Foong Ping's life began with no art at all. Her family was part of the large Chinese minority in Malaysia, where riots broke out as a result of racial tensions the year she was born, 1969. When her parents sent her abroad to college, they expected she would pursue business, law, maybe engineering. She agreed, until one day she walked into the wrong building and sat down.
The lights went out. Two slides of art came up. "I was like, What?" She was curious, so she stayed. This was room 101, Brown University, 1989, but it wasn't the engineering building. The slides at the front of the classroom showed figurines from fourth-century China and fourth-century Europe. As the professor described them, they changed Foong's life.
"I never understood how an image has to be read," Foong said. "That was it. I was sold. It was a love story."
Foong explained this in a quiet gallery at Seattle's Asian Art Museum last week, where she led me on an impromptu tour of the circuit of Chinese galleries. I'd asked only to meet her, to shake hands and hear what she's working on, because she is the newest art curator in Seattle. But it seemed completely obvious to her that we should be in the galleries, with the art.
"Who has that?" she said to me rhetorically, pointing to a glass case housing a 700-year-old ceramic vase as tall as a first-grader and with a round belly. Its form is exuberantly irregular, its surface covered in painted lotuses and fat babies. She murmured in its direction: "Nobody has this! It's so good."
In person, Foong is warm, composed, direct, no-nonsense, and vaguely thrilling. She wears a thick silver dog-collar chain with two heavy and plain entangled rings on it, and she moves through the world as though nobody is watching her, as if she is always wearing an invisible black-leather biker jacket.
Some scholars would prefer to be left alone in their rooms. Others want to be famous, admired, adored, celebrities. The best are those who do it for love, both the love of their subject and the love of sharing what they discover.
Foong zoomed toward another work of art, a brown, blotchy, life-size head made of ancient thick ceramic or stone, like something dug up by archaeologists.
"See, what's hard to get across about this piece?" she gestured. "What's hard to get across about this piece is that it's as light as a feather."
With that, the head in front of me—the head I'd imagined as heavy ceramic or stone—came out of the glass case and into my palms, then found a secure resting place in my memory, all without moving an inch. Foong shifted it for me into something specific, into it being itself. It held its own secret; it was not as it looked. Turned out it's made of layers and layers of lacquer. I cast a hungry eye around the gallery. What else was I missing?
Foong had more to show. She pointed out a piece of blackened ceramic used as "a poor man's metal," and a bronze wine vessel hiding the face of a fantastical creature with fangs and claws and pointy ears from the time of the first known Chinese writing. Foong acted as if she were the docent at an outstanding museum that was about to close for the day, and it was my final day in the country.
Too often I forget that the Chinese art collection that lives at the Asian Art Museum every day is this good, deserving of this urgency, regardless of the cycle of more attention-getting temporary exhibitions.
"Honestly, I had never been here before they started making overtures to me," Foong confessed. "I was like, 'Why did I not know about this before?'"
Seattle is "one of the early places of stand-alone Asian art" anywhere in this country. The Freer Gallery of Asian art was the first museum to open on the Smithsonian campus in 1923; SAM, founded with the Asian collection, opened in 1933. Foong's office is right below those original art deco galleries. She started at AAM six weeks ago as Seattle Art Museum's Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. It's her first full stint as curator. (SAM encompasses AAM, and we'll see her work in both locations.)
She taught for a decade, at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, and she worked in research and as a lecturer at other museums with stellar collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This year, Harvard University Press published her book The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court.
What a weird word to apply to landscape: "efficacious." But according to Foong, people a thousand years ago in the Northern Song Court used ink landscape paintings to impose authority, and to express dissent. Efficacious means producing a result, doing something in the world. Not art for art's sake. The word makes sense given Foong's early feeling that art is story as much as image.
Foong specializes in older art. Archaeology was her minor. But in Seattle, she's in charge of contemporary Chinese art, too, "foster[ing] connections between past and present," the museum says. She admits that the art of now is, "for me, very difficult—to see which has staying power." She says this while standing over a group of large ceramic vases dipped in colorful paint by today's biggest Chinese art star, and one of the biggest art stars in the world, Ai Weiwei. It's probably too soon to say, but Foong does not seem particularly orthodox.
"I'm a good teacher. I don't know if I'm a good curator. We will see," she said with mischief, giving off the gleam of her dog-collar chain and a whiff of her invisible leather.