The red lotus that was just installed in the Civic Center Plaza is the outside symbol of an exciting, exhausting and bold exhibit inside the Asian Art Museum, now located inside revamped Beaux Arts building that formerly housed the old San Francisco Public Library.
Created by the Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, the monumental red lotus is just one of the 60 new pieces by 31 contemporary artists in an attempt to create a dialogue between the art of the past and the present. With this exhibit, the museum takes an immense stride toward the goal of focusing on contemporary art that is inspired by and reflects the traditions in it's permanent collection.
Poklong Anading's "Anonymity" is paired with an Indian 17th century painting of the cosmos.
According to Allison Harding, the Asian Art Museum's assistant curator of contemporary art, artists today are still exploring the same timeless spiritual concerns. ."Where do we come from? Where are we going? How is the universe structured? What is the nature of the universe, and what is my place in that unknowable expanse?"
Harding and the museum chose Mami Kataoka, the chief curator at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, to curate "Phantoms of Asia." Kataoka came up with an open-ended idea for the show, one which looked for spiritual connections between contemporary and traditional art.
Sun K. Kwak. 2012As visitors enter the exhibit, the first piece on view is a striking black drawing, covering one wall of the courtyard. It was created on the spot by New York-based Korean artist Sun K. Kwaw by wrapping wide strips of black masking tape around the pillars and over the top of the wall.
“At the close of an exhibition,” Kwak explains, “the space once again becomes blank, as the black tape of the drawings is pulled off the wall and thrown out. This process of emptying the space is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life and my acceptance of the emptiness of that nature. Yet the drawing lives on in viewers’ memories as an imprint that leaves the space forever altered.”
Another more subtle and minimal exhibit was created by the Japanese-born photographer and sculptor Hiroshi Sugimoto. His "Five-Elements" installation consists of seven small crystal pagodas, sitting on thin wooden plinths. They were inspired by the 13th century Japanese Buddhist stupas whose geometric shapes symbolize the five universals of the cosmos (earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness). Each glass pagoda encases a photograph from the artist's famed "Seascape" series, letting the viewer look at sea and sky through an ancient Buddhist prism.
Up in the Chinese ceramics gallery, surrounded by pieces adorned with mythological creatures and other traditional imagery, you find a vivid and grotesque painting by Hong Kong-born Canadian artist Howie Tsui. It draws on everything from ancient Chinese mythology and Edo-period ghost paintings to contemporary Japanese anime. Among other fantastical figures, there's a headless guy with a hatchet dancing on a two-headed elephant.
The show is spread throughout the entire museum and feels huge. It IS huge, both in concept and execution. The visitor may feel museum fatigue as exhibit after exhibit opens out on the second and third floors.
It's an artistic treasure hunt, requiring time, energy, patience and comfortable shoes. Plan on coming back a number of times, for, like an archaeological dig, the return viewer will continue to uncover priceless treasure.
Kataoka has some advice for viewers, who don't need to know the backstory of these pieces (although the more the visitor understands, the more he or she will appreciate what's on display), to experience them fully.
"What you have to do is take a big breath and try to feel the invisible energy. Then you begin the show."
Asian Art Museum Blog - read about the process of installing the work and interviews with the artists and curators at the Asian: http://www.asianart.org/blog/
Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past: Fri.-Sept. 2. $7-$12. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St, S.F. (415) 581-3500. www.asianart.org.
images courtesy of the Asian Art Museum