it was a very natural extension or step to come to weaving. I had a conversation with the artist Hadi Tabatabai, who deals a lot with pattern and grid. We talked about our affinity for repetition. It does require a certain sensibility to repeat something again and again. But tedium has always been part of my practice. I have heard it characterized as “painstaking” but there is rarely if ever any pain involved. It is simple, easy, repetitive, time-consuming work, which, if you have the sensibility for it, is extremely rewarding.

This project with the Asian Art Museum, I chose to address the remnants of the building’s former life, in particular the inscriptions that are still housed in this building. One of the inscriptions I chose was “To ‘dis-cover’ was to pull away the covering cloth,” so to learn to make cloth seems appropriate. I do see a correlation between weaving and writing, although again I am cautious about making analogies. But the next time you print something from your computer, that is essentially what weaving on a loom is, building something horizontally (the weft) sequentially line by line.

Last Address, 2011, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

Last Address, 2011, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

Bumps and Whispers, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

Bumps and Whispers, 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

Untitled (weaving, from The Possible), 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

Untitled (weaving, from The Possible), 2014, by Ajit Chauhan. Courtesy of the artist.

 MM: What is your project for the Artists Drawing Club? How did the idea come about?

 AC: The title of the project is Palimpsest, something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. The Asian Art Museum’s building, formerly the Main Public Library, contains traces of this building’s former life. The twenty-four quotations chosen by former mayor Edward Robeson Taylor, inscribed in the toast-tinted travertine above the grand staircase, are the set of echoes that I chose to focus on. I was immediately drawn to them. They are very strange. Like something you would find at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, “…guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” Andrea Grimes, a former librarian in the old main library and now in the 6th-floor San Francisco History Center of the new main, was very generous, suggesting archival material, printed matter and ephemera. She gifted me an inscriptions book that she wrote the preface for, VITA SINE LITERIS, which was Taylor’s personal motto (borrowed from Seneca), translated as: “Life without letters is death.” It was introduced in the bookplate design that was adopted by the San Francisco Public Library.

Andrea also did further research on the inscriptions, giving a broader context to the source material. Taylor did not include sources for any of the quotations and freely adapted the wording to fit the inscriptional spaces. The Charles Caleb Colton inscription “Handle A Book As A Bee Does A Flower Extract Its Sweets But Do Not Injure It” is actually “I have somewhere seen it observed, that we should make the same use of a book, as a bee does of a flower, she steals sweets from it, but does not injure it.”

For this project I chose to make boxes that will be gifted to visitors. The boxes have inscriptions imprinted on the inside with text that deals with the ephemeral, with thresholds, with transitions. I hope the boxes echo the concept of container, housing and shell, and lead visitors to reflect on the Asian Art Museum and its former life as the Main Public Library. It was interesting having the boxes die-cut and printed. I felt adamantly against doing an insert with premade boxes. I thought the housing of the inscriptions in the museum and in the boxes were a set of formal echoes and correspondences through which they answer each other. I also reproduced a booklet on the actual inscriptions for visitors to take and reflect on.

Sante Johnson student project for the Royal School of Embroidery

Sante Johnson student project for the Royal School of Embroidery

MM: Risk is part of the Artists Drawing Club series. I am asking you to try something new with a public audience. What do you want to achieve through Palimpsest? What do you want to take away from this experience? What do you want audience members to experience during this event?

AC: I don’t really believe in reinventing the wheel or that space of what’s “new.” That always seemed a little reactionary to me. I’m more interested in following the tiny inspirations that may or may not appear. I’m more interested in what has value and meaning to me that may be the only part that speaks to other people. “Achieve” is another interesting word because I think process is important. It’s a sort of problem-solving process, and you deal with frustrations and compromises but ultimately it’s a learning experience. I’m grateful and feel fortunate to have spent time in this building and with all the ephemera surrounding this building, telling the histories of the lives that passed through it. Ultimately I hope visitors reflect on some of these histories. I hope they will reflect back on themselves at a very basic level.

The Friends of San Francisco Public Library

The Friends of San Francisco Public Library

 

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.

Hughen/Starkweather’s Re:depiction channels intimate encounters with artworks

Requiem 12 (from the Bay Bridge Project) by Hughen/Starkweather, 2013.  [Ink, gouache and acrylic paint on paper. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

Requiem 12 (from the Bay Bridge Project) by Hughen/Starkweather, 2013. [Ink, gouache and acrylic paint on paper. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

It was very exciting to think about working with Hughen/Starkweather for a project as part of the Artists Drawing Club. I was curious about the way Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather work together as well as independently, but I was more interested in the role research plays in their collaborative practice. When I received the email explaining the idea that evolved into Re:depiction, I was interested in how this project,  while complimenting their past work, seemed to have a different approach.

Hughen/Starkweather wanted to interview six staff members from the Asian Art Museum and asked me to help assemble interviewees. The group included Qamar Adamjee (associate curator of South Asian art), Miriam Mills (storyteller), Shiho Sasaki (paintings conservator), John Stucky (museum librarian), Susan Williams (security guard), and Jay Xu (director). Each staff member was asked to select an artwork on view, one that was important or meaningful to them. During the interview Hughen/Starkweather asked the participant to describe the work from memory, and the conversations developed organically, including personal anecdotes and connections to the artwork.

Interview

Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather interviewing Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum.

Recording these interviews, the artists had only an oral account of the work. There were no visual reproductions to inform the drawing they would create. I am still not sure if Amanda and Jennifer have seen the artworks now that their drawings are complete. These interviews inspired me to look more closely at these works. I had forged a new relationship to the artwork through the stories my colleagues told, and I am curious to see how the event will unfold, especially as Hughen/Starkweather solicit audience members to become participants in Re:depiction.

Marc Mayer: How do each of you describe your practice as Hughen/Starkweather? How has this practice changed over the ten years of working together?

Jennifer Starkweather: Our collaborative practice has evolved significantly over the past several years. In our first couple of projects, we held on tightly to certain identifiable characteristics. These early pieces comprised of a Hughen drawing layered on top of a Starkweather drawing or vice versa. After a few years, we made a commitment to collaborate in a more authentic way by literally working on the same surface of paper. What resulted was a collection of marks and colors that weave in and out of each other. We overlap, juxtapose, merge and revise each other’s marks to a point where our individual “identity” is no longer evident.

Amanda Hughen: Also what changed over time is the depth of research for each project. Our first big project together was the Market Street series titled Between Above and Below, in 2007.  We did a fair amount of research for that project, unearthing data, maps, and photographs from various sources. But with each subsequent project, the amount of research we do seems to get more and more in depth, and more personal.

MM: Have Hughen/Starkweather projects influenced your solo practices? How?

JS: The Hughen/Starkweather projects have definitely influenced my work both conceptually and aesthetically. And my personal work naturally influences how I approach our collaborative projects. It is hard to maintain defined and clear boundaries, because ultimately it is coming from the same place and the same person. What I enjoy about the collaborative projects is the surprise in the end. I never know what Amanda is going to do, even though we discuss ideas throughout the process. I like that “not-knowing.”  Sometimes I know too much about how my own work will look. Working collaboratively, however, has taught me to explore and experiment with new processes, methods and tools, which helps me to keep the learning curve on the steeper side.

AH: I agree with Jennifer. I am most interested in the unexpected marks, which is an inherent aspect of collaboration but harder to get to in one’s solo work. In order to get there in my own work, I create tight restrictions on my process, working with a single shape and color palette and finding ways to create unexpected or uncontrolled marks through tools such as rulers and screen printing.

MM: You mentioned that during Hughen/Starkweather openings people consistently ask you to identify which areas you, Amanda, or you, Jennifer, worked on, which I understand can be very frustrating. I won’t ask you that question, but what I want to know is how do you begin a drawing? What elements decide who starts which drawings?

AH: We generally start a project with time spent researching a specific subject. For our Bay Bridge project, we looked at maps, engineering drawings, data sets, photographs, and of course the bridge. We also interviewed people who were involved with the bridge, which was most interesting to both of us. We use the massive amount of information we have collected to set parameters for a body of work—specific artworks focused on certain areas or ideas. Then we dive in. We don’t discuss much regarding specific formal issues or composition—one of us simply starts each piece and hands it off to the other. We get together and look at the works, discuss them, and hand them off to continue working on them.

We do not make marks together in the same room. We have separate studios, in different neighborhoods in the city. We work alone on each piece, then get together to look and discuss, then separate again to continue working.

It is exciting to have half-finished works handed over and to solve the problem, or begin something and not know how it will end up. There is a huge amount of trust and respect involved.

MM: What is your project for the Artists Drawing Club? How did the idea come about?

JS: Our project is titled Re:depiction. To begin, six staff members from the Asian Art Museum each selected an artwork on view in the museum and described the piece to us in an interview. The staff members included a wide range of jobs, from a night security guard to the director of the museum. We held the interviews at the museum, and although we had planned questions in advance, the conversations meandered, frequently becoming more about the personal connection the interviewee had to the artwork.

After we had completed the six interviews, we created a sound piece and an abstract work on paper for each interview. On the night of the event, each abstract work will be viewed alongside its accompanying sound piece from the interview.

AH: We came up with this idea because we are interested in the personal stories behind a person’s relationship with an object. Listening to someone tell a story about the Bay Bridge (our most recent project) or about a Korean vase helps us understand and get to know the subject we are exploring and investigating through a unique and personal lens. In Re:depiction, we are intrigued with how a viewer looks at a favorite work of art and how personal experiences shape their vision and interpretation of it.

It was interesting how each interview tended to veer away from the formal (color, texture, shape) and toward the personal (the relationship between the interviewee and the chosen object).

JS: This more social aspect of our work developed when we were working on the Bay Bridget project. We began to understand how passionate the architects, engineers, designers and others were about the structure. When we first began planning our project for the Asian Art Museum, we knew that some aspect of storytelling would be essential to highlight the connection between object and person.

Shiho Sasaki, Album of Lacquer by Hughen/Starkweather. 2014. Archival pigment print, edition of 3, 72x36 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

Shiho Sasaki, Album of Lacquer by Hughen/Starkweather. 2014. Archival pigment print, edition of 3, 72×36 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

MM: What were some of the highlights in the interviews with museum staff? Can you tell me how your relationship with the interviewees developed as you started working on the drawings? What was it like listening to their words while making the work? Are there phrases or ideas that still stick with you?

JS: When listening to the staff members speak about a work of art, I was struck most by the love, passion and excitement they felt. I found myself becoming immersed in a story as it unraveled.  I noticed that most interviewees began by visually describing the work of art, then, gradually moved into telling a personal story about the piece, how they felt about it, what resonated with them and what it reminded them of. I also noticed that the cadence of their voice slowed down as they grappled to find the words to describe an ephemeral experience rather than a visual one.

AH: One of the interviewees told a story about a temple near where she grew up in Japan. As a young child she would press her cheek in reverie against the beautiful reddish lacquered surfaces of the inside of the temple. In her early teens, they replaced the wood shutters in the temple with glass windows, and as a result the lacquered interior faded to dull wood. A few years later she found a spot on the back of a shelf that had been untouched by light and was still the beautiful reddish lacquer, discovering that her memory of the beautiful surface had not been a dream after all.

JS: I revisited the words as I began to make the work, highlighting visual details that stuck out, like textures, shapes or colors. As with many of our projects, we are often overwhelmed by the information that we have. At a certain point, it can become more of a hinder than help. I had to focus less on the descriptive details and more on how I would interpret them. Working spontaneously and immediately helped me to dive in rather than treading too carefully around words and ideas.

MM: Now that the project is in process and your drawings are finished, it is clear to me that translation and interpretation are at the core of this project. Can you discuss the act of translation? How does it manifest through Re:depiction?

AH: This project is a series of translations or “redepictions.” When viewing an artwork, each of us brings our own histories, preconceptions, ideas and interests to how we interpret a work. Through this project, we examine this process and take it to a slightly ridiculous end. It becomes a perpetuating circle of interpretation and translation. There is something about attempting to recreate an artwork just from verbal description, and what results is focusing on the personal relationship the viewer has with that work of art, their own ideas and interests. On the night of the event, the viewer closes the loop of interpretation as they listen to the words of the interviewee, look at our depiction, and then find the original artwork in the museum.

JS: I think that translation is inherent to the creative process. The artist’s role is to communicate a feeling, emotion, concept or belief into a visual language—shapes, colors, textures, space. I have always been interested in maps and how they translate a three-dimensional space into dots, lines and dashes. It is a two-dimensional picture that evokes space, memory and narrative. Maps have been an important piece of source material for many of our collaborations. In previous projects, we have been interested in how to translate a space or place into an abstract work by reinterpreting shapes and forms. A body of water becomes a series of parallel lines, or a BART station is rendered as a pattern of connecting triangles. This project was different in many ways. Rather than working from the built environment, we worked with words, memories and experiences. But what is similar is the way we sifted through information and ideas to find the parts of stories that resonated with us.

MM: Risk is part of the Artists Drawing Club series. What do you want to achieve through Re:depiction? What do you want to take away from this experience? What do you want audience members to experience during this event?

AH: It will be interesting to see how people will participate on the night of the event. Will they simply looking at our artworks? Will they put on the headphones and listen to the accompanying sound piece? Will they use the map to find the original works that were described to us? Will they tell us about their own memory of a work of art? We want to offer audience members the opportunity to consider a work that has resonated with them. As in all art-viewing, it is up to the viewer to take the opportunity, or not.

 

Meet the artists live at the next Artist Drawing Club event on May 22nd.

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.”

Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 2

 This is Part 2 of a two-part series featuring Chris Fraser. Read Part 1 or check out his work live.

MM: How did the idea develop for Renewals/Returns?

CF: I’ve been preoccupied with the link between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library. If you walk in and around the museum you will find traces of the building’s former life. The names of literary greats, from Shakespeare to Goethe, adorn the outside. Epigrams line the perimeter of the central stairway, extolling the virtues of books. Get too bogged down in the details of the space, and it becomes difficult to see the museum housed within it.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Like many Bay Area residents, I’m concerned about the eviction crisis. What happens to a city when one group rapidly displaces another? Can a city preserve its civic memory? A city must be allowed to change if it is to remain vital. But do we have an ethical responsibility to preserve elements of the past? As a visitor to the museum, I might be struck by the history of the space. But as a resident, I am more concerned with stewardship.

Research for this project began at the new Main Public Library. I looked through archival materials, walked the space and paid attention to how people use the library. One of the librarians introduced me to a book on the history of the library. I was struck by the fact that the old library had reached capacity by the mid-1950s. Before renovations, the building at 200 Larkin Street had vaulted ceilings. It made for a beautiful space, but it also caused overcrowding. Officials had been trying to build a new library on its current site since the ’60s but were thwarted by budgetary constraints, apathy and a desire at one point to put the new opera house on that land.

I walked the space, inside and out. It’s incredibly vibrant, with a diversity I don’t usually associate with the city. The library is more than a collection of books. With classes and counseling centers, it serves as a hub for the community. Walking around the outside of the building, I noticed that the architects had made efforts toward introducing traces of the old architecture, most notably the cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows.

Cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows

I went from there to the museum. I was struck by just how busy it also was. I guess I’ve always been there on off hours. But on a Sunday afternoon, the museum matches the vibrancy of the library. With archival images of the old library in mind, I took a leisurely walk. I tried to imagine the Gottardo Piazzoni murals in the stairwell. During renovations, these murals were moved to the de Young. I tried to imagine the first-floor galleries as giant reading rooms and noticed that through a gap in the ceiling on the edge of the space, you can see clear up to the original ceiling. I lingered for over an hour in Samsung Hall, former home of the Reference Section. It is, in itself, a remarkable public space. It’s such a luxury. Rather than using it for exhibitions, it’s left empty. People walk in and stare. They look up, they walk, they interact. While I was there, two young women danced for at least 15 minutes. Evidently this was a ritual. They come often together.

This got me thinking about how the museum uses this space. Such care was put into preserving traces of the library, sometimes to the detriment of the work. Does the ornate ceiling on the third floor complement the art/artifacts? Do the inscriptions in the stairwell contribute to the appreciation of Asian art? I have my doubts on both counts. But they do perform the important task of maintaining civic memory. These elements prevent us from considering the museum as a place outside of time or place. They present the museum as a steward of heritage.

Interior of Main Library - Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: As you started your research for this project, you were telling me about conversations you have had with librarians who worked in this building when it was the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. What information did you gather from these exchanges and how did these conversations help to shape your thinking?

CF: The librarians I’ve spoken to are incredible. Not only have they helped me track down rare books, films and other archival materials, but they have also shared their own stories of the Old Main with me. Based on their enthusiasm, I would guess that no one else had inquired about the building in the past decade.

Andrea Grimes has a mind like a steel trap. She began working at the library in 1962 and was with the History Center at the Old Main. She directed me toward materials both in and out of the official catalogue, sent me home with a book on the inscriptions found in the Old Main/New Asian, and let me watch a documentary video from her own collection.

There is lingering angst over the move from the Old Main to the new. For all of its flaws, there is still great affection for the old, stately building. But the real ire is reserved for those library officials who presided over the move. In their zeal for an architectural marvel, they neglected to make enough space for the books already on hand. Upwards of 200,000 books were carted off to the dump to free up space.

On my second visit to the History Center, librarian Penelope Houston gave me a poem she had written in 2003. “On Visiting the New Asian/Old Main” recounts the poet’s first visit to the Old Main after its conversion to the Asian. In the poem, she senses the ghosts of the library—sounds of librarians shuffling and carts passing by—and mourns their absence. At the same time, she’s thinking about the newly waged war in Iraq. The library building is precious to her, but how does it compare to the preciousness of buildings, cultural histories and peoples the American forces were destroying?

Houston’s poem is reminiscent of the ode Edward Robeson Taylor delivered upon the dedication of the Old Main. In it, Taylor ties the opening of a new public library to the First World War. While Europe was destroying its cultural treasures, he observed, San Francisco was creating a new one for the ages. Separated by a century, the building remains personal for both Taylor and Houston. It’s more than a container for books or works of art or antiquities. It houses our fears and aspirations. It represents the collective memory of a people, needs and hopes.

Interior of Main Library - Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: What do you want to address through Renewals/Returns?

CF: I want these continuities and exchanges to be the subject of my project at the museum. The Asian Art Museum leaves the de Young but offers them the Piazzoni murals, as if in exchange. The Main Library moves to a new location but preserves elements of its former architecture. The Asian Art Museum renovates the former site of the library but preserves many of the former library’s most noteworthy features. Watching a video of someone walk through the old Main Library, I was drawn to a sign at the circulation desk that read “Renewals/Returns.” That phrase seems to encapsulate much of what I am hoping to suggest with this project.

Chris-Fraser-at-work

To mark these continuities, I will be covering certain windows in the museum with a daylight correction film that references the crosshatch window pattern. By emphasizing this one shared element, I wish to draw attention to all of the other ways in which the library and the museum participate in a linked history. Additionally, I will be reproducing a pamphlet made for the dedication of the building in 1917 for use as a tour map of sorts, emphasizing what remains and what has changed. Lastly, I will be adding ambient sound of some sort, taken from the new Main Library. Collectively, I am hoping these elements create confusion between past and present.

Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 1

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Inviting Chris Fraser to participate in the Artists Drawing Club was an exciting prospect, introducing a new challenge to the series. I never know how to describe his work, besides saying that he manipulates and crafts environments, creating the right situation to make light bend to his will. So the question for me, with all the constraints of producing an event in the museum, is how would this work? I was worried about the challenge and the potential frustration Chris might experience working on a project featured as part of the Artists Drawing Club series. Those worries quickly dissolved as Chris started to work with a keen sensitivity to the museum and the building’s history. While I am uncertain about what the final experience entails, the process of developing this project has been so rich and compelling that there is some excitement in not knowing what exactly to expect on April 24.

I spoke to Chris about his project and art practice. I wanted to gain some insight into how Renewals/Returns may or may not resonate with his other artworks and processes.

—Marc Mayer, Educator for Public Programs

 

MM: You are an artist whose work makes me really consider “artistic disciplines,” categories like photography, sculpture, installation because I do not know how to categorize your work, which is something I really appreciate. I know you work with light, but I am curious about how you would discuss your relationships to different disciplines.

CF: I enjoy being introduced to new people in social situations. It’s an opportunity to hear other people contextualize my work. Sometimes I’m an installation artist, other times simply a sculptor. I’m usually the guy who works with light. But one time I was accused of being a painter. I liked that.

My background is in photography. I don’t know that I was ever a terribly good photographer. I always preferred the act of photographing to the pictures themselves. So I began searching for ways of sharing that experience. My earliest installations can all be read as outsized camera obscuras. Light entered a darkened space through a small opening to create a picture of the world nearby. Viewers participated in an altered vision of the familiar.

Photography became situational. It existed in the space between opposing forces: light and dark, inside and outside, near and far. I found it in architecture, installation, sculpture, performance, video, and drawing. Eventually it ceased being photography altogether and emerged as a way of being, a way of engaging with the world.

MM: As a light artist, if I dare use that term, to put it plainly, what is your material?

CF: I’m not sure that I have a material in the traditional sense. I create frames for experiencing the ambient environment, for emphasizing the nearness of the near. What I mean by this is the way space becomes a “non-space” or a transitory space. I want to articulate that these “between” spaces are spaces in and of themselves. These partitions are often made of drywall, lumber or glass. But they can be made of anything, really. These secondary materials are meant to disappear, allowing the audience to linger on light, sound and motion.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

MM: Which artists or artworks do you find yourself coming back to for inspiration or to figure out how to approach a challenge in your work?

CF: I’m currently drawn to works that are not photographable. In the late 1960s, several artists working with sensorial environments took a stand against having their work documented photographically. Robert Irwin once started a very public fight with the editors of Artforum over the unauthorized publication of one of his disk paintings. He complained that the photograph was all surface and no substance. It described what the painting looked like, but said nothing of how it felt to look at it in person.

Irwin himself eventually abandoned this idealistic position. Concerned with his place in art history, he figured that a misleading record of accomplishments was better than no record at all. But some works defy visualization entirely. A photograph of Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor says nothing of value about the piece. Two walls face each other, forty feet in length, with a foot of space between. Green tinted fluorescent lights hang overhead. It seems like an obstacle course at first. You enter at one end and slowly, playfully make your way to the other. At some point the walls change color from green to white, but you fail to notice. The walk has distracted you. You emerge on the other side and everything you see is bright magenta. The corridor is a brilliant piece of misdirection. It provides a reason to stand in green light just long enough to change your color memory. The work resides entirely on your retinas.

Eric Orr’s Zero Mass similarly plays with the boundaries of perception. A large ribbon of white paper lines the walls of a darkened room, lit dimly from behind. You enter the space and sit in complete darkness for the first five minutes. But as your eyes adjust, shapes emerge. People become dim silhouettes. After twenty minutes in the dark, you see the room in stark relief. The black walls are now bright white. Dark, featureless people walk around the space. All the while, your eyes flit and jump as they scan the room. Vision becomes newly strange.

Of all the perceptual artists to emerge in the 1960s, only Maria Nordman has maintained her ban on photography. This may account for her relative obscurity, but it also affirms the value she places on embodied experience. Photography can approximate certain aspects of vision. But it denies change. It removes vision from time, from the body, from the other four senses.

MM: Working on a project for the Artists Drawing Club I imagine is a little different from making work in the studio. How is working on this project similar or different from your studio practice? What have been the challenges/payoffs?

CF: For me, the studio is less a place than a set of conditions. I make work when I’m relaxed, in a space with few distractions. I’m productive when I have no specific goals or expectations, when play is my sole activity. Observation and accident are at the center of my practice.

When working on a show, the exhibition site temporarily becomes my studio. I spend time in it, watch it change with the day, and notice how people receive or ignore it. I then develop a set of circumstances that call attention to the overlooked qualities of the space. I take things at the periphery of experience—the ambient, the stray—and place them at the center.

In that sense, my project for the Asian Art Museum fits easily into my working method. I’ve made several trips to the museum for the sole purpose of walking and looking. But I’ve also spent time offsite, researching the history of the building. My projects typically ground the viewer in the present moment. But my experience of the Asian Art Museum is as a place between times. The building is so rich in historical markers that it becomes difficult to appreciate the present without the past.

MM: I am really curious about your comment that observation and accident are at the center of your practice. How does that function day-to-day?

CF: Occasionally I go into the studio with a set of known materials, perform experiments, and restage the results as an aesthetic experience. But most of my work isn’t nearly so methodical. Projects usually grow from simple observation. My first large-scale light installation was inspired by a crack between two moveable walls. I was drinking beers with friends and had a lovely daydream about a thin gap in my studio wall that ran from floor to ceiling. I didn’t know exactly what that gap would do to the room, but it seemed worth finding out. I spent six weeks transforming the space and was only able to see the results after everything was completed. That element of risk has become a trait of my practice. Because much of my work is site conditional, I seldom have the ability to test it beforehand.

The materials I do end up bringing into the studio are often discovered through accidental encounters. One of my current projects uses tiny glass spheres to simulate visual depth. I discovered the material while riding my bike through the Haight on a sunny day. Something registered in the corner of my eye as I passed through an intersection. I walked back, and there on the ground, around the shadow of my head, was a rainbow. It followed me everywhere. A fine layer of glass dust coated the activated ground. I wasn’t sure why it was there. But I took a sample and spent the next several months figuring out what it was. The answer was simple. Caltrans uses these road beads to make paint reflective. I bought a bag of the stuff and sat on it for three years. After a lot of trial and error, and a fair bit of luck, I found a use for it.

This is Part 1 of a two part series. Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow where Chris talks about his project for the Artists Drawing Club.

We’re on Khan Academy

“Museums—having increasingly positioned themselves as educational resources—have the potential to fill the gaps left by the inadequate resources on Asia in schools throughout the nation.” – Bridge Program Evaluation

It has always been our goal to spearhead efforts to close these gaps. That’s why we’re really excited about our new online courses on Asian art history at Khan Academy. As a Khan partner, we are among world-class institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences, who are all doing their part to bring knowledge to the people in new and different ways.

If you haven’t heard of them before, Khan Academy is a non-profit educational website that aims to provide no-cost, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Courses range across all types of topics, from math to humanities. It’s not surprising that they reach over ten million students a month.

When Khan Academy came to us, they had little information on Asian art history. Once they saw our rich repository of videos, essays and more, they knew that we would be a good fit. We were likewise excited by the opportunity to reach a new audience, so we worked together to create the course. Now you can dig deeper into Asian art history while getting stats on yourself and earning fun badges. Check it out!

Khan Academy

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.

Honoring James Francis Cahill

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

The Asian Art Museum displays a landscape painting in Gallery 17, dated 1629, by Guan Si in remembrance of scholar and friend, James Francis Cahill (1926–2014), who passed away on February 14, 2014 at his home in Berkeley at age eighty-seven. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor. The painting will stay on view through July 13, 2014

The painter Guan Si was skillful at reinterpreting fourteenth-century masters, and his personal style evolved from complicated to simple. The subject of fisherman in landscape is a familiar theme in traditional Chinese painting, and the sparse brushwork and simple composition of this landscape exemplify Guan’s mature style. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of the influential art historian James Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor.

Cahill began collecting paintings as a Fulbright scholar in Japan during the 1950s. He served as a curator of Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, from 1958 to 1965, and then taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1965 to 1994, during which time he mentored many scholars of Asian art, some who worked and still work at the Asian Art Museum. Among his numerous publications, major works include his first book, Chinese Painting (1960), and a multi-volume series on later Chinese paintings, including Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976), Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978), and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). The College Art Association awarded him its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2007. In 2010 the Smithsonian awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art.

Cahill gathered his lectures and essays as well as other writings on a variety of topics at www.jamescahill.info. The Asian Art Museum also has a two of Cahill’s talks on iTunes that can be downloaded.

Cahill’s ashes will be scattered at his favorite beaches at Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.