Seattle Art Museum's big new exhibition of its world-renowned Asian art collection—Luminous: The Art of Asia—is having its homecoming celebration after the more than 150 pieces traveled across Japan last year.
The objects themselves are the simple part.
There are 6th-century clay armored warriors excavated from a Japanese tomb, 12th-century Chinese paintings on silk (one is a pheasant crying out, trying to escape a hawk), and 16th-century Vietnamese ceramics discovered after a shipwreck. There are Indian miniature paintings in vivid watercolor, ink, and gold on paper—Ganesh looking smart as ever, Vishnu with his lady on his nose. There's a 13-story pagoda sculpture made in slimy-shiny green, brown, and blue enameled pottery. There's a Chinese ewer that's also a phoenix, a thousand years old. Japanese screens are painted with poppies, bamboo, crows, greeny ocean waves; Chinese robes bear dragons chasing flaming orbs; a Korean bojagi, or translucent patchwork cloth for wrapping, is possibly the most delicate thing ever hung on a wall. There's calligraphy and Thai ceramics and a room where videos demonstrate new ultrasound scans of ancient sculptures. And there's also a new sculpture-installation of an almost unbearably beautiful life-sized gate made of sheer fabric stitched with celadon-colored thread, with a video projected onto it by the contemporary Korean-born artist Do Ho Suh (creator of the dog-tag robe that's so popular in the contemporary galleries at SAM).
The rest is confusing; stay with me.
Asian art is central to Seattle, though you'd be forgiven for not knowing it. Luminous is on the top floor of SAM's downtown location. On the floor below, SAM has a row of galleries regularly devoted to Asian art (currently occupied by B-team material). SAM also owns the Seattle Asian Art Museum a few miles away in Volunteer Park (currently occupied by B-team material and, soon, two new temporary exhibitions).
Still with me? Good.
The inside story of Asian art at SAM—and SAAM (I suggest pronouncing it "suh-am")—through the years and across the shifting, complex geography of Asia is doubtless fascinating. It started back in the early 20th century with the founder of SAM, who traveled to Asia, loved Asian art, collected it well, and began a serious ongoing commitment at the museum to acquire and care for great Asian objects. The quality of the collection, and its physical maintenance, is excellent. The objects you'll see in Luminous are great, in great shape.
But the curatorial stewardship—the intellectual, social, and spiritual care of the collection—is dead in the water and has been for some time, with few exceptions. Former SAM director Mimi (Gardner) Gates was an Asian art scholar, but her tenure did little to strengthen and deepen the relationship between the people who live in this city and the trove of Asian art right under their noses. Shows at SAAM are often dully framed, siloed, and underpromoted. Gates's influence is ongoing: Though she is retired, she has begun something called the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at SAAM, which appears to be her own fiefdom—another silo, disconnected, offering scattered lectures and events.
And Luminous is another disappointment—even something of an indignity, despite the exquisite moments you can happen upon with individual objects. The exhibition's curator is Catherine Roche, an interim curator at the museum, which makes you ask: Why is an interim curator presenting the museum's most prized material in a splashy exhibition? Roche makes a big deal out of the theme of migration, but why this theme is not reflected in its hollow title, Luminous, I have no idea.
Migration implies the crossing of regional and national borders, and several of the wall texts make reference to violence and history—to the profound loss of context that accompanies objects that travel across time and miles. Labels remind us that these objects have been ripped from their cultural, religious, and geographical contexts, and re-presented in the flattening illusion of the museum.
But the objects are presented sparsely, coldly, separated. This unartful presentation seems to exacerbate the worst aspects of their provenance and upheaval without taking the opportunity to make a statement about their broken relationship with each other. In several cases, labels further mystify the objects, providing pretty rhetoric or statements about the utter mystery of the objects.
Not all these mysteries are so mysterious, though.
At the entrance to Luminous, you're face-to-face with an enormous 17th-century Korean painting of a preaching Buddha. It is, its label reads, "One of the most important Korean treasures in the U.S." The label also says the exact date of production and temple of origin are unknown, and mentions its recent travel to Korea for restoration, which demonstrates "a major theme of this exhibition—that objects, like people, are continually in flux... Through close scrutiny, whether under a conservator's microscope, a curator's research, or a viewer's keen observation, these treasures of Asian art may gradually reveal themselves."
Or what might help reveal them are facts.
Part of why this painting physically deteriorated (it was featured not long ago at SAAM) is that it had to be hung outdoors after Japan invaded Korea and destroyed the buildings large enough to house it, at the end of the 16th century. Luminous makes no mention of this. A glance at the label also tells you SAM acquired the painting in 1945—kind of a big year for global politics, and the year Japan's brutal occupation of Korea ended. From whom did SAM get the painting—a Japanese or Korean seller? What is the real story of this "treasure"?
Meanwhile, Luminous devotes an entire room to the dreamy, borderline-racist theme of moonlight. How about, instead, a room devoted to the complex history of Korea within Asia (a history with continuing impact), or to why some Asian cultures are represented barely or not at all in SAM's collection? Instead, we get a gloss. The objects, the people who made them, and the people looking at them all deserve better.