The Freer/Sackler Shop recently held a clearance sale to help get rid of some back stock. Or something like that. Apparently, there was some kind of reorganization of the shop within the last year, and a much larger clearance sale, which I missed, some months ago. Still, good swag this time around :)
In addition to some postcards, posters, and three reproduction handscrolls which I have already given away as gifts, I found myself more books I’ll probably never get around to reading (sadly):
An old book, dating back to 1973, and thus likely rather out of date as to who is currently still living of the Living National Treasures (人間国宝, ningen kokuhô), a rather elite, select group of people designated by the government as the leaders, the true masters, of traditional arts and crafts that, in most cases, otherwise would be very quickly on the way out.
Still, the book is not so old that it doesn’t contain amazing full-color photographs, and some excellent full-color illustrations of aspects of how the various arts are performed. I might have liked to see more performing artists – puppeteers, kabuki actors, or at least more people associated with performing arts, such as puppet carvers, costumers, or Noh mask carvers – but, there are definitely some names in the book I do recognize, including the bamboo artist Shono Shounsai, and the potter Hamada Shoji. Lots of text, and lots of pictures; on first glance, this looks like it could be a pretty good book.
As the title of this exhibition catalog indicates, this is a book about Portugal, not really primarily about Japan, or even China. But, I figured, for such an amazing price, what harm could there be in buying it? Looking through it now, I realize I grabbed the wrong volume (ha!), as the museum apparently went all out for this exhibition, producing three separate volumes – one of images, one of essays, and one of a little of both. I went for the latter, by far the thickest, assuming it’d contain all the material of the other two. I was apparently mistaken. But, no matter. The essays volume only contained one about Japan, so it’s really no big loss.
Japan’s premodern & early modern international trade is one of a handful of topics of the most interest to me – I wrote my previous MA thesis on 17th century interactions with Southeast Asia. I figured this might be a good volume to help me learn more about Japanese interactions with the Portuguese in this period. … In the end, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be of particular use or interest. But, again, for that price, who could complain?
Installation art, modern / avant-garde art, is not really my thing. I bought this book knowing that once I get back to Hawaii, I’ll deposit it on a give-away shelf in the art building, or just give it to a friend.
Skimming through it, I am happy and excited to see many East Asian artists featured, and not only that, but East Asian theorists and commentators quoted. Of course, there are a few East Asian artists and writers who cannot be ignored, but to really pay attention not only to American artists, or to whomever is huge in American or European circles, mentioning, quoting, and featuring a truly global variety of artists is really great to see. From what little I can see of this book from just skimming through it and scanning a few random pages, it seems like the book does represent the art world of the 21st century in a properly global kind of way. On page 76-77, for example, to which I opened randomly, we see images from a video art installation by Korean artist Lee Bul, and on the opposite page, two works by American artist Doug Aitken which make use of video scenes in the Mojave Desert, and in a Tokyo apartment. So, the book is not only featuring Asian artists, but also Western artists who use Asia or are influenced by Asia. I don’t know anything about Doug Aitken, but this first glance at this piece strikes me as reflecting an attitude of Tokyo being just the same as Berlin or as anywhere else in world – it’s a product of the truly global we live in (and of the artist recognizing and acknowledging that), a world in which fewer places are truly foreign, inaccessible, inscrutable, and exotic, and more places are more closely interconnected.
The book has tons of beautiful full-color photos, but the text is hardly minimal either. Skimming through some of the essays or chapters, it seems like they’re quite packed with theory and ideas, not in an overwhelming way, but perhaps in more or less just the right way to make this book a great text for a course on 21st century installation art. Reading this book, you could come out of it knowing lots of names, thoughts and ideas, arguments and interpretations, a really solid foundation upon which you could build, quoting these commentators and drawing upon their ideas. I hope that whoever I give it to ends up finding good use for it.
There are posters and such for this exhibition all over the Freer-Sackler, making you feel like it’s a famous exhibition, like it’s something you need to find out more about.
Yokohama-e come at a very exciting, dynamic, interesting time in Japan’s history. They span the period from the Bakumatsu, when the shogunate gives in to opening up its ports to the world [i.e. the Western powers], admitting a flood of new influences and launching Japan onto the world stage, into the Meiji period, when the shogunate falls and the “modern” nation-state of Japan emerges, undergoing myriad rapid changes, modernizing and Westernizing dramatically, seemingly overnight. Sadly, these prints, a sort of sub-genre or sub-category of Japanese woodblock prints, are among the least beautiful and least interesting artistically, even if their content – the subjects they depict – provides a glimpse into this most fascinating time.
In a way, therefore, it is difficult to be excited about this book, which does not contain any beautiful, stunning, breathtaking images like other art books might. However, it does, with lots of very large clear pictures, and lots of text, provide a thorough and very nice glimpse into that period, particularly in the port of Yokohama.
Skimming through the item descriptions, I see perhaps a bit more treatment of composition and artistic technique, and of artists’ intentions or style than I’d like, but still the book manages to balance that out with plenty of discussion of the town and the history. The more I think about it, the longer I work at museums and study in an Art History program, and hear professors and curators express their views, the more I realize that for me, what’s most compelling is the use of art as a window into the past, or as a jumping off point for asking questions about the past. I really don’t care so much about Utagawa Sadahide’s compositional choices, his style and technique, or what types of subjects he preferred to depict, so much as I enjoy looking at his prints and seeing in them depictions of what life was like and what the city looked like at a given time – and, what attitudes, perceptions, or misconceptions these images might reflect.
It is not simply a matter that pictures in themselves provide a visual which helps us imagine what a given time and place looked like, but rather that by looking at a variety of pictures, we are presented with enough elements of visual and material culture that we can begin to have an understanding of – or at least to be spurred to ask questions, and to go investigate – everything from footwear and clothing to ship types and technology. You see a picture of the Kanrin Maru, and, yes, perhaps it helps you imagine visually what the port of Yokohama looked like at a given time, but it also serves as a jumping off point for asking what was the Kanrin Maru – when was it built, who was its captain, what famous journeys did it take; what kinds of ships were there at this time, how did American ships differ from Japanese ships at the time, what did the various aspects and elements of the naval uniform seen here represent, and how many people comprised the crew of one of these ships? And that’s just a start… These pictures may not be the most attractive, but I’d love to put together an exhibit myself (or twelve) explaining, depicting, various periods or aspects of history through the use of art.
This is getting long, so I’m going to break it into two posts. Stay tuned for Part 2!