Phantoms of Asia at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

I saw Phantoms of Asia announced last May just before it opened, and though I put it on my mental calendar, I still almost missed it: it closes September 2nd. On the primary level, the exhibition explores how art from Asian cultures tackles the big mythological themes: life, death, spirits and spirituality, the universe and our place in it. On another level, it explores how contemporary Asian artists engage with — or react against — the “phantoms” of traditional aspects of their own cultures: traditional mores, traditional art forms, traditional folklore.

I thought it would be the first level that would interest me the most; instead, it was the second level that engaged me. In retrospect, maybe that’s not surprising, since I’m a first generation Filipina-American living in San Francisco. There are a lot of first-generation-and-beyond Asian-Americans here, and many of us ponder our participation (or lack of it) in our family’s culture.

There’s too much here to cover it all. My friend Michelle Baird, who is a docent at the Asian Art Museum, also wrote a post about this exhibition, on the use of moon symbology, over at her blog White Desi/Gori Desi. I’m going to stick to a few of the artists who struck me the most.

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Choi Jeoung Hwa’s Breathing Flower, with San Francisco City Hall in the background
Photo: Nina Zumel

The experience starts before you even enter the museum, with Korean artist Choi Jeoung Hwa’s Breathing Flower. The giant lotus sits across the street from the museum, on U.N. Plaza, its inflated petals fluttering in the breeze. The petals are also actuated, to give the impression of a living, aspirating flower.

I didn’t realize at first that it was part of the exhibit. San Francisco is home base for a lot of the Burning Man crowd, so I’m used to amazing sculptures and artwork blooming out of nowhere in random public spaces, staying for awhile, and then vanishing. I thought this was one of them — a perfect start to my late morning adventure.

A photo from Anonymity, by Poklong Anading

Inside, the exhibition begins in the ground floor galleries. In the Cosmology room sits a case of antique chinese hand mirrors, each decorated on the back with the circle of the universe, of creation, or of the heavens. Behind the case is a series of photographs by Filipino artist Poklong Anading, entitled Anonymity.

Each photograph shows a person holding a mirror in front of his or her face. The mirror reflects the flash of the camera and obscures the person’s features. The docent near me while I was looking at the photos was chatting with her group about themes of alienation and distance, loss of identity. This makes sense, given the series’ title; but taken as a whole, the photographs speak to me more positively. Faces are how we distinguish one another; instead, the photographs give us the same “face”, on different bodies. To me, the series speaks of a sense of commonality among people from different walks of life; a kind of universal aura or internal light that lives inside all of us, if we look for it. It’s the influence of my hippie Berkeley background, I guess.

Also on the first floor: Anno Domini, by Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto. Ghostly soldiers dressed in uniforms with both Dutch and Javanese motifs stand under the frame of a traditional Javanese house. Instruments play; someone chants. It made me think of Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. According to Jompet, the piece acknowledges the collision of cultures, and finds within it something to celebrate; his theme makes an interesting juxtaposition with Calvino’s metaphor of unattainable ideals.

Beyond the first floor, the rest of the exhibition is scattered among the other two floors of the museum, amongst the permanent collection (some of the pieces were part of the permanent collection). At first this struck me as lazy — they couldn’t even take the pieces and put them all together? But as I floated through the rest of the museum, following the trail of yellow signs that marked a piece as being part of the special exhibition, I changed my mind. It was illuminating to see the contemporary artists displayed among their influences, and to revisit pieces that I’ve seen before in a new light.

Detail from Raqib Shaw’s Absence of God VII.

From India: Raqib Shaw. Michelle talks about his piece Ode to the Lost Moon (two pieces actually); I fell in love with his other piece in the show, Absence of God VII. The bright colors, the glittering materials, the beautiful and yet bloodthirsty imagery of the war between heaven and hell. The images in the piece suggest myths that I know somewhere in the back of my mind — perhaps from another life. If you ever get a chance to see his work in person, do, because a photograph is a wholly inadequate experience.

Shaw’s thumbnail bio says he is influenced by Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian culture (he grew up in Kashmir and lived for a while in London); I can see that in Absence of God. He also says he is influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, and that makes sense, too. I also thought of Ernst (especially in Ode to the Lost Moon).

Howie Tsui’s Mount Abundance and the Tip Top People #2
Image: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

And finally, Howie Tsui: born in Hong Kong, raised in Nigeria and Ontario. I cannot tell you how much I love Mount Abundance and the Tip Top People. Well, I can try, but you’ll just look at me funny, like the nice docent lady at the Museum Store did. Tsui’s work is… disturbing, and unlike Shaw, he doesn’t pretty it up with rhinestones and bright silks. Tsui’s bio says that his influences include “ghost stories, Buddhist hell scrolls, Japanese monster culture, and Hong Kong vampire films.” I would throw Bosch and manga in there, too. I particularly like the way that the layouts of his Mount Abundance pieces (#1 and #2 were in the exhibition) reference the layouts of traditional Chinese depictions of mountain scenes.

As with Shaw, the imagery of Tsui’s pieces was simultaneously novel and very familiar. I feel like I’ve met these ghosts and monsters, but I couldn’t tell you where. That’s what appeals to me about the work of these two artists: the way that they tickle my sense of myth and folklore, without merely repeating the same old familiar stories.

If I had room, I’d talk about Fuyuko Matsui’s feminist grotesque, and about Hyon Gyon . I may do separate posts about them. But this is enough for now.

All in all, it was a great museum visit.

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