’Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past’ Opens at the Asian Art Museum

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Monday May 28, 2012
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Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past, the big summer show that opened at the Asian Art Museum last weekend, does no less than ponder the nature and origins of the universe and the invisible forces that shape our lives. Through themes of cosmology and spirituality, it attempts to connect histories, cultures and religions of Asia, and explore the supernatural roots of the region's art. You may already know the exhibition has landed if you've walked past Civic Center Plaza lately and seen "Breathing Flower," an immense red lotus whose fabric petals open and close electronically. The work, by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, sits on its throne like a fabulous pasha, or the eighth wonder of the world waiting to be admired.

To advance its thesis of the cross-cultural interplay between past and present, which it does with varying degrees of success, Phantoms juxtaposes 80 traditional art objects from the permanent collection with over 60 contemporary works. The organizing principle serves a dual purpose: it showcases the museum's strong suit in antiquities, and potentially attracts a younger generation of visitors whose support is crucial to the survival and vitality of the institution.

In the past, the curators have appeared more sure-footed in the ancient world, but the contemporary works here by a crop of 31 youngish artists are stronger and more interesting than those in the Shanghai exhibition, the Asian's unsteady lunge toward modernity in 2010. This time around, the choices are often astute, provocative and occasionally stunning, like New York-based Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's outstanding, austere, shrine-like installation. In "Five Elements," an illuminated white projection screen covers an expansive wall of a darkened gallery, and seven identical wooden posts are lined up in front of it like sentinels, several feet away. Atop each post rests a tiny pagoda-shaped crystal jar containing a black-and-white film image of a seascape. The pagodas represent the Five Universals of the cosmos: earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness. The installation is startling in its simplicity and purity, dramatic and reverent in its silence. With his work's cool detachment and sleek minimalism, it's not surprising to learn that Sugimoto is also an architect.

Raqib Shaw's paintings, with their ornate depictions of fantastical alternate universes, are on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum. "Ode to the Lost Moon of the Lesser Himalayas on the Banks of the Lidder," a haunting trio of emerald green panels decorated in rhinestones, glitter and enamel - materials applied with a porcupine quill - portrays an otherworldly, animistic realm prowled by hybrid creatures. One with a plumed headdress has climbed to the edge of a precipitous cliff; with oblivion below and mile-high, giant pines above, it howls at the full moon and starry skies. Blending Kashmiri and Western motifs, "Absence of God VII," a large canvas by the same artist, is an action-packed, psychedelic explosion of flowers, plants, mythic creatures and architectural ruins floating in the heavens. Red- and gold-striped colonnades of once-great architectural wonders are tilted and adrift, and a dragon with wings emerges full-blown from a cloud of phantasmagoric flora.

Although in some instances, the art can be fussy or self-conscious, the first-floor exhibits make the most convincing case linking the old and new, and establishing consistent themes. Motohiko Odani's malformed lacquer faces, expressing distorted psyches and ailing spirits, are a modern take on traditional Japanese Noh masks, while across the room hangs an assembly of theater and animal masks, some with large, bulbous eyes and jagged-toothed jaws, spanning 600 years of religious and secular practice in Tibet, India and Japan. Believed to bridge human and sacred worlds, masks were sometimes worn during dances calculated to ward off evil, bring good luck and transcend fear, hatred, desire and death.

Other objects are simply fascinating. Take an amazing chambered stoneware oil lamp from the 5th century, which has five oval cups clustered without an inch to spare on a small pedestal or the 1,000-year-old Chinese circular bronze mirrors; one side is decorated with symbols diagramming the universe, the other reflects the viewer's image, offering an opportunity, perhaps, to pause and question one's place in the cosmos.

But where the show excels is in its installations, which are plentiful. Hemon Chong's "Calendars (2020-2096)" imagines a future of anomie and alienation through 1,001 images of empty spaces. The prints, shot in Singapore during a six-year period starting in 2004, paper the gallery from floor to ceiling. Sun K. Kwak spent two weeks toiling in the central court, sculpting it with swirling filigree produced by applying black masking tape and vinyl to walls and columns. At the far end of the space, there's the invisible army of "Anno Domini," a surreal ghost story that's the brainchild of Indonesian musician-turned-artist Jompet. He arranged a group of bodiless soldiers suspended in the air in loose formation and equipped them with Hindu, Western and Islamic headgear, lace-up boots and body armor.

The exhibition occupies almost the entire museum, including its open public spaces, and because it's so spread out, it feels larger than it actually is. More than one visit may be needed to take it all in, but a show whose premise is cosmic inter-connectedness would have benefited from consolidation. It loses focus, and visitors may lose steam as it stretches onto the second and third floors. Upstairs, the exhibition's objects, denoted with yellow labels, are intermingled with the rest of the museum's extensive collection. Finding and identifying the artworks is a confusing and exhausting process that begins to feel like a treasure hunt. As with a treasure hunt, one needs comfortable shoes, lots of time and an equal amount of patience.

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