Among the 160 Han artifacts on display at the Asian Art Museum’s dazzling new exhibit “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” many of objects in wood, bronze, and jade representing animals and mythical beings tap into powerful primal impulses and mythological associations we carry from many cultures, not just Chinese. In the Asian’s Osher Gallery, a bronze oil lamp in the naturalistic form of a crouching deer with its head raised to the heavens (2nd century BCE) seems deeply familiar. With its front mane extending almost all the way to ground and curved tail, this splendid creature evokes earlier heavily stylized Scythian deer except for the absence of looped antlers. We are left to ponder the influences of art created by early Eastern Eurasian nomadic tribes on Chinese art and what exactly is uniquely Chinese in this creature. The deer is an important motif for the Chinese, symbolizing longevity and wealth and this lamp is one of many examples of oil lamps with animal-like motifs from the Han era found in Han tombs. These exquisite lamps also played an important role in court life. Aside from their decorative allure, they provided illumination and, with better light in the evenings, people were able to extend their period of activity and entertainment began to thrive.
China’s Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), like the Roman Empire, forged one of the most powerful, advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the Han dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when China’s diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony. Tomb excavations are ongoing in China and, every so often, they unearth a major find. In 2014, Chinese archaeologists in Jiangsu province, Eastern China (somewhat near Shanghai), unearthed more than 10,000 objects from a cluster of more than 100 Han tombs, untouched for some 2,000 years. Jiangsu was the birthplace of Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu, reigned 202-195 BCE), the founding emperor of the Han dynasty and Jiangsu was a center of concentrated wealth and culture. There, Han royalty lived extravagantly. They perceived of the afterlife as a form of existence much like their earthly one, requiring that basic subsistence needs be fulfilled as well those for spiritual enlightenment and entertainment. Many of the most fascinating possessions from this rich find and earlier Han excavations are on display at the AAM.
Co-curated by Jay Xu, director and CEO of the AAM, and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the Asian has outdone itself again offering three galleries of tomb treasures, many of which have never traveled outside of China. The show’s opulent lay-out, though, has people buzzing about its sheer design beauty. Marco Centin, Director of Exhibition Design, has placed these many of these precious objects in cases which afford 360 degree viewing and against rich Chinese red backdrops, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.
The exhibition is organized into three areas themed according to popular Han-era adages found on various artifacts:
- Everlasting happiness without end (長樂未央): Luxurious life and palatial entertainment. Daily life, banquets and pastimes of the Han elites are accompanied by the music and dance of the court.
- Eternal life without limit (長生無極): Worship of jade and search for immortality. A tomb-like atmosphere allows visitors to explore ancient ideas about the afterlife.
- Enduring remembrance without fail (長毋相忘): Private life and intimacy at the court. Affairs of the heart expose secrets from the innermost chambers of men and women fascinated by pleasure.
There seems no limit to the Chinese mastery of jade and Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination to extreme belief that jade, a kind of amour for the afterlife, could protect human flesh from decomposition. The Hambrecht Gallery has transformed into a tutorial on Chinese Han burial culture and front and center is an an extremely rare jade burial suit fashioned for a ruler from over 2,000 linked rectangular jade tiles joined together with gold thread and affixed to a silk backing, a project that would have taken the most skilled jade smith over a decade to create. The suits are so rare because tomb looters would burn the suits to retrieve the gold.
Also on display is a huge coffin, thought to be the largest jade coffin the world, that was excavated recently at Dayun Mountain and reconstructed. This coffin has a patterned jade lining on its inside to protect the deceased. This stands in contrast to a similar coffin that was discovered some 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums which had elaborate patterned jade on its exterior. An “inside or outside” debate has raged among scholars as to whether the use of jade was consistent or different due to regional variations in coffin construction. In the same gallery, there are also evocative smaller jade dragon pendants which would have adorned the coffins of elite rulers.
In the Lee Gallery, the exhibit explores the interior spaces of the Han court and its plush amenities for personal hygiene including a toilet found in the Tuolan Mountain mausoleum and intriguing strap on bronze phalluses.
Free Performances: Music for the Afterlife
In celebration of Tomb Treasures, local instrument inventor group Pet the Tiger will team up with Gamelan Encinal, a musical ensemble, for a presentation featuring three centuries of instrument building. Custom-built instruments by musician Bart Hopkin, designed with the same tuning as the Han dynasty Bianzhong bronze bells, create a contemporary “orchestra” (or “gamelan”).
Each performance features percussion and wind instruments in rearrangements of traditional gamelan melodies, the graphic score of “Yantra Meditation” by local composer David Samas, and new compositions for special guest artists.
On March 19, at 12 noon and 2 PM, in the North Court, local instrument inventor Peter Whitehead performs haunting melodies for voice and overtone flute.
On April 16, Pet the Tiger and Gamelan Encinal perform new works for pipa (Chinese flute) and the Han bronze bells by Sophia Shen and Stephen Parris, with Ms. Shen as pipa soloist.
On May 7, the two ensembles will join forces with the Cornelius Cardew Choir to perform composer Brenda Hutchinson’s work “Last Words,” an inquiry and meditation that asks what we want to take with us to the afterlife — and what we want to leave behind. Guests of all ages are invited come early to so that they can join the orchestra by building their own instruments from everyday objects in the Education Studios: You can construct a soda straw oboe or boba straw pan pipes that can be tuned to the ancient scales of the bronze bells.
Details: Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty closes May 28, 2017. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
What! You’ve never heard of artist Tyrus Wong? The Asian Art Museum and CAAMFest will honor this living legend starting Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Unless you caught his wonderful retrospective at the Walt Disney Family Museum two years back, Tyrus Wong is a name that most people can’t place readily. At 105 years young, this pioneering Chinese American artist has touched all of us through his innovative art for films like Rebel Without A Cause and Walt Disney Studio’s classic 1942 animation film Bambi. Wong’s impressionistic conceptual art grabbed the attention of Walt Disney himself and Wong became essentially responsible for the evocative style that we associate with the beloved Bambi and he created much of the film’s background landscapes. But that was just the beginning of this exceptional artist’s diverse artistic career as a painter, illustrator, calligrapher, muralist, designer, Hollywood sketch artist, ceramicist, and kite maker. At 105, he is Americaʼs oldest living Chinese American artist and one of the last remaining artists from the golden age of Disney animation. On Wednesday, March 9th, at 4:00PM in the Asian Art Museum’s Peterson Room, CAAM (the Center for Asian American Media), the Asian Art Museum and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation will ensure that Wong is long remembered in the Bay Area. San Francisco District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar will present a Tyrus Wong Day proclamation in honor of the artist. The next day, CAAMFest 2016 celebrates Wong on the big screen with the Bay Area premiere of Pamela Tom’s award-winning documentary, Tyrus, selected as the opening night film.
On Wednesday, Tyrus, will also be signing one of his unidentified large paintings, which had been unattributed for decades, “Chinese Jesus.” The 85 x 75 inches painting was rediscovered recently by CAAM board member David Lei in the attic of the Chinese Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wong will be joined by his daughter, Kim, and Tyrus director, Pamela Tom. The painting will be on display at the Asian Art Museum on Thursday, March 10th, for one day only. The public is invited to view the signed piece during regular museum hours and during CAAMFest’s Opening Night Gala, which takes place at the Asian that evening at 9:30 p.m., following the screening.
“That it was first in Los Angeles in late 1920’s and made its way here is an amazing discovery,” explained CAAM, Executive Director, Stephen Gong, who spoke with ARThound at the CAAMFest press conference in February. “This came to our attention some 5 years ago. Tyrus was in the process of being made and our board member, David Lei, was poking around the Great Star Theatre in Chinatown, looking at old opera scenery backdrops, and his memory was triggered about a painting he had seen as child in a local church of a Jesus that he felt might have been done by the same artist. He did some research and spoke with scholar Mark Johnson at San Francisco State, who told him that Tyrus Wong was around at the time and might be able to identify the artist. When Tyrus’ daughter, who was about 80, spoke with him about it, he said it ‘might be’ one of his. I was flabbergasted. It took David several months to investigate this. The next time Tyrus came to town, he brought him to the Jesus painting, which he had found, and it was confirmed.”
Right now, Stephen Gong explained, the painting is “in between lives.” The Chinese Methodist Church in Chinatown stills owns the painting but they have loaned it to the Asian Art Museum, where CAAM board member, David Lei, is also on the board. Lei is trying to drum up interest to get it restored and to place it in a Bay Area museum, like the de Young or the Asian.
“Tyrus could well have been a major figure early on, but no Chinese artist in the 1930’s was going to be recognized by the art establishment especially when it wasn’t recognizing West Coast artists of any background, ” added Stephen Gong.
Pamela Tom’s Tyrus opens CAAMFest 2016: Tom’s emotionally inspiring documentary paints a beautifully intimate portrait of Tyrus Wong, eloquently exploring his childhood arrival at the Angel Island Immigration Station, the evolution of his voice and legacy and the formation of what he views as his greatest achievement, his family.
CAAMFest 2016─an 11 day celebration of Asian-American and Asian film, food, music opens this Thursday, celebrating its 34th year with a program that celebrates and explores the breadth of the Asian and human experience. This year’s program all things Asian includes no less than 10 world premieres, 23 narrative features, 16 feature documentaries and dozens of other films and thoughtfully-curated events that run for 8 days in various locales in San Francisco and then move on to Oakland for a long final weekend. Learn more about Tyrus and CAAMFest 2016 at www.caamfest.com/2016
Asian Art Museum’s “First Look” showcases its own growing collection of contemporary Asian artworks─ through October 11, 2015
Under director Jay Xu, things have been shifting at the Asian Art Museum (AAM); there’s a heartfelt effort to exhibit and collect more Asian contemporary art and thereby engage with today’s issues. Its current show, First Look, which closes on October 11, emphasizes the museum’s recent acquisitions, some as new as 2015, and presents highlights of its contemporary collection acquired over the past 15 years. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AAM’s collection includes over 18,000 artworks but only 1,100 (rough estimate) were created within the past 50 years. Organized by curator Allison Harding, who co-curated the smashing 2014 show, Gorgeous, this show presents 57 of those intriguing artworks. It’s a thoughtful response to the questions─“What is Asian contemporary art? “What is its status and relationship to more traditional modes of Asian art?“ How is it understood by native viewers versus those outside the region?” On the heels of its summer show 28 Chinese (June 5–Aug. 16, 2015), which featured some of China’s most exciting artists from its vast contemporary art scene, First Look features works from artists from all over Asia and a bit beyond, like Ahmed Mater from Saudi Arabia. This is a show that grows on you with each successive visit. Allow adequate time: some of First Look’s mesmerizing videos are so seductive, you’ll find that you can’t tear yourself away.
Details: First Look closes October 11, 2105. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: $15 General admission; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $10; 12 & under are free. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
Closing soon and well worth the drive—“Roads of Arabia,” exquisite and new archaeological discoveries from Saudi Arabia, at the Asian Art Museum through January 18, 2015
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” closes Sunday, January 18, at the Asian Art Museum (AAM). Present day Saudi Arabia is a distant land shrouded in mystery to most Westerners. Likewise, the history of ancient Arabia prior to the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, is something we’ve heard virtually nothing about because there has been such scant evidence on which to construct a reliable narrative. Recent archaeological discoveries from the Saudi Kingdom’s glorious past, combined with a desire on the part of the Saudis to share their cultural heritage with the world, has led to this stunning exhibition. Arabia marks new territory for the Asian but there’s a profound connection to Asia. The Arabian Peninsula, with its unforgiving deserts, lush forests and exotic oases, is revealed as a once thriving cultural crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa, vital in early human cultural development and bearing witness to the complex interactions of all those who travelled through.
Ranging in date from pre-historic to the present, the 200-plus artifacts in Roads of Arabia hail from remote sites all across present-day Saudi Arabia and include colossal figurative sculptures and funerary stele, dazzling gold jewelry, intricate metalwork, and elegant calligraphies in over a half dozen languages. Most of these exquisite artifacts were found along the ancient incense roads that originated in southern Arabia and were caravan routes for the transport of precious frankincense and myrrh—the oil of its day—throughout Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Mediterranean world. The advent of Islam in the seventh century CE gave rise to the development of pilgrimage roads that crossed through Arabia to Mecca. The exhibition also addresses the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The AAM is the exhibition’s last stop on its two-year tour. Having debuted at the Louvre in 2010 to rave reviews, it started its U.S. tour at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012. This is the latest in a run of increasingly exhilarating world class exhibitions that AAM director Jay Xu, who came on board in 2008, has brought to the Asian. Just as the stunning 2008 exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” brought a selective and previously unseen group of 20th century archaeological finds from an Afghanistan enmeshed in Taliban rule, “Roads of Arabia” sheds light on an equally exotic land that most of us will never visit. And, aside from the visual draw of the artifacts themselves, you’ll come away from “Roads” with a sense of the interconnectedness of the ancient world.
Curator talk, Friday January 16th: “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”—Join exhibition curator Dany Chan for an insightful talk about recent and remarkable archaeological discoveries along the Arabian Peninsula. “Monumental” is how I would describe much of the exhibition, Roads of Arabia, with its colossal stone sculptures to the massive gilded doors of the Ka’ba, putting the small things at risk of being missed,” says Chan. “I also want to draw your attention to the pint-sized artworks that, though small, testify to the Arabian Peninsula’s role as a cultural crossroads over the thousands of years that this exhibition covers. Friday, January 16 at 12 PM at the Commonwealth Club: 595 Market Street, San Francisco. The Commonwealth Club is offering Asian Art Museum members a special rate of $8 per ticket (regularly $20). To purchase tickets, select “General Admission: Nonmember” and be sure to enter promo code specialchan to redeem your member discount.
Details: “Roads of Arabia” closes January 18, 2015. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. NO surcharge for “Roads of Arabia,” Admission: $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5. For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org
“Arts of the Islamic World”―engrossing lectures by the world’s experts, Friday mornings at the Asian Art Museum, through December 5, 2014
Last Friday morning, you could have heard a pin drop in the Asian Art Museum’s Samsung Hall as Freer & Sackler chief curator of Islamic Art, Massumeh Farhad, gave an overview of the rare treasures from Saudi Arabia that await us in the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition opening October 24, 2014. Farhad gave an insider’s profile of recent archaeological discoveries in Saudi Arabia, including news of an inscription in Nabatean Arabic, the very first stage of Arabic writing, unearthed by a French epigrapher near Narjan (near the Yemeni border) that is an important link in tracing the origins of the Arabic language. She also talked of exquisite artifacts found along the ancient incense roads that originated in southern Arabia and were caravan routes for the transport of precious frankincense and myrrh throughout Eqypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Mediterranean world.
A week earlier, on August 29th, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley gave an engrossing survey of the art and architecture of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. One of the world’s leading experts on ancient Iran, he told of the excavations he had participated in and illustrated his talk with stunning aerial photographs of sites and monuments taken by Swiss photographer Georg Gerster. He speculated about ancient Persian garden design and entertained us with an anecdote about Agatha Christie whom he met at an estate in Iran in the 1970’s when he was the Director of the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran.
These distinguished speakers are part of a wonderful new 15-part fall lecture series, “Arts of the Islamic World,” organized by the AAM’s Society for Ancient Art, every Friday at 10:30 a.m. though December 5, 2014. The series is designed to provide a broad overview of both pre-Islamic and Islamic art and includes a roster of renowned scholars and curators, several of whom hail from Oxford and the British Museum. Their talks are substantial and run roughly two hours. The series sold-out almost immediately but a number of seats―$20 each―are made available each Friday morning for walk-ins. I have attended the last two lectures, arriving when the museum opens at 10 a.m. and have gotten a seat. Coffee, tea and assorted pastries are offered for sale before the lecture and at intermission. Here are descriptions of the remaining lectures―
September 12: Assimilation and Conquest: Byzantine Sources for Islamic Art (Study Guide), Helen Evans, Metropolitan Museum
September 19: Is there an Image Problem in Islam? Materials for the History of an Idea (Study Guide), Finbarr Barry Flood, NYU
September 26: Persian Painting: The First Golden Age (1300-1500), Robert Hillenbrand, University of Edinburgh
October 3: Seeing and Being Seen in Isfahan: Expanding Gaze for an Early Modern Capital, Renata Holod, University of Pennsylvania
October 10: Chinese Influence on Islamic Glazed Ceramics, Oliver Watson, University of Oxford
October 17: Building Types in Islamic Architecture, Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, San Francisco State University
October 24: The Visual Culture of Islam in India, Alka Patel, UC Irvine
October 31: “Ex Oriente Lux: Luxury Textiles and Oriental Carpets, Carol Bier, Textile Museum, Washington D.C.
November 7: The Art of Islamic Calligraphy: A Journey through Time, Maryam Ekhtiar, Metropolitan Museum
November 14: Seek Knowledge Even as Far as China: East-West Cultural Transmissions in Post Mongol Iran, Ladan Akbarnia, British Museum
November 21: Modernism and Islamic Art, Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University
November 28: No Class, Thanksgiving break
December 5: Imagining Europe at the Persian Court in the Seventeenth Century (1590-1720), Amy Landau, Walters Art Museum
Details: The September 12 lecture, delivered by Dr. Helen Evans of the Metropolitan Museum, will be the fourth in the series. There is a two-hour “Arts of the Islamic World” lecture every Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Samsung Hall through December 5, 2014. (There is no lecture on November 28, 2014). Fee: $20 per lecture drop-in (purchase at the door, after Museum general admission, subject to availability). The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5. For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org
“Gorgeous”—gritty, edgy, beyond beautiful—SFMOMA and Asian Art Museum’s exhibition asks you to figure out what “gorgeous” means, just three viewing weekends left
An evocative Mark Rothko painting shares a gallery with a richly-colored 17th century Tibetan mandala and an immovably calm bronze Buddha; a voluptuous 16 to 17th century stone torso is placed next to a hot pink neon sign that reads “Fantastic to feel beautiful again”; an ornately embossed and gilded 19th century elephant seat, a symbol of status, is near Marcel’s Duchamp’s iconic factory made urinal; John Currin’s confounding portrait of a meticulously-painted nude that combines the physique of a Northern Renaissance master with the grinning head of a corn-fed mid-Western girl shares space with a number of other portraits that provoke discomfort. They’re all part of Gorgeous, the inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM), a mash-up of 72 artworks (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide what ‘gorgeous” means. Artwise, it’s one of the summer’s highpoints that grows on you with each successive visit. There are just three viewing weekends left as it closes on Sunday, September 14, 2014.
“ ‘Gorgeous’ just clicked right away, hitting all the marks in terms of an exhibition that really had the potential to offer something fresh and provocative and to approach a mash-up of two very different collections,” said Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s curator of painting and sculpture. Bishop oversees SFMOMA’s “On the Go Program,” in place at various sites all around the Bay Area while the building is closed for reconstruction and expansion through early 2016. (The excellent “Photography in Mexico” exhibition hosted by the Sonoma County Museum in September 2013 and about to open at the Bakersfield Museum of Art was one of SFMOMA’s first of the On the Go shows. The next On the Go project is Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (Sept. 20, 2014 – April 12, 2015) in partnership with OMCA (Oakland Museum of California). In the works since the fall 2011, Gorgeous is co-curated by Allison Harding, AAM assistant curator of contemporary art, Forrest McGill, AAM Wattis senior curator of South and Southeast Asian art and director of AAM’s Research Institute for Asian Art, Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture and Janet Bishop.
“A lot of our shows fall into art history where we attempt to clarify things for the viewer” said the AAM’s Allison Harding, one of the lead curators. “This is more art appreciation, where we want the viewer to enjoy themselves as they try to figure out what they think about this subject. It’s meant to be very fluid and engaging.” And fluid it is—the show extends over four galleries and into the expansive North Court. The artworks aren’t easily categorized but embracing their resistance to classification is the essence of the project.
It almost seems as if Harding and McGill free-associated about their perspectives on gorgeous to come up with the categories they’ve grouped the artworks into—Seduction , Dress Up, Pose, Reiteration, Beyond Imperfection, Fantasy, Danger, In Bounds, Evocation, On Reflection. Interesting wall texts elucidate their personal perspectives and possible juxtapositions amongst the artworks.
Having visited the show five times now, I see most of the associations as interchangeable—the more time you spend looking, and the more you understand what drives your own attraction and revulsion with various works, the more you get to the heart of your own personal gorgeous.
Certainly central to the exhibition’s immense popularity is that its combination of Asian and Western, ancient and modern, and seeing familiar works in a new context is a fabulous catalyst for spinning out ideas on something as sassy as gorgeous.
In the opening Oscher gallery, a real icon of SFMOMA holdings—Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988)—is right across from a set of twelve 17th century hanging scrolls by Chinese artist Hua Yan who was famous for his strong personality and rejection of orthodox conventions of painting. The expressively painted screens depict a villa ensconced in a sweeping panoramic mountainous landscape on a luxurious golden background. Near-by is a jewel-encrusted alms bowl from Burma (1850-1950) and also close by is Chris Olfili’s “Princess of the Possee” (1990) and Jess’ monumental drawing “Narkissos” (1976-1991). I was revolted by the gaudy excess of Bubbles when I first saw it at SFMOMA’s reveal press opening years ago. Now, 16 years after its creation, I marvel at how it perfectly captures banality of the 1980’s and how its lustrous gold porcelain finish has a magical interplay with Hua Yan’s shimmering scrolls and sweeping hills and with the gilding on the ceremonial alms bowl, a highly-ornate ritual object.
One can’t speak of gold without mentioning Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” (Golden) (1995), a deeply alluring shimmering gold-beaded curtain—the only interactive work in the show—that seems to produce a smile on the face of everyone who walks through it. Conceptually, it functions as a portal and is installed as a passage between two thematically different galleries; it even grabs the limelight from a nearby Mondrian.
An Indian stone female torso covered with intricate carving, dated 1400-1600, which has been on view at the AAM for over a decade, was easy to skip over. Freshly installed in Asian’s North Court, with a different pedestal that exposes what remains of its legs and beside British artist Tracy Emin’s hot pink neon hand-written sign “Fantastic to feel beautiful again” (1997), the stone work is suddenly re-contextualized. Ermin’s confessional epigram highlights what is absent in the stone work—presumably she was once a complete figure but the centuries have robbed this lush beauty of her of her head, arms, legs—in short, the ability to think or move. “Recovering our awareness of her losses only broadens her allure,” says Allison Harding. “Her acquired cracks and fractures suggest the collision between idea beauty and the world of time and nature.”
“Lawrence Weiner’s ‘Pearls roll Across the Floor’ in the Lee Gallery is a text piece that was installed a number of times in the SFMOMA’s Botta building but is presented here in the Lee Gallery in a new diagonal configuration and a new palette which, for me, really changes its dynamic and the mental images that it evokes,” said SFMOMA’s Janet Bishop who happily admitted “this experience has really changed the way I see objects.”
I imagine like many, I came to Gorgeous with the notion that concepts of gorgeous and beauty were somewhat synonymous. And, as an art writer who’s been at it 25+ years, I was expecting more of a conversation about beauty and where it stands today, a topic that engaged the art world and philosophical discourse in the 1990’s when there was an active rejection of beauty as a creative ideal. As Allison Harding explained, “Gorgeous is meant to be distinct from art historical discourse and precise definitions; it’s more about viewers defining for themselves what gorgeous means. …The works in this show are more than beautiful and they all have aspects about them that push beyond conventional beauty to the max, to the zone where tensions exist beyond what is familiar or comfortable.”
Sally Mann’s “Jessie at 5” (1987), hung in the Hambrecht Galley, is a silver gelatin portrait of the artist’s 5 year-old daughter, nude from the waist up and posed sexily with her hip jutting out. It strikes a number of disconcerting chords. “The power of this image lies in ability to confound boundaries,” says Harding. “The confining square here could be the acceptable borders of childhood, femininity, sexuality; the improvisation is the captured moment and its endless interpretation.” The modern portrait shares wall space with a set of hanging scrolls from the Asian’s collection from another era, Chobunsai Eishi’s “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dates 1798-1829. In one screen, a geisha ( erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised. In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties by the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye.
One of the great things about Gorgeous is the feeling that you’re actually meeting the curators, as their wall texts, written in conversational language, are much more personal and engaging than usual. Of a red-lacquered wood chair for the imperial court which is carved with amazing narrative scenes, Forrest McGill writes “Looks uncomfortable and impractical, but who cares when displaying wealth and power is the goal, right?” and “contains narrative scenes that someone with a thorough knowledge of Chinese literature might have been able to identify. But who would have had a change to get close enough to them for long enough to figure them out?”
This regal lacquered chair is comically paired, in the Oscher Gallery, with Shiro Kuramata’s “Miss Blanche chair” (1988), a see-through modernist acrylic chair that has wonderful floating roses and is said to have been inspired by the corsage worn by Vivien Leigh in the role of Blanche Dubois in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire. These two chairs, neither made for sitting, loudly shout-out to the ornate gilded Indian elephant seat (howdah) in the Asian’s North Court which, in turn, dialogues nicely with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), a touchstone of conceptual art, which has been installed adjacent it. It’s quite unexpected to find a factory made urinal in the AAM’s elegant North Court, perhaps as surprising as it was when the original urinal was first designated as art in the 1917 SIA (Society of Independent Artists) exhibition.
Details— Gorgeous closes on September 14, 2014. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: Gorgeous is covered by general admission AAM ticket—free for SFMOMA members; $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5; free admission for all on Target Sunday, September 7, 2014 . For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org/.
Suddenly, so gorgeous, so relevant—San Francisco Opera’s new “Madame Butterfly”—not to be missed, through July 9
For many opera lovers, the soaring music of Puccini is reason enough to go to a live performance. San Francisco’s Opera’s (SFO’s ) new “Madame Butterfly,” with its abstract video projections by artist Jun Kaneko, outstanding Cio Cio San/Butterfly by soprano Patricia Racette, and passionate directing by Nicola Luisotti, kept me glued to my seat on Thursday evening. I’d count it among the top live opera experiences I’ve had. This was the sixth of eight performances, with the run concluding Wednesday, July 9. This is Florida-based Leslie Swackhamer’s co-production with SFO and Opera Omaha, which required three years of collaboration with Kaneko and Opera Omaha to pull off. Freed of its traditional staging, this is a Butterfly unlike anything you’ve seen before—it’s fresh and timeless and while it has Japanese sensibilities, it feels more global than Japanese. Kaneko dresses the cast in spectacularly colorful kimonos and suits a la Mondrian. His simple set is an angled walkway that extends from the stage right-rear to left-front with a raised central platform with a sliding screen. A vivid array of constantly shifting projections accompanies the action and punctuates the exquisite music. The stage is so expressive, so hypnotic, with these color and pattern changes that it too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the singers and audience in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on.
The story is still set in Nagasaki, Japan where a naïve fifteen year-old local geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Racette), falls in love with a handsome and charismatic American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Brian Jagde). Their marriage is arranged by the broker, Goro (Julius Ahn), and the contract is clear—the “Japanese marriage” is revocable with one month’s notice. Butterfly understands it differently though—she unconditionally accepts her suitor’s love as real and eternal and goes so far as to forsake her family and her ancestral Buddhist faith to become a devoted wife and Christian. He leaves to go back to the States with a promise to return to her. She trusts him implicitly. She grows impoverished as she waits with her faithful maid Suzuki (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong). When he does come back, three years later, it’s with his American wife.
I was once told that co-dependency is a vicious addiction to the potential of things. Patricia Racette, who has performed Cio-Cio-San three times at SFO, has an electrifying command of Butterfly’s psyche. Her instinct for baring this deluded young’s woman’s soul while singing rapturously all evening long, is a feat that won’t be repeated. She delivers a Butterfly who is so sumptuous in her optimism and so stubborn in her head-in-the sand denial and passivity that we want to slap her back into reality and save her from the intense pain in the pipeline.
By now, Racette should be a household name amongst Bay Area opera lovers—the Merola/Adler alum started her career with SFO 24 years ago and has sung nearly 30 roles with the company. This past season, she took on the herculean task of singing four roles in various SFO productions and drew praise across the board. Just last week, she concluded a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit. There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production. This Racette’s second SFO pairing with hunky Merola/Adler tenor Brian Jagde as Pinkerton and their natural ease with each other and on stage chemistry made their Act 1duet, “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep”) intensely passionate. Racette’s Act II, “Un bel dì” (“One beautiful day”), the opera’s most famous aria was interrupted by clapping and, once she finished, earned her a loving ovation. The tension ran unbearably high when she sent her son out of the room so she could kill herself and that final gesture of sacrifice and insane fidelity was something to savor—a shame that it was interrupted by a *$#@ cell phone which rang 5 or 6 times before an usher had the good sense to take the offender by the arm and pull him out of the opera house.
Butterfly’s inspiring score is imbued with a mix of east and West and the music flowed almost seamlessly from the SFO Orchestra and chorus under Luisotti’s impassioned conducting. In an interview in the program, Luisotti estimates that he has conducted the opera over seventy times, including two productions in Japan. The energetic prelude that leads right into the opening scene had his silver locks flying and the volume energetically revved to the point that Jagde’s first aria, “E soffitto e pareti” (“And ceiling and walls”), was momentarily overpowered. He pulled in it and the rest went magically.
In critical supporting roles, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and baritone Brian Mulligan as the compassionate American consul offier, Sharpless, were excellent. DeShung, in her third SFO appearance, exhibited a tremendous vocal range and deep compassion in her role as Butterfly’s faithful servant and confidant. Her flower duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio…” was bittersweet in its foreshadowing the death about to occur. First year Adler, baritone Efraín Solís, who made his SFO debut as Prince Yamadori, a prospective proper husband for Butterfly, demonstrated he is headed for glory
The projections are game-changers—modernizing everything and encouraging very contemporary and personal associations. Once Butterfly is abstracted from its own history and the Orientalist tableau from which we traditionally evaluate it, we’re much freer to look at its broad political issue—the plight of women today who are disowned in many cultures because they don’t play by the games established by the patriarchy.
“Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum:
Before the opera, I took in Gorgeous, the provocative and inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM)—72 artworks in conversation (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide for themselves what ‘gorgeous” means. It primed me for the visual feast that awaiting me at SFO. Gorgeous explores attraction, repulsion and desire and certainly engages us in thinking about the Orientalist tableau which is strong part of Butterfly. One of the ideas behind Gorgeous is to use what we’ve learned from 20th century art about awareness of color and form and apply it to the historical objects from the Asian’s collection. In the Asian’s Oscher Galley, quietly hanging across from Sally Mann’s provocatively posed portrait of her topless five-year-old daughter, are three silk scrolls by renowned Japanese artist Chobunsai Eishi, “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dated 1798-1829. These scrolls represent three types of women: a geisha, an elite courtesan and a maiden of a wealthy family. The courtesan wears a magnificent costume that includes a brightly colored and patterned outer-kimono tied with a heavy ornate sash and has an elaborate hairdo. In another, a demure geisha (erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised. In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties but the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye. Over at SFO, Kaneko’s bold, colorful projections and costuming indicates once again that he’s digested and revisioned and moved on to his own gorgeous. For me, gorgeous is an unexpected surprise that draws you in and keeps you rapt. This is “Butterfly” to a T. (The AAM is open Sunday, July 6, and admission is free. Gorgeous closes September 14, 2014)
Details: There are two remaining performances of “Madame Butterfly”—Sunday, July 6 at 2 PM and Wednesday, July 9 at 7:30 PM. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for either performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there are frequent delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work and wine country tourism. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (Both have a flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights.)
Smithsonian’s Sackler curator, Debra Diamond, speaks Thursday, April 10, 2014, on “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” at the Asian Art Museum
Debra Diamond, curator of South Asian art at the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Galleries of Art, and curator of Yoga: The Art of Transformation at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (AAM) through May 25, 20114, will speak at the museum on Thursday, April 10, at 7 PM about the process of creating the first major study on the visual culture of yoga. Diamond, who also edited the exhibition’s comprehensive catalog of the same title, will chart the project, starting with its initial concept and research through interdisciplinary collaborations with scholars, yoga practitioners and exhibition designers. Focusing on the masterworks currently on view at AAM, she will illuminate how visual culture conveys embodied transformations and reveals yoga’s diverse and profound manifestations in history. Diamond led the press tour for the exhibition when it opened in February. She is a top-rate scholar and engaging speaker and had the press corps transfixed with her detailed explanations of the history and significance of these rare artifacts.
Diamond devoted six years to preparing the groundbreaking exhibition and selected its roughly 140 artworks from more than 30 different places around the world. Her exhibition catalogue for Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (fall 2008) received two major awards for scholarship: the College Art Association’s Alfred H. Barr award and the Smithsonian Secretary’s Award for Research. She has also published on yoga imagery, new methods in Indian art history, contemporary Asian art, and various aspects of the Freer|Sackler collections. After her talk, Debra Diamond will be signing exhibition catalogs in North Court, outside of the museum store.
ARThound spoke to Debra Diamond at the AAM’s press conference about her interest in the art of yoga:
“The major group of paintings in “Garden and Cosmos” were the hatha yoga and Nath Sampraday which were the core of the project and also of my dissertation (at Columbia). In studying them over the years, I found that there was no written material and no one knew much about the Nath Sampraday. I would look through Indian art books for clues as to how these images developed and I kept whatever was relevant in a cardboard box and crated that around with me. The minute that “Garden and Cosmos” closed, I proposed this exhibition to the Sackler. I said we can expand from that one moment. We can look at how yoga manifested in history over time and through various cultures if we follow the visual history and it will be fascinating. I realized that no one had put it together. Because yoga was so central to Indian culture, the greatest artists worked on these tatvas and we could tell the story of yoga through the great masterpieces of Indian art. This reframing has been completely engaging.”
Note: Seating capacity is limited – first come, first served.
Details: Yoga: The Art of Transformation is at the Asian Art Museum through May 25, 2014. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission (Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibition is included in general admission): $10 Adults; $10 seniors, students; $10 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced and has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
Not just film, CAAMFest, has super-sized into an Asian American cultural extravaganza—it starts Wednesday, March 13, and runs for 10 days in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland
CAAMFest is 32 this year and no longer just about great film. The 10 day festival, which takes place between March 13th and 23th , in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, has long showcased the best and newest in Asian American film. It got restless when it turned 30 though: it changed its name from SFIAFF (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ) to the shorter CAAMFest , named after its sponsor, CAAM , San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media. Under the guidance of Festival Director Masashi Niwano, now in his fourth year at the helm, it also responded to changing times by tweaking its programming. And growing. And growing. It now bills itself as the nation’s “largest showcase for new Asian and Asian American film.”
Music and Food: In addition to its 121 films and videos, and stellar presentations and tributes, CAAMFest 2014 includes cutting edge musicians and the fusion of great food and film line-up. Korean and Vietnamese hip hop and rock music, and leading female performers are the focus of the two “Directions in Sound” evenings. On March 22, 23-year-old rapper, singer and songwriter, Suboi (Hàng Lâm Trang Anh), tagged Vietnam’s Queen of Hiphop, will have her U.S. debut at 111 Minna Gallery.
Culinary artists like superstar Chef Martin Yan (of PBS and M.Y. China) and award-winning Chocolatier Windy Lieu of Sôcôla Chocolates are the focus of CAAMfeast,” a high-end tasting party/fundraiser, while three fabulous food films celebrate storytelling around Asian food.
CAAMFEST expands into artsy Oakland: Promising to engage all the senses is “Super Awesome Launch,” an evening at the Oakland Museum of California (Friday, March 7) that includes a sneak preview of its highly anticipated upcoming spring exhibition, SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot, along with the chance to meet arts visionary and Eric Nakamura, who curated the exhibition. What? Never heard of Nakamura? Then you’re WAY WAY behind the times and need a serious CAAMFEST infusion. Twenty years ago, in 1994, Nakamura founded Giant Robot, Los Angeles’ Little Osaka based store, magazine, art gallery that became an uber-destination for Asian and Asian American popular culture and art. You can meet Eric Nakamura and experience the art in person at OMCA, which has become quite the hopping venue on Friday nights. The evening also includes high energy bands from Taiwan, a caravan of food trucks, and a screening of Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco’s Awesome Asian Bad Guys (2013) starring Tamlyn Tomita and Dante Basco. Easy to see why they call it “Super Awesome Launch.” And, this year CAAMFEST has its closing night party in Oakland as well (see below), marking what promises to be a sweet partnership with the community’s vibrant arts organizations and galleries.
Big Nights of Film—
Opening Night: The festival kicks off this Wednesday, March 13 with the US premiere of Vietnamese American director Ham Tran’s (Journey from the Fall, 2006) romantic comedy, How to Fight in Six Inch Heels, at the historic Castro Theater. The film was Vietnam’s top box office draw for 2013 and features San Jose native Kathy Uyen as a New York fashion designer who infiltrates Saigon’s high-fashion world to test her fiancé’s fidelity. After the premiere, CAAMFest heads over to the Asian Art Museum for its Opening Night Gala, which features food from local chefs and restaurants, a special presentation by fashion stylists Retrofit Republic, dancing to beats spun by local DJ’s and the Asian’s amazing new exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation.
How To Fight In Six Inch Heels (Âm Mưu Giày Gót Nhọn)
Select Special Presentations: Each year, CAAMFest highlights the works of significant media makers and their contributions to modern cinema. In Conversation with Grace Lee: Award-winning documentary filmmaker Grace Lee will be in conversation at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, March 16, discussing her new documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013), profiling the extraordinary life of activist and feminist Grace Lee Boggs which screens right after the conversation. Lee’s narrative feature comedy, American Zombie (2006), screens on Friday, March 14.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
Tribute: Run Run Shaw: CAAMFest offers a three film tribute to the legendary movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw, who over the course of nine decades fostered some of the greatest filmmaking talent in Hong Kong, and produced some American classics such as Blade Runner (1982). The films—The Kingdom and the Beauty; King Boxer (The Five Fingers of Death); and my personal favorite, Come Drink With Me, will all screen at the Chinatown’s Great Star Theater on March 15th.. The Great Star, refurbished in 2010, hosts both Chinese-language film and Chinese opera.
Closing Night: The Closing Night Gala, Sunday, March 23, marks the festival’s expansion to downtown Oakland’s arts district. The evening starts off at the New Parkway Theater with a screening of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy’s documentary, Delano Manongs (2013). A prescient chronicle of the life of Filipino activist Larry Itliong (1913-77), who organized the 1965 Delano Grape Strike and helped launch the United Farm Workers, the documentary explores the vital contribution of Filipinos to the American Farm labor movement. Following this screening, the Gala moves one block to Vessel Gallery for a closing party that takes place amongst the art exhibition “Periphery: New Works by Cyrus Tilton and Paintings by Tim Rice.”
CAAMFEST expands into Oakland:
Stay-tuned to ARThound for detailed film picks, which will include:
Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) Winner of the Caméra d”Or at Cannes this May, a mesmerizing portrait of a middle class Indonesian family in crisis that sprang out of the director’s childhood in the Singapore and his nurturing relationship with his Filipina nanny who worked as a domestic helper for his family for 8 years from 1988 to 1997. (Screens March 15 at 6:30 PM at Pacific Film Archive and March 17 at 6 PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)
Director Yuya Ishii’s The Great Passage (2013), Japan’s 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film about a shy, eccentric young man, who joins the Dictionary Editorial Department of a big Tokyo publishing house to help compile a new dictionary, “The Great Passage” and over the course of years is transformed. (Screens: March 15 at 2:30 PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and March 16 at 3:30 PM at Pacific Film Archive.)
Tenzi Tsetan Choklay’s feature documentary, Bringing Tibet Home (2013). Following the death of his father, a Tibetan refugee, Rigdol embarks on a remarkable journey to bring 20,000 kilos of native Tibetan soil from Nepal to India. The smuggled soil is laid out on a platform in Dharamsala, the Himalayan hill town where the Dali Lama and many Tibetan refugees are based. For many, this is a reunion; for some, this the first time that they set foot on their native soil; and for a few, this is probably the last time that they ever see anything of their lost nation. (Screens: March 14 at 5 PM at New People Cinemas and March 19 at 7 PM at Pacific Film Archive.)
When/Where: CAAMfest 2014 runs March 13-23, 2014 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland and as well as select museums, galleries, bars and music halls.
Tickets: This popular festival sells outs, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended for most films and events. Regular screenings are $12 with $1 to $2 discounts for students, seniors, disabled and current CAAM members. Special screenings, programs and social events are more. Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $60 (6 screenings for price of 5). All access passes are $450 for CAAM members and $500 for general. Click here for ticket purchases online. Tickets may also be purchased in person and various venue box offices open one hour before the first festival screening of the day.
Rare British Museum Treasure—The Cyrus Cylinder—makes its first visit to the U.S. and is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2103. Talk this Sunday
At just under 9 inches long and shaped like a barrel, the 2,500 year-old Cyrus Cylinder is a relatively small baked-clay artifact that is one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures. It’s severely cracked and missing bits and pieces, but this humble object bears an account, in Babylonian cuneiform, by Cyrus, the King of Persia of his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The Cylinder, commonly referred to as the “the first bill of human rights,” is able to stand with the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta as one of the great icons of civilization and human rights. Its inscription, in remarkably vivid Babylonian cuneiform, looks like a series of scrawls and scratches to the untrained eye but encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire, which stretched from present-day Egypt to India in the day of King Cyrus. Long been hailed as an international symbol of tolerance and justice, the Cylinder traveled to Tehran’s National Museum of Iran in 2010 where it was seen firsthand by about half a million people but it has never before been on view in the United States. It is now on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum as part of The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning through September 22, 2013.
The exhibition also includes 16 other rare ancient Persian objects in the British Museum’s collection which provide a context for understanding the Cylinder’s cultural and historical significance. Included are a solid gold armlet, in the form of a winged griffin-like mythical creature, and the seal of Darius I, showing the Persian king in his chariot hunting lions. If you visit the exhibition, there are a number of talks (described below) by esteemed Persian scholars on the Cylinder and its context which will maximize your experience at the Asian.
Dating to 539 B.C., the Cyrus Cylinder was uncovered in 1879 at Babylon (in modern Iraq) during a British Museum excavation. The original function of the Cylinder was as a foundation deposit—an object buried under an important building to sanctify it. The Cylinder was buried beneath the inner city wall of Esagila, the Temple of Marduk, Babylon’s protector God, during the extensive rebuilding program undertaken by Cyrus the Great after he captured the city in 539 B.C. While the Cylinder itself was never intended to be seen or used again, the its text was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed.
The Cylinder is vital for understanding how Cyrus presented himself and how the Achaemenid dynasty would be carried on. In his defeat of Babylon’s rulers, Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar, Cyrus proclaimed his continuation of the Neo-Assyrian empire over the muddled Neo-Babylonian empire. The Babylonian empire reached its zenith the great Nebuchadnezzar, but fell into a state of chaos under his immediate successor, Nabonidus, who after ruling for only three years, went to the oasis of Tayma and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god Sin. He declared his son Belshazzar co-regent and left him in charge of Babylon’s defense and, in a story chronicled in the Bible’s book of Daniel, Cyrus was able to enter the city, conquer Belshazzar and assume rule, thus greatly impacting the cultural legacy of the Near East.
The Cylinder’s inscription chronicles how Cyrus, aided by the god Marduk, gained victory without a struggle; restored shrines dedicated to various gods; and allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands. The text does not mention specific religious groups, but it is thought that the Jews were among the people who had been forcibly brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (the previous ruler of Babylon) and then allowed by Cyrus to return home. The Bible chronicles that the Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect documented in the Cylinder’s proclamation. Such enlightened acts were rare in antiquity.
The Cyrus Cylinder is an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for more than 130 years in the British Museum. Today, according to John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, there are just a handful of experts who are actually fluent in ancient Babylonian cuneiform and able to read the Cylinder. “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East,” said Curtis. “The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world.”
The values of freedom from captivity and freedom of religious practice proclaimed by Cyrus the Great are enduring ideas underlying ethical governance that have made the Cylinder a universal icon. Today, a copy of the Cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New York City. The Cylinder appears on postage stamps issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was seen firsthand by about half a million people at the 2010-2011 exhibition in Tehran.
Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, “The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our U.S. museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object provides not only a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms.”
Sunday, September 8, 2013, 2 PM—Dr. David Stronach—New Light on the Cyrus Cylinder—British archaeologist, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, speaks about new discoveries related to the Cyrus Cylinder. Stronach, recognized as a pioneer of archaeology in Iran, graduated from Cambridge in 1957, and was made director of the newly founded British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran in 1961, holding that post for some 20 years. During that time, he excavated at Pasargadae (1961-1963) and Nush-i Jan (1967-1968). He is a leading expert on Pasargadae, the capital city of Cyrus, and the gardens and monuments of Cyrus and will talk about the Oxus treasure.
[ARThound’s previous (2011) coverage of Dr. Stronach “Ancient Iran from the Air:” acclaimed archaeologist David Stronach presents Georg Gerster’s forthcoming book on Iran, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this Saturday]
Sunday September 22, 2013 at 2 PM—Dr. Jennifer Rose— From Samarkand to San Francisco. Dr. Jennifer Rose, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, provides an introduction to the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world’s oldest surviving belief systems. From its origins in Bronze Age Central Asia to its evolution across three powerful Iranian empires, and its expansion to India, Europe and North America, Zoroastrianism has had a profound impact on surrounding cultures and religions. Advance ticket purchase recommended.
Details: The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is at the Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission (Cyrus Cylinder exhibition is included in general admission): $12 Adults; $8 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced and has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.