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Day One in Kagoshima

The main entrance to the Tenmonkan shopping arcades.

Phew. So, here goes. I arrived in Kagoshima on a Tuesday. It’s always stressful looking for a place to stay, because you just don’t know the neighborhoods well enough, don’t know how nice the place is going to be – how clean is clean? what level is really tolerable? – I’ve had very good experiences with hostels in Japan in the past, have always found the rooms more than clean enough, the arrangements more than good enough. But even so, fingers crossed, you never know. As it turns out, not only is the place I’m staying – the Green Guesthouse – quite nice, but it’s also a lot more walkably close to the center of town than I’d thought. For anyone interested in coming to Kagoshima and paying only around $30 a night for a small but quite doable single room, plenty clean, free A/C and Wifi, I definitely recommend the Green Guesthouse. I got a single room, but from what I’ve seen/heard, it seems like even the mixed dorms don’t have too much of a rowdy backpackers kind of feel – the place is pretty quiet, everyone’s pretty respectful of the shared spaces (e.g. shower)… Incidentally, I found the place through agoda.com, a hotels website I’d never heard of before, but which turns out to be quite nice for looking for places in Japan – including affordable hostels, minshuku and the like – without the site assuming you’re interested in the expensive and gag-inspiringly-standard Western-style business hotels and resorts.

Moving on. I woke up on Wednesday, and started out in search of breakfast. Before long, I’d already found a few historical sites, monuments, statues, right in the central Tenmonkan shopping arcade area – namely, a monument to the monk Gesshô, and a statue of Godai Tomoatsu. I later also found just a few blocks from the hotel a small stone marking the birthplace of the founder of Kawasaki.

What remains of the main gate of Tsurumaru Castle, with the Reimeikan visible in the background, in what was previously the honmaru, the central portion of the castle compound.

After grabbing some stuff at a local pan’ya (bakery), I made my way in the direction of the castle, which is also the direction of the City Art Museum, and some other similar institutions, with the castle grounds themselves being home today to the Prefectural Library and the Reimeikan cultural and history museum. Nothing much survives of the castle today, except for the impressive stone foundation, and nothing’s been rebuilt like at some other castles. But, the Reimeikan has a great model on display, to help one imagine what it looked like. One distinctive feature of Tsurumaru castle, aka Kagoshima castle, was its lack of a tenshu (keep tower). To be honest, I don’t know that much about the actual military/defensive purpose of such a keep, but it certainly would have looked impressive, and it’s interesting that the Shimazu, the third most powerful samurai clan in the islands, felt no need for such a thing.

But, before I got to the former castle grounds, I stopped at the City Art Museum, which, sadly, was a bit of a disappointment. They have one small room of Impressionists and the like, and another small room of local Kagoshima artists, from Hashiguchi Goyô to Kuroda Seiki. It was cool to see something of the local art history, e.g. which Kagoshima artists were major in the Meiji period, and which Meiji period artists were major in Kagoshima, and they do have up on regular display a painting by Kuroda of Raphael Collin’s studio,

Right: Kuroda Seiki’s “Atelier,” Kagoshima City Museum of Art. Image of this public domain painting hosted on All About Japan, allabout.co.jp

as well as a couple of paintings by major Paris artists with whom Kuroda and other major Japanese painters of the time had contact. But I was really hoping for more historical stuff – for example, I know they have some pretty detailed old Edo period maps of Kagoshima city – and just for more in general. Kagoshima is a prefectural capital, and former seat of the third most wealthy samurai clan in the country. You’d think they could pull off a bit more. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Seattle Art Museum, San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and Honolulu Museum of Arts, are all in (no offense) secondary cities, cities far smaller and in various ways less prominent, less powerful, than New York or Los Angeles, but all of these are huge art museums compared to what Kagoshima’s offering.

That said, the Reimeikan, the city’s (the prefecture’s) museum of local history and culture, was wonderful. I really really wish I could have taken pictures in there, even more so than when I usually say these things, since the exhibits were so extensive, so informative, and so well put together. There are models of cities and castles that span nearly an entire gallery, recreations of Taisho era city scenes, incredible-looking artifacts (e.g. festival costumes from the Amami Islands), and lots of really great diagrams and charts, not to mention paintings and other art objects. The gallery label text, hypothetically, I could stand there for hours and hours and hours, reading every word and taking meticulous notes, but you can’t capture these visuals that way. And their general museum catalog, while it does do a better job than I’d expected, still doesn’t quite live up to what I think I would get out of taking photos (including having photos to include in my PowerPoints when I lecture, for example).

The Kagoshima Prefectural Library, located on the former site of the castle’s Ninomaru, or the second(ary) section of the compound.

The Prefectural Library was a pain in my ass for a variety of reasons, but I don’t want to get off on a rant here. Suffice it to say that for a public institution (which should thus be more open and accessible), one large enough & major enough to be a prefectural level institution (which should therefore have its shit together), and yet small enough (being a provincial one, far from the center) to be more friendly and open, these guys were far more difficult to work with than the National Archives, or the University of Tokyo’s Shiryohensanjo, one of the most elite institutions in the country. I walked right into the latter two, with no appointment or anything, just a letter of introduction, and within, let’s say half an hour, I had documents in hand. Edo period manuscripts, handscroll paintings, whatever I requested, with little trouble. The Okinawa Prefectural Archives last year was quite easy to deal with too, though there admittedly I had had arrangements made for me ahead of time by a professor from the National Museum of Japanese History. In any case, it turns out that at the Kagoshima Prefectural Library, one needs to apply for permission to see the objects, and permission could take as long as a week; furthermore, even the books on the shelves, you can’t just take pictures or photocopy as much as you want – these things are tightly controlled by the librarians. Which, admittedly, is pretty standard policy, actually, at many Japanese libraries, though I’ve never seen it so strictly enforced.

What really annoyed me, though, which is of course not the library’s fault, but even so, is that when I got fed up and said “Screw it. I don’t want to spend all this time and/or money photographing or photocopying museum catalogs and putting up with all your applications and permission slips when I can just go next door and buy the catalogs myself!”, it turns out that not only is the Reimeikan museum sold out of these particular catalogs, but as far as I can tell, they are owned by only a very very few university lending libraries outside of Japan, and are totally unavailable on Amazon.jp or kosho.or.jp (a great site that links & searches used bookstores across Japan). So, all in all, a public prefectural library that happens to be one of the only places that actually owns these books, a library that exists in order to make information available to the public, is making me jump through so many hoops to get at these books. I’m going home in about a week; I don’t know when I’ll be back in Kagoshima, and while I appreciate that having it on the shelf here does make it pretty readily accessible to Kagoshima city residents, the library’s chief constituents, that still really doesn’t help me out any. And isn’t the purpose of a research library to be there to provide access to resources for researchers?

In any case, moving on, I visited a number of other small sites around town. I had been worried that for a relatively small and rather out of the way city, Kagoshima would not have much in the way of tourist signs, let alone ones in English. After all, how many tourists on the standard Tokyo-Kyoto-maybe Hiroshima circuit make it to Kagoshima? But, actually, the signage is excellent, with nice clear signage pointing out sites, and good clear maps spread throughout town to point you to the next one. I wonder how many foreign tourists they really do get? I’ve actually seen quite a few Westerners in my time here, though whether they’re tourists, or what, I of course can’t be sure.

Among the smaller sites I saw that day were the surviving stone walls of the Shigakkô, a private academy started by (guess who?) Saigô Takamori, just outside the castle walls. The former site of the school is today home to a medical center, but, here’s something, a series of marks in the walls are said to be damage from bullets (did they have “bullets” in the 1870s? Too late for musket balls, but…) from the Satsuma Rebellion, the event fictionalized in “The Last Samurai” (the Tom Cruise movie). By the late 1870s, the samurai class had officially been abolished, and a great many things about the country were changing quite rapidly – culturally, socially. The Rebellion has often been portrayed as having to do with samurai honor, a last stand for the old ways, something like that. Now, I am absolutely no expert on this topic, so, I don’t know, but some things I’ve read recently indicate that, really, it was more about the samurai’s government stipends being taken away. Throughout the Edo period, loyal retainers and vassals were paid by their lords, out of tax revenues exacted from the peasants/commoners. This put a tremendous economic strain on the finances of nearly every daimyô domain, and would continue to put a tremendous economic strain on the finances of the new Meiji government, the new “modern” Japanese nation-state that was still in the process of being born. So, the stipends were eliminated, and as in most other societies, everyone now had to /earn/ their living themselves (or, you know, live off inherited wealth). This, I am told, is much more so what the Satsuma Rebellion was about. I’m sure it’s more complicated, and I may be wrong entirely – let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to learn more about it.


After the Shigakkô, I made my way to the nearby Nagata Middle School, which today sits on the former site of the Ryûkyû-kan, a residence and administrative office for visiting officials and scholars from the Ryûkyû Kingdom. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, the Ryûkyû Kingdom, which ruled over Okinawa and the associated islands to the south, was somewhat independent at this time, with its own king and royal court administration, and its own scholar-bureaucrat class based on the Chinese model; but the kingdom was also a vassal (or something – I’m still trying to figure out the right terms) to Satsuma domain, that is, to the Shimazu clan lords of Kagoshima. Most of what I have read focuses on the Ryukyuans’ activity in Edo, on those occasions when they were received in audience by the shogun. But, during this time they were far more regularly traveling to and from Kagoshima, and engaging in various activities within the castle town – this Ryûkyû-kan is where they stayed, and where they did most of their business. There’s basically nothing to see of it today except a stone marker, but even so, what a shame it’s on the grounds of a middle school! I’m not going to just walk into a middle school – in the US, people might think you’re a pedophile or something. I don’t know the precise ins-and-outs of the legalities or the security measures schools might have regarding these things here in Japan, or in the US, but, I’m definitely not going to just let myself in through the gates of a school. … Fortunately, though, after checking with the tourist information desk, who graciously called the school for me, it turns out it’s not the most unusual of requests, and they have a system for it. So, I went back another day, found the principal’s office, and while feeling extremely awkward about being this strange adult foreigner man who has suddenly appeared at the door to your office, explained myself, and the principal was actually really kind and sweet about it. I got a little lanyard badge to wear saying I was an authorized guest on the grounds, and then I made my way across the practice field, attempting best as I could not to disturb the kids practicing – though they really didn’t seem to mind – got my photos, and got out. What I’ve really gained or learned by taking photos of this monument, since there’s basically nothing else to see of the site, I don’t know. But I’m glad I went that extra step and did it.

It was a busy day… and it wasn’t over quite yet. I made my way back to the castle grounds, only a few blocks away, and climbed up the little mountain hiking course behind the castle, to the lookout point on Shiroyama (“castle mountain”), from which Sakurajima is well visible, or would be if not for the fog and such. Sakurajima is a massive volcano, one of the most active in the world today, which is just a tad too far away to really be said to “loom over the city,” but which is certainly quite large in the vista when you’re up above the city and can actually see it at all. The trail then led down to Terukuni Shrine, with its massive bronze statues which I mentioned in the previous post.

Having now hit all the major sites in this section of the city, I planned for the following day to go out to the Shôkoshûseikan, in the hopes I might have better luck there than at the Reimeikan in terms of seeing documents or getting catalogs. That didn’t end up quite happening… though I made it there eventually.

Coming to Kagoshima

Well, I spent the last two weeks in Edo Tokyo, and didn’t post a single thing about it. Haha. How did that happen? Well, now it’s too late – my adventures are all jumbled up in my mind, and while I know I have things to say about this and that tidbit (seeking out Tanuma Okitsugu’s grave was a bit of a thing), I don’t think I could really do (or would want to do) a day-by-day recap. So, maybe I’ll come back to it – I know I took notes on my thoughts on visiting the former site of Edo Castle. But, for now, Kagoshima!

The JetStar check-in area at Narita Airport.

I arrived in Kagoshima on a Tuesday; JetStar, despite being a budget airline, was much better, much nicer than US Airways, United, American, which I think really says something about the horrendous state of air travel in our country. Everything was clean and sleek, check-in was a snap, and all the staff were as courteous and well-put-together as could be. Makes you actually feel like it might be the 21st century. There was a concern our flight might get diverted to Fukuoka since Sakurajima was feeling a bit more smoky that day; diversion on account of volcano! That would have been a first for me. I couldn’t remember if I’d bought travel insurance, so if we had gotten diverted, I was worried I might be footing the several hundred dollar Kyushu Shinkansen ticket myself; but, on the flip side, it would mean getting to ride the Kyushu Shinkansen, maybe getting to see some cool sites along the way, maybe even figuring out a way to stop along the way to actually explore Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Hirado, etc. Or maybe not. In any case, the flight did not get diverted, and we arrived in Kagoshima safe and sound.

The main form of public transportation in Kagoshima is by streetcar (*ding ding*), seen here passing by the original/main location of the Yamakata-ya department store, built during the Taishô period (1912-1926).

I would like to try to avoid generalizing about the character of the town – that romantic characterization thing we all do when we travel (and when we don’t) – especially since anything and everything is always too complicated for that, and anything I could say would be smoothing over, ignoring, other things. But, let me just point out some of the key features I’ve noticed so far.

One, Bakumatsu, Meiji, and pre-war modernity are everywhere. Of course Kagoshima has plenty of post-war buildings like any city does – especially a city that suffered bombing and such in the war – and, in fact, has some rather sparkling 21st century shopping malls and the like. In all truth and fairness, I cannot say that the city is dominated by any particular historical aesthetic – on a typical side street (or even along the main road), the vast majority of buildings are quite ordinary looking, meaning late 20th century or early 21st.

But, upon first impressions, especially first getting off of the streetcar (市電) at Tenmonkan in order to then go searching for my hotel… Tenmonkan is the historical commercial & urban culture center of Kagoshima. In the Taishô period (1912-1926), a period known for its eager adoption of Western/American urban and popular culture, Tenmonkan was Kagoshima’s center of jazz clubs, cinemas, cafés, and the like. And while it certainly doesn’t look the same today as it did then, it remains one of the city’s major shopping areas, pinned around the main/original location of the Yamakata-ya department store chain, a massive Taishô era (I think) building whose architectural motifs are carried over to line the shopping arcades for many city blocks. And having the streetcars passing by certainly helps evoke something of an imagination of what this area all looked like in the past. Incidentally, while the roads themselves are paved, of course, the streetcar tracks are grassy green strips cutting through the center of the boulevard, for the entire length of the central part of the city. I don’t know what the reasons are, but I like it. Many other historical and prominent buildings in the city are of a similar age – late 19th, early 20th century styles.

One of a handful of “living history” tableaus erected across the city; this one, relating to events of 1860, depicts a young Ichiji Shoji and Yoshii Tomozane discussing the ongoing political changes.

But what’s also really prominent in the city is the focus – which comes not at all as a surprise – on Bakumatsu and Meiji history. Walk around town, and you will see not only markers and signs for historical sites related to the great heroes of the Bakumatsu & Meiji periodsSaigô Takamori, Sakamoto Ryôma, Ôkubo Toshimichi and the like – and not only grand historical statues, but quite recently erected statues, as well, by way of bringing the history more actively, more visibly, onto the streets.

I certainly count myself as interested in the great modernization/Westernization of the country and of this city in particular, as one of the pioneering areas in those developments; there’s something very compelling about imagining how samurai developed the first steam engines in Japan, hydroelectric dams, and the like, simply through looking at books imported from the West, before travel or direct consultation with Western experts was possible, building some of the first Western-style / “modern” industrial factories, docks, and the like in Japan using a combination of Western technology and Japanese styles, materials, and techniques, and imagining how the city began to look in the late 19th century as these developments took hold. But, as many of the great “heroes” of Satsuma’s Bakumatsu and Meiji history are the same oft-cited “heroes” of Japanese history more broadly, I’ve long ago already become bored, tired, of their lionization. Sometimes it seems like everything is always about goddamned Saigô Takamori. Come see Saigô’s statue, Saigô’s birthplace, the site of Saigô’s death, the site where Saigô fought off so-and-so, the site where Saigô made this famous speech. Ugh. Enough already. I get that he’s kind of sort of the George Washington of Japan – leader of the revolution, whatever. But, honestly, as if Shimazu Yoshihiro doesn’t deserve to be celebrated as a great son of Kagoshima. Where’s his giant bronze statue? You’d think Saigô was the be-all and end-all of Japanese history.

Anyway, I’ll stop before getting too much further into a rant. The point is, it is interesting to see how a city defines itself, presents itself, both in the present, and in the Meiji-through-pre-war period, when so many monuments and memorials were first constructed, when the modern nation-state of Japan, its modern prefectures and cities, and their histories and identities were first being consciously constructed. Some cities, like Kanazawa and Hikone, at least from what I saw of them, are all about their castles, and their Edo period legacies. Kanazawa in particular, as home to the Maeda clan, second wealthiest samurai clan in the archipelago after the Tokugawa, has made itself known for its castle, its many still-intact Edo period samurai residences and still-operating geisha district, and traditions of ceramics, lacquerware, and gold-foiled-everything (even cakes), with extremely little emphasis, if I remember correctly, on anything Meiji or later.

Here in Kagoshima, formerly home to the Shimazu, the third wealthiest samurai clan after the Maeda and the Tokugawa, we get a very different story. The castle site is there, and is now home to a pretty excellent history museum, but there are very few marked historical sites, let alone statues, of any figures significant before, say, the 1840s or 1850. From Atsu-hime to Shimazu Nariakira to Saigô Takamori, everything is about a narrative of Kagoshima as pioneers in the modernizing of Japan, and as the birthplace of quite a few of the “founding fathers,” so to speak, of Japan’s modern revolution. Even the more historical exhibits – particularly at the Shôkoshûseikan (one of the first factories in Japan), but even at the Reimeikan (history museum on the former site of the castle) – fit these earlier periods of Kagoshima’s medieval and early modern (Edo/Tokugawa) history into a narrative of Kagoshima having always been engaged with the sea, with being “open” to the outside world, and open to new technologies and foreign cultures, as if Satsuma knew ahead of time to be ahead of its time, everything leading up to this “opening” to the modern world in the 1850s-1870s.

Incidentally, I do find something really intriguing about the idea of Satsuma as semi-independent, as enforcing its own “sakoku within a sakoku,” developing its own culture and pushing its own agendas. Which isn’t to say that other regions/domains weren’t doing the same, to one extent or another, but if there is any truth to the notion of Kagoshima being more seriously a major center of cultural and economic developments of a decidedly separate nature from that of Kyoto, Osaka, Edo – the core and source of much of “Japanese” history and tradition as we hear it from the national level – rather than being a provincial backwater, I’d be curious to hear more about it.

But, returning to the point, even as early as Meiji, Kagoshima was celebrating its own modernity, and quite understandably so. One can easily imagine a city – home to much of the earliest “modern” industrial / technological developments in Japan, and to many of the most powerful politicians/bureaucrats in pre-war Japan – desperately trying to push itself up into being a major city, and not a provincial backwater.

Right: Statue of Shimazu Hisamitsu at Tanshôen Gardens, one of three massive bronze statues of mid-19th century Shimazu lords erected there in 1917.

The Terukuni Shrine, a site, of course, as a Shinto shrine, of largely traditional architecture, customs/practices, and beliefs, features gaslamps right alongside the more traditional stone lanterns, and in the neighboring Tanshôen Gardens, three massive statues were erected in 1917, honoring three generations of Shimazu lords who ruled over the city’s modernization. I love these statues, because they are just so laughably massive, and because they are precisely the kind of thing that could only have been erected in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when that particular brand of nationalism, demonstrated through monuments and memorials, was all the rage. And, of course, no doubt that the Shimazu, still plenty wealthy and powerful into the 20th century in large part because of their industrial operations, would want to build as big as they could. Admittedly, I’ve seen some pretty massive Buddhist sculptures elsewhere, but that’s a whole other thing; I’m not sure if I recall ever seeing any other historical figures in Japan put on such a pedestal – literally! – as these three Shimazus at Tanshôen, and Saigô across town.

One can only imagine how things might have gone differently, if Kagoshima were today to have become (or remained) the far more major city that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were trying to represent it as being.

….

If we’re going to be talking about the character of Kagoshima as a city, there is another side to it too. Walking around Tenmonkan, and near the castle, and all the places I spoke of above you wouldn’t necessarily see it, but go out to the Shôkoshûseikan, and other more northerly parts of the city, and you find that Kagoshima is also very much a maritime town, and a beach town. I don’t want to go on and on about it too much, since this post is already really long, but suffice it to say that there is a certain something, a certain aesthetic, a certain atmosphere, that you get in beach towns that you don’t really get elsewhere. I didn’t find anywhere in Kagoshima that feels quite so strongly of that as in certain parts of Naha, to be sure, but even so, looking out from Tsurugane Shrine (at the Shôkoshûseikan complex), through/past the torii, to the sea, I can’t help but be reminded of that small shrine in Ôgimi-son, the village in northern Okinawa I visited last summer.


As seems to be the case everywhere, areas of the city which were once waterfront property only a few hundred years ago are considerably less so today, so we have to try to imagine… But, picturing the Shimazu second residence, at the Iso Palace (later, the site of the Shôkoshûseikan factory compound), being right on the water, and even the castle itself being only ten or fifteen blocks from a very active port, kind of gives you a different sense of the character of the town. Not so much in town, but out by the Shûseikan, I saw ads for jetskiing, stand-up paddleboarding, etc. advertising that it’s good weather for that year-round in Kagoshima, and just really emphasizing the water sports aspect of Kagoshima tourism. And perhaps more to the point, there’s just something about being able to see the sea, and thinking about how certain buildings stand there overlooking the sea, that just gives them a very different feeling. A small branch shrine of Yasaka Shrine, located a short walk away from the Shûseikan, and from which you can see the ocean just a couple blocks away, gives this feeling, though it’s not quite as directly associated with the beach as, for example, “Above the Waves” (Naminoue) Shrine in Okinawa. Just looking at the slight wear on the main shrine building, who knows if there’s really anything about that wear that marks it as distinctively coming from sea spray or maritime moisture coming up off the water, but you sure do get that feeling.

Above: The main torii at Yasaka Shrine, Iso neighborhood, Kagoshima; Below: the shrine’s main worship hall, a short walk from the Shôkoshûseikan, and just a block or so from the beach.

I have one post on tap summarizing my first full day in Kagoshima – a sort of walking tour history like so many travel blogs do, like my second and third posts on Sakura from last year. And, like I said, I have some topics about my time in Tokyo I’m hoping to come back to. But, we’ll see how much I end up doing for the second and third days, or how far I fall behind. Stay tuned!

I suppose with only two topics/links, the last post was less of a “roundup.” But, basically, it was just getting too long, so I split it off from these. In the field of arts & culture, the last few weeks have brought a number of interesting news, posts, and articles:

An image from “Old and New Japan” (1907), one of a great many drawings, photos, and other images from books digitized and made available by the Internet Archive.

(1) The Internet Archive has now made available on Flickr millions of illustrations & other images from books scanned as part of the Archive’s book digitization efforts. As the BBC relates, the project had previously used algorithms to help the OCR software recognize images in order to delete them; now, they are going back to rescue those images and make them available online.

Some very cursory searches for terms like “japan” and “edo” yield tons of images from Western books about Japan – many of them quite beautiful, and quite potentially useful for a variety of purposes – but very few, if any, from actual Edo period books. Somehow I’m not surprised. While a number of places, museums, digital humanities centers at universities, and the like, have been doing some truly excellent work cataloging & digitizing Edo book & prints collections, these have yet to be integrated into the Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and the like – not to mention Google Image Search – and so, copyright free or Creative Commons licensed and well-catalogued images from Edo books remain, for now, not yet so widely/easily available.

This is still a huge step forward, though, as Kalev Leetaru, interviewed in the BBC article, notes:

Mr Leetaru said digitisation projects had so far focused on words and ignored pictures. “For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works,” he told the BBC. “They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

(2) Meanwhile, the gorgeous online magazine Ignition has an article about woodblock print artist David Bull and the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, a Kickstarter project from a couple years ago with which you might be familiar. Working with artist/designer Jed Henry, Bull and his studio created a series of woodblocks – using traditional methods – depicting classic video game characters (such as Pokemon, Link from Zelda, and StarFox) in an ukiyo-e style. The article features some beautiful images of the process and the product, and discussion of the project, the process, and Bull’s own journey in deciding and learning how to do woodblocks.

(3) Speaking of woodblocks, Hyperallergic had a nice article just over a month ago on an exhibit of Edo period pattern books, at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. This is a genre of materials that really doesn’t get much attention, which is all the more unfortunate since the pictures in this Hyperallergic post are so beautiful, and since the exhibit closed already on August 10.

(4) On a somewhat separate topic, the contemporary performing arts festival “Kyoto Experiment,” or KEX, is trying something new this year. From what I can understand, the changes, aimed chiefly at combatting the commercialization of the art festival experience, are two-fold. One, ticket prices will be reduced, so as to place less of the burden on the visitors for the costs of commissioning & creating the art itself – something which funding from arts foundations and the like is meant to be aimed at. Thus, instead of visitors paying for the art, and in that sense being consumers of it, ticket prices will be more closely associated with simply making up for the costs of running each venue.

Second, there are certain standard systems at these sorts of performance and art festivals in Japan for managing entrance to each venue. To be honest, I don’t follow exactly how it works, but one can certainly imagine, lining up, waiting for your assigned time, filing into the space in an orderly manner. Whatever the precise details of the system are, Tokyo Stages explains that these logistics take away from the performance artist the power of controlling certain aspects of the visitor’s experience, placing it simply into the hands of logistics operators. I have certainly seen this myself at museums, and theatres, and discussed it in museum studies courses. As you approach the venue, looking at the facade, coming up or down steps or down a corridor, whether you have to wait or not, all of that is part of your experience of the museum exhibit or theatrical piece. And so, KEX is trying to place control of that back into the hands of the artists. What do visitors see, hear, experience, while they approach the venue, while they wait in line, while they enter the house, while they wait for the performance to begin? This is part of the experience too – part of the art – and shouldn’t be dictated by venue practicalities.

(5) Finally today, a link to an in-depth review of the book Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius by Darrin McMahon.

Today, we use the word “genius” so regularly, applying it so liberally, that it has surely lost something of its (potential) earlier meaning – or, the oomph that came with that meaning. Genius is no longer as exclusive a category as perhaps it should be.

I don’t know how much McMahon addresses this in his book, but for me, the question of how we define genius seems closely interwoven with notions of the “artist” as tortured genius, as possessing individual creative insight – notions we think of as universal but which are in fact decidedly modern. This is something I have likely written about before, and remains a pet peeve of mine – we have a conception of the artist based upon the personality cult of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and/or any of a handful of other mid-20th century artists you might care to name, and yet the vast majority of people on the street, if they think anything of art/artists at all, they completely uncritically apply that conception across all artists, in all parts of the world, in all times in history. To them, /this/ is what “art” means. This is what art is. By contrast, to me, modern art and all that grows out of it is a very narrow thing, belonging only to the early post-war decades, and bleeding into the decades after that, as art critics, curators, etc. refuse to let it go.

It is my understanding that art historians typically, standardly, draw a dividing line at Michelangelo, identifying him as marking the beginning of the emergence of the cult of the artist as individual creative genius. The vast majority of artists before him, as well as throughout most of the non-Western world for centuries after him, were /not/ seen as individual geniuses, creating uniquely creative personal expressions in a distinctively personal style, but rather were seen as master craftsmen, excellent at what they did, with painting seen as (perhaps) no more creatively inspired, no more stylistically personal, than construction or woodworking. You hired someone to build you a building, someone else to build the furniture, someone else to furnish the paintings. And you hired them because they were excellent at what they did and would produce precisely what you wanted in a high quality, masterfully executed manner. Sure, admittedly, in Japan at least there were schools and styles, and you did hire individual artists for their individual stylistic or creative differences; and, in the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists certainly gained popularity for their individual styles. But even then, it was never about the artist’s biography, or expression of his personal politics or emotional struggles; like illustrators, designers, or the like today, it was about the aesthetics of the design, and/or about the choice of subjects, things like that. We look back today at Hokusai and ask all sorts of things about his personal life and personality – and, no doubt, tons of books have been written on it – but I imagine that Edo residents, prints consumers, of 1830s Japan were no so interested in the person behind the Fuji images, and were more interested in simply knowing this was a name that produced images they liked.

I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll just end here. I seriously believe that we need to reconsider, and interrogate, our conceptions of the artist as tortured genius, as genius at all, and conceptions of art as personal expression. A piece in Eye Magazine is one of, surely, many which do begin to address these questions, but it has yet to really penetrate into the mainstream consciousness, I think, or into the mainstream of how museums (especially modern art museums) approach art.

Lots and lots going on. I’ve really let the links stack up this time.

To begin, as we have seen in the news in recent weeks, ISIS has not only been sweeping across large swaths of land, seizing territory, murdering thousands, and just generally seizing power for their violent & extremist “caliphate,” but they have also been destroying numerous ancient and irreplaceable historical and religious sites. The blog Ballandalus provides in a recent post a nicely thorough description of the violently iconoclastic Wahhabist movement underlying The Islamic State’s (ISIS) Destruction of Shrines in Historical Perspective. As this post explains, however, “this is not merely the revival of an eighteenth-century phenomenon but, rather, is the product of a very modern jihadist mentality.” I have commented on this sort of thing before, as similar events took place in Timbuktu a year ago. It sickens and disgusts me. I scarcely even know what else to say.

Working on this post, I started writing something sort of culturally relativist, whinging about how perhaps it is not our place to judge which form of Islam is right or best, or to judge how Muslims / Arabs choose to do things. History and culture cannot be allowed to be frozen in place, and change has to be allowed to take place. Plenty of great structures have been destroyed over the course of history, and plenty of major political, cultural, and religious shifts have taken place – that’s the nature of history itself. But, you know what? Fuck these guys. This is not a popular movement, a peaceful shift or change amongst Islam as a whole. This is a tiny fringe group who, let’s just hope are just as despised by Syrians and Iraqis as they are by us in the West, and who are the worst sort of religious extremists, cutting a violent swath across the region, murdering thousands and thousands of people and imposing their particular brand of the religion upon a populace who does not subscribe to their religious or political beliefs. A fringe group, purely by strength of arms, does not have the right to decide for an entire people, for an entire religion over a billion strong, what to believe, how to believe, how to live their lives, and to decide to destroy precious, irreplaceable, historical and sacred sites. Centuries from now, when people look at the history and culture and architecture of the region, they will point to today, to 2014, and to ISIS, as the reason there is no longer anything to be seen of the historical architecture of these profoundly sacred and historically significant sites.

The Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, before and after its destruction by ISIS. Image from Ballandus.

Sticking with politics, Salon recently published a great article by Thomas Frank on the history of attitudes about capitalism, free markets, and monopolies in the United States. As the headline puts it, Free markets killed capitalism: Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Wal-Mart, Amazon and the 1 percent’s sick triumph over us all.

This is, of course, a topic that’s been much discussed lately. I certainly cannot presume to be by any means the first to be bringing it up, or the only one. But it is something which has been worrying me lately, coming at it from a particular point of view, as my readings on the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom made me see frightening parallels between the ideologies and attitudes driving those events, and those (still) prominent today. As Frank writes,

The Sherman Antitrust Act was 1890. I’ve actually been reading the speech that Senator John Sherman gave in support of that act. And it is very clear that the fear that drove Sherman had nothing to do with higher prices, very little to do with the interest of consumers. The fear of monopoly, back in 1890, was mainly a fear that someone else would block me from doing my business.

We may think that our country is founded on “freedom,” but just what kind of freedom, and for whom? Freedom for entrepreneurs, sure. But freedom for consumers? Freedom for consumers from the predatory, exploitative, and dominating power of corporations? I am terrified, worried, and terribly saddened to realize/discover that not only is this truly not a fundamental part of American capitalist ideology, but that even more to the point, support for the freedom of the corporate sector to make profits regardless of the costs, regardless of who “loses,” just may be a truly core foundational belief of our country.

A key element to the haole (white) corporate takeover and overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, at least as my reading of the work of Michael Dougherty and Jon Osorio would have it, is the idea that corporate wealth or well-being equals the strength of the kingdom’s economy. Haoles pushed through many of the policies that they did by claiming that they were doing what was in the best interests of the kingdom’s economy; and even when the makaʻāinana (“peasants,” for lack of a better term) petitioned the government that these policies were severely harming their economic well-being, the haoles dismissed the petitions as unimportant, as totally peripheral to the matter at hand: establishing a policy structure for a political environment where corporations could enjoy the maximum “freedom” to make profits, including policies that ensured their freedom to exploit the land and the people in order to do so.

After a workshop some months ago on how to write and submit op-ed pieces (how, as academics, to be more directly engaged in public discourse), I began drafting something on this subject – talking about the looming, and quite possibly already too late, threat of a real oligarchic/plutocratic corporate takeover of American democracy, talking about Hobby Lobby and Citizens United and all the rest, from a somewhat novel angle, by saying that this isn’t new, and that Hawaiian history, generally quite marginalized and largely ignored in mainland US education and public discourse, can really do a lot to inform our understandings of American history and values, and their implications. But, then, at the end of the day, I am not nearly expert enough in either Hawaiian history, or the history of economic policy and economics ideologies in the United States, to do a proper job of such a piece. I’m still going to keep thinking about it, though.

Display at the Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Allison Meier for Hyperallergic.

On that note, speaking of Hawaii, and indigenous loss to American expansion, let me round out this Quick Links post with a link to a Hyperallergic article on the last Yahi Indian, who chose to live out his final days in a museum.

This is something I first heard about only a few months ago, in discussions in our Museum Studies seminar. And then, just a few weeks ago, Hyperallergic happened to post about it. A man called Ishi, who claimed to be the last Yahi Indian, is said to have “emerged” from the “wilderness,” “appearing” at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco in 1911. When offered help relocating to a formal Indian reservation, he refused, and instead elected to remain at the museum, where he stayed until his death five years later. I don’t really know the details of just where he lived (slept, ate) during this time, or in what ways he was on display. Today, we might imagine someone walking around the museum like a docent, speaking of his experiences; but, in 1911, so-called “human zoos,” a practice at World’s Fairs and the like where colonized and/or indigenous peoples were put on display in, essentially, living dioramas, or “habitats” like zoo animals today, complete with replicas of their “traditional” architecture and “native” environments, were still rather current.

In any case, arrows belonging to Ishi are on display in an ongoing exhibition at the New York City (Bowling Green) location of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. You can read a bit more about it at the Hyperallergic link.

Not only was I impressed with the Brooklyn Museum’s American/modern/contemporary showings, but furthermore, their African exhibit was, at least in some small but very key ways, truly excellent. I can’t say I exactly picked it apart for every single aspect of how there might be problems, or room for improvement, but at least I will say that a few things really stood out at me.


First and foremost, the exhibit is entitled African Innovations, so right from the outset, they’re combatting the stereotype that Africa is somehow backwards, behind, not creative, not innovative. Identical introductory panels which bookend the exhibit (you can enter at either end, or in fact from anywhere in the middle) state that the museum’s collection “includes objects of transcendent beauty and sophistication, but many of these works were valued for more than aesthetic reasons. They were created to solve important creative, social, political, and cosmological problems.” Personally, I would have said “purposes,” not “problems,” and I do find that strange, but putting that aside, here they unequivocally state that these objects are beautiful and sophisticated, but also that they serve powerful and important culturally specific purposes. We should try to learn and understand and appreciate those particular cultural contexts; these objects do not exist purely for our (or anyone’s) aesthetic appreciation or inspiration.

Left: “Skipping Girl,” Yinka Shonibare, 2009.
Further down on the same panel, it states “The phrase ‘African art’ might suggest a continent-wide form of visual expression that is unitary and timeless, but nothing could be further from the truth. … For the first time, the Museum’s African galleries are arranged chronologically, to emphasize the continent’s long record of creativity, adaptation, and artistic achievement.” It is sad, in a way, that we are still fighting this battle, that people don’t already know, appreciate, just how large and diverse Africa is, and also that its many peoples are not stuck in the past, not unchanging, but are in fact dynamic and actively engaged with the modern world. The chronological organization of the exhibit, and in particular the final section panel, “Crossroads Africa – Today,” along with a piece by Yinka Shonibare and a handful of other very contemporary art works, help illuminate this story, highlighting that Lagos, Dakar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg are truly global cities, that African artists in these and other urban centers have actively engaged with changes and developments, addressing a wide variety of questions and concerns (including “What is Africa?” and “Who is African?”), and experimenting with a wide variety of media and forms “to express these new realities.”

Admittedly, on the individual objects’ gallery labels, many of the historical/traditional objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit are described pretty much as I’d expected them to be, with descriptions of their usage and meaning within the cultural context; nothing really stood out to me as particularly exciting or innovative in terms of the narrative or discourses, but neither did anything stand out as particularly problematic. Still, the emphasis on these cultures as possessing history, as being living dynamic traditional cultures, and as simultaneously being actively engaged in a globally connected, modern and cosmopolitan world, is I think of great importance and very well put forward here. And perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that the introductory panel informs us that the Brooklyn Museum was the first in the country to display African objects as works of art. Bravo!

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By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum makes little or no overt effort to combat standard narratives in its Arts of Africa galleries. You won’t find any prominent discussion here of African innovation, of Africa’s modernity, the great size of its cities, or the dynamic and decidedly active ways in which Africans negotiate and engage with societal change and cultural challenges. You will find mention of Africa’s great size and diversity, but only in the most plain vanilla manner, by way of simply introducing the topic of African Art and describing the continent & its people.

That said, though, it is not as if the Metropolitan is being blatantly Orientalist, essentialist, or the like, let alone (god forbid) outright racist in their representation of the diverse cultures of the African continent. They’re simply taking a more conservative, standard, discursive approach. Yet, it is precisely because that approach is so standard that it makes it difficult to see through it, so to speak, to know whether or not to criticize it, and for what.

The Met’s African galleries are certainly extensive, well-lit, and well-maintained. This is not some forgotten, ill-maintained, back corner of the museum. It’s not the most dynamic or original mode of display, but neither is it too blatantly archaic. That Africa is given so much space is certainly something, and in terms of its location within the museum, it’s not located in some distant back corner, a basement, or some other lesser or lower position. The Africa galleries are immediately next to the Greco-Roman galleries, which makes them very accessible, but as for whether it is a positive association, connecting it to the “great” ancient civilizations, or a negative one, placing it somehow in contrast to, or prior to, those civilizations, as “primitive” art, I don’t know; I suppose it could be both, or neither. That they are located alongside the Arts of the Pacific and of the Pre-Columbian Americas is certainly evocative of the outdated and highly problematic categorization of “Primitive Art,” but those discourses are not prominently visible here at all, and all in all I’m not really decided on how I feel about this grouping – after all, admittedly, it’s not a very straightforward geographical grouping, as placing Chinese art next to Japanese, or Greek next to Roman, may be, but at the same time, everything has to go next to something, and every pairing or grouping can be said to imply all sorts of implications… Whether this grouping is problematic, I leave open, but at the very least, there is no single overarching categorical title, such as “primitive art,” and each of these broad geographic areas is very much given its own separate space. Though, that said, the three are grouped into a single category on the museum website’s list of galleries.

The African exhibits are organized by region, and by culture, with labels that describe individual cultures, culturally and historically, from an anthropological sort of point of view, discussing how each type of object was used, or worn, in its original “traditional” cultural context, and often includes photos of the objects in use. This is certainly a step up from exhibits which might ignore the meaning of an object, its purpose and the ways in which it was appreciated or valued in its original culture, in favor of viewing the objects solely or primarily through a Western aesthetic lens. But it is still awfully standard, categorizing and describing people rather than giving the impression of having them speak at all. The culture is a single thing, to be analyzed, examined, understood, and then described, rather than as something lived and experienced, as something dynamic and changing, as something with interiority, the members/practitioners of which question their traditions and engage or negotiate with continuation versus change.

One thing that occurred to me as I read these labels, and thought about what I was going to say in this blog post, is the question, whether it is better in gallery labels to describe a culture in the present tense by their traditions – thus denying them history, change, and modernity – or in the past tense, implying their belonging only to the past, erasing their contemporaneity, implying their non-existence in the present, and their belonging to the past as primitive, less-advanced, or otherwise non-modern?

These exhibits further make little mention of the history of colonialism, mentioning its impact chiefly in terms of the tragic consequences for the destruction, corruption, or diminishing of these essentialized cultures. The “traditional” culture, in some romanticized imagined pure form, is placed on a pedestal, elevating it, and its loss bemoaned. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mourn the loss of traditional cultural practices too, but, here it is presented almost as a matter of fact. There is no anti-colonialist or post-colonialist activist bent to these exhibits, no post-colonial critique, no intermingling of contemporary works, just a real focus on the art itself, aesthetically and in terms of craftsmanship, as well as anthropologically.

In the end, I am conflicted. On the one hand, the Met’s displays of Pacific and African art are not grossly, boldly, clearly problematic, but neither are they progressive at all. The legacy of anthropological and “primitive art” approaches is evident in the over-abundance of Papua New Guinea objects, and more to the point by the absence of any historical discussion of political or societal change over time, of histories of interaction or exchange, and thus of development of the artforms being discussed. Works are described by culture, without any individual people, events, or developments discussed. We would never describe ukiyo-e woodblock prints as simply being objects representative of traditional Japanese culture, as if there were a singular traditional Japanese culture – rather, we talk about historical periods, in the case of ukiyo-e the Edo period, under the Tokugawa shoguns, a period of particular cultural and societal developments, and of considerable shifts and changes in the development of ukiyo-e, stylistically and otherwise. So, why describe the arts of the Bamara or Ibo peoples in such a categorizing, ahistorical manner?

Perhaps there is an argument to be made for different museums taking different approaches, and evincing different priorities in their treatments of cultural objects. After all, what the Brooklyn Museum does is still but one narrative, one interpretation, one version of the story. That approach, though we might see it as wonderfully progressive, also presents a limited and biased perspective, and if every museum did the same as the Brooklyn Museum does, it would create a clear sense that there are other approaches, other narratives, other interpretations that are being silenced, and which need to be heard. And there may indeed be considerable aspects to the Met’s approach which constitute such an equally valid, equally valuable, narrative or approach, alternative and thus complementary to the Brooklyn Museum’s approach. But, even so, even while the Met’s approach is not as baldly grossly problematic as it might have once been – even while the Met has clearly made changes and made progress – I think that many problems still remain.

Art Deco Hawaii

I posted a couple years back about a great show of Japanese Art Deco held at Japan Society in New York; that show has since traveled to a number of other institutions, introducing museumgoers in a number of major US cities to a Japan, and a more global, non-Western-inclusive Art Deco movement, they likely knew nothing about before. Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing a similar exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, entitled “Art Deco Hawaii.”

While there were few pieces that really struck me as looking or feeling very Art Deco, and so the overall impact of the show was not really one of expanding my feeling of a more global sense of how Art Deco took place around the world, the show was brilliant nevertheless, including many truly gorgeous works, introducing us to a number of great artists who are widely unknown and woefully under-appreciated outside the niche field of Hawaiian art, and, further, introducing to visitors a somewhat nuanced and complex look at the functioning of exoticism, etc., in the art of that time, with tourism marketing materials and people’s more general conceptions of the islands, between the two of them, building up a certain set of images and understandings of the islands that was purely constructed, imagined, and which continues to have great influence today. As David A.M. Goldberg puts it in his biting review of the show in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “most works were commissioned by corporations such as Matson and Dole, which were either trying to sell the islands’ products, or the islands themselves as product,” through promotion of the islands’ natural charms – both scenic (land, sea, sky, flora and fauna) and human. Goldberg’s review, entitled “Art deco examples distort Hawaiian culture, history,” is far more bold and upfront about the Orientalizing impact of these works than I think the exhibit itself was, and makes for interesting reading.

“The Discovery” (1928), one of a number of works in the show by Arman Tateos Manookian, an Armenian-American artist who tragically committed suicide at the age of 27, in 1931. I find his pieces stunningly beautiful in their bold colors, and distinctive style, with broad blocks of color in place of finer-grained detail.

Still, regarding the Orientalizing/exoticizing discourses to which these works contributed, I was quite pleased to see how the curators described this phenomenon to visitors; ideas of Orientalist discourse, of media discourse theory, and the like, are generally not so widely discussed, or widely known, I think, outside of academia (and certain other fields), and it shows a certain keenly critical, and post-colonialist political, approach to bring this to the general public, by way of the museumgoer. The exhibit does not focus on these works as being simply beautiful, or expertly executed, and to a large extent does not work to reify (reinforce) these exoticizing discourses, but instead really points them out and asks visitors to come away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the history of the construction of ideas of Hawaii. It also situates “Art Deco Hawaii” in the historical contexts of both the Art Deco movement and of Honolulu/Hawaiian history, presenting the topic in a serious and academic way, but in a way which I hope, I imagine, wasn’t too inaccessible to the average museumgoer. In this, actually, I think it may have done a better job than the Art Deco Japan show – since I could not take photos in that show, I don’t have any record of exactly what was and was not said in the gallery labels there, but my blog post on the exhibit does indicate that I felt the show did not provide enough discussion of how this fit into the history of the Art Deco movement, or of the urban culture of Japan at that time.

“A God Appears” (1940), one of a series of six murals by Eugene Savage, all on display in the show, commissioned by the passenger steamship liner company Matson. Where Manookian’s works, for better or for worse, are more subtle (and, arguably, perhaps, that much more insidious?) in their romanticizing of Hawaiian history and culture, Savage’s works boldly represent Hawaii as a place of continuous eternal celebration, extending even to events such as the encounter with Captain Cook, and the overthrow of the kingdom, events which are today considered hardly worth celebrating. The Orientalist tropes here are so blatant, they’re almost laughable – or they would be, if not for their very real and insidious impacts.

In the Art Deco Hawaii show, we are told that “Art Deco proved ideal for conjuring the islands’ natural beauty and fabled past for a public that was aspirationally contemporary yet nostalgic at heart,” and we also see the curators pulling no punches, not talking down to visitors, but instead boldly going ahead with a somewhat more complex explanation of the topic, saying that

A regional form of modernism centered on the islands’ singular sense of place. Art Deco entered the visual arts in Hawai’i as a fusion of modernist visual formulas with localized motifs. … Hawai’i’s Art Deco was an interwar elaboration of visual codes that had been developing in Western art since the early 19th century to construct and evoke the atmosphere and allure considered unique to the islands: the beauty of their landscape, the perceived exoticism of their people and customs, and the imagined narrative of their history.

Right: “Surfer Girl” by Gene Pressler (c. 1930s), one of the only pieces in the show that really felt “art deco” to me, though as I’m not so clear on the defining stylistic characteristics of the movement, that may be off-target. For some reason, though I can’t quite put my finger on it, this feels like a painting that would look right at home at Aloha Tower, or the Chrysler Building, though I couldn’t really say just why.

Thanks so much to the Honolulu Museum of Art for allowing photos in this exhibition, of so many works which are so beautiful, so stunning, and so historically, culturally, discursively, interesting. This also allows me to capture the curators’ wording/phrasing on the labels, as quoted above, without having to bother taking the time to copy it out by hand, with notebook and pencil, there in the gallery. Now, admittedly, I could just buy the catalog. But, then, if I bought the catalog for every exhibit I saw, instead of just taking photos, how much space would that take up on my shelf, not to mention the damage to my wallet. (Incidentally, the catalog is beautifully well-done, and available at the museum for the relatively reasonable price of $30, though strangely for some reason I can’t seem to find it on Amazon or otherwise available online anywhere)

I do not know if this exhibit is going to be traveling to any other museums, but I really hope it would. I think people would very much enjoy it, if only for the truly beautiful works by so many artists who are all but unknown outside of Hawaii (or, for that matter, even in Hawaii, unless you’re one who pays particular attention to art). And, beyond that, it is really far too infrequent that we see anything about Hawaii (not to mention a whole bunch of other parts of the world) in the vast majority of US mainland museums. Just as the Art Deco Japan show was eye-opening and much appreciated by many visitors with a particular interest in Art Deco, but who did not have any particular background or interest in Japan, I think the same would go for this Hawaii show – it’s truly great to have such wonderful shows accessible to the local community, to learn something more about their own history, in this, the most remote archipelago in the world, but I think there is great value too in sharing that with the broader American and world community – and, especially for an exhibit like this, I think there would be great interest, appreciation, and enjoyment too.

Art Deco Hawaii is up at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 11, 2015.

I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.

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Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

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