May 1, 2013
When you go to the museum for a show, what you see is the final product: a painting, a photograph, an installation. But now at the Sackler, you can see the process behind the product in the new exhibit “Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project.” The exhibit explores the two-year effort to complete Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing’s “Phoenix Project” and offers a look into the ways both creation and destruction can be part of the artistic process.
Now on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the final product, two giant phoenix sculptures, were originally commissioned in 2008 and intended for a building in the heart of Beijing’s central business district. But after delays for the Olympics, a global financial crisis and funding issues, the installation found different sponsors and a new home. At 12 tons and nearly 100 feet in length, the sculptures need lots of space. Mass MoCA had the room and desire to display it and the Sackler decided to offer its companion exhibit having worked with Xu in 2001 for his show “Word Play,” when it also acquired the iconic ”Monkeys Grasping For the Moon” sculpture.
The phoenixes reference the traditional Chinese motif but rendered from construction site materials, take on a new and modern meaning in the saga of China’s economic development. “My two phoenixes are quite different,” says Xu. While traditional lacquers, paintings and even hair ornaments from China (some of which are on view as part of the exhibition) draw on the mythical bird as a symbol of wealth, nobility and peace, Xu’s industrial installation is in tension with these qualities.
When Xu went to the site where his sculptures were originally going to be and saw the construction of the new building in Beijing, he says he came in contact with the conditions of the workers there. He saw before him the face of Chinese development–its soaring architectural business buildings–and the hands–the laborers who did not seem to reap the benefits of the country’s boom. “The contrast was the inspiration,” he says.
Because of the scale of his project, he had to rely on the same labor. He relied on their know-how and expertise when designing and modifying his work. He also spoke with engineers and architects to help design the massive birds.
But, in the lead up the Olympics, he, along with everyone else engaged in construction, was ordered to stop. The government wanted to ensure pristine air quality for the international games so as not to draw any criticism. It’s an irony not lost on Xu, who included official government notices in the exhibit at the Sackler. After the financial crisis, he then had to find alternative funding and ended up turning to Taiwanese-based businessman, Barry Lam, founder of Quanta Computer.
Citing the many ups and downs of the artistic process, curator Carol Huh says, “What we’ve tried to do here for the first time is really show the process.” Sketches, clay models, computer-generated renderings as well as a special documentary about the works comprise the exhibit. The title, nine deaths and two births, refers to the many challenges he faced and the two children born to his staff during the process, a symbol of the phoenix-like quality of artistic creation.
On view at Mass MoCA until November, the phoenixes will head next to New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project” is on view through September 1, 2013.
February 5, 2013
Meticulously arranged by material and date, thousands of pieces of Chinese art filled every nook and cranny of Paul Singer’s two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, a home that he kept until his death in 1997. A psychiatrist by profession, Singer earned the nickname “Mr. Miniature” for his dedication to collecting material culture big and small, from swords to ancient hairpieces.
Once Singer met Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, his passion found a home and a sponsor. Sackler, who is one of the founders of the Smithsonian’s vast Asian art collection and who is the namesake for one of its museums, gave the collector an annual allowance so that he could continue his collecting passion. With the understanding that his collection would eventually make its way to the Sackler Gallery, Singer was able to expand his treasure trove.
Now, the collection of porcelain, lacquer, bronze and more, gets a bit more elbow-room outside its former Summit, New Jersey, residence. From the some 5,000 objects Singer acquired, 63 works representing thousands of years of history have been selected for the exhibit, “One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection,” which opened recently at the Sackler.
Curator J. Keith Wilson says that after the collection arrived following Singer’s death, a new scholarship was realized, filling out gaps in the understanding of Chinese art history. “In addition to the scores of recognized monuments—what many would consider ‘beautiful objects’—the Singer collection includes hundreds and hundreds of things that are more ‘archaeological’ in character,” Wilson says. A lacquer cosmetic box filled with combs and human hair pieces represents a common item found in elite burial sites, but something often left out of institutional collections.
“One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection” will be on view at the Sackler Gallery through July 7, 2013.
October 3, 2012
“Ai Weiwei is taking over the Smithsonian,” joked the Hirshhorn’s chief curator Kerry Brougher about the Chinese artist’s new exhibition at the museum. With an installation outside the museum, a piece at the Sackler Gallery and now a sprawling, multi-level show at the Hirshhorn, Ai Weiwei has accomplished a lot for an artist forbidden to travel from his home country.
Considering it took 38 tons of steel rebar, 3,200 porcelain crabs and millions of crystals, as well as a Department of State liaison to get Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?” installed throughout three floors of the museum, visitors could be forgiven for having the impression that the artist is, in fact, taking over. The artist’s absence and his own powerlessness against the Chinese state stands in high contrast to the power he commands across the Western art world. And this, his newest show, building off of a 2009 exhibit at Japan’s Mori Art Museum, continues to challenge notions of cultural and political power in Ai’s signature style.
A mix of photography, video and sculpture welcomes visitors into the world of an internationally famous but severely restricted artist. When the museum began planning with the Mori Art Museum to bring this show to the States for the first time, says Brougher, Ai was still just an emerging artist. “At that time, we had no idea what was going to follow.”
The Sichuan Earthquake had occurred in May, 2008. That December, Ai joined another artist’s investigation into the devastation, including compiling a list of all the students killed, largely due to poor construction. Ai continued to travel around the world until tensions with the Chinese state rose to a boiling point in 2011: Ai’s just-completed studio in Shanghai was abruptly demolished in a single day in January. Then came Ai’s mysterious arrest in April. He was held for 81 days without being charged. Though he was eventually released, he is still unable to leave China.
None of this has stopped the artist from producing new work for new audiences or collaborating with both the Mori Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum. Though Ai spent formative years in New York City, viewing the work of famous artists including Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns (whose 1971 painting “According to What” lent the new show its title) and his work has been shown there before, curators say the decision to bring the exhibit to Washington, D.C. was intentional. Director of the Hirshhorn, Richard Koshalek says, “It’s very important for him that this exhibition is in Washington, D.C. It’s not in New York. It’s not in L.A. It’s not in Chicago.” Speaking to Ai’s role as an activist and agitator, Koshalek says D.C. offers an international community, an audience of diplomats and a city concerned with freedom of expression, not just in China, but all over the world.
The decision seems significant for Ai’s career, as well. Though his inspiration in New York City, Marcel Duchamp, delighted in upsetting the art institution by presenting urinals and bicycle wheels atop a stool, his work did not put him at odds with a government. When Ai crafts a multi-limbed sculpture of wooden stools and declares, “I make the useful become not useful,” there is more at work than a flippant aesthetic challenge. His work will always be read as a middle finger (sometimes it literally is) to the Chinese state.
The New York Times said it best when it wrote, “So much attention has been paid to Ai Weiwei the Chinese rebel that it seems to have eclipsed Ai Weiwei the artist.”
His famous series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (above) begun in 1995 is no longer just a comment on the essentialization of Chinese culture as a static, ancient form. Instead, dropping a vase here is the same as throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the elaborate staging of Chinese history and culture, according to the Communist Party.
Newer work supports this interpretation, as well. More than 3,000 porcelain crabs titled “He Xie,” confuse the term for river crabs for the word “harmonious,” from the Communist Party’s slogan, “the realization of a harmonious society.” The term is now used online as slang to refer to China’s rampant censorship.
In his artist statement, Ai writes, “I have lived with political struggle since birth. As a poet, my father tried to act as an individual, but he was treated as an enemy of the state.” Reflecting on his own recent clashes with the state, he continues, “Going through these events allowed me to rethink my art and the activities necessary for an artist. I re-evaluated different forms of expression and how considerations of aesthetics should relate to morality and philosophy.”
Art and politics, aesthetics and ethics can never truly be separated, but with this new show, Ai says they are one in the same. And he says it without hesitation.
Snake Ceiling commemorates the more than 5,000 students killed in the Sichuan earthquake with a giant snake constructed from gray and green backpacks. At once literal and fantastical, the work is an efficient indictment of a culture and government that failed to protect its students.
Perhaps the most enigmatic work in the whole show, is the sparkling Cube Light with its strands of light-catching crystals.The museum acquired it for its permanent collection. Less overt than some of the other works, the piece is a fitting acquisition to represent a man who resists being defined as simply an artist or an activist.
Ai ends his statement saying, “As an artist, I value other artists’ efforts to challenge the definition of beauty, goodness, and the will of the times. These roles cannot be separated. Maybe I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident; I couldn’t care less about the implications.”
“According to What?” opens at the Hirshhorn Museum October 7 and runs through February 24, 2013, before heading to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Miami Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.
August 29, 2012
Though Buddhism was not native to China, curator Stephen Allee says it wasn’t a hard sell. “It’s a religion of salvation, and so it had great popularity and appeal,” he says. As curator of the Freer Gallery‘s new exhibit, “Enlightened Beings: Buddhism in Chinese Painting,” Allee points out that missionaries and traders traveled across the Silk Road in the first century BCE, and over the centuries, they gained a court audience, making Buddhism an integral part of Chinese culture.
The exhibit’s 27 works, ranging from the 11th century to the 19th century, tell the story of both Buddhist thought and its adoption in a new land. The lens may seem wide-angle but historical memory holds an important place in a religion that records the transmission of its dogma from person to person. Within a single painting in the exhibit, for example, are representations of 53 generations beginning with Buddha and continuing all the way into the 16th century. The work is meant to record the unbroken transmission of Buddha’s teachings across time.
“Buddha in Sanskrit means to be awakened or enlightened,” says Allee. Born Siddartha Guatama, Buddha began life as a prince in what is now southern Nepal. Gautama left home and lived without luxury. After learning to meditate, he was able to be awakened to the truth: “that all existence is empty and all beings are trapped by their desires,” writes Allee in the introductory text for the exhibit. “Only by recognizing the emptiness of things and severing one’s attachment to them is it possible to end suffering and enter the state of spiritual bliss known as nirvana.”
Allee explains that though China had many native philosophies and religions at the time, few of them dealt with the idea of the afterlife satisfactorily. Thus, the promise of reincarnation, salvation and nirvana appealed to many when Buddhism reached them from northern India.
Though salvation was the name of the game, there were other paths practitioners could take. One group, the Bodhisattvas, for example, achieve enlightenment but stay on Earth to aid in the salvation of others. Another, the Luohan, meanwhile, also choose to remain on Earth to protect the teachings of Buddhism. The exhibit also features depictions of lineage masters and Zen monks.
Describing Zen, or Chan, monks as eccentric, Allee explains that Zen Buddhism relied on a wordless transmission rather than strict understanding of dogma. “Buddha gave a sermon and one of his followers asked a question,” says Allee. “Instead of answering, he simply held up a flower and the follower instantly achieved enlightenment.” A native product of China in the fifth century, Zen Buddhism became associated with its own style of expressive brushwork.
While monks sometimes produced the artworks, patrons could also commission works for temples or for their own homes. Common in both were representations of the four directional gods. Vaisravana, guardian king of the North, served to protect temples and practitioners. He also became associated with wealth, making him all the more popular, says Allee. In one 14th-century ink and color silk painting from China, the artist has included Central Asian dancers and Chinese scholars, thus depicting the religion’s broad geographic and historical reach.
“Enlightened Beings: Buddhism in Chinese Painting” opens September 1 and runs through February 24, 2013.
Updated September 4, 2012: Bodhidharma, depicted at the top of the post, was not Chinese, but rather came to China, most likely from India.
November 8, 2011
A delicately painted Korean wine pitcher, from the late 12th century. A massive marble Chinese burial platform, originally carved around 550 AD. An ornately decorated clam-shaped silver box, which was an elite Chinese household’s treasure in the seventh century. Through these treasures and many others, two new exhibits at the Freer Gallery trace the evolution of artwork in Asia over the course of centuries.
“Cranes and Clouds: The Korean Art of Ceramic Inlay” features a range of stoneware vessels from the 11th through 16th centuries that exemplify one of the chief characteristics of Korean art from the era: the technique of inlay, known in Korean as sanggam. “Sanggam was one of Korea’s great contributions to worldwide ideas of ceramic decoration,” says Louise Allison Cort, who curated the exhibition.
The technique was an entirely novel way of embellishing ceramic art, typically used for tableware and ceremonial vessels. “Inlay involves carving design into the soft clay just after the vessel is formed, and then, with a small brush, using a liquid material to fill in the grooves,” says Cort. At the exhibition, the inlay decoraions seem to glow from deep within. Rather than appearing as surface decorations, the centuries-old intricate designs are crisp, as though created yesterday.
The variety of jugs, bowls, plates and ornaments in the show demonstrate the many different decorative motifs. A featured item is an elegantly shaped water bottle known as a kundika. “It’s a perfect example of how glaze is combined with inlay color to create a landscape on the surface of the vessel,” says Cort. “You see a little world created there: water, ducks, plants, reeds and lotuses.”
In an adjacent gallery, the exhibition, “Silk Road Luxuries From China,” examines the exchange of luxury goods and artistic concepts that moved along the “Silk Road,” a trade route that linked China to Central Asia during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). During the era, stability and prosperity brought about an interest in outside cultures and tastes across Central Asia, resulting in the fusion of artistic styles.
A silver bowl, at the center of the show, was excavated in China, but its inscriptions lead scholars to believe it was originally made by the Sogdian people, who lived in what is now Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. “The appearance of objects like this in China would have been earth-shattering, revolutionary,” says J. Keith Wilson, the curator of the show. “Because at the time, bronze was the medium of choice.”
Soon, though, the arrival of items like this triggered a change in Chinese tastes, as they adopted gold and silver. ”Rather than import everything, they learned the techniques and employed them in their own way,” Wilson says. An array of elaborately designed silver boxes and bowls show the combination of foreign techniques with traditional Chinese motifs.
The exhibition also features a remarkable object that exemplifies the reverse: adaptation of Chinese cultural practices by Sogdian peoples in China. A large marble slab, purchased by the museum’s founder Charles Lang Freer in New York City in 1915, had long been a mystery. “When he bought it, it was unclear exactly what it was,” says Wilson.
But when matching pieces surfaced in other museums, experts realized its function: despite the Sogdian designs, the elements actually fit together to form a large funerary couch, a platform used beneath the coffin in traditional Chinese burial. “It combines Buddhist elements on the bottom part with these non-Chinese musicians and dancers on the side,” Wilson says.
The priceless artifacts shed light on the cultural forces that helped shape trends in classical Asian art over time. “This is not simply a China story,” says Wilson. “It’s a bigger, international story.”
“Cranes and Clouds: The Korean Art of Ceramic Inlay” and “Silk Road Luxuries From China” are on display indefinitely at the Freer Gallery.