The staff of the Asian Art Museum are saddened to hear of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, this morning. Our thoughts are with all those who are suffering today.

Sho Kannon is one of the most popular deities in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon. As an agent of the Buddha Amida, he watches over all of humankind and extends his limitless compassion to all sufferers.

Sho Kannon

Standing bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sho Kannon), approx. 794-1185. Japan. Wood with traces of lacquer and gilding. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S420.

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.

Farewell to Gae Aulenti, Visionary Architect

Gae Aulenti in the Asian Art Museum's North Court during building.

Gae Aulenti in the Asian Art Museum’s North Court during building.

The Asian Art Museum family is saddened by the news of the passing of Gae Aulenti, the visionary Italian architect who in 2003 was responsible for transforming San Francisco’s former Main Library into the museum’s expanded home. Ms. Aulenti was 84.

“The world has lost an immensely talented creative spirit,” said Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “Gae Aulenti was in a class of her own, an artist able to transform historic structures into dynamic public spaces that reflect a balance of traditional and modern sensibilities. Her work creating the museum’s home has brought new life to a time-honored building, bringing joy to those who visit. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family, friends and colleagues.”

In 1996, the Asian Art Museum chose Ms. Aulenti—a highly regarded designer specializing in the conversion of historic structures into museum spaces—as the design architect of its new facility at San Francisco’s Civic Center. Her award-winning projects include the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which was created from an enormous turn-of-the-century railway station; the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, a refurbishment of an eighteenth-century Venetian palace; and the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, a renovation of the National Palace, the building created for the World Exhibition of 1929.

Former Asian Art Museum director Emily Sano writes:

“Gae Aulenti’s deep understanding of classical architecture as well as the requirements of a modern museum were key to her work at the Asian Art Museum. The imposing facade of the former Main Library building led her to envision a light-filled interior that refreshed the sipirt of visitors as they entered, and the circulation pattern she devised through three floors of galleries, led visitors to comfortably encounter art as they moved through space. I am proud the Asian Art Museum will stand as testament to Aulenti’s enormous talents.”

On March 20, 2013, the Asian Art Museum will celebrate its 10th anniversary in the space Aulenti transformed, an ideal home for the interaction of traditional and contemporary art.

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.

Giants on Parade, Asian Art Museum Closed

If you live in San Francisco, you know by now that the Giants won the World Series last night, and they did it in style.

The victory parade is coming to our neighborhood on Wednesday, October 31. It will be a day of celebration, and since much of the celebration will be going on outside our doors the museum will be closed this Wednesday.

If you’re getting into the party spirit, have a great time and stay safe. We’ll look forward to welcoming visitors back to the museum on Thursday.

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!

Our Crush

You guys, we have a secret: the Asian Art Museum has a total crush on JVST.

Ok, here’s the story: JVST is this digital design firm who came to visit us a while ago. They took a look around and thought we were cool enough to visit again. In fact, they were so hella intrigued that the next thing is they called us up to ask if they could do projects for the museum! I know, right? We were like, “Yes! Hells yes.”

So then they made our gorgeous Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy page (which is the exhibition that starts next week). (PS The website features Dae Advertising’s handsome image, and we are muy simpatico with Dae, but we digress.)

Anyways the point is that we think JVST is so rad and SO HOT.  Whenever we have a meeting with them, we can’t even wait to see the genius new plans they’ve thought up. Ok, we’ll be honest: just thinking about them gives us butterflies, seriously.

But we don’t know if they dig us like that too, is the thing. Except just listen to this:  they sent us a CAKE today, you guys! Just because we happened to mention it was our birthday. Which: wha???? And here’s a picture of it (don’t mind our dirty fingernails).

We have two words for you: Salted. Caramel.

K, so now here’s the question: do you think they’re into us? Because we totally hope so!