December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
December 3, 2012
This week, if you take a stroll through the Haupt Garden, past the Sackler Gallery and into the Moongate Garden, you’ll come upon something you likely won’t see everyday: a 1500-year old intricately painted Buddhist cave from northwest China. Okay, but not really. In a remarkable marriage of the ancient and the high tech, the Sackler welcomes an innovative and precise 3D digital representation of one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in existence.
“There are over 600 caves in this escarpment, and they were painted over a period of about 1,000 years,” says Jeffrey Shaw, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who created the digital exhibition Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang, along with the Dunhuang Academy. “It is certainly one of the great art treasures of the world, and what we have here is a prototype for being able to explore the caves using digital data.”
Until you visit the exhibition, now shown outside China for the first time, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a gimmicky sideshow. But once you step inside the darkened tent and position the 3D glasses on your nose, the 360-degree virtual cave comes to life. It is utterly unlike the supposedly 3D experience you get, say, in a movie theater. Standing inside the tented chamber and seeing the richly detailed paintings and rock faces jut out at you from all sides, it really feels as though, if you reached out, you’d feel weathered millennial aged stone, rather than a smooth plastic screen. The digital cave, in short, is unnervingly lifelike.
Located at a natural oasis on the Silk Road—a crucial trade route linking China, western Asia and India from roughly the 2nd century BC through the 1300s—the Mogao cave complex was an ancient holy site where Buddhist monks practiced meditation. Over the centuries, they carved hundreds of chambers into the rock escarpment and filled them with intricate paintings. One cave of note, known as Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Paradise (now called Cave 220), is painted with seven figures known as medicine Buddhas, along with other traditional images such as incense burners, animals, dancers and musical instruments—and is now digitally represented as part of the new exhibition.
The virtual project began with painstaking work done by teams from the Dunhuang Academy, located at the site of the caves, in digitizing them over the course of several years. “They do a laser scanning of each of the caves, and they do ultra high resolution photography of the paintings,” Shaw says. The group has collected this data for a few dozen of the several hundred grottoes, but has only produced a fully-interactive virtual 3D exhibit for the one cave thus far.
The digital interface is controlled by a custom app installed on an iPad mini at the center of the room, which allows a tour guide to select from a menu of different options for displaying the work. It initially appears as a dark room, with a virtual flashlight’s beam bouncing around and illuminating small portions of it. Then, suddenly, the virtual house lights come up, and the six projectors and next-generation 3D technology provoke a wave of oohs and aahs from the tour groups crowding in to see it this week.
The fact that the entire experience is virtual gives visitors superpowers when exploring the cave. With a tour guide’s tap on the iPad, the group can suddenly move up to the ceiling, zoom in on a particular element with a massive magnifying glass or even animate elements of the paintings, bringing dancers or musical instruments out of the ancient painting to seemingly hover and perform in midair.
These capacities also allow visitors to experience the work in a pristine form unavailable at the actual cave. With another click, the seven medicine Buddhas are transformed, their dull pigments becoming vivid colors. “Here, the Buddhas have been virtually repainted to match the color quality of the original paintings,” Shaw says. “This is based on research by the Dunhuang Academy looking at what the original coloration would have been.”
One of the key motivations for the innovative project is conservation. “The Chinese want to reduce the amount of tours in the caves, because they are causing damage to them,” Shaw says. “The idea is that this will take some of the stress away from the touristic boom of interest in the caves themselves.” In addition to the touring exhibition, a permanent virtual cave will be installed at Dunhuang, along with the real ones, to accommodate the increasing level of cultural tourists without putting the grottoes at further risk.
“The Sackler is fast becoming a museum of the 21st century, taking the lead in adapting digital technology to a museum context,” said Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries, at an event marking the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary last week. “The ‘Pure Land’ project exemplifies the exhibition experience of the future.”
Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang will be open through December 9th. Timed tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Sackler Pavilion. The show will also return in the spring of 2013 for a longer-term installation at the International Center Gallery.
Sultan bin Salman, the son of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, serves as the Secretary-General of the country’s Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. A former fighter pilot, he became the first-ever Arab in space while serving on the fifth flight of NASA’s Discovery program as a payload specialist in 1985. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C. for the North American premiere of the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, now on view at the Sackler Gallery—a groundbreaking collection of newly discovered artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula—and sat down with Around the Mall to discuss the show, the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship and what it’s like to look at Earth from space.
What’s so special about this exhibition, and why did you decide to travel here for the opening of it?
It is really a window to [a] Saudi Arabia not seen before. It’s a new focus on the heritage of Saudi Arabia, and its history, that connects very much to its future.
People have to see Saudi Arabia as not being just a barren desert. Although people of the desert, like myself, take offense when people say it’s a “barren desert.” The desert is very rich: One night in the desert will really show you a different version of the universe that you’ve never seen before. And Saudi Arabia is not all desert to begin with—we have mountains, beautiful countryside, rivers and very vibrant communities.
But this window is opening to something new, to the history of Saudi Arabia, to the cultures and civilizations that have crisscrossed it. Hence the name, “Roads of Arabia.” This [is a] very critical and important part of the world, in the sense of its geographic location. The great religions of the world were all created in that part of the world. And Saudi Arabia has been the center of incredible civilizations, going back thousands of years. It’s very important for the world to see another dimension of Saudi Arabia. This is a nation that didn’t come from nowhere. And also, Islam, as a great religion, came to Mecca, a site and a place where culture and politics and trade [were] well and alive. So Islam came to a place in the world that is very complex, very rich, and not void.
So it is really timely. If you’re going to see Saudi Arabia well, you need to see it from where it came, in terms of history. This is represented by the artifacts and beautiful objects that tell the story.
What can museumgoers learn about Saudi Arabia that might surprise them?
Every culture that has come through Saudi Arabia, every civilization that has crisscrossed the “Roads of Arabia,” has left its imprint. Some of these civilizations have left an imprint in terms of objects. Many of them have left archaeological sites, like Mada’in Saleh, which was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia. It is the Southern capital of the Nabateans, or the original Arabs, who wrote the original Arabic language.
These civilizations also left a lot of stories, whether stories written in rock art or other artifacts—the beautiful statues, jewelry and pottery in the exhibit. The diversity of things that we’re discovering today in Saudi Arabia is staggering, and we’re not even scratching the surface, according to the experts of antiquities.
When Americans think about cultural tourism, they might think of Petra in Jordan or Machu Picchu. Do you imagine Saudi Arabia as someday being a destination for cultural tourism?
I have to assure you one hundred percent that this exhibition is not really meant to encourage people to go to Saudi Arabia. We are not even open for tourism, the way you see it. We are really in the build-up stage of our national tourism. Sites are not necessarily prepared the way we want them to be prepared, including Mada’in Saleh.
So this is mainly a window on a country that is very much intertwined with America, in particular. We have been friends for tens of years, and we’ve gone through thick and thin together. But Saudi Arabia has always been seen by most of the American public simply as the world’s largest producer of oil. When oil prices go up, we take the brunt of criticism, to say it politely, while we probably are not to blame.
We are keen that, in the U.S., people see Saudi Arabia from a different light. It’s almost like if you came to a major art exhibition, or you came back to a major architectural exhibition of Saudi architects, but on a much deeper scale. You’d see a human dimension. In this exhibition, you’re seeing multiple human dimensions throughout thousands of years of history.
When this exhibition was shown in Europe, what did people think?
It was stunning—between a million and a half and two million people visited the exhibition. Those are not people going for joyrides, they’re people that went on a learning experience. We think that, in America also, this will be a learning experience. We invest a lot in America, and I don’t mean financially—we are investing in bringing closer, rather than standing between people. I think these are two countries that need to work together towards the future. It’s very important. It’s a must that people understand each other better. Your President Obama has always spoken of Saudi Arabia as a great nation, and a great friend of the U.S., so as did the other predecessors. And we in Saudi Arabia think of America as a great nation that is leading the world towards the future. We all, as humans of one earth—having also seen earth from the perspective of space—eventually we’re going to have to find those common grounds. One of those common grounds is understanding where we came from.
It’s funny you mention space—for our readers, who are really interested in science and space as well as art, I wanted to ask you what it was like to actually go into orbit.
It’s an incredible revelation. I still carry the memory of seeing Earth smaller, a lot smaller, than I thought it was. I still carry the memory of seeing Earth in the vastness and blackness of space. That hit me hard. Thinking, we all have different languages and different cultural backgrounds and different religions, but we all actually live on that one space ship, one planet. Our fate is very much connected, intertwined.
This is, to me, the transition that has not been made, as much as we have become more sophisticated, talking to each other through social media and mobile phones. I still don’t know why we haven’t transitioned as humans. As many pictures as we’ve seen of earth from space, we still haven’t transitioned to understanding that this is a pretty small place, and we are not much different. We speak different languages but it is the same language, it’s a human language.
November 29, 2012
Events Nov. 30-Dec. 2: Africa’s Space Programs, the Middle East’s Diva and Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet
Friday, November 30: Africa and the World’s Space Programs
In conjunction with the African Art Museum’s out-of-this-world exhibit “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell discusses Africa’s involvement in the world’s space programs. Starting from the continent’s early history charting and investigating the stars, McDowell tracks a long relationship into modern times. Though Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre, for example, only has a handful of employees, the country is optimistic about its future in the industry. According to the BBC, countries like Nigeria and Ghana are hoping to use their space centers for “natural-resource management, weather forecasting, agriculture and national security.” Free. 4 p.m. African Art Museum.
In the midst of the Sackler’s 25th anniversary celebrations, the gallery has found time to host the “next great diva of Arab music,” Karima Skalli. Joined by Hanna Khoury (violin), Kinan Abou-afach (cello), Hicham Chami (quanun), Kinan Idnawi (oud) and Hafez El Ali Kotain (percussion); Skalli will perform traditional and contemporary favorites from the Arab Peninsula in honor of the gallery’s groundbreaking exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Free. 7:30 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Sunday, December 2: The Wedding Banquet
Another Ang Lee classic, The Wedding Banquet, tells the story of a gay Taiwanese man living in New York who finds himself in the middle of his own wedding celebrations after agreeing to marry a woman to secure a green card for her. Like many of his films, Lee succeeds in showing the tensions and strengths family inevitably brings. The comedy was a surprise hit for Lee, delighting audiences when it came out in 1993. Nearly ten years later, it still resonates. The series of screenings continues on Dec. 7 with Lee’s even more famous, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Free. 3 p.m. Freer Gallery.
November 27, 2012
Sparks will fly this Friday as the Sackler Gallery celebrates its 25th anniversary with an explosive performance by artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The Chinese artist, based in New York City, is known for his gunpowder pieces. His work has been featured at the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim and in 2008, he helped direct the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics.
His “explosion event” scheduled for Friday, November 30 at 3 P.M. outside the Freer gallery, is actually a bit of a homecoming for the artist who created a site-specific installation for the Sackler and Hirshhorn back in 2004. “Traveler: Reflection” placed “the weathered hull of a 50-foot long Japanese fishing boat, excavated off the coast of Japan, upon an imaginary ocean of gleaming porcelain fragments of deities from Dehua, China.” A meditation on the dialogue between past and present cultures within museum halls, the work also included a series of gunpowder drawings.
Back to celebrate the anniversary, his Friday event will light up a 40-foot tall pine tree in a burst of fireworks. The event, a sort of artsy tree-lighting ceremony, will also be streamed live for viewers around the world.
If you can’t make it Friday, fear not. Anniversary activities will be taking place through Saturday. Check out the full schedule of events:
Lecture: Making History: Contemporary Art and the Middle East
7 P.M.: Meyer Auditorium, Freer
Glenn Lowry, former F|S curator of Islamic art and now director of the Museum of Modern Art, shares a unique perspective on the emergence of contemporary Middle Eastern art.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 25th Anniversary Gala
6:30 P.M.: Sackler
Join Director Julian Raby to celebrate 25 years of achievement at a spectacular evening of art, music and fine cuisine under the patronage of Mrs. Arthur M. Sackler.
8:30 pm-12 A.M.: Sackler
Club Caravan caps off the 25th Anniversary Gala experience with a party fit for a sultan, featuring open bars, gourmet desserts, dancing to Asian-inspired beats, and a private viewing of the landmark exhibition “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Tickets are on sale now.
“Explosion Event” by Cai Guo-Qiang
3 P.M.: Freer, outside the north entrance
This site-specific, one-time-only commission is presented in conjunction with Art in Embassies, an office of the U.S. Department of State, to celebrate the office’s 50th anniversary and the Sackler’s 25th.
Lecture: Phoenixes and Beyond: A Conversation with Xu Bing
10:30 A.M.: Meyer Auditorium
Sackler 25th Birthday Celebration and Book Fair
1 P.M.: Sackler and Ripley Center
Celebrate the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s 25th birthday with complimentary signature goodies from Georgetown Cupcake and an Asian art and culture book fair in the Ripley Center concourse. Book artist and educator Sushmita Mazumdar teaches kids and families the art of bookmaking.