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Curator of Film Tom Vick: Korea in Five Scenes

Historic streets of Bukchon

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

I am in Korea, currently as a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) and next week as a guest of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Each year, KOCIS invites 18 people from around the world to participate in a cultural exchange program. For my visit, I chose to combine business meetings and visits to museums and cultural sites in the hopes of enhancing my understanding of Korean history and culture. I have spent the last week crisscrossing Seoul with my official guide and interpreter, who have enthusiastically embraced the Korean government’s recently imposed relaxed dress code.

My official government guide and interpreter in Seoul

Early in my trip I was treated to a personal docent tour of highlights from the National Museum of Korea. The tour included a room of Buddha sculptures that shows off not only the sophistication of ancient Korean sculptors, but also the influence of other cultures via the Silk Road nearly 2,000 years ago.

Buddha from the National Museum of Korea

That same day I was treated to lunch by filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, who visited the Freer a few years ago to show his films, and Hanna Lee, producer of Chang-dong’s masterpiece Secret Sunshine. He showed me around another site where cultures mix: the Bukchon section of the city (top photo), where picturesque old streets have become the settings for wildly popular Korean television dramas, which in turn attract tourists from all over Asia seeking to walk the same streets as their favorite Korean TV stars.

Hanna Lee, producer, and Lee Chang-dong, filmmaker

After a week of enriching cultural experiences, productive meetings, and reconnections with old Korean friends, I write today from Gyeongju, city of burial mounds of ancient kings. For everyone I’ve met who loves Gyeongju, I meet someone who complains about obligatory middle school field trips there to be force-fed ancient Korean history. I even saw an installation at Samsung Museum of Contemporary Art lampooning this tradition. But even though Gyeongju dresses up its burial mounds with piped-in mood music and a nighttime light show, it’s hard not to be awed by being in the presence of massive graves that have been left undisturbed for nearly two millenia.

Burial mound in the city of Gyeongju

Next week I will experience another kind of spectacle, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, where far-out films from around the world meet an enthusiastic audience of movie geeks. Stay tuned!

Posted by in Art Elsewhere, Film | 1 Comment

Encounters with the Golden Deer: Kazakhstan 101

Horned Deer with Folded Legs

Horned Deer with Folded Legs, Two-Sided; Zhalauli (Kegen district, Almaty region), 7th–6th century BCE

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house curator of the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, opening August 11.

For me, Kazakhstan is first of all a beautiful and stunning landscape: wide open, green grasslands; glittering, crystal-blue rivers and lakes; and high mountains in the east and the Caspian Sea in the west. A country four times bigger than Texas and almost the size of India, Kazakhstan is rich with history and home to wild tulips, oil, nomads who still hunt with golden eagles, and more than one hundred nationalities. Bordering Russia to the north and China to the east, Kazakhstan is today the world’s ninth largest country and has emerged as one of the most fascinating places in Central Asia.

East Kazakhstan, Lake Markakol, © Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington, DC

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler from August 11 through November 12, 2012, features spectacular finds from recent excavations that provide a unique window into the archaeology and cultures of Kazakhstan. The exhibition invites viewers to think about the ways nomadic and more sedentary cultures lived together. How did members of the elite represent themselves through burials of their leaders? Why was the horse so elaborately dressed and valued as a friend and partner?

The exhibition was conceptualized, developed, and organized by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in collaboration with the Ministries of Culture and Information and of Science and Education, Republic of Kazakhstan, and four major national museums in Kazakhstan and the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, DC. It marks the first time that ancient artifacts from the very heart of Asia will be displayed in the nation’s capital. We will complement it with related special programming including gallery talks, lectures, a concert, ImaginAsia family programs, and films.

On Bento, we will cover some of the exciting discoveries made in Kazakhstan. Claudia Chang, professor at Sweet Briar College and one of the preeminent US archaeologists working in Kazakhstan today, has been exploring the sedentary places of the ancient people living in the Talgar region since 1994. This summer, Claudia excavates at the site of Tuzusai in eastern Kazakhstan, near the old capital of Almaty. Beginning next week, she will regularly blog her experiences in the field.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 7 Comments

On Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, photographed in the Sackler Gallery by John Tsantes

Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at Freer|Sackler, Nancy Micklewright is just back from a trip to Istanbul, where she met with leading scholars and colleagues and visited the city’s newest museum.

Istanbul, already a city of great museums, has a new one. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish) opened on April 28. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize laureate, conceived of his museum and his novel of the same name, published in 2008, as two parts of the same project. His novel, set in Istanbul of the 1970s, is a love story. The protagonist, Kemal, is obsessed with Füsun, his beloved, and lives out his obsession by trying to collect everything she has touched or that embodies their lives together so that he will always remember her.

Kemal’s collection, painstakingly assembled by Pamuk, is displayed in the museum, a converted 19th-century house. The 83 vitrines correspond to the 83 chapters in the book and are filled with thousands of objects—snapshots, keys, watches, salt and pepper shakers, matchbooks, restaurant menus. Some pieces have been fabricated, including the collection of 4,213 cigarette butts (every cigarette smoked by Füsun during the years of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair), but most were collected from the junk and antique stores of Istanbul. The museum’s design and installation were a collaborative effort of the author and a team of professional designers, and the result is engaging, even bewitching.

Ticket and postcard from the Museum of Innocence

Presenting fabricated objects together with historic artifacts, all in the service of a narrative that is itself a fiction, disrupts the visitor’s expectations about authenticity and reality. The multiple voices of the wall text, sometime Pamuk reporting on a conversation with Kemal, sometimes Kemal himself speaking, further confuse the visitor.

The museum offers a chance to engage with big questions: What is the relationship between objects and memory? Does a novel need a museum to complete its message? What does it mean when a museum collection is a work of fiction? What is the difference between a museum and the performance of a museum? Is there a difference?

Interested in learning more about contemporary practice in museums? The Freer|Sackler’s lecture series Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century resumes on September 12 with a look at The Gulshan Album: The Collections of a Young Prince by distinguished scholar Milo Cleveland Beach.

Posted by in Art Elsewhere, Behind the Scenes, Talks and Lectures | 3 Comments

A Colorful Past

Curator Alex Nagel at the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars tent, Folklife Festival, July 2, 2012

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. This post takes him out of the Archives and onto the National Mall.

The Smithsonian staff picnic boiled away on Monday, July 2, from 11 am till 2 pm, and saw a host of Smithsonian employees ambling, somewhat laden by heat, across the Mall with ice-cold smoothies in hand and sweat patches pooling on their backs. I sat watching this from the relative cool of the 2012 Smithsonian Congress of Scholars (SCOS) research tent, thinking how lucky I was to sit in adequate comfort, above ground (unlike the F|S offices), and without having to stare at a computer for hours.

However, if I thought my day was going to be as easy as sitting around people-watching, I was grossly mistaken. From about 11:30 am there was a steady stream of traffic to and from our table, with people asking a vast array of questions about the pigment project that Alexander Nagel, assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Freer|Sackler, has been working on for the past six years. Alex has been collaborating with a team of colleagues in Persepolis (Iran) to determine the original colors of the site through documenting small traces of pigments found there. These pigment marks have not only been found in Persepolis, but also at other ancient sites such as Pasargadae (also in Iran) and Palmyra (Syria).

In the SCOS research tent we spoke about the recent findings and discussed what they illuminate about these ancient sites. Ultimately, we explained, the pigments allow us to understand what these cities would have looked like. They give us insight into a culture that we used to think was very pristine and whitewashed, allowing us strip away that fallacy and build an extremely different picture of these cities—one that is covered in vibrant colors. From painted monuments to frescoes, the grand buildings on these sites were decorated elaborately. It is a grand shift in the way we view ancient civilizations and may change many of our perceptions of the past.

One of the most interesting pieces we discussed was a stone relief excavated at Palmyra that had traces of pigments on it. The relief, which is part of the F|S collection,  is one of about 5,000 found at the site, all representations of the people in the tombs they were guarding. The color present on this relief is again evidence of how vibrant these cities would have been; even the dead were housed in elaborately painted tombs.

As the day went on, Alex and I were faced with a number of interesting questions, observations, and suggestions. It was rewarding that people took so much interest. They were fully engaged and particularly fascinated with the notion that the past was so much more colorful than some had believed. Of the many questions that were asked over the course of the day, the ones that popped up most frequently were those related to the conservation of the pigments; whether  the colors used were part of a grander, interlinked scheme that crossed cultures and civilizations; and whether there was going to be an effort to restore these sites to their former painted state once ample evidence was collected.

Regarding conservation of the pigments, Alex explained, it would do more damage to try to apply something to conserve them than just leaving them as they have been for the past 2500 years. Instead, glass covers have been put in front of many of the places where significant pigmentation has been found so it cannot be touched. As for whether these colorings are indicative of a cross-cultural exchange, we explained that many of the materials used to color the palaces and monuments at Persepolis, at least, were garnered locally, and that the copper compound used to make blue and the ochre used to make red could both be found in Iran. This does not indicate a cross-cultural exchange, but equally does not rule it out.

The most controversial issue was the question of whether the sites would be repainted. There seemed to be two camps of people in regard to this notion. There were those who thought it would be atrocious to dream of doing such a thing, and there were those who thought it was a necessary step in the restoration process. It was intriguing to see the dialogue develop over the course of the day and see what different people had to offer on the topic.

Personally, I feel that to restore the sites back to their original colors would interfere too much with the course of history. It is part of the historical record that the colors have disappeared. As a result, we should respect that passage of time and be content that, with today’s technology, we are able to recreate the sites with digital technology and possibly even build 3D models in full color. To do anything more would just be out of line.

What is your opinion?

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Events, From the Archives | 3 Comments

“Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” Closes July 8

Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples is for Western audiences a first look at the last great Japanese Buddhist painting ensemble before the onset of modern times. The series was initiated by artist Kano Kazunobu in 1854, the same year that Commodore Matthew Perry “encouraged” Japan to open its doors after a period of two hundred years of isolation (and interestingly, the year museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born). These paintings, as described by curator James Ulak in the video above, alternate between the fantastic and the everyday. A remarkable blend of traditional Buddhist iconography laced with then-contemporary references to theater, myth, and religious cult practice, the paintings depict the miraculous interventions and superhuman activities of the five hundred disciples of the Buddha. Hurry, the exhibition closes this Sunday—”Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” are needed elsewhere!

Posted by in A Closer Look, Exhibitions, Japanese Art | No Comments

Fireworks Freer|Sackler Style

Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, 1881, Kobayashi Kiyochika, woodblock print, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.1197

The Freer|Sackler has a number of works in its collections portraying fireworks, including this one by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a Japanese artist who lived from 1847-1915. The central figure here, who appears to be a young boy watching from a high vantage point, reminds me a little of Hokusai’s painting Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, painted in 1839, eight years before Kiyochika was born.

“Images of fireworks were a standard element in a pre-modern printmaker’s repertoire,” says James T. Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at Freer|Sackler. “In that sense, Kiyochika fulfills his audience’s expectations for traditional subject matter. He extends the boundaries of that tradition, however, by drawing the viewer into the same intimate perspective experienced by the spectators crowded on the periphery of the image.

“Moreover, Kiyochika pushes the dark tonalities of the print to an extreme that would not have been found in earlier nineteenth-century designs. Viewers look out over Shinobazu Pond toward Benten Shrine, which sits on a small island on a peninsula in Ueno Park, Tokyo.”

No matter where you choose to celebrate, Happy Fourth of July!

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | No Comments