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Archive for the ‘西洋現代美術’ Category

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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A colophon by Dong Qichang (d. 1636), on a handscroll painting formerly attri. Dong Yuan (d. 962). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

*Stanford has placed online what appears at first glance to be a very nice guide to Classical Chinese. It starts off by going over the basics – that a given character can have many meanings, and play the role of multiple different forms of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) depending on where it is in the sentence, and the incredible importance of paying attention to character order (i.e. “word” order). The guide then goes into further detail, explaining individual particles as it leads the reader through selections from famous classical texts, including the Analects of Confucius and the writings of Mencius.

Now that I’m beginning to look through it, I’m not sure how effective self-studying from this guide, alone, might be. But, as a reference, it could be quite nice. And, especially since what little I know of Classical Chinese I learned by way of Japanese, seeing it explained, in English, without that Japanese intermediary, could also be helpful (though, weird as it might sound at first to say that I’ve studied how to read Chinese in Japanese, actually, since Japanese uses the same characters, I think it’s actually more understandable, at least for me, than going straight from Chinese to English).

*Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, there was a massive spill, or leak, of hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses into Honolulu Harbor, on Sept 9.

Right: Not a picture of the spill, but just a photo I took, some years ago, of the city.

Though molasses is, essentially, just sugar, and though one might therefore assume that it shouldn’t be such a problem, an NPR report explains that the molasses somehow pulls the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the marine life. And, since it sinks to the bottom rather than floating on the surface as an oil spill would, it is far more difficult to clean up. Plus, this particular part of the harbor is relatively shielded from ocean currents, meaning that the natural flow and exchange of water between the harbor and the ocean will not, on its own, clean up the spill for years. One report I read, though I can’t quite remember where, said it could be decades before the ecosystem revives back to the levels it was at before this spill, a spill which some are calling the worst environmental disaster in the history of the State of Hawaii. A Hawaii Public Radio report by my friend Molly Solomon tells us that Matson – the company running the molasses pipeline – knew about the leak a year ago, but did not take proper action to see it fixed; the report discusses briefly the possibilities for liabilities, lawsuits, or fines that Matson may face.

*Much thanks to BoredPanda, for sharing with us a series of photos of Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe. I quite enjoy traditional costume, especially festival performance costume, from many different cultures, but, while we may enjoy “privilege” in a great many other aspects of our lives, one place where those of us of European descent get shafted is in having a national costume, or traditional dress, to dress up in when occasion allows. It’s beautiful and wonderful to see these examples of a deeper, older, cultural tradition still practiced in Europe which goes beyond the multitude of things that, beautiful, interesting, traditional, cultural though they may be, are unavoidably seen as utterly typical, normal, today.

*Switching gears yet again, The Justice, the student newspaper at Brandeis University, reports on the myth & history of Usen Castle. Now, I know this may be of little interest to anyone who didn’t go to Brandeis, but, here’s the story in a nutshell: we have a castle on campus. It is of course not a “real” castle, and, I think, looks it, when you consider the conical fairy-tale turret-toppers and such. But, it’s still really cool, and I’m still sad I never got to live there (it’s a sophomores-only dorm, and I didn’t make it into the Castle in the housing lottery that year).

Getting to the point, as at any college campus, a number of rumors and stories swirl around Brandeis campus about the true origins and history of the castle, some of them perpetrated and perpetuated by admissions tour guides and other official sources. In most accounts, the castle is said to have been based on a specific castle in Scotland (never named, or specified, in the story), which the campus architect saw and liked, but to which he was denied entry, and as a result, the castle looks like a castle on the outside, but follows a less than standard plan on the inside. I’ve also heard stories about it being formerly used as an animal hospital, and about Eleanor Roosevelt having lived there at some point. This week’s Justice article banishes these myths and gives the real story.

*The BBC reports on a recent large-scale public art project in which the silhouettes of 9000 bodies were created on a Normandy beach, a simple but powerful visual reminder of what took place there in June 1944, and just how many people lost their lives on that beach. As one of the organizers/artists is quoted as saying, “”All around us there are relics of the Second World War, but the one thing that is missing are the people that actually died.”

The silhouettes were created simply by disturbing the sand within roughly body-shaped stencils – the disturbing of the sand itself, I realize as I write this, gives a sort of symbolism of the project disturbing the beach, disturbing the peace the beach sees today, disturbing its current modern-day identity, and disturbing our own, what’s the word, our glazing over in our awareness of the battle. Of course, everyone knows of the storming of the beaches of Normandy, but how many of us have ever really given thought to the level of the violence, the number of the bodies, right there on that beach?

We are forced – powerfully, violently – to remember. And then, the tide came in, and washed away the entire artwork.

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I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about this exhibit, especially since I said so much already before even seeing the exhibition. But, since the review I posted yesterday ended up being so long, I broke it off and am now writing a Part Two, focusing on prominent Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura is, of course, one of the real stars of the show. Or, at least, it is to me, as I’ve heard of him before and really like his work. Much of the media for this show focuses on his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, and I have already discussed it myself, too, so I’ll keep it limited. But, just two things about it that make that piece even more incredible than I thought originally – one, that the silhouette of the original piece (George Washington and friends, in their boat) can be seen in the background, a seemingly minor detail, perhaps, which actually alters the narrative of the piece fairly dramatically. Shimomura is not replacing Washington, after all, but only upstaging him. Throughout American history, Asian-Americans have been, essentially, also-rans, or footnotes. Here, Shimomura places himself in the forefront and in the spotlight, implying something about a narrative of American history in which Washington and his ilk are still present, and still play out their important and influential historical roles, but in which Asian-Americans are shown to be Americans as well, to be present in the narrative. On a second note, I really like that Shimomura made his piece on roughly the same scale as the original now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. It gives his piece grandeur, power, and impact, and also, if we want to read into it, says something about his piece, himself, and Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans in general, not being smaller or lesser.


In some of the other pieces included in the exhibition, Shimomura addresses American stereotypes of Japanese, along two different lines. In American Hello Kitty and American Pikachu, Shimomura incorporates a self-portrait into the iconic cartoon characters, commenting, I guess, on American associations of Japan with anime (above all else). Frankly, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s going for here. Is it meant to be a criticism? Is it a bad thing to associate Japan primarily/chiefly with anime? The Japanese government has been actively pushing quote-unquote “Cool Japan” for the last several years, as part of a concerted effort to expand Japanese soft power, and to thereby increase pro-Japan sentiments. Would Shimomura prefer that we associate Japan instead with negative things? That is, unless Shimomura’s whole point is not about Japan, but is instead about how we associate Japanese-Americans with Japanese culture rather than with American identity. If that’s it, that makes a lot more sense… especially in consideration of the themes of his other works.


Another set of works, titled American vs Japs and American vs Japs 2 depict Shimomura, painted relatively realistically, punching and kicking cartoonish stereotypical “Japs” drawn in the style of 1940s American propaganda. My kneejerk reaction is to see this as a terribly outdated battle. It’s not the 1940s anymore, and depictions of Japan in US mass media today doesn’t resemble this propaganda at all. Yet, on second thought, I realize that there are far too many in this country who, sadly, have not gotten the memo, and still hold onto completely outdated notions of anti-Japanese hatred. Comments of “that was for Pearl Harbor” and the like, as well as much worse vitriol, have appeared in disgustingly vast numbers on Internet forums and the like during US-Japan sporting events, and, perhaps most upsettingly of all, during the 3/11 disaster. Is this what Shimomura is fighting against? Actually, I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he’s more fighting that he (and other Americans) be the target of these attitudes, moreso than actually fighting against those attitudes existing. This is just my guess, based on his personal history of having been imprisoned in the WWII-era Internment Camps, and all the surrounding issues of Japanese-Americans as loyal Americans, being continually seen as not American enough, or as still foreign. I don’t know how much Shimomura has any real connections with Japan… from what little I know about him and his work, he’s much more focused on Japanese-American issues.

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If only this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC) had opened a week or two earlier, I could have seen it in person. As I sit here at my desk at the East-West Center in Honolulu it seems crazy that just a week ago I was sitting at a desk in the Smithsonian.

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” opens today at the National Portrait Gallery (not to be confused with the National Gallery of Art, which is not part of the Smithsonian), and runs through October 14. The exhibit features works by a small handful of Asian-American (or Asian residents in the US) contemporary artists, which touch upon questions of identity, especially as it pertains to being Asian or Asian-American in America.

Roger Shimomura is one artist I have discussed previously; during World War II, he and his family were interned in internment camps, purely for the “crime” of having been of the same ethnic descent as those who attacked our country on December 7, 1941, and with whom we were now at war. .. Like many who suffered that injustice, Shimomura continues to speak out, so to speak, through his art, about those events. I am not familiar with a broad range of his works, but a couple I mentioned in my post about Shimomura a few years ago stand out as particularly biting, and amusing, if I may use that word, in the jabs they make at the assumptions and attitudes behind the institution of that Japanese-American relocation. To take one example, a work titled “Shadow of the Enemy” depicts the shadow, against a shed, of a pigtailed girl playing jump-rope.

One of the works by Shimomura featured now in this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a sort of spoof of the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. In it, Shimomura addresses a different, but strongly related, problem faced by Japanese-Americans (and Asian-Americans more broadly) in the United States. Namely, the idea of the Asian(-American) as the perpetual foreigner. I must admit that I too am guilty of perpetuating this discourse, that is, of having difficulty seeing people of Asian descent as being just as “American” as those of European descent. We see people with Asian features, and we, at the very least, think of them as Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, with the “-American” very much secondary in our subconscious (or conscious) assessment of who we think of them as. We may assume they don’t speak English, or even if we don’t quite make that assumption, we are surprised and a little thrown off when someone’s accent, speech patterns, body language, etc. are wholly American, no different from those of an American of non-Asian (read: white, European) ancestry.

Image from BBC News, (c) Roger Shimomura

So, in “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” the artist has the famous scene re-enacted in ukiyo-e style – bright colors, line drawing, a relatively flat description of space, not incorporating techniques of light & shadow, illusion of three-dimensionality, or linear perspective. The figures, in Colonial Revolutionary Army garb or the like in the original, are now kabuki characters copied from the style of Sharaku, with samurai top-knots and kimono. Washington himself is represented with a self-portrait of Shimomura, looking a bit like Colonel Sanders, but in any case, more to the point looking (presumably) rather like himself, dressed up as Washington. The piece, I suppose, presents an idea that Japanese(-Americans) are inherently so foreign that any situation they exist in is itself foreign as well. That Japanese(-Americans) do not exist in the same America that we do, that they don’t wear the same clothes, that they are somehow fundamentally different creatures. That they don’t even occupy the same world of linear perspective, light & shadow, and oil painting realism as “real” Americans, but instead perpetually belong to a world of a wholly different style and aesthetic – one of exaggerated features in line drawing with fields of bright color, etc.

However we wish to phrase precisely what it is the work does and how it does it – and I am sure that Mr. Shimomura, the NPG curators, and others, would each have a different way of expressing what is going on here – I think that the piece definitely does bring to the fore this issue of the perception of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners. I’d be curious and interested to see a piece done in the opposite manner, incorporating Japanese faces and figures into the Washington piece just as it originally was – in oils, with colonial-era costume and all the standard techniques of realism – addressing the issue from the opposite point of view. Rather than painting the stereotype, and in doing so challenging it, what if Shimomura (or someone else) were to challenge it by painting against the stereotype, and depicting freedom fighters in the Revolution as including people of East Asian descent, suggesting the idea that we all hold equal claim to the heritage of the identity of being Americans? After all, my skin may be Caucasian peachy white, but I am myself the grandson of immigrants of Jewish Polish/Russian ancestry, not the descendant of English colonists, and I have been raised to feel fully and truly American; so if I can claim the Revolution as my own, as part of my identity, why do we continue to think, on some level, consciously or unconsciously, that those of Asian descent cannot?

The exhibition also includes works by Satomi Shirai and Shizu Saldamando, whom I had not previously heard of, along with a number of other artists who are new to me.

Photograph by Satomi Shirai. From satomishirai.com.

The works of Satomi Shirai, a zaibei (resident in the US) Japanese artist featured in the show, are mostly photographs of herself in presumably staged compositions, relating in one way or another to anxieties or feelings, or identity issues, she confronts after moving from Japan to New York City. Many depict a messy situation in her New York apartment, either piles of clothes in the bedroom, or piles of dishes and other things on the kitchen counters.

In several photographs, the subject (presumably Shirai herself, though I can’t be sure) is in a state of undress, or half-undressed, with her back to the camera, a pile of clothing nearby. Do the clothes represent trying on different identities, or dressing up to fit in? Her body language as she tries on a red dress seems to indicate uncertainty, as she looks downwards, either at herself in the dress, or at the pile of clothes beneath her. If the clothes represent taking on an American identity, or dressing up in American fashions, then perhaps she is uncertain about whether or not this suits her, whether she likes it, whether American identity “works” on her.

In many of the pieces, the subject’s face is not visible to the viewer – either the subject is facing away from the camera, as in this work, or their head is cropped out. This is not the case consistently for all of Shirai’s pieces, however, so I am not sure if anything can really be said about it as a conscious, meaningful, move.

All together, her pieces seem to simply document life in an apartment in Queens, and the effort to adapt to a new place, a new life. Some seem more staged and unreal, such as one in which fruit peels are scattered across the floor in what seems a perfectly staged, composed composition, and others are blatantly not scenes in New York, such as those in tatami-lined rooms. Were the beach photos taken in New York somewhere? (Coney Island, perhaps?)

I’m not sure what I have to say, what interpretations might be made of these works, but Shirai definitely seems to have a knack for making the everyday into an artistic composition. Scenes of her drilling to install shelves or just sitting around reading a book have a clarity and sharpness that you rarely see in truly amateur photography (e.g. my own point-and-shoot digital photography), and a sense of composition, with diagonals and foreground and background and such that one would expect to see in a perfectly planned out painting. I wish I could attend this exhibit and learn more about the artist, her process and techniques, and her ideas and intentions.

“Cat and Cam.” Shizu Saldamando. Oils and gold leaf on found screen.

Meanwhile, half-Japanese half-Mexican Shizu Saldamando produces highly detailed & realistic portraits of her friends and family, mainly in colored pencil or ballpoint pen. We see the fashions and lifestyle of a typical Hispanic neighborhood, seen in leather jackets, drinking liquor out of a plastic bag, tattoos, and souped-up cars. He makes use of glitter and holograms to reflect the aesthetics of the Quinceañera, something that I personally feel is way over the top in terms of makeup and dress and all the things surrounding it – not unlike Long Island Bar Mitzvahs.

But, anyway, what is of particular interest for me is the series of works in which she incorporates more Japanese themes. In “Cat and Carm,” part of her “Stay Gold” series, Saldamando portrays her friends in a highly realistic manner, in oil paints, against a gold leaf background – essentially exactly the background that would be used in a traditional Japanese folding screen painting. Another work from the series, “Carm’s Crew,” also uses gold leaf and oil paints, but incorporates as well the Rising Sun motif.

The works of these three artists alone do a great job of representing the diversity within the Japanese-American community, the diversity of experience for Japanese & Japanese-Americans in the US. Combined with the other artists in the exhibition, I’m sure it must be really something. If any of you get the chance to see it, report back and let me know what you thought of it.

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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):

*The Living Treasures of Japan

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.

*Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries

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 in the new millennium

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.

*Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan

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!

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Came across today a beautiful, fascinating Nam Jun Paik installation at the National Gallery. A bronze Buddha staring at a live feed of itself on TV screens, live feeds of a single candle projected large all over the room. Is this “Buddhist art”? Is it to be meditated upon as a religious space, or contemplated as an art installation? What do you think?

It is, in any case, to me, avant-garde, unusual, thought-provoking, but beautiful, not abstract, and drawing upon historical and cultural associations. Just the way I like my contemporary art.

My advisor taught a course on Buddhist art a year or so ago, including a section on works such as these. I kind of wish now that I had sat in on those lectures or discussions, as he was talking specifically about Nam June Paik and precisely about these kinds of works. Yet, even without that, or any real expertise in Buddhist art, let alone anything beyond the most basic knowledge of Nam June Paik’s work, or Korean Buddhism, or Korean-American art, without any of that, the work still really speaks me, makes me feel something, and makes me think and question and wonder. And that, perhaps, is one of the true measures of a successful work of art.

Nam June Paik’s installation will be up in the Tower Gallery in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, until October 2, 2011.

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The annual University of Hawaii Art department “grad show” exhibition opened a few weeks ago, displaying work by MFA students in glass, ceramics, textiles, painting, photography, and sculpture (am I missing anyone?). I was truly stunned, and blown away, by the skill and talent and sheer artistic creativity of my friends. … It is one thing to note that a work is skilled, masterfully made, impressive, but furthermore, a big part of what makes these works amazing is that they are not purely conceptual, but rather actually speak to their concepts – the ideas and concepts are evident in the works, or can be read into the works. They are not inscrutable, too abstract, nor too obscure, leaving the visitor genuinely capable of getting meaning out of the works, and having an emotional reaction as well.

I had seen some of the pieces, or at least the concepts, over the course of last term, as they began to germinate and develop, but in many cases the final project was honestly levels beyond what I’d imagined it to be.

The atmosphere, that is, the space, was great too. In a show like this, where each artist has one or two pieces, and you’re trying to show everyone equally, it can be really tempting (or just the most obvious option) to sort of section it off and make the whole gallery into corners and alcoves and tiny rooms, so that each artist can have their own space. But here, this year, they left much of the gallery wide open, allowing pieces to interact, creating a dialogue between the pieces, and also a more open, airy environment (a less claustrophobic one) in which the visitor can feel freer and lighter, and thus in a better frame of mind to enjoy the art.

Now, I’m only going to talk about a few of the artworks. I hope no one is offended if I leave them out; I love you, too, guys, and I love your work, I do.

Jessica Orfe is one of the few artists who did take/get her own alcove, and it was brilliant – absolutely necessary for the effect I assume she was seeking to achieve. A white rabbit painted directly onto the wall greets you as you approach her section of the gallery. Following the white rabbit, you are pulled into her world, her dream sequences. They melt and blend into one another, to create a dreamscape that still feels quite fresh and original, no matter what anyone may say about the core idea being tired or cliché. Jessica pulls it off in such a way that it doesn’t feel tired or cliché at all, but rather a nod to the classic amidst a very fresh, new work.

Ghostly figures, described only roughly, walk into a building that is itself not quite there. Shadows melt and flow, like puddles of ink on the ground.

A rectangular form serve, Escher-like, as both window and fridge.

And one sole burst of color, in sky blue, highlights a rope just about break. Is the unseen figure being dropped helplessly into dream? Or is she desperately trying to pull herself up and stay in this fantasy world, to avoid returning to the banal?

Against this monochrome background, it takes the eye a moment to realize that a string, a thread, connected to a sewing needle painted on the wall is itself three-dimension, emerging from the wall, an actual piece of black string that is not painted on.

This is work is just filled with the kinds of hidden touches and little things to find, each with their own meanings or clever tricks or amusing gimmicks to them, that I love. It means you’re not just taking in the work in one go, but you’re really examining it, really exploring it, venturing through the depicted environment along with the travelers depicted in it, like in a Chinese landscape painting, walking up the paths and into the mountains, towards the temple, with your eyes and in your mind.

—-

Gideon Gerlt has constructed a deer or antelope of some sort out of metal, rope, and other materials, which is meant to recall ideas of totems and animal spirits. He called it a “boli,” which I assumed was a reference to an African native traditional practice, a concept akin to the totem of the Pacific Northwest Native American tribes; but Googling it now, I am having trouble finding any such term.

The creature itself is cute, its form really kind of amazing in how well done it is – a form fully recognizable as an antelope, out of scrap metal, rope, and whatever else – and cute in how small it is: maybe, what?, one foot off the floor, two at most. Cute, yet dangerous, its sharp, pointy antlers of wrought iron twisting all around. It’s easy to imagine emotions or expressions on its face, as it gazes up in awe or amusement at Gideon’s other work in the show, entitled “A Classic Example of Self-Defeat.”

I really appreciate his gallery text for the work, which reads:

“Eagles may soar, but this thing would never get sucked into a jet engine.”
“It looks like something da Vinci would have invented… if he were a dolt.”
“It’s just sad, really…”

There’s something wonderfully amusing in the idea of an artist intentionally creating a failure, intentionally creating something he might consider “sad” or “made by a dolt.”

It’s an intentional failure, with a wonderful sense of whimsy. Does it have deeper meaning? Perhaps.



The simplicity and naturalness of the wood and rope combines with the clean and manmade but still very pre-industrial, for a nostalgic, romantic sort of aesthetic. Knowing that Gideon is from Alaska, and likes to draw upon the aesthetics or environment of that part of the world, we can sense the dense woods of the Pacific Northwest in this work, alongside the Renaissance Italian workshop. It is held down to the ground by a very raw section of tree, more tree really than “lumber” or “wood” as material, as media.

I hadn’t realized that it spins. I don’t tend to touch artworks, especially if I’m nervous about breaking it or something. I need a sign that says “please touch me,” or even better, someone present in the gallery verbally telling me, encouraging me.

Gideon’s work plays well off of that of Chad Steve.

Chad has explicitly spoken of these ceramic constructions as reminiscent of Polynesian voyaging canoes. He fills them with unpainted, unglazed pieces in the form of Greek or Phoenician urns or amphorae or the like, calling to mind maritime trade and commerce, shipping these jars from the center of ceramics production to another city or another island, where they are to be painted. And in doing so, he evokes the voyaging aspect inherent in all our histories, connecting peoples and cultures across time and space.

The wooden scaffolds and ropes, like a drydock for the boats, somewhat plain, simple, and straightforward, play off of Gideon’s work quite nicely, reflecting some of the same aesthetics, and implying again a romantic pre-industrial past. The sentimentality for the homemade and artisanal nature of trade and life, society, back “then”, whenever and whereever that might be.

And then there was a piece by my good friend Katie Small.

Katie’s work (almost?) always deals with themes she encountered doing volunteer work in Kosovo. Her works can be kind of abstract sometimes, though the tar paper ground and other aspects do an excellent job of evoking the right emotions or atmosphere. The more you examine her works and really think about them, they can be quite dark and serious. They’re certainly not what one would expect from a smiling, bubbly, sunny girl like her… but then, these are very important messages and themes, and it’s obviously very meaningful and important to her to address them.

Here, she uses many of the same elements as other works of hers that I’ve seen – heavy black tar paper, torn and burned, recalling the damage and horrors of war and of genocide. But where her previous works portray somewhat abstract scenes of burnt-out cityscapes, here she reproduces something more concrete and lifesize, which one can easily imagine having actually existed, almost exactly as it is portrayed.

Coats, nearly all of them small enough to belong to children, hang on a wall, covered in orange, which drips like rust onto the wall below. Orange and black as though the coats have been chemically altered and merged into the wall by the extreme heat and flame of a dramatic bomb blast, or just by unnamed ravages of war, weathering, over time exposed to the elements after being abandoned, the shop window long ago smashed.

I gasped when I first saw this work, and was immediately reminded of the piles of shoes and suitcases at the Holocaust Museum in DC, and of photos of the storefronts of German cities after Kristallnacht.

The gallery label describes a storefront, but this could just as easily be a schoolroom. Where have the children gone? Are they safe, having fled? Or are they truly gone, these coats an eerie and terribly upsetting reminder of their lives, their existence, their great potential, so innocent, cut short by violence and evil?

….

I do apologize to end on such a note. I would like to congratulate and applaud all my friends in the show – Megan Bent, Abi Good, Shiori Abe, Kumi Nakajima, Mark Enfield, Gideon Gerlt, Jacob Guerin, Michael Hengler, Sheri Lyles, Noah Matteucci, Jessica Orfe, Katie Small, Chad Steve, and Jonathan Swanz – for their amazing technical skills and astonishing creativity and insights.

The Graduate Exhibition will continue to be up at the Art Building, here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, through.. whoa. Only February 4? I’m sorry. I really thought it was going to be open longer. I guess it takes a full 3 weeks to install The Reformer’s Brush, the modern Chinese calligraphy exhibit that opens on Feb 27 (and which I am super excited about!). Well. Come and see the Graduate Exhibition while you can!! Last days!!

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