Visual Art

Glossing Over Upheaval and Violence

SAM's New Asian Art Show Is an Indignity

Glossing Over Upheaval and Violence
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This Chinese painting of a pheasant and a hawk, by Li Anzhong, was made in 1129. It is the oldest of SAM's Chinese paintings on silk.
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This is a detail from SAM's famous Japanese crow screen (circa 1625-'50).
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This pair of devata sculpture, made of sandstone, is from 13th-century Cambodia.

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. recommended

 

Comments (17) RSS

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17
Good for you undead ayn rand. Right on. There's a place for PR but also a place for the opposite.
Posted by GFinholt on October 31, 2011 at 7:21 PM · Report this
16
Northwest Mystic pretty much nails it in the first comment. Jen Graves seems to have arrived in Seattle not all that long ago but knowing just what's wrong and has always been wrong with our art environment (besides always being racist and boring). Snippy, snippy, snippy.
Posted by kid entropy on October 31, 2011 at 1:09 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 15
"Stay to the point of your article as a review, ok?"

And this just comes off as intellectually incurious.
Posted by undead ayn rand on October 27, 2011 at 12:50 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 14
@6: "Isn't this supposed to be an unbiased critique of the show"

You have a limited perspective when it comes to what a "review" is supposed to cover. Not all of them are PR regurgitations.
Posted by undead ayn rand on October 27, 2011 at 12:49 PM · Report this
13
The full ("full") label and image of the Korean "Preaching Buddha" I mention is here: http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/emuseum/…
Posted by Jen Graves on October 26, 2011 at 12:06 PM · Report this
12
@ "the boring windbag"
OK-last time I checked SAM 's master plan was for one similar to the "greats'- a museum wide and deep, reflecting the history of Art and, if I'm not mistaken, isn't that how it's presented?
Secondly-your comments about Dr Fuller et al are sadly indicative of exactly what I was talking about, and so contrived. I won't even continue on that one...
And as for Jen, well, her game is so bankrupt. She has lost the respect of most and has become the "roll your eyes" joke of the local art scene. She should stick to what she does well-pop culture commentary. Bestowing the title of local art critic on her is like calling Sarah Palin presidential. The Stranger or whatever considered, the only people kissing up to her are the ones hoping for a little media exposure ( to her face, that is,sound familiar G F ?)
And at 11-again-zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (wake me when you're done.)
WTF?
Posted by northwest mystic on October 25, 2011 at 6:59 PM · Report this
11
I grew up in Seattle and SAM was a destination my parents took me and my sister with some regularity. SAM has certainly grown into a city’s museum that I all too often find quite strange. The special architecture of the new building is just bazaar. There is no grand entrance that leads you into a comfortable and easily understood beginning space. At the south entrance one is faced with ambiguous possibilities that don’t communicate a clear purpose. The southern grand stairway simply leads to a false choice from entrance to exit with strangely isolated drama separated from purposed meaning relating to the main building. The other entrance leads to clutter and visual noise. The administrative offices are guarded by a minimal corporate greeting desk whose space suffocates and scrutinizes your significance and security risk. There doesn’t seem to be grand exhibition spaces. Instead one gets the feeling one is visiting a modified newish department store. Often the curatorial notes accompanying a show produce more of a yawn than excitement or exceptional edification.
The show for me leaves a curious question about the structure of the total brand of the museum. I can understand why the SAM museum system has had a special emphasis on Asian art. But the way it’s presented seems to have become a little racist. If this show is an Asian show, why isn’t it at their Asian branch? Two points here. SAM seems to be quite arbitrary what it shows at both of its main sites. So why is the old site called the Asian museum. Isn’t this kind of a slap at the other ethnic or racial communities? I suspect it has something to do with the Fuller heritage. But why doesn’t SAM have, say, a Native American museum? They could call it SNAAM. And if they had a Hispanic site they could call it SHAM. It strikes me that naming the old museum an Asian museum has lost its relevance and is maybe not so much in taste anymore. I understand that the museum must have received humungous capital from the Asian community over the years and this connection maybe has them in a bit of a pickle. I’m for OLD SAM and NEW SAM, or SAM I and SAM II or something like that. SAM really needs to shake off the old ways and work on their public image. There should not be an Asian SAM. We just might need to have a little multiculturalism here to bring it up to speed.
The new SAM downtown seems to be a product of a financial boom time in which contributing interests made rash and odd choices. It could use a makeover.

Sorry for my wind on this but it just gets to me.
More...
Posted by GFinholt on October 24, 2011 at 7:42 PM · Report this
10
@1
nwmystic, you blow it again with your strange reactionary commentary and personally abusive treatment of others and their ideas. Yes, Dr. Fuller in his time played a mighty role at SAM and can’t be forgotten but he is a bit of a dinosaur representing a past time at SAM. A good contemporary museum can’t focus on what he focused on nor should it continue to fill its exhibition space with the same ol’ same ol’ collection to the exclusion of new and different items. Fuller was part of a period of collecting antiquities that has become a bit suspect these days. Should these antiquities belong to Western collections or their countries of origin? The world has become uncomfortable with some of this practice and SAM is operating in a different historical context than existed for Fuller. It’s time to move on. It’s time to move away from the dusty conservative nature of the local rich patrons imposing their immaculate caution on SAM’s character.
As to the final observations of JG’s article, I’m sure they have legitimacy no matter how they may pick some. I’m thinking some of her racial issues with the show are related to her increased sensitivity with racism (see her recent article: DEEPLY EMBARRASSED WHITE PEOPLE TALK AWKWARDLY ABOUT RACE). But also she is a writer at the Stranger and they have a culture of expose. Further, JG is probably acting as a reporter and acting as a conduit of the critical ideas she hears expressed by many others about the show. We should appreciate her passing on diverse viewpoints. You do come across as a bit of an old fogy yourself.
Posted by GFinholt on October 24, 2011 at 6:09 PM · Report this
9
Jen,
Gotta say when you first started making clear cut negative criticisms of Northwest art stuff I was puzzled, startled and kind of put off. In retrospect, I've changed my mind. My first response was reactionary based on a conservative social dictum that one simply doesn't do this kind of thing and that it can be hard to survive doing such a thing. Kind of like the separation of the museum board thing verses the messages in the exhibition. These days I applaud you for it. It can sting but it's gutsy and I think it can have value. Good criticism can be of value to all unlike the general mode of avoidance of politically sensitive ideas by all too many. You've got mucho huevos and it has value to the community to say out loud what is said in the shadows by those who care. Protestation is protestation.
Posted by GFinholt on October 22, 2011 at 5:53 PM · Report this
8
artsnob='s sam/saam employee.
Posted by shasta on October 22, 2011 at 10:39 AM · Report this
7
Jen,

This does not seem like a review for the exhibition rather it sounds like a personal attack towards SAM and SAAM's "inside story." Isn't this supposed to be an unbiased critique of the show and not a vendetta towards SAM and SAAM's leaders? The connections that they have made with those in this city is frankly not up for debate nor warrants any of your criticism.

Stay to the point of your article as a review, ok?

Your descriptions of a few of the objects is "simple" to say the least. However, the rest of your "review" is confusing to me.

Still with me? Good.

I recently read Catherine Roche's "The Art of Creating a Label" on SAM's blog. It seems clear to me that she did not choose to write about "upheaval and violence" in the case of the Korean Buddha painting. If you really wanted to write your own Luminous label, there was an activity opening week that displayed several submitted labels next to the art works.

What do you have invested in Korea's history within Asia? This show included 13 countries and sought to draw unconventional connections between them. It was not a show devoted to Korea or any Asian countries' history.

Again, "Can beauty be absolutely free from time, space and context?"

Yes, and thanks to SAM for illuminating these art objects.
Posted by artsnob on October 21, 2011 at 2:57 PM · Report this
6
Jen,

This does not seem like a review for the exhibition rather it sounds like a personal attack towards SAM and SAAM's "inside story." Isn't this supposed to be an unbiased critique of the show and not a vendetta towards SAM and SAAM's leaders? The connections that they have made with those in this city is frankly not up for debate nor warrants any of your criticism.

Stay to the point of your article as a review, ok?

Your descriptions of a few of the objects is "simple" to say the least. However, the rest of your "review" is confusing to me.

Still with me? Good.

I recently read Catherine Roche's "The Art of Creating a Label" on SAM's blog. It seems clear to me that she did not choose to write about "upheaval and violence" in the case of the Korean Buddha painting. If you really wanted to write your own Luminous label, there was an activity opening week that displayed several submitted labels next to the art works.

What do you have invested in Korea's history within Asia? This show included 13 countries and sought to draw unconventional connections between them. It was not a show devoted to Korea or any Asian countries' history.

Again, "Can beauty be absolutely free from time, space and context?"

Yes, and thanks to SAM for illuminating these art objects.

Posted by artsnob on October 21, 2011 at 2:55 PM · Report this
AirBuddy 5
I totally identify with the SAM/SAAM pronunciation differentiation. I personally tend to give the SAAM an exaggerated saag paneer inflection when I mention it, which is kind of unfortunate when I take a step back. I agree that the exotification and identity-stripping of Asian Art in the U.S. makes my skin crawl. Over the summer I went to Boston's MFA where they had a stone bust from Angkor Watt, with no explanation besides something like, "A bust, from the Cambodian Temple of Angkor Watt." That said, haven't seen the exhibit yet, but skin tingling and ready to crawl.
Posted by AirBuddy on October 21, 2011 at 12:22 PM · Report this
4
Paper Boat, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree with you that the museum is proposing the problem of context as a poetic, and not historical or political one. But that, I think, is a punt. And it particularly frustrates me because of the historical exoticization of Eastern art in Western museums, and because museums are also historically so guilty of avoidance when it comes to real history and politics. (Separation of boardroom and gallery.) In presenting things this disconnected way, the show implicitly answers the question "Can beauty be absolutely free from time, space and context?" And I disagree with its answer.
Posted by Jen Graves on October 21, 2011 at 10:47 AM · Report this
3
Jen, I think your criticisms miss the point of the show. The curator, and the artist Do-Ho-Suh bring attention to the fact that there isn’t necessarily a “right” story to tell about these objects. They have a history, as you allude to, and that’s one story that can be told where it is known. They also have object-hood and they can be appreciated in that way as well. These objects had a context for which they were originally created, and now they have a different one. I think it is valid to appreciate the changing lives of objects without necessarily bringing up why they changed, even though that it also an important conversation. In one quote Do-Ho Suh asks, “Can beauty be absolutely free from time, space and context?” I think that this show seeks to pose that question, not answer it. This exhibition seems to me to be an offering rather than an ultimatum, suggesting questions we may ask about the objects, about their presentation in the museum, and even about our expectations of the museum experience, but it intentionally leaves these questions unanswered, inviting visitors to draw their own conclusions. As the viewer, we are left to contemplate 160 beautiful objects and the possibility, perhaps uncomfortable to some, that maybe there isn’t one right answer.
Posted by Paper Boat on October 20, 2011 at 11:32 AM · Report this
artandpoliticsnow 2
Jen I am excited that your articles are getting more and more political! This is great. How did you know those facts? This is definately the current trend in art museums, to put the art in the larger political context, as the Miro show did in London this year at the Tate Modern. And in Istanbul you saw the great piece about the Calder in the context of World War II
Bravo Jen!!
I do differ on the subject of Mimi Gates work at the SAAM. In this day of budget cutting it is great that she has endowed events there that appeal to a wide audience and feature serious scholars.
I also have to say that I personally love shows that bring together contemporary and ancient art in dialogue, as with the great piece by Do Hoh Suh.
Posted by artandpoliticsnow http://www.artandpoliticsnow.com on October 20, 2011 at 10:35 AM · Report this
1
Well, you had me for the first half but, that second half of jibberish, Hercule, was ridiculous. It is worthy, and necessary, to point out that Dr. Fuller and his amazing contribution to this city and SAM is by far the most over looked legacy at SAM. (see the various seventy-fifth birthday/re-opening commentaries by SAM's "big" names). Many of those masterpieces are the envy of the world over but do YOU know what youre looking is a good question- doesnt appear that way, Hercule It is ironic that no one has come close to enabling SAM in the way the Fuller family did-and btw-when will someone match that??? (another conversation)
BUT... As right as you are regarding the curator, "b" level offerings, and the show's presentation, the crap you're angling at regarding moonlight, origins, and miscellaneous angry idiot issues is nothing but crap, and you should of left that load by the side of the highway. But isn't that just SO like SAM...and you?
Posted by northwest mystic on October 19, 2011 at 6:02 PM · Report this

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