The museum located in Volunteer Park previously closed for three years while undergoing an extensive $56 million remodeling of its historic, Carl F. Gould-designed building. When it reopened to the public in February 2020, the Asian Art Museum almost immediately closed again because of the pandemic.
The building isn't the only thing to get a makeover, and I wrote about it in a Spring 2020 Art & Performance cover feature, which got just a little overshadowed by the coronavirus. Curator of Chinese art Foong Ping, curator of Korean and Japanese art Xiaojin Wu, and consulting curator of South Asian art Darielle Mason undertook an extensive "reimagining" of the Asian Art Museum's permanent collection.
Rather than grouping the objects by time or country, the curators have arranged around 400 objects into thirteen distinct themes: from spirituality to color to precious materials. Meaning you can see a contemporary piece next to an ancient one, Thai and Chinese objects grouped together.
To prep you for your visit, I asked Wu, Foong, and recently hired associate curator of South Asian art Natalia Di Pietrantonio to tell me about some of their favorite objects from the museum's collection on display now. (Be sure to grab your tickets quickly because come mid-July, the Asian Art Museum will rotate out 80 objects in an extensive gallery changeover.)
Take a peek at what's up currently down below:
ca. 1130, wood with gold and lacquer, Japan, Heian period (794–1185)
Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese & Korean Art
"You can sit at the bench there and just gaze at the Amida Buddha and have a really one-on-one moment," said Wu of the Awakened Ones gallery. "I feel like that's really special for this particular time."
Though the Asian Art Museum has shown the Amida Buddha before—once in 2011 after it was gifted to the museum and another time in 2013 during SAM's 80th anniversary—this installation of the sculpture is in a much different context. There are no labels or bright lights or other didactic materials to overflow your brain with information about the Buddha. Instead, Wu and her fellow curators wanted this iteration of the Asian Art Museum to accentuate you being there at that present moment.
"We really wanted to people just to have a moment to themselves and have a special experience," she said.
Late 15th to early 16th century, stoneware with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Vietnam (Annam)
Foong Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art
Moving from a very dark gallery to an extremely bright one, curator of Chinese art Foong Ping takes us to the Jade room on the northend of the building. In this gallery dubbed Color in Clay, ceramics from across Asia are grouped by color rather than country of origin or date. Foong told me she and her colleagues have been talking a lot about blue and white porcelain. And while the Jade Room has tons of the stuff from China, Foong is most fascinated with one that comes from Vietnam, at the time known as Annam.
The large dish is not actually porcelain but stoneware, made specifically for trade. Recovered with a quarter of a million other ceramic objects off the famous Hội An shipwreck in the South China Sea, 30 of these stoneware pieces were gifted to SAM. Foong said the dish displays an interesting relationship between Vietnam and China. The picture on the center of the dish is "a Chinese style landscape, and also the foilate—the little bumpy, decorative edge—speaks to a time when Chinese export ware, blue and white porcelain, also had that kind of decorative edge," said Foong. "So this Vietnamese piece is thinking about China in a couple of different ways."
But she said when looking at this dish, her mind goes to several different places, thinking of how maritime trade of export ware like blue and white porcelain connected disparate countries across the globe.
"The piece for me actually sparks my imagination because we know that pieces from this major kiln site called Chu Dau in North Vietnam was very active for good 200 or 250 years or so, at a time when other people just couldn't do things like this," she said. "We know about pieces that were excavated in Japan and Indonesia and the Philippines...[the dish] represents places other than where it was made."
16th century, gilt bronze, China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
"Offering" by Anita Dube
2000–2006, gelatin silver prints, Indian
Natalia Di Pietrantonio, Associate Curator of South Asian Art
For the last two pieces, associate curator of South Asian art Natalia Di Pietrantonio moves us back to the southend of the museum into the Divine Bodies gallery, which focuses on how divinity and transcendence communicate through three physical features: the face, body, and hands. Di Pietrantonio is interested in Indian activist-artist Anita Dube's "Offering" triptych, featuring Dube enacting hand gestures or mudras. Her hands are covered with ceramic eyes, giving a watchful, unsettling presence to the work.
"These stick-on eyes on her hands bring about this process of divinity because at the very last stage of creating a sculpture in India, the eyes are placed on it to bring it to life or to consecrate the object," said Di Pietrantonio.
On its own, the piece is powerful, but at the Asian Art Museum the triptych is positioned just above a thousand-armed, eleven-headed Guanyin sculpture from 16th century China. The result is a conversation between the two pieces from vastly different periods and regions.
"When you look really closely at this Guanyin's hands, there are these tiny slits, and those are indicators of eyes...[which] are meant to show the omnipresence of Guanyin as the Bodhisattva but also to recognize your suffering and to be able to alleviate that suffering," she said. "It's a very powerful message that can be lost with thousand arms and eleven heads, but it's really brought to life by this juxtaposition of the Anita Dube photographs with those eyes to spread out across her hands."
Snag your Asian Art Museum tickets here.