The latest exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, which opens 18 May, explores the complex, diverse, cross-cultural perspectives of Asian cosmology and spirituality through 150 specially selected artworks from the past and present. It is the first large-scale exhibition of contemporary art organised by the museum and fills its special exhibition galleries with artworks by living artists and integrates new works throughout the museum’s renowned pan-Asian collections.
There are more than 60 works by 31 living artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japan/USA), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Adeela Suleman (Pakistan), Raqib Shaw (India), and Choi Jeong Hwa (Korea), alongside 90 objects from the museum’s collections – some dating back 2,000 years. Phantoms of Asia is organised around four themes: The first, Asian Cosmologies: Envisioning the Invisible; the second, World, Afterworld: Living Beyond Living; Third, Myth, Ritual, Meditation: Communing with Deities; and the fourth, Sacred Mountains: Encountering the Gods.
The exhibition includes artworks by contemporary artists hailing from Canada, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Tibet, and the US. Many of the contemporary installations are new or site-specific commissions. When combined with objects from the museum’s collections, these artworks represent a vast array of materials, forms and media, including works of stone, metal, fabric, wood, and modern materials; and masks, textiles, sculptures, ceramics, film and video, photographs, and paintings.
The exhibition begins with the story of ancient Asian cosmology and mythology, to show how people in ancient times imagined the universe and its invisible forces, and how this kind of perception can be still observed in contemporary works of art. Then it moves to the after-world, looking at ways people have been extending their imaginations into the afterlife and expressing their fears of the unseen world. This impulse can again be found in contemporary works.
The Osher Gallery is devoted to looking at traditional and contemporary works related to myths, rituals, dance, and meditation, which are ways of communicating with invisible forces and ancestor spirits, taking shape in deities and monsters – or in stories and films. Finally, in Tateuchi Gallery, traditional and contemporary works related to the concept of the sacred mountains from different regions in Asia are juxtaposed. Sacred mountains are places where invisible presence is felt, places where we may encounter gods and spiritual presence. The works in the second- and third-floor collection galleries are also articulated according to these four themes of cosmology; the after-world; myths, rituals, dance and meditation; and sacred mountains.
Mami Kataoko, guest curator of the exhibition from the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, explains how the exhibition came to fruition, ‘Phantoms of Asia grew out of various concerns and issues I have been grappling with over the past few years. I began with such fundamental questions as where we are all coming from and where we are going. I wondered what we still carry from our past relating to these matters. I was also thinking about Asia as a concept. As we all know, Asia is huge and complex, and there is no way to pin it down in a few words. Yet I wondered whether interconnectivity in the Asian region could be captured in some way.
‘I wanted to move away from the focus on economics and politics that has dominated international attention on Asia. Looking instead at its art and culture, was there some way its continuities and connections across time and space could be highlighted? And I wanted to look back at pre-modern Asia, when people were more attuned to the natural world, as an antidote to the rush of modernism, with all that entails. I wanted to explore a sensory, non-rational, and spiritual understanding of the universe that bridges pre-modern times and the present. Contemporary art has been conceptually driven for some time, but it seemed possible to me that contemporary artists could go further in balancing the logical, rational, and analytical with a more sensory, intuitive, and holistic mentality.’
Kataoko also wanted to use objects from the museum’s permanent collection to illustrate the concept of the exhibition and explore interconnectivity and sensory perception of the universe in Asia. So that contemporary and ancient works as art are juxtaposed by theme rather than by time or region, with contemporary works also being interspersed throughout the museum’s collection galleries, too. In conclusion, Kataoko states, ‘Through this ambitious and challenging exhibition we hope to provide a meeting point for audiences interested in traditional Asian art and contemporary art enthusiasts, to inspire larger and more holistic views of art and the world, and to awaken a new awareness of our existence in the world, freeing us from the short-sighted preoccupations of our everyday tasks and difficulties’.
From 18 May to 2 September, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, www.asianart.org. Catalogue available.