ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

America’s Cup on Display at Asian Art Museum Thursday, June 27, 2013, along with “In the Moment,” a Peek into Larry Ellison’s Rarely Seen Japanese Art Collection

The historic America’s Cup trophy, in the proud possession of Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Team USA and soon to be defended by Oracle Team USA, is on display at the Asian Art Museum through June 27, 2013.

The historic America’s Cup trophy, in the proud possession of Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Team USA and soon to be defended by Oracle Team USA, is on display at the Asian Art Museum through June 27, 2013.

The most coveted prize in competitive sailing and the oldest trophy in international sports, The America’s Cup, is on display at the Asian Art Museum though 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013. The display is part of the opening activities for In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection, the museum’s special exhibition from the rarely seen trove of Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and owner of ORACLE TEAM USA, defender of the 34th America’s Cup.

Made by the Crown Jeweler Robert Garrard from sterling silver in 1848, it became known as the America’s Cup when the owners of America donated it in 1857 as a “perpetual challenger trophy to promote friendly competition amongst nations.”  Originally just over 20 in. tall, it was extended in the 1950s and again in the 1990s to allow further engraving of racing results. It now stands approximately 3 ft. tall.  Without a doubt, it is one of the most difficult trophies to win and in the more than 150 years since the first race off England, only four nations have been victorious.  For some perspective on its history, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. The America’s Cup was first contested in 1851—when it was known as the One Hundred Pound Cup—when the yacht America, from the New York Yacht Club, beat 15 British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England.

You can see the coveted cup at the Asian, along with rare treasures from Ellison’s stunning collection of Japanese art—64 artworks spanning 1,100 years.  Included in the exhibition, which opens today, are significant works by noted artists of the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods, along with other important examples of religious art, lacquer, woodwork, and metalwork. Highlights include a 13th–14th century wooden sculpture of Shotoku Taishi; six-panel folding screens dating to the 17th century by Kano Sansetsu; and 18th century paintings by acclaimed masters Maruyama Ōkyo and Ito Jakuchu.  The collection reflects Ellison’s great love of nature and of animals, particularly cats.  The exhibition catalogue cover features one of Ellison’s favorite cats, a tiger, in a hanging scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Edo Period. This sitting tiger is imbued with personality and a marvelous sense of detail.  In the Lee Gallery, just adjacent to the education room where The America’s Cup is displayed, are “Two Puppies at Play”—two delightful, one-of-a-kind 13th century Kamakura period (1185-1333) pups, one atop the other, rolling in play, made of lacquer on wood with crystal inlay.

We’ve come to expect a creative use of technology from the Asian and this show does not disappoint.  The Lee Gallery has varying light levels so that viewers can see how painted folding screens and hanging scrolls appeared under fluctuating light conditions before the advent of electricity.   A dramatic pair of 17th century folding screens attributed to Hasegawa Togaku depict undulating waves and huge rocks masterfully rendered in ink with a generous application of gold leaf.  Benches have been set up in the gallery so that visitors can sit at the same height as the screens, roughly the way a person seated on straw would view them in a Japanese home.  A three minute cycle of changing light, adjusted to mimic the passing of a day, illuminates how the gold-leaf softens and modulates, altering the entire mood of the coastal scenery as the day passes.

Tiger by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Edo Period Edo (1615-1868), 1779, One of a pair of hanging scrolls; ink and light colors on paper, 45.75 ” H x 20.5” W (each), Larry Ellison Collection.

Tiger by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Edo Period Edo (1615-1868), 1779, One of a pair of hanging scrolls; ink and light colors on paper, 45.75 ” H x 20.5” W (each), Larry Ellison Collection.

Public access to this collection has been extremely limited but the AAM made great strides when its former director, Dr. Emily Sano, became Ellison’s private art consultant just after retiring her post at the Asian in 2007.  Many of the rare works on display are pieces that Ellison actually lives with and has on rotating display in his palatial Japanese-style home in Woodside which is surrounded by a traditional seasonal garden.  Stay-tuned to ARThound for a full review of the show.

Larry Ellison is the fifth wealthiest person on the planet.  His June, 2103 net worth is $34.9 billion.  Notoriously tough in business, he’s been sailing since he was a boy and spends lavishly on what he calls the best team sport on the planet.  Of course, in this “winner take all” race, first place is all the matters and we acknowledge that, for years now, the America’s Cup has been more about sailboat design than sport.  Ellison famously brought team BMW Oracle, the challenger in the 2010, 33rd America’s Cup, together to race aboard USA-17, the most technologically advanced sailboat ever built.  In fact, the catamaran was less of a boat and more of a wind-responsive high-tech machine which moved just above the water.  USA-17’s crew was skippered by Australian James “Jimmy” Spithill, the youngest to ever helm an America’s boat, along with a team of expert sailors from all over the world.  All of them were united by a single purpose: to win the America’s Cup and bring it back to America.

As victor in the 2010, Ellison earned the right to set the rules for this year’s regatta.  He brought the race to San Francisco, a decision most Bay Area residents applaud.  Continuing to use the extremely costly 72-foot-long catamarans that fly above the water has been a more controversial call.  So far, only four teams have entered the race due to prohibitive costs and Ellison’s AC72 has been plagued with problems.  While we all know that money doesn’t necessarily equal merit, it’s a historical fact that investing on the frontiers of technology has spin-offs we’ll all enjoy later.  There are few people who could have leveraged nascent digital technology as profitably as Ellison has—he’s earned the right to spend his money as he see fit.  His Japanese art collection is nothing short of spectacular.

For an excellent overview on the 2010 race, The Wind Gods (2103), a new documentary film, airs this week on KRCB and is produced by Skydance Productions, a company run by Ellison’s son, David Ellison.

Details:  The America’s Cup trophy is on display from June 26 until 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013.  In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection  runs June 28-Septmeber 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. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 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 has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister.  Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.

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June 27, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marching On—Terra Cotta Warriors exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum closes Monday, May 27, 2013

Armored kneeling archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta.  Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang tomb complex, 1977.  Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.

Armored kneeling archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta. Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang tomb complex, 1977. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.

Of course, ten Terra Cotta figures—eight warriors and two horses—are the stars of the Asian Art Museum’s breathtaking exhibition, China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, which closes on Memorial, Monday, May 27, 2013.  All ten—the maximum allowable number to travel outside of China at any time—were hand-picked by the AAM’s director Jay Xu, who negotiated to get the finest for the unforgettable exhibition kicking off the Asian’s 10th year in its present Civic Center location.  Some of these warriors are so rare, they have never before travelled out of China but Xu, a Princeton-educated scholar of early Chinese art and archaeology (MA and PhD), has been cultivating relations there for decades.  He and his team at the Asian have put together an unforgettable show, utilizing the latest technologies to showcase these ancient figures as well as over 100 artifacts, many of which have never been displayed in the U.S. before.

First unearthed in Central China in 1974  by farmers searching for well water, these remarkable figures are representatives of the army amassed by China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) some 2,200 years ago to guard him in the afterworld.   Though Qin Shi Huang lived to be just 49, he is a pivotal figure in Chinese history—responsible for unifying all of China under one powerful leader and creating a legacy of a centralized bureaucratic state that was carried on to successive dynasties over two millennia.  Born Zhao Zheng, he became the king of the western State of Qin at age 13.  Obsessed with the concept of immortality, he began to make plans for his immense burial complex at a young age while greatly expanding his power base in real terms.  By defeating or allying with the seven independent warring principalities that had battled among themselves for generations, he ended China’s brutal Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) and creating a vast kingdom. He then declared himself  First Emperor and undertook gigantic projects such as building and unifying sections of the Great Wall of China, building roads throughout China, standardizing Chinese writing, bureaucracy, weights, measurements and currency and building a capital in Xian.  It is near Xian, that he built his massive mausoleum guarded by the Terra Cotta warriors.   At 250,000 sq. ft., it’s the length of four football fields, and includes a replica of the imperial palace with stables, offices, an armory, an amusement park, a zoo, and an aviary filled with elegant bronze replicas of waterfowl.

At the Asian, the warriors are presented without glass barricades and at eye level in the Osher Gallery and viewers can examine them from multiple viewing angles.  What a treat to marvel at their distinct personalities, different uniforms, hairstyles and facial expressions in such an accessible and beautifully-lit environment, which is much more intimate than that in China.  The burial complex in China is so vast that visitors are restricted to gazing down upon it from several yards distance, preventing a close-up experience.  The few warriors that are available for closer inspection are behind glass.  At the Asian, with no barriers, all the rich details emerge and comparisons can be made between the finest examples of warriors of several ranks.  Of course, the museum has gone all out to make this as dramatic as possible.  The Osher Gallery is darkened and the ten figures are dramatically lit and arranged on two low-level platforms.  On the wall behind them a slide-show displays huge images from the vast excavation pit in China creating the impression that you are there amongst the legions of figures who were buried in battle formation.  Other displays provide information on the on-going excavations in China, and on how the armor and weapons were used.

One of the figures on display, an armored kneeling archer, retains traces of his original green pigment.   He is part of a crossbowman battle formation of both standing and kneeling archers but is the only one found so far with green pigment on his clothing and his face.  There are 2 theories—one is that it is camouflage and the other is that he is a necromancer, a person who can divine the outcome of a battle.  He is wearing a light coat with outside armor, and is kneeling on his right leg and bending his left leg.  He has very functional square-toed shoes with actual tread on the sole of his shoe for traction.

Another, a very rare standing general, one of nine unearthed from the tomb so far, is larger than all the other warriors and his garb reflects his rank.  This is the first time he has left China.  He wears a uniform adorned with fluid looking ribbons, an indication of his high status.  His cap would have had tail feathers from a pheasant, known the bravest bird around.   He seems poised for action and his hands once rested on a sword, now missing.  All the warriors have elaborate hair-dos but the general sports a moustache and muttonchops, an indication of authority.

The two horses, a chariot horse and a cavalry horse, both standing at about 13 or 14 hands in height,  have slightly different expressions on their faces imbuing them with a sense of personality.   The horse played an important role in the mythology of early China.  Closely associated with the dragon, both were thought capable of flight and of carrying their rider to the home of the immortals.  Throughout its history, China’s very survival relied on its equestrian prowess and these muscular horses, with flared nostrils and perked ears are on alert.   Separate display cases are devoted to  intricate horse fittings, some of these in solid gold.

The entire first floor of the museum is dedicated to the exhibit which also includes 110 other recovered items which explore the themes of Immortality, Innovation, Archaeology and Unification.   Particularly stunning are several life size bronze water birds discovered in 2001 from a pit thought to represent a royal park or sacred water garden.  All have a rich green patina that has built up over the centuries and the swan and crane are so realistic, they seem capable of bursting into flight at any moment.  Were these elegant creatures buried with Qin Shihuang because he loved them in life and wanted them by his side for all eternity?

The custom of producing sculptures as burial objects to substitute for human sacrifices began in the Shang and Zhou periods and flourished in the Qin (221-206 BC), Han and post-Han dynasties, all the way to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  The belief was that objects used during one’s life on earth would continue to be used in the afterlife.  Now, 40 plus years after its original discovery, excavation is still quite active with new finds being announced on a regular basis.  Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has yet to be opened but, according to Jay Xu, there are no current plans to do that.

We’ve come to rely on excellent scholarship from the Asian, but this exhibition, presented in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, the Shaanxi Cultural Promotions and the People’s Republic of China, presents the 8th wonder of the ancient world as it’s never been seen before.

Best times to visit: weekday afternoons or Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. when it costs just $10.  Worse time—weekend.  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. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 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 has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister.  Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.

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May 20, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAAMFest 2013, an 11 day celebration of film, music, food and digital media from Asian and Asian American artists

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers.   Celebrated Chinese artist, Hung Liu, will lead a conversation following the film’s March 21, 2013 screening at the New People Cinema at CAAMFest 2013.  Image: CAAMFest

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers. Celebrated Chinese artist, Hung Liu, will lead a conversation following the film’s March 21, 2013 screening at the New People Cinema at CAAMFest 2013. Image: CAAMFest

CAAMFest, formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, kicked off Thursday evening, March 14, 2013, at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre 2013, with “Linsanity,” Bay Area native Evan Jackson Leong’s new documentary about the meteoric rise of Chinese American NBA basketball phenomena, Jeremy Lin, one of the few Asian Americans players in NBA history and the only one in the global spotlight.

Along with its name change, CAAMFest, now in its 31st year, has expanded its emphasis from mainly film to an 11 day celebration of film, music, food and digital media from the world’s most innovative Asian and Asian American artists. Over the years, the highly-respected festival, organized by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), has showcased hundreds of films and has become a highly-respected launch pad for promising Asian and Asian-American filmmakers as well as a venue where influential Asian filmmakers are honored.

This year, the festival is offering many forms of entertainment, and the name CAAMFest reflects that change, said Masashi Niwano, the festival director, at CAAMFest 2013’s press conference. In addition to its offering of 90 exceptional films—documentaries, shorts and narratives—there will be 55 programs and live events, ranging from salons featuring musicians and chefs in symposium style panels, to music performances that follow special screenings. Here are some that caught ARThound’s eye:

DOSA HUNT/New Directions Launch: In collaboration with the Asian Art Museum (AAM), on Thursday, March 21, CAAMFest presents “Dosa Hunt,” a special evening at the museum that celebrates the “new directions” the festival is taking. The Indian-themed evening is built around film, food and music, and includes the West Coast premiere of music critic Amrit Singh’s short musical film “Dosa Hunt” — which follow the hunger pangs of a 7 Indian indie musicians— pianist Vijay Iyer, critic Amrit Singh, members of groups like Das Racist, Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, and Neon Indian—who pack into a disco van and set out to find New York’s best dosa. Dosa are those fabulous crispy and savory South Indian crepes filled with potatoes, chickpeas and various spices. And, through the film, we learn that dosas are a metaphor for the American dream. The evening kicks off at 6 p.m. with Happy Hour featuring DJ KingMost; “Dosa Hunt” screens at 7 p.m. and the Indian group, Bastards from Hell, perform from 8 to 9 p.m. Entrance to the China’s Terracotta Warriors exhibition is included in the price. (Click here for more information.)

THIS WEEKEND: Up Sunday, March17, CAAMFest offers two special screenings at the Castro Theatre— At noon, Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamida taps into one of the central issues of our time—how does our society inadvertently nurture the very prejudices that drive people to radicalism?   With an amazing cast—Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Live Schreiber, Martin Donovan—Nair takes us from pre-9/11 Wall Street with its ideology of greed to post-9/11 xenophobic Manhattan, to the coffeehouses and classrooms of Lahore Pakistan as it declares its desire to be independent from America’s political stronghold.  All reflected in one young man’s journey. 

At 5 p.m., a centerpiece reception with hors d’oeuvres and drinks and 6 p.m. screening of Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children,” based on Salman Rushdie’s 1981 best-selling Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name.   Rushdie also narrates the film.  While both of these films will open later this year in Bay Area theatres, there is nothing like seeing them early and at the Castro.

On the eve of India’s independence, two male babies, switched at birth, live the life intended for the other, both handcuffed to history in Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children”

Beyond Boundaries: On the Anniversary of the Armistice—CAAMFest explores the ramifications of the Korean War through 4 films: Beyond Boundaries is a special festival program exploring the societal repercussions and cinematic incarnations of the Korean War on the 60th anniversary year of the Armistice. Four films highlight aspects of the Korean experience—

Memory of Forgotten War” which has its world premiere at CAAMFest is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean survivors of the Korean War who later immigrated to the U.S.   After the screening, the Korean drumming group, Jamaesori will also perform. Jamaesori is a collective of women of Korean descent who use traditional Korean drumming to support social justice movements. and includes as s part of CAAMFest 2013 and is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean survivors who later immigrated to the U.S.(Screens: Monday evening, March 18, at 6:30 p.m., at San Francisco’s Kabuki Cinemas.)

Jiseul: Set during the 1948 Jeju Massacre, Jiseul tells the fictional story of some 120 villagers who hid in a cave for sixty days from soldiers who were under shoot-to-kill orders. They suffer from severe cold and hunger but retain their sanity by making jokes and holding on to the hope that their wait is almost over. Eventually their endurance wanes, and fear begins to test the group’s mettle. (Screens March, 19, 2013, 8:30 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Seeking Haven: Over 20,000 North Koreans have crossed the border to China in search of freedom. Most of them live in hiding, in fear of being deported back to North Korea and politically persecuted. Director Hein S. Seok, a recipient of one of only five film-production grants given by CAAM’s 2010 Media Fund Program, reveals their often overlooked stories in this intimate, daring tale of struggle, heartbreak and survival. (Screens March, 18, 2013, 8:50 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Comrade Kim Goes Flying: An international collaboration six years in the making, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the first fiction feature in over thirty years to be filmed inside North Korea and co-produced by Western filmmakers. (Screens March, 23, 2013, 8:45 p.m. at Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley and March 24, 2013, at 4 p.m. at Great Star Theatre.)

Stay-tuned to ARThound for festival coverage.

Details: CAAMfest 2013 runs March 14-24, 2013 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco and Berkeley. Regular screenings are $12 and special screenings and programs are more. Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $60. Click here to see full schedule and to purchase tickets online.

March 16, 2013 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Out of Character,” the Asian Art Museum’s thoughtful exploration of Chinese calligraphy as art and writing closes on January 13, 2012; you can see it for free this Sunday

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Jerry Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo, at the opening of an exhibition of his Chinese calligraphy collection at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999. Photo: courtesy Asian Art Museum

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, an exhibition of collector and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang’s calligraphy collection and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is a show that goes right to heart of Chinese culture and artistic practice.  The exhibition of roughly 40 significant works from Yang’s collection of roughly 250 pieces of calligraphy represents the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999.  Curated by Dr. Michael Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, and Dr. Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum’s research Institute for Asian Art, the exhibition fills three full galleries and moves through six centuries including 15 featured works which are shown in their entirety.  As the title suggests, the emphasis is on decoding the mysteries and conventions behind calligraphy and its purpose and mastery.  The ancient practice has always been intriguing to Western audiences but has remained mysterious.  Importantly, this exhibition provides exciting and compelling evidence of calligraphy’s rich contribution to Chinese culture, something that has not been explored comprehensively and accessibly for Western audiences.  These works are on display for just two more weekends in San Francisco before the exhibition moves on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be on display in 2014.

The four major formats of Chinese calligraphy— albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls and fans—are covered amply.  Many works are on exhibition for the first time and visitors have the rare chance to see such masterpieces as the earliest dated calligraphy outside China by Dong Qichang (1555-1636).   Also on display is “Lotus Sutra,” a late 13th-to-early-14th century handscroll by the esteemed calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).   Mengfu’s calligraphy was so influential that his standard script was chosen as the model for books printed by the early Ming court. This scroll raises a number of interesting questions.  Executed in small standard script (xiaokaishu), with a total of more than 10,000 characters, the handscroll is 10 7/8 inches high and a whopping 180 ½ inches long.  A testament to the absolute control, concentration, and endurance of the calligrapher, it is displayed and lit beautifully in a long rectangular glass cabinet in the exhibition’s fist gallery.

Mengfu’s work becomes all the more impressive when we consider that calligraphers as a general rule did not re-do or erase their work.  Each character, even hundreds in succession resulted from an energetic burst, something almost unimaginable in our era, where most of us have become so keyboard dependent that the act of handwriting has become laborious, resulting in almost illegible scrawls.  Megfu’s scroll is one of what were originally seven scrolls presenting the text of the Lotus Sutra.  Why did the calligrapher choose to reproduce one of the most influential texts in Chinese Buddhism?  Was it an exercise in devotion?  contemplation?  Who was it intended for?  Such are the mysteries surrounding this ancient art.

The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing), in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322. Handscroll, number 3 of a set of 7, ink on paper. Loan Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. Photography by Kaz Tsuruta.

The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing), in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322. Handscroll, number 3 of a set of 7, ink on paper. Loan Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. Photography by Kaz Tsuruta.

While calligraphy is aptly described as poetry in motion, it is much more than attractive writing. Throughout Chinese history it has been a judge of character and intelligence.  A good calligrapher was associated with scholarship (so highly esteemed in Chinese culture), sensibility, discipline and good taste. The study of important works of the past is a fundamental element of Chinese calligraphy.  Rote immersion and repetition are key in the early learning phases while mastery, never fully attained, is a lifelong practice.  Curator Dr. Michael Knight related the story of the famous calligrapher Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) who apparently sat for an important annual examination and was ranked third by his master due his characters.  This prompted him to copy out the Thousand Character Classic ten times every day for a total of 10,000 characters daily.  The effort was not in vain as Wen emerged among the very best calligraphers of the Ming dynasty.

One of the dramatic aspects of this exhibition is the extent to which the curators went to give it a modern sensibility.  In the second gallery, devoted to 15 featured works that exemplify importance and visual impact, an entire curved wall has been used to display all 85 pages of a single album.  Each page is displayed separately and eloquently, forming a dynamic wall of letters with a crisp and contemporary graphic appeal.  It’s almost impossible to stand before this and not be dazzled by the power of the ink and these dancing letters.

Many of the calligraphers represented have not only produced aesthetically beautiful and impressive scripts, the content itself is often eloquent poetry, well-known masterpieces from the past or those composed by the calligrapher, some of whom were famous as poets. There are many wall boards with moving translations such as Huang Daozhou’s (1585-1646) poem dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng,  which captures a timeless sense of longing—

It’s not that I am not satisfied pounding other people’s grain; I just can’t stop pitying the unraveled weft.  My far-reaching aspirations sink with the white clouds; my person, at leisure, draws close to birds that soar.  I’ve stolen my bit of shade, and feel my life secure; Just based on this, I smell a solitary fragrance.  Who really remembers the time of metal-shift. Message all empty—I pray to old Heaven above.  (Huang Daozhou, 明朝 黃道周 行草詩軸 絹本, Poems dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng in semicursive/cursive script, hanging scroll; ink on silk)

While a large portion of the exhibition is devoted to exploring the complex set of conventions and rules of calligraphy, it also attempts to show linkages with contemporary art, something that intrigued Abstract Expressionists, who essentially created adaptations of the calligraphic gesture.  A number of modern works borrowed from SFMOMA by artists Mark Tobay, Franz Kline and Brice Marden are displayed.  And while this is a small section, it successfully links calligraphy as a highly expressive form of writing form with abstraction as the expression of the self through brush and ink.

Finally, the show closes with a bow to the contemporary—acclaimed Chinese artist and 1999 MacArthur Fellow, Xu Bing’s “The Character of Characters,” a 20 minute animated response to calligraphy’s long-standing traditions.  The film runs continuously in wide-screen, black and white format on three horizontal monitors in the museum’s expansive North Court.  Xu Bing’s  creative process itself speaks to the discipline so essential in calligraphy.  Xu Bing, worked daily for well over a month with13 dedicated assistants—racking up over 5,000 man hours—and roughly 50 drafts and more than 1,000 hand drawn sketches before he was satisfied with the result.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jay Xu, AAM’s director, during the annual press luncheon following Out of Character’s opening.  He related that, as a child, he too was made to sit and practice calligraphy and had little interest pursuing it.  As an adult though, particularly when he is feeling tense, immersing himself in calligraphy is a “stress-buster” and he now finds it “quite enjoyable.” “Calligraphy has been remote and mysterious to many people,” said Hu.  “This is an art, a practice, that encompasses all of Chinese culture and it’s time to decode it.”

Docent tours for Out of Character:  45 minute walk-through, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, free with museum admission.  Meet at information desk, ground floor.

This Sunday: The Asian offers free yoga!  How do we use works of art to connect with ourselves and others?  Explore this idea as you move with yogi Lorna Reed as she leads a group session in meditation and a Hatha flow practice, using artworks in the museum collection to understand the historical and cultural significance of yoga throughout Asia.  Each session will delve into healthy practices that balance energy, align your body, and help you relax.  Each class ends with a standing meditation in the galleries.  (Part of the Target First Free Sunday Program, Sunday, January 6, 2013, 2-3 p.m., check at information desk for location)

Details: Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy closes Sunday January 13, 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.  Admission: $8-$12, free first Sunday of each month.  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 has 840 spaces.  From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info:  begin_of_the_skype_highlighting www.asianart.org.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Filmmaker Michael Wiese talks about his new Bali doc “Talking with Spirits,” screening at Asian Art Museum this Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Filmmaker Michael Wiese visited Bali in the 1970’s and was led to a remote village by a Balinese salesman.  As he participated in elaborate ceremonies, he realized he did not really see the world as the Balinese saw it.  Now, 40 years later and many visits between, his new documentary, Talking with Spirits, shows sequences that make us question everything we know about the nature of reality, consciousness, and the very sources of creativity and inspiration.  Wiese’s film will be screening this Tuesday, at 2 p.m., at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as part of their programming for Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance which runs through September 11, 2011.  This weekend, I interviewed Michael Wiese who was at the Albuquerque Film Festival, where his film had its West Coast premiere.

Talking with Sprits is billed as a documentary, which is a fairly broad category these days.  What is it exactly? 

Michael Wiese:  When I think of documentaries, I think most are intellectual ─ you know, a narrator talking over experiences ─ which this is not.  This film guides you and lets you have your own experience.  The unseen world by its very nature is very is hard to capture.  I am making a film about things that cannot be filmed.

What is the emphasis of the film? From the trailer it appears to delve into trance and possession.  Is this a story of communication between a medium and a single person or a community experience? 

Michael Wiese:   Trance can be very much a community experience.  What impressed me when I was there in my 20s was the Balinese connection to the divine.  Bali is a culture where people spend 50 percent of their time in temple ceremonies communicating with the gods.  In the film, they are in direct communication with the gods.  The film explores a man healing somebody as his hands are being guided by a god.  Another man is a farmer and he channels Hanuman, one of the Hindu Gods.  This is the way it is in Bali—trance is just a way to delve into other states of consciousness.  It’s very hard to talk about this because it is so far out of our range of expression and that’s why, instead of writing a book, I made the film. I am capturing what’s happening on the outside, and had to use other techniques to give an impression of what’s going on internally.

It’s also a very personal journey as part of my quest for a cure for Parkinson’s, which I have, which has taken me into a lot of healing modalities, non-Western as well as Western, to find whatever works. 

Filmmaker Michael Wiese is screening his new documentary “Talking with Spirits” about Balinese trance state and spirituality at the Asian Art Museum this Tuesday. His publishing company, MWP, founded in 1981, has become the leading independent publisher of books on screenwriting and filmmaking, with a current line of more than 130 titles. Photo: courtesy Divine Arts Media

Is this new footage then, or is there some footage from the 1970’s? 

Michael Wiese:   There’s an introductory clip in the beginning with some archival footage from that first encounter in 1970—maybe 8 min– to bring in the gravity of time, the set and setting, and show what Bali was like when I was a young man, in my early twenties.  At that time, we just shot the surface.  We did not know what was going on.  Stuff was happening but we did not grasp the depth of it or the methods of entry into the unseen worlds.  Had we even understood what we were seeing, I doubt that we would have gotten permission to film it.  We simply weren’t mature enough or ready to see it. 

Is the footage all from the same village?

Michael Wiese:   No, we’ve been going back there for the past 40 years.  The film was made in many villages in Bali and takes place across the whole island. We have a long-term relationship with a lot of people in Pengosaken village in particular though this village is not at all the focal point. 

There have been so many films made on Bali that address trance state, so what’s the unique underlying message in yours? 

Michael Wiese:  I am not an anthropologist or an expert from a university but I am encouraging people to participate.  As a filmmaker you shouldn’t stand back and point the camera in some direction and think that will bring deep understanding of what’s going on.  I think one needs to be courageous and jump in the fray, especially when we don’t understand.  If a filmmaker can do this and take the audience along then that’s great.  If the audience wants to pursue it further in some remote place in Bali, or Tibet, then that’s fine.  The wisdom cultures of the world are opening up to the West more and more because it’s vital that the Western world get in touch with the sacred side of things and restore and nurture our home planet.  I think that ancient cultures realize this and are reaching outside; whereas, in the past, these teachings have been secret.  They are stepping up the game and people will meet this seriously or superficially but, at last, it’s being addressed.

How do you feel about the issue of filmmakers who go to relatively untainted cultures and make films and popularize that area, put it on the map, and thereby accelerate the destruction of the cultures and traditions they are filming?  Is there a balance you try to preserve in the face of the blatant spiritual tourism that results from films like “Eat, Pray, Love” (2010)?

Michael Wiese:  That is a very real concern for me.  I’ve certainly made films where that has come up.  Dolphin Adventures (2009) is a film about communication with dolphins.  After I made that, people discovered these dolphins and then figured out where they were and went and exploited those dolphins and so I am very sensitive to those issues.   On the other hand, people are going to do what they are going to do.  As a filmmaker, if you bring awareness that these  sacred practices are a sensitive thing and can generate some reverance and respect so that people can approach this with a sense of reverence, this is good.  The films I am making now are very niche-oriented and are probably for people already on spiritual quests.  I am less concerned with what’s going to happen.  The Balinese will open up, or not, depending on the situation and the Balinese understand how superficial a film like “Eat, Pray, Love” is.  Ketut Liyer, the actual shaman, or balian, depicted in that film is a friend of mine.   Today he does the same palm reading on every divorcee who shows up by the busload at his doorstep and he is laughing all the way to the bank.  He’s not being treated seriously and is not treating them seriously.  Actually, false shamans in Bali using his name have risen to pick up the business he cannot handle!

What’s the breakthrough moment mentioned in the trailer?

Michael Wiese:  There were many.  The whole film is a breakthrough. I needed to be in the film because if I am filming something like trance, I need to participate to integrate it within myself.  When shamanic musician Alberto Roman and I were invited to enter the sacred space, we did.   His trance was much more powerful than mine but I did have an experience of my consciousness being dramatically shifted.  If you look at it from the outside, it looks like a bunch of people thrashing about─ and that doesn’t accurately convey the inner experience.  The film, I hope, delivers an inner experience. 

Bali just kept opening up like a lotus flower.   I was very grateful when She (Bali) would offer more and more and this has only deepened over time.  I felt that the Balinese had figured out what it means to be human as they know how to bring harmony into so many dimensions of their lives.  We have a lot to learn from them.

Who’s in the film with you?

Michael Wiese:  Larry Reed is not in the film but shared the experience of that first trip in 1970.  He is one of the very few Americans to be trained in wayang kulit, Balinese shadow puppetry, and he performs all over world and has been doing this for years.   He has been giving some shadow puppet performances at the Asian Art Museum during the Bali exhibition. (click here to read about shadow puppet events associated with the exhibition “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, through September 11, 2011)

Michael Wiese's new documentary explores Balinese trance and spirituality.

What challenges did you face in making this film?

Michael Wiese:  None.

No one has ever said that to me before.

Michael Wiese:  When you are in the zone and you are aligned with a purpose and everybody participates in supporting that purpose it’s easy.  The last three films I’ve made have been easy in that regard.  They are only difficult when you are pushing an agenda.  When you come with innocence and ask to be shown, you are not ‘making’ the film; you are part of its co-creation with others and other energies.  It’s more the case that I happened to be witness to this and was given this material and the responsibility of shepherding it into the world.

How is this transforming you? 

Michael Wiese:  Taking the film out into the world is a chore but I have been transformed in considerable ways on a daily basis. Today, we got up at 4:40 a.m. and a Mexican curandera (traditional healer using a Mestizo or syncretic system of healing) came by and took us out into the desert to welcome the sun and held a traditional ceremony for us.  That came about because I showed my film about shamanism, The Shaman and Ayahuasca, here in Albuquerque last year.  That film was shot in the Amazon and Peru and delves into the healing and vision ceremonies (using ayahuasca, a psychoactive healing brew using vines and leaves) of Don José Campos and Pablo Amaringo, a painter and former shaman.  I could give you several more examples of things, big and small, occurring over years.  Spirituality has always been a part of my work too but I’ve taken a stronger stand in creating more work in that genre. I’ve dipped in and out of making consciousness films, human potential, and spiritual films my whole career. Divine Arts, our new company is about drawing a circle in the sand and saying let’s call it what it is and create spiritual films and books.

Tell me about your company DIVINE ARTS.

I have a company (Michael Wiese Productions (MWP.com), that publishes film books—how to write films, screenplays, all of that—and over the past thirty years, have become the leading publisher in that field of “how to.”  Now, years later, we see a real need for “why to” books, about what filmmakers can do with these tools in the field of conscious media.  About a year and half ago, my wife and I decided to start DIVINE ARTS, a spiritual book line—arts, culture, spirit.  We’ve published about 5 or 6 books in our first year.

Having explored Balinese and South American spiritual practices, is there another region that holds a particular interest for you?

Tibet and Buddhism have always interested me.  A few years ago I made the film The Sacred Sites of the Dali Lamas (2007) and, this October, a companion book will come out from DIVINE ARTS.  I am interested in all spiritual practices which move the practitioner to the same cosmic awareness, recognizing that these practices they may be expressed differently in different cultures.  I draw inspiration through my experiences and relationships with people in these different spiritual cultures.  It is a very rich, magnificent and abundant world we live in.

Talking with Spirits, directed and produced by Michael Wiese (90 min, 2011) screens at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 2 p.m.  There will be a Q&A session with Michael Wiese after the screening.

Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco.  Hours:  Tuesday- Wednesday and Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Mondays. http://www.asianart.org/ or (415) 581-3500.  Tickets:  $12.00 Adult General Admission.  $5.00 surcharge for  “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” which ends September 11, 2011.  Parking:  Civic Center Garage is just steps away from the museum entrance.

August 21, 2011 Posted by | Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Days: “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens,” Asian Art Museum through Sunday, January 16, 2011

Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips, approx. 1654/81. By Tosa Mitsuoki (approx. 1617-1691). Pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on silk. The Art Institute of Chicago, Kate S. Buckingham Endowment (1977.156-57)

Japanese folding screens have captured the imagination of the West since the 16th century when Europeans had their first glimpse of this expressive art form which combines functionality with painting, calligraphy, poetics and design.  Artists have realized their most expansive visions by working across their large flat surfaces with rare mineral pigments and precious gold and silver. Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens , at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum presents forty-one rarely seen large scale Japanese screens dating from the 1500s through the present and closes this Sunday, January 16, 2011.  The exhibition celebrates the evolution of the folding screen, or byōbu (“wind wall”), from pre-modern to contemporary times, highlighting its distinctive position in Japanese culture as both a functional and expressive art form.  Initially created for the aristocracy and noble elite and later accessible to commoners, the art form has retained its special currency.  The rare screens on display are considered the masterpieces of the esteemed collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum who each contributed roughly half of the screens on display.  Unlike exhibitions of screens in the past, Beyond Golden Clouds includes a range of works from 16th century ink paintings to late 20th century installation works.  The phrase “Beyond Golden Clouds” describes one of the most popular motifs in classical screens, while also expressing the departure from conventional compositions and techniques in the past century.

Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco. January hours: Tuesday- Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. http://www.asianart.org/ or (415) 581-3500.   Tickets: There is a $5.00 surcharge to the General Admission price to see “Beyond Golden Clouds.”

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s film festival time again– SFIAAFF 28 Opens on Thursday March 11, 2010

 

It’s film festival season again and this year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens its 10 day run on Thursday March 11, 2010, with a gala premiere at the Asian Art Museum of  David Kaplan’s food-centric romantic comedy “Today’s Special,” starring “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi and celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey.  This year’s festival offers a fantastic program, showcasing 109 of the very best new Asian and Asian American films and videos from around the globe, with 4 films mkaing their global premieres.  Thirteen films have special connections to our Bay Area.  I always attend SFIAFF because the films are wonderfully diverse with fantastic storylines and I love their “out of the vaults” selections of old classics like the 1960 South Korean black and white cult thriller, “The Housemaid” (“Hanyeo”) whose director Kim Ki-Young is South Korea’s Luis Buñuel.  This film was discovered in the West in 2003– 40 years after its debut in Korea and considered one of the top three Korean films ever made.  The story revolves around a music teacher and his live in help–rat poison, blackmail, abortion, suicide and murder—all contribute to a farfetched but engrossing story.    The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), in San Francisco, is actively involved in producing a lot of these films, so the screenings have a warm familial quality to them.  This year, there is a strong emphasis on Filipino and Filipino American media-making through retrospectives, exciting new films and a CAAM-produced mobile game. The festival takes place in San Francisco (Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Landmark’s Clay Theater, VIZ Cinema), Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas).  Most of these films sell out early, so buy your tickets online in advance, or you can try on the day of the event at the screening venue.  Here are ARThound’s top picks:

Catch a Lino Broca flick—This year’s SFIAAFF featured director is Filipino Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and if you aren’t familiar with his work, you need to be.  The festival offers a unique chance to see four of his rarest masterpieces, beloved classics that delve into the heart of being Filipino and melodramatically capture themes of marginalization, family life and honor.  His 1985 political commentary “Bayan Ko” (screens Thursday, March 18 at PFA) had to be smuggled into France to be shown at Cannes which led to his citizenship being revoked by an angry Marcos regime. But even Marcos could not stop him, and he and a few others made the 1970s and early 1980s a golden age for Tagalog films in a country whose people are still among the most avid filmgoers in the world.  “Insiang” (screens Saturday, March 13 at Kabuki) may be Broca’s greatest film ever– depicting motherhood turned on its head–offering a mother so selfish and treacherous that we can hardly believe the impact of her poor judgement and cruelty as it plays out on her daughter, Insiang, in the slums of Tondo.  

“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee(world premiere)  Berkeley director Deann Borshay Liem journeys back to Korea to explore her true identity  after living with the knowledge that the name on her adoption papers “Cha Jung Hee,” given to her at age 8, is not her true identity at all.  Liem was adopted at age 8 from the The Sun Duck orphanage in South Korea in the 1960’s and sent to America as “Cha Jung Hee” for her eager American adoptive family–Borshays.  Liem grew up as “Deann” in this very loving family and lived her life quite successfully.  She ultimately became the executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.  She essentially forgot who she was before she came to America.  Through dreams and events that jarred long-suppressed childhood memories, the urge to know her story became an obsession.  She began to believe that she was both victim and complicit in a complex hoax that altered the course of her life and the life of the real Cha Jung Hee, whose place she had taken in America.   The film captures her attempts to heal as she pieces together her identity with what facts she can find and people she meets along the way.  Masterful editing, blending scenes from the Korean war, with stills of the orphanage, with Liem’s home movies from the 1960’s, with Liem’s experiences in Korea  add to the dreamlike quality of this film.   This is a sequel to her Emmy award winning “First Person Plural” from 1999.   

“Tehran without Permission” is Sepideh Farsi’s intimate portrayal of contemporary life in this mysterious Persian capital city that was thrust to our attention last year with its notorious election scandal.  The film was shot entirely and discretely with a Nokia cell phone and captures the pulse of what’s happening in Tehran’s streets as well as within private residences—the only havens where people can literally let their hair down.  What’s amazing about this film is its testament to the human spirit—these courageous, stubborn and hopeful people have adapted to the bizarre restrictions imposed on them with a kind of national schizophrenia that allows them to lead one life on the streets and another behind closed doors.  (In Farsi with English subtitles.) 

“Agrarian Utopia” is Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s cinematically stunning acccount of the beauty and hardships of daily life in a traditional Thai farming community against the backdrop of globalization.  The film captures two tenant farmers and their families through a harrowing but typical rice crop season by focusing on their daily lives from dawn till dusk.  The pace is slow and unhurried and draws the viewer into the sublime experience of living in nature and being subject to its whims–floods, electrical storms, thick morning mists and spectacular sunsets.   Seductive were it not for the need to survive and the desire to offer a better life to your children.  They face crippling debts,  uncertain market prices, uncoopertive water buffalos, the forces of nature and a daily struggle for food.   Facing pressure from their wives, they refuse to abandon what they have and know for uncertain  factory jobs in an alienating urban environment.  They hold out against increasingly unsurmountable odds, hoping for a turn of events but distrustful of the electioneering politicians in distant Bangkok who are crying for reform and a return to farm subsidies with reasonable repayment rates.  We watch them trap and eat rats, snakes, dogs, worms, and honey-whatever they can find and–they remain genuinely thankful for daily survivial.   One neighboring farmer, divorced, and with no obligtaions, has embraced organic farming which requires more work initially but has long-term benefits.  Sadly, these families feel they do not have the luxury of time and chose to struggle on.  (In Thai with English subtitles.) 

“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4-5” The West Coast premiere of Shanghai conceptual artist Yang Fudong’s (born 1971, Beijing) five-part black and white cinematic extravaganza that explores the uncertainty facing China’s new generation of urban youth as they confront the disparities between their real and imagined lives set against the backdrop China’s new and rapid modernity.  The highly-acclaimed series made a splash at the Venice Biennial and recalls the black-and-white prewar films of the 1930s and 1940s China and postwar avant-garde film noir.  The title references the legendary Seven Sages, a group of 3rd century Chinese intellectuals who separated themselves from civil society to lead Daoist-inspired lives (fueled with heavy alcohol consumption) in the countryside.  Parts 4 and 5 complement the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  Part 4 covers incarnations of the seven intellectuals as fishermen and travelers in a new frontier isolated and alienated.  In Part 5, the seven intellectuals return to Shanghai, where they take up meaningless jobs. They are shown drinking and cavorting (full frontal nidity) in a banquet hall, and as the scenes take on an increasingly surrealistic tone, the nonsensical seems an analogy of contemporary urban life. 

The festival closes with a gala premiere of Bay Area-native Arvin Chen’s campy romance “Au Revoir Taipei,” set in Taipei’s markets, back alleys and karaoke bars.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–“Lords of the Samurai” dog-chasing, tea totling, elite warrior poets, Asian Art Museum, June 12- September 20, 2009

Portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489–1520), by Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559); inscription by Keijo Shūrin (1440–1518), Japan. Muromachi period (1392–1573), 1507. Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk. EiseiBunko Museum, 466. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489–1520), by Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559); inscription by Keijo Shūrin (1440–1518), Japan. Muromachi period (1392–1573), 1507. Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk. Eisei Bunko Museum, 466. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

For more than 800 years the Samurai helped lay the foundation of Japanese culture and that legacy is explored in “Lords of the Samurai,” the Asian Art Museum’s stunning summer exhibition of over 160 rare objects from the collection of the Hosokawa family, one of Japan’s most elite warrior clans.  The exhibition, in its final three weeks (ends September 20) includes priceless armor, several breathtaking swords and other weaponry, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, costumes and other rare objects from Tokyo’s renowned Eisei-Bunko Museum and in the Hosokawa family’s former home, Kumamoto Castle on Kyushu island, Japan.  The objects reveal that the samurai and their daimyo (hereditary feudal) lords of pre-modern Japan were much more than just skillful military strategists and fighters; they were also artists and patrons of art and culture in its highest form.  The show is organized by the Asian Art Museum and the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection, Tokyo.  This is the first time the Hosokawa’s precious collection of weaponry and artifacts have been shown in the United States and the Asian Art Museum is the sole venue for this exceptional show.  Due to the light sensitive nature of roughly 50 of the initial artworks on display, the show is now on its second rotation and new artworks have replaced those that were rotated out.   

Samurai—from loyal followers to fierce and principled elite warriors

The term “samurai” comes from the Japanese word saburau, meaning “to serve,” and was first used in A.D. 702 to describe mid-to-low-ranking court administrators and, later, armed imperial guards. Their title, mostly metaphorical, referred to their loyalty to the emperor.  By the 10th century, when provincial governors began offering heavy rewards for military service, the samurai as we know them came into being.  By the end of the 12th century, samurai became synonymous with the term “bushi” and were closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.  The term “Samurai” held strong aristocratic overtones and brought great prestige to the samurai’s lineage—so much so that warriors would recite their ancestry on the battlefield.  The distinguished lineage of the Hosokawa clan, which can be traced back seven centuries, trumps that of the imperial family whose history extends back only a few hundred years.

Hosokawa Clan, weilding power for centuries

The Hosokawa clan descended from Emperor Seiwa (850-88) and a branch of the Minamoto clan, via the Ashikaga clan.  It wielded significant power over the course of the Muromachi (1336-1467), Sengoku (1467-1600), and Edo periods, and over the centuries moved from Shikoku, to Kinai, and then to Kyūshū.  The first generation of lord of the Hosokawa clan, Hosokawa Yūsai (1534-1610), came of age in the “envisioned age” of Seven Samurai and fought valiantly in eight major battles.  The samurai’s role in life was to follow a code of conduct called the Bushidō or “Way of the Warrior” and to follow the Way of Poetry.  Poetry was studied and used among the samurai as vehicle of exchange and cohesion.  Yūsai was the third person in history to have been taught the entire 15th century Kokin denju tradition, an orally transmitted commentary on the first Imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry (kokin wakashū).  As the sole possessor of this vital key to waka tradition, Yūsai was entwined with Japanese culture.   Yūsai is renowned because the emperor intervened in one of Yūsai’s long battles to save him proving that Kokin denju was more important than military victory.   The literary ethos of this great warrior-gentleman, who also mastered cultural, artistic and spiritual pursuits, has carried on through the ages.

The samurai maintained their elite status into the mid-1800s when Western influences started to take hold.  The question of how and when Japan’s modernization occurred is still debated but after Japan opened its port to foreigners in 1854, it went on to modernize its military forces and did away with many of the samurai’s special rights.  Following the abolition of the feudal class in 1871, the Hosokawa clan and its branches were made part of the Kazoku, the Meiji era’s new nobility.  They were given the hereditary title of Marquis (kōshaku); the title became obsolete in 1947.  The present head of the main family line, Morihiro Hosokawa, former Prime Minister of Japan, is a descendant of the Hosokawa of Kumamoto.

Ōyoroitype armor (replica), white cord lacing with diagonal corner accents (tsumadori), replica of a suit worn by Hosokawa Yoriari (1332–1391), Japan. Edo period, 1829 (after 14th century original). Iron, gilt bronze, metal, tooled leather, lacquer, braided silk, fur. Eisei Bunko Museum, 4082. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Ōyoroitype armor (replica), white cord lacing with diagonal corner accents (tsumadori), replica of a suit worn by Hosokawa Yoriari (1332–1391), Japan. Edo period, 1829 (after 14th century original). Iron, gilt bronze, metal, tooled leather, lacquer, braided silk, fur. Eisei Bunko Museum, 4082. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

 

 

Armor—object and symbol

Lawrence Ellison, Oracle founder/mogul, who in the 1980’s liked to call himself “the Silicon Samurai”–has been a passionate collector of Samurai antiquities, including an extensive armor collection.  He frequently remarked that he treasured Samurai armor for its beauty and strength and because “it encapsulates the fundamentals of Japanese character.  As comprehensively as any people on earth, the Japanese know that while we are predators, we are also constantly trying to capture our humanity through a code of ethics and a sense of honor. (Forbes 156, n.7 (September 25, 1995). 

The show opens with a 19th century reproduction of the Ōyoroi armor worn by Hosokawa Yoriari, founder of the Hosokawa clan, in the battle of Kyoto in 1358.  This reproduction is basically a synthesis, containing parts that are historically accurate as well as parts that have been reinvented.   The exhibition also includes five other full sets of armor of different styles that span several eras, up until the end of the shogunate in the mid-1800’s.  Painstakingly handcrafted by leading artisans of the day, it is hard to imagine these ever being bloodied in combat.  In fact, most of the suits on display in the exhibition have not seen actual battle, nor have most of the battle trappings, but some objects, even ornately lacquered stirrups, do show moderate signs of wear.

Ōyoroi armor (big armor) is the most formal armor and was used from the late Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in one-on-one mounted combat.  The suit weighed about 60 pounds and consisted of a helmet (kabuto), cuirass (), tassets (kusuzuri which are overlaced with lames) to protect the hips and shoulder guards (sode).  It had great aesthetic value and is called “shikisei no yoroi,” the right ceremonial armor.  Because a warrior’s armor became his funeral attire if he was defeated, a great deal of attention was paid to decorative details and ornamentation and it was very costly and time-consuming to produce.  An early 10th century legal compendium discussed in Karl Friday’s Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan indicates that the production of Ōyoroi required between 192 and 265 days, depending on the season and length of day.  Modern-day craftsmen normally require ten months to two years of full-time labor to construct Ōyoroi replicas.  It has been documented that this reproduction, begun in 1824, took five years to complete.  This stunning suit of armor, with its combination of white cord lacing with diagonal accents of multicolored lacing in the shoulder guards and tassets, was popular in Yoriari’s time for its exquisite refinement.

Swords—deadly and stunning

Ceremonial long sword (tachi) blade, signed “Moriie zō” (Made By Moriie), Japan. Kamakura period (1185–1333), 13th century. Forged and tempered steel. Eisei Bunko Museum, 1784. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Ceremonial long sword (tachi) blade, signed “Moriie zō” (Made By Moriie), Japan. Kamakura period (1185–1333), 13th century. Forged and tempered steel. Eisei Bunko Museum, 1784. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

It has been said that the samurai’s sword was his soul.  The legendary katana, or curved sword, invented a millennium ago, remains a marvel of aesthetic beauty and skillful engineering.  The katana embodies the perfect melding of form and function.  While most bladed weapons were designed to either pierce or slash, the katana’s two different types of steel gave it optimum qualities for both, making it a highly versatile weapon in battle.  Human bone-cutting qualities were tested and refined during actual executions.  Delivered with the proper single blow by a trained warrior, the very finest swords were able to slice but through as many as five human bodies at once. (“Secrets of the Samurai Sword,”  NOVA, an exceptional tv program airing in Sept., goes into the history of samurai swordmaking and visits contemporary Japanese metalworkers as they craft a sword from scratch using ancient techniques. )   The exhibition includes several highest quality examples of ceremonial long blade, long blade and short blade swords that were either used directly or collected by the Hosokawa clan as evidence of their family status.   

A supreme 13th century ceremonial long blade, crafted by Moriie, has been designated an Important Cultural Property.  Moriie (active from 1249 to 1256) was from Hatada, which was near Osafune, the greatest sword-making center in the Bizen region.  This area is currently known as the southeast Okayama prefecture.  In addition to the superb workmanship on its surface steel and edge, this tachi sword (designed for cavalry combat) exhibits Moriie’s hallmark temper lines– irregular clove-shape (chōji midare) lines alternating with tadpole (kawazugo) lines.  The sword would have been sheathed with the blade edge pointing downward and slung from a waist belt.

Equally valuable were the sword’s guards and mountings which were often embellished lavishly, elevating them to works of art.  The sword guard balanced the blade and hilt and protected one’s hands from slipping onto the blade while using it.  The imperial sword guard mounting pictured here was made in late Edo period. 

Mounting for a ceremonial long sword (tachi) with nine planet family crests and gold fittings, Japan. Edo period (1615–1868), 19th century. Lacquered wood with sprinkled gold (makie) decoration, gilt bronze, gold, ray skin, leather. Eisei Bunko Museum, 29241. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Mounting for a ceremonial long sword (tachi) with nine planet family crests and gold fittings, Japan. Edo period (1615–1868), 19th century. Lacquered wood with sprinkled gold (makie) decoration, gilt bronze, gold, ray skin, leather. Eisei Bunko Museum, 29241. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Its scabbard is decorated in the makie lacquer technique, with nine-planet Hosokawa family crests in gold on a sprinkled pear skin (nashiji) background; variants of the family’s cherry blossom crest adorn the hilt.  Other works include exquisite fans, costumes, helmets, saddles and stirrups.

The Osher Gallery contains the workmanship of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) the greatest Samurai swordsman of his day, perhaps of all time and a renowned painter.  Musashi was sword instructor to the Hosokawa family and founded the Niten Ichi-ryū School of swordsmanship “the school of the strategy of two heavens as one” that uses the long and short swords together.  In 1645, he wrote his great book Gorin no shô (A Book of Five Rings), a martial arts strategy manual, that is in the exhibition as a set of five scrolls.  The original of the book was lost but his trusted disciple made a copy and it has remained with the Hosokawa family.   During the 1980’s, Musashi’s popularity stateside soared as American businessmen, eager to penetrate the Japanese mind, consumed his Book of Five Rings.   Can adroitness with a sword carry over to brushwork?  Not to be missed are Musashi’s stunning folding set of two six-paneled folding screens “Wild Geese and Reeds” designated “Important Cultural Property.”  In the left screen, gracefully-rendered light-featured geese rest beneath a tree and in the right screen, dark-featured geese rest and feed.  Throughout the work, he achieves economy in brushwork while conveying energy and movement.  

Dog-Chasing: a sport for mounted Samurai 

Of the many antiquities in the Hosokawa family collection, dog lovers, archers and equestrians will be fascinated by a late 17th century Edo period six-panel folding screen depicting inuoumono (dog-chasing)– a samurai archery drill that originated in the Kamakura period during the reign of Emperor Gohorikawa (r. 1222-32) and evolved into a very popular spectator sport.  The dogs were not harmed: the goal was to shoot the running dogs with heavily padded arrows, a task that challenged the samurais’ skill as horsemen and archers.  The event typically took place in the center of an open riding ground where two concentric rings were formed with ropes. The warriors were divided into teams, and the teams waited outside the larger circle until the dogs were released from the smaller circle by a dog-handler.  Each archer the same number of padded arrows; skill and accuracy were judged according to the length of the chase and the location of a hit.  Closely codified rules governed the size of the field and the number of dogs and archers participating. 

Left 6 panels “Inuoumono” (Dog Chasing Event), Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold foil on paper, H 139.9 cm x W 351.8 cm (each), Japan; Edo period (1615-1868), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 4005.

Left 6 panels “Inuoumono” (Dog Chasing Event), Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold foil on paper, H 139.9 cm x W 351.8 cm (each), Japan; Edo period (1615-1868), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 4005.

Only when a dog passed over a rope was it a target and then, the only shots that counted were torso shots; shots to the head or limbs drew penalty points.  This screen is typical of early 17th century folding screen compositions of the sport which emphasized mounted archers around the concentric ropes, watching or chasing a dog.  The brilliant colors and detailed action figures are set against a gold leaf background.   Today, only about a dozen of these folding-screen compositions are known to exist and most date to the 17th century.  Interestingly, as genre painting took hold, artists’ compositions of inuoumono changed somewhat, with increased emphasis on the spectators in attendance–their clothing, gestures, so forth.

 An Adopted Son becomes a Samurai

Other scrolls in the show range from albums of flower paintings to portraits of Hosokawa daimyos.  An exquisite hanging silk scroll portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489-1520) by Kano Motonobo has been designated “Important Cultural Property.”  Hosokawa Sumimoto, distant ancestor of the Hosokawa lineage was a warrior who experienced continual conflict and was engaged in war most of his life.   He was adopted into the line of Hosokawa shogunal deputies and into a family that already had an adopted son from the powerful Kujō family.  The Warring States period (late 15th and 16th centuries) was an extremely brutal time when warriors were consumed by ambition, suspicion and jealously and many members of distinguished warrior families turned against their own family members in a grab for power.  The two adoptees quarreled over succession to the Hosekawa line and Sumimoto’s brother was killed by one of Sumimoto’s supporters.  An attempt was made on Sumimoto’s life but he fled Kyoto to the Ōmi province and remained there until his position as head of one branch of the Hosokawa clan was secured.  His victory was short and he was unseated in 1508 and failed in subsequent attempts to regain his power.  He died disappointed and alone.   The portrait depicts him at age 19 mounted on his grand horse, wearing haramaki armor, a helmet with a horn like crest, his sword mounting is slung at his left side.  He carries his halberd blade up, a whip in his right hand and his reins in his left hand.  A short sword is tucked in his belt.  An inscription in fine calligraphy by Keijo Shūrin of the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto dates the portrait to 1507.  A portion of the inscription reads—“Hosokawa Sumimoto, a great archer and horseman, is far above other humans.  He is also versed in waka and appreciates the moon and the wind….Outside the citadel he takes bows and arrows; in meditation and reading of sacred books he protects Buddhism…”

Teabowl entitled “Otogaze,” black Raku ware, Raku Chōjirō (d. 1589), Momoyama period (1573-1615), 16th century, glazed earthenware, H. 8.2 cm x Diam. 10.8 cm (mouth), Diam. 5.0 cm (foot), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 1297.

Teabowl entitled “Otogaze,” black Raku ware, Raku Chōjirō (d. 1589), Momoyama period (1573-1615), 16th century, glazed earthenware, H. 8.2 cm x Diam. 10.8 cm (mouth), Diam. 5.0 cm (foot), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 1297.

Samurai Tea Practitioners—Ritual with Awesome Cups

It might be easy to dismiss this humble raku tea bowl, but this 16th century object, called “Otogaze,” bears the designation “Important Cultural Object” and is attributed to Japan’s most famous potter, Raku Chōjirō, and as such bears rock-star status.  The bowl takes its poetic name from the jovial female deity Otafuku, also called Otogaze, and it’s thought that the bowl’s volumptuous shape inspired the name. In early raku wares like this, the raw clay was coated with a lead glaze and then fired in a small-scale kiln.

The Hosokawa family’s meticulous  records of art objects and tea utensils mention this bowl by name and indicate that it was beloved by Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1646).   Sansai was one of the family’s most important tea practitioners and one of seven disciples of Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), the tea master who perfected the Way of  Tea (chanoyu).  Rikyu composed a poem which is still quoted “Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up.”  Without any spiritual training, you think you are drinking tea but actually tea drinks you up.  The age-old tradition of chanoyu has been maintained throughout many generations of the Hosokawa family and is observed today.  Former prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro (born 1938), the eighteenth generation head of the Hosokawa family, is a celebrated tea practitioner and an acclaimed ceramist and calligrapher.  A number of his tea bowls and implements for the Japanese tea ceremony, no doubt inspired by ancient ones are included in the show. 

The show concludes with a series of works relating to Zen Buddhism whose emphasis on obtaining inner autonomy and self-awareness by learning to control the body through the mind and the mind through the body appealed to the highly-disciplined samurai warriors.

Ticket prices for the exhibition show include a $5 surcharge over regular museum admission.  A fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition published by the Asian Art Museum is available at the museum store, $30 softcover, $45 hardcover.

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan” an unprecedented view of Bhutan’s treasures

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, February 10 – May 20, 2009

Guru Nyima Ozer, late 1800s. Bhutan. Ink and mineral colors on cotton. Lent by Do Khachu Monastery, Chukka. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Guru Nyima Ozer, late 1800s. Bhutan. Ink and mineral colors on cotton. Lent by Do Khachu Monastery, Chukka. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

It is not easy to write confidently about a distant culture’s art when it is not understood by the Western world and you are a complete stranger to it.  That is the precise situation that a number of journalists and critics faced (myself included) when confronting the stunning Bhutan show, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” which brought over 100 of Bhutan’s sacred ritual objects to a Western audience for the first time.  Even for those with a background in art of Himalayan region, it is difficult to discern differences between these rare Bhutanese artifacts and those from neighboring Nepal or Tibet.  After traveling for two years, this ambitious and  groundbreaking exhibition closes next Wednesday, May 10, at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, it final venue. 

A precious culture perched on the fragile edge of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a land that has long cultivated fantasies of Shangri-la.  Bhutan is called “Drukyul” or the Land of the Thunder Dragon by speakers of Dzongkha, its obscure language.  With limited roads, almost no tourist facilities, monasteries at remote altitudes, and restrictions on trekking its breathtaking mountains, Bhutan’s inaccessibly has made it all the more appealing.  The country is well known for its vigorous efforts to preserve its Buddhist heritage and traditional culture, which remain vibrant today. “The Dragon’s Gift” is organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the government of Bhutan and introduces us to the only existing Vajrayana, (“Tantric” or “Esoteric”) Buddhist kingdom in the world and its  sacred art which has remained virtually unknown both within and outside the country.

Bhutan is unique among its neighbors and among many small countries in that it has never been colonized, conquered or invaded, so its rich culture and its treasures are intact, creating an exciting opportunity for new scholarship.  Bhutan’s Drukpa lineage, introduced in the 15th Century, is the dominant Buddhist school, the state religion, and the subject of most of the 100 plus national treasures on display.  The show includes intricate and colorful thangka paintings, sculptures, textiles, stone and metal carvings and more – all sacred ritual objects selected by the curators and the Bhutanese government from among Bhutan’s over 2,000 active temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortress monasteries).  “In the eyes of the Bhutanese, these objects are not ‘art’ in the conventional sense, but are sacred images, supporting Buddhist practices,” explained Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum and guest curator of  “The Dragon’s Gift.”  Even in the temples in Bhutan, these sacred works are rarely seen.   Perhaps one object at a time might be brought out for ritual use.

The objects have been escorted on their journey by several monks who bless them twice daily in the museum with a morning purification ritual and evening prayer.  A Bhutanese Buddhist altar has also been constructed in the museum’s foyer, honoring the country’s spiritual traditions.  The ritual movements and interactions between the monks, the altar, and the sacred objects reinforce the spiritual vitality of these objects.  Also documented, and playing throughout the galleries in video, are the colorful cham, ancient ritual dance forms that are integral today to Bhutanese Buddhist practice. 

Seated goddess Kongtsedemo, 600-800. Bhutan. Cast copper alloy with gold and traces of pigment. Lent by the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Seated goddess Kongtsedemo, 600-800. Bhutan. Cast copper alloy with gold and traces of pigment. Lent by the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Bhutanese art has two main characteristics: it is religious and it is anonymous. Strict iconographical conventions are observed as well.  For someone whose knowledge of Buddhism is sparse, these visually enticing artworks may be intellectually frustrating because we cannot easily enter the story.  But even for those with knowledge of the region’s art, this is new territory.  Looking at a thangka, or scroll painting executed on fabric is exhilarating but we are hungry for deeper understanding.  In general, almost all representation is a dramatization of the Buddha’s teachings about the path to liberation and constant struggles to overcome the delusions that lead to samsara, the cycle of reincarnation or rebirth.

The great teacher and saint Padmasambhava as the wrathful Guru Dragpo Marchen, 1800-1900. Bhutan. Ink and colors on cotton. Lent by Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The great teacher and saint Padmasambhava as the wrathful Guru Dragpo Marchen, 1800-1900. Bhutan. Ink and colors on cotton. Lent by Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The deities, their subtle attributes, and who they keep company with in the core composition differ from Tibetan or Nepalese forms although they look similar to the untrained eye.  The exhibition catalogue itself represents a substantial pioneering endeavor: the scholarship in the area of Bhutanese art history is so thin that the catalog authors lacked phonetic conventions for art terminology.  For some time to come then, the art of this distant culture will remain somewhat mysterious because the essential keys provided by their own language keeps it impenetrable.

Among the numerous sculptures on view, the oldest artwork in the show dates from the seventh or eighth century.  The image of the seated goddess called Kongtesedemo, a protector of Buddhism, is made from cast copper alloy with cold gold.  The rare image dates from the very founding of Bhutan’s two earliest temples and is from the collection of the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro, which is the only lending institution in the exhibition that is a museum. All other artworks come from active temples and monasteries.

Padmasambhava, lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche (“Precious Teacher”) in Bhutan and elsewhere, is credited with introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and a section of the exhibition is devoted entirely to depictions of him and illustrated stories of his life. Most spiritual figures in Vajrayana Buddhism have benign and wrathful counterparts.  This intense and vibrant 19th century thangka depicts Padmasambhava as the wrathful red deity, the Guru Dragpo Marchen.  The wrathful depiction gave visual form to the spiritual act of eliminating demonic influence form the consciousness and the external physical surroundings. His lower body assumes the form of a ritual dagger, symbolizing his power to quell anger, desire and ignorance.  He holds a scorpion in one hand and a ritual thunderbolt in the other.  He wears a garland of severed heads and is draped with tiger and elephant skins and is engulfed in an aurora of vibrant stylized flames.  A register of figures fill the cloudy sky and all are performing ritual acts—composing a ritual text, carrying an alms bowl, carrying a thunderbolt, holding a strong of prayer beads.  Below the central deity Guru Dragpo Marchen are two scenes enclosed in rainbows that form a narrative.   On the right Padmasambhava is giving instruction to two demon-servants.  On the left, the same two demons are seen delivering these texts to the great Drupka Kagyu master Pema Karpo.  The texts that are being delivered are instructions on how to visualize the phurba from of Dragpo, which is a practice that Pemo Karpo popularized and is the theme of this vivid thangka.

I have visited the exhibition three times now, and each time my eyes take in this feast of rare artworks, I leave with no doubt that Bhutan is a country that I will one day visit.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment