The first thing I see when I enter the Asian Art Museum on opening night of “Phantoms of Asia”—before the scrolls, the photographs, the paintings, and the artifacts—is a sculpture of an upside-down “A” crawling with graffiti.
Who’s the artist? I ask a staff member. Everyone, I’m told. The freestanding letter serves as a meeting point for the museums’ thousands of guests, each of whom can add to the piece. Some sign their names, others draw hearts. Dates and initials on white. From a distance, nothing’s legible; all that comes through is the letter itself. BE A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, wrote one anonymous adviser. Much like the exhibit I’m about to walk into, an exercise in curation that cross-pollinates the past with the present, the sculpture stands as a signpost at an intersection: of strangers, of tourists, people who will touch the same totem only once. There are cursive tags, illustrations. A James Michener quote interrupts the ravelment: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”
The quote would make more sense as I viewed the work of ancient potters alongside contemporary artists whose works crossed the Pacific for these pedestals. Not all of the art in the exhibition is comforting, I learn; much isn’t. And while all put Michener’s aphorism to the test, perhaps the dark showing room of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s 2005 video installation The Class does so most. In the film, she stands before a blackboard on which the word DEATH and some notes have been written. Her audience? Six cadavers sheet-covered on the floor, listening as if the living knew more than they. Later, food and customs and religion aside, I’d watch the people there later: the artists and patrons, suits and dresses, who passed in and out of the room. There, projected on the wall, was their one shared destination.
But now, my ballpoint pressed to plaster, I have only a small sense of the alchemy at hand. Objects are being forced out of their categories, shunted from one stratum to another—dragging whole cosmologies with them. Choi Jeong Hwa’s Breathing Flower, a motorized red lotus 24 feet in diameter, flutters anemone-like across from the exhibition in the plaza outside of City Hall, an exception to the steel and concrete. Even the history of the museum is rich with flux: the building was once San Francisco’s Main Library, and in front of me, out of all things, is the first letter of the alphabet, turned on its head and reclaimed. The longer I stare, the less it looks like a letter inverted and more like a symbol not yet learned.
The collection proves as vast in materials as it does in topics. Paintings hang beside sculptures, photographs next to installations, vases with videos. Newer works disrupt armadas of period pieces, perturbations to a linear system of seeing.
Separated from their modern peers by centuries, long-gone artists would have never had the chance to make a film, construct an installation, or line furrows of halogens behind sculptures. There’s no value judgment here, nothing to reconcile; just the reality of time. As I move through the galleries I find a history of form, also, though not as the obedient vehicle it’s often cast as. What shapes manifest themselves on the rice-paper scrolls, in the watercolors and the calligraphy, aren’t random: they were dictated by gravity, by how long metal takes to cool, how far ink runs when it leaves the brushstroke.
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Thousands of years have passed since the heyday of scroll art. But now there are more ways than ever before to bend the matter behind the meaning to one’s will. On display are pieces by several contemporary scroll artists, work that mirrors tradition but declines to worship it. Though the limbs are kept recognizable, the heart of the craft has been Frankensteined; aspects of ancient scroll work remain, but they do so in a modified state, muted by a new century’s sensibilities. The work of Canadian artist Howie Tsui, for instance, employs the linear progression of narrative so common in formal scrolls, but that’s where the appropriation ends. Tsui’s Mount Abundance and the TipToe People #1 and #2 pun on the old penchant for using the genre to depict natural beauty. Clouds, trees, and streams have warped faces; the figures that inhabit the scene are as tortured and grotesque as their surroundings; the voice of Hieronymus Bosch and his medieval chimeras whisper in the background. They’re done on mulberry paper instead of traditional rice paper, which Tsui says is better for finer strokes: “The ink doesn’t bleed.”
He tells me that his childhood interest in the macabre energized these pieces, that he wanted to “satirize” and thereby complicate fear: once, he recalls, his mother told him that every grain of rice he didn’t eat would be a pockmark on his wife’s face. This was the sort of fear that snagged him, Tsui says, that conflation of the “warm and fuzzy” with the horrific. It makes sense given his other undertakings. One, titled Musketball!, is a pinball machine modeled after the War of 1812—more specifically, after the hazards the human torso faced in battle.
Scary stories aren’t of interest to Tsui alone, whose work hums with both the vibrant and the vulgar. The scroll pieces of Fuyuko Matsui are rife with yūrei, Japanese spirit-figures comparable to Western specters. Matsui, who earned a Ph.D. in Japanese painting from the Tokyo University of the Arts, mentions to me how few contemporary artists in Japan are engaging with the scroll tradition. But Matsui’s pieces are no imitations. Constructed partly of silk, they frame their panoramas in violent and phantasmagoric sequence: orchids turned worm-like, a snake nested into a corpse, a woman running from the crows and dogs tearing her muscles from her bones. One of her scrolls re-imagines the kusozu, a motif created in the Kamakura era to depict nine stages of death. According to Matsui, such paintings were reminders of the mortality of beauty to male ascetics. Hers produces a decay with an elegance to it, an odd symmetry to death.
“It is precisely when it appears most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality that the image is most diabolical,” writes Jean Baudrillard in “The Evil Demon of Images.” So what of Matsui’s yūrei, wispy-haired females who seem to float, feetless, above the ground—are they perversions of the human, or documentations of the spectral? She has an answer. “I do not believe in ghosts, but there is a common imagery of ghosts, similar to mass hysteria,” she says. “When someone claims to have seen a ghost, I’m interested in his or her obsession with the experience.” Obsession seems the right word—standing in front of her prints I find myself mistaking flowers for ripped ligaments, confusing my sense of what counts as beautiful, unsure of the truthful and diabolical alike.
Lin Chuan-chu goes to great lengths to assure me of the importance of books to him. He’s read translations of Proust, for instance, while a student in Taiwan. None of this affirmation is necessary. The oil painting next to us, Book, lives up to Chuan-chu’s words (and its title); a hardcover hovers over a flesh-pink background while genies of smoke whirl from its pages, first white and then black. The alternate colors of smoke testify to the multiverse in each text, to the bifurcated possibilities of reading. The book is the vehicle, dwarfed by what’s drawn from it.
And then there’s his two-panel Rock V, which began similarly to many of his other pieces as a sketch of his home country. Wrapped into the fusion of matter levitated above white space is a landscape and its details, eroded rock that gives way to cloud-like funnels. There’s a whole map here, albeit a contorted one. The longer I absorb the painting, the more I understand Chuan-chu when he says that a struggle to visualize his “inner spirit” informs his pieces; his is an emotional as well as geographical terrain. He emphasizes how central Taiwan is to him, talks briefly of the clamor for independence and its opposition. What enters my visual field as seemingly a concept leaves it as an emblem of loyalty—to the notion of a homeland that leads the self into an identity, that bridges a collective with its own selfhood. But despite the sedimentary textures of Rock V, its shape is vaporous, moisture in flux.
Chuan-chu will pop back into my mind when I view the miniature seascapes and mountain ranges of Bae Young-whan, whose investigations of place take on a three-dimensional angle. For Young-whan, the orientation of his installation—the position from which the viewer encounters it—is crucial. Rows of ceramic waves made alien by light, all modeled after graphs of his own brain, create a rectangular chamber in which another sculpture is situated. Titled Terra Incognita-Theta, it’s a mountain range hewn from a chunk of solid oak that looks much like a tabletop at first glance. Looking closer, the grain of the wood charts a strange topography across the peaks, as if to emphasize their scale. Perched in cabinets behind me, the waves stay frozen—the distance between the land they might abrade finalized. Inside of one museum, Young-whan has created another: a showcase of reverse proportions that viewers can enter into, where the grandiose is forced into the parameters of the everyday. It’s an impulse that makes sense given the exhibition, a questioning of the physical reality against which the metaphysical becomes known. Young-whan’s brain, after all, gave the first cue.
The more I speak with Chuan-chu the more I understand the homesickness he’s getting at. He traveled from Taiwan to be here, to stand patiently with a nametag as I jot down his sentences. His work, as well as Young-whan’s, makes its locales foreign upon approach. But beneath the ground, there is water; a closer inspection of the oak reveals valleys, their troughs textured and verisimilar. The clay surf a meld of elements, ocean and earth, as remarkable as the heritages this exhibition has gathered.
These are place-prayers. They root themselves in the natural and exalt it to a doppelganger of the divine: that mythic quality of home. A place to which one returns again and again; an obsession with one’s own ghosts. Stepping back from Rock V I notice how much the red, columnar vortices in my peripheral vision snag like how a heart-shape might—were it not for the line cleaving the panel in two.
When T. S. Eliot wrote “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he was talking about poets and poetry, the relationship between a canon and its components. But he might have well been talking about painters and paintings. Behind Tsui’s scrolls poises a collection of dynasty-era porcelain, the scenes of rural and noble life as much a commentary on Tsui’s scrolls as his scrolls are a commentary on them. With Matsui and Chuan-chu, metal urns for incense and rice paper paintings hint toward what each has borrowed from history. These conversations aren’t lectures but volleys: walking through the gallery, my eyes rest alternately on the old and the new, the garish and the demure. Sometimes, the older artworks seem sterner; sometimes the newer less unified. And though the past lies limp enough to be stolen from, it bites back; its fingerprints coat every project.
Here, though, the artists have welcomed the past’s influence. They invite its aesthetics and ethics into their works to be reanimated. What results is a confrontation of the supposedly “original” with the “derivative,” akin to what Eliot claimed happened when critics spoke about that part of a poet’s work that seemed most unique. “In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man,” he wrote. “Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
That immortality asserts itself doubly in the two rows of masks lined on another wall. Spread across six hundred years, they come from an assortment of nations—Japan, Tibet, India. Some, I read, were crafted to help their wearers transcend human emotions and fears, including feelings about death. Others were meant for religious ceremonies, in an attempt to interweave the human and the sacred, which an informational guide claims is a frequent practice. Some bear animal features. Some were worn by actors in Japanese Noh plays. Some covered the faces of the dead.
On an adjacent wall hang three pieces by Prabhavathi Meppayil. Like its two counterparts, Untitled–CU1-2011 consists of copper wire embedded in lime gesso. A first look sees white. But as I move closer the scale-like textures of the piece, and the shadows they cast, invoke the refractive light of the room. The patterns march with methodical consistency across her panels as if reminders of the impossibility of pure origins. I think about John Cage, his visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard in 1951 in a search for total silence. Sitting into the soundproofed room, he heard two murmurs, one high and one low—he was told the former was his nervous system’s electricity and the latter his pulse. “Until I die there will be sounds,” he wrote, inspired to write his landmark composition 4’33’. “And they will continue following my death.”
Tonight, the ancestors are present. And though they aren’t eternal in form, the bloodlines of their ideas carry forward; they mark everything their heirlooms. What Eliot calls “the historical sense” is an undercurrent here, felt more strongly as I wade through the anterooms and hallways filled with people. It’s a sense, he insists, that compels a poet to write not merely “with his own generation in his bones,” but with the classics as well—in his case Homer and the corpus of European literature—placed alongside him in his process of making. The historical sense bends the straight stream of time into a whirlpool. It consists, he says, of “the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together.” The “historical” artist, one conscious of his or her tradition, takes on a trinity of experiences: that of being bound by time, that of being free from time, and that of being bound and freed simultaneously. All of which add up to one constricted but breathing moment.
As I sit before the screen on which Rasdjarmrearnsook’s The Class is playing, I am conscious of my breaths. I count them as I watch the motionless chests of the corpses in the video, scanning them for movement. Nothing. I try to process the distance between the bodies on the screen and the bodies as they must be now, buried somewhere—on another continent, maybe. And I consider my own body, how separate it is from these others but how certain its trajectory, like theirs, arcs toward stillness. The piece is guttural in its presentation. I watch for ten minutes, unable to find the point at which it loops. No one else stays for more than a moment. After ten minutes I, too, find myself resisting the facts laid before me on silver morgue trays; biology decrees what shouldn’t be a surprise, but I find my stomach protesting.
In gaps of calm between the unsettledness, I wonder if it’s a bad joke that the dead know what they cannot tell us—the punch line being that we pretend to know it. Is it possible that Rasdjarmrearnsook, in the same room as the cadavers and reading to them, is saying that the only chance we have to “know” anything about death is while we’re alive, before we step into oblivion? A third and darker possibility emerges: that both hypotheses are true, that the living and the dead inhabit disconnected worlds. Each equally unreal to the other, each kept from the other by a barrier neither can breach.
If anything, The Class is the quintessential piece for this odd premiere night. One set of doors separates this lesson in mortality from a dance floor seizing with socialites, drinks, and music. Along the columns rising above them a wisp of black and tattered plastic is stretched. I can’t find a title for it, or an artist—I assume it’s an in-house decoration. Later, I’ll learn the piece is Untying Space by Sun K. Kwak. But for now it hangs there, flexing with the drafts, a phantom ever-present but unable to be identified. The deceased in the video could be anyone; Matsui’s ghosts and Tsui’s demons belong neither to them nor anyone else. What distinguishes this exhibition from most is how it handles anxiety about the afterlife: it lays bare its public-ness. And while its messages may be less self-contained than the Indian cosmological paintings or Buddhist visions of hell on display, it is no less earnest.
The interplay of light and dark—not as colors but as energies, wavelengths, and their lack—lends the exhibition a wealth of contradictions. As with The Class, in the light box series by Filipino artist Poklong Anading titled Anonymity, the sense of the “human” is unnerved. Walking through the streets of Manila and other Philippine metropolises, Anading made portraits of individuals as they held a circular mirror over their faces and caught the sun with it. His lenses capture the searing moment of reflection; the subject’s head is obliterated by the blast. Robbed of facial specificity, Anading’s portraits flood with a peculiar mood of intimacy: that of the nameless. By censoring that part of the body the gaze most immediately directs to, Anading troubles our procedure for assembling identities—including our own. And it’s telling that the sunlight in these portraits, a usually positive entity, is tasked with the work of erasure.
The darkness is mine, though, as I stand in the viewing room and scrutinize these backlit photographs for any trace of a feature. It occurs to me that maybe Anading is making present the pain of staring into the sun. Or that these partially-destroyed portraits make clear how faces are relied upon for distinction despite their parallels—the enigma of using resemblance to discern one self from another. Baudrilliard again: “We have thus come to the paradox that these images describe the equal impossibility of the real and of the imaginary.”
I leave the museum with Eliot in my head. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” he wrote. “You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Tonight, I’ve done so, whether I wanted to or not. I find my signature on the inverted letter “A” in the foyer, step into the sharp May wind sweeping across the Civic Center, and begin walking toward BART. There’s nothing miraculous about the face of any stranger I see, but the loaned particulars of each seem brighter. Each is at once a fragment from the archive of faces before it, and that archive itself—a repository for those future individuals who will, helplessly, speak to the past and be spoken through by it. I might call them ghosts, just as they might look at me and do the same.