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The Paper Chase: Making Japanese Books

Handmade books and paper from Pyramid Atlantic.

Examples of books you can make at our Inner-Artist Workshops: The Art of Japanese Pouch-books

The Freer|Sackler has teamed up with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center to offer six Japanese book-making workshops for adults in conjunction with the exhibition Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books. F|S educator Joanna Pecore chatted with Pyramid Atlantic’s artistic director, Gretchen Schermerhorn, about these events, which will take place on selected weekends through the end of June.

Joanna: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Gretchen. Can you tell me about your work with making papers and books?

Gretchen: I am a printmaker and paper-maker. I started making paper around 10 years ago and have since been trained in making both Western and Asian papers. I am also specifically interested in woodblock printing.

Joanna: What inspired you to begin making paper?

Gretchen: In graduate school, one of my professors taught a paper-making class. At the time, I wondered why anyone would want or need to make paper. It is so easy to purchase. Then, I learned about everything that goes into it: the vision, what it is made from, and the control involved in the process. There is so much variation in what can be done.

Joanna: Can you tell me about Pyramid Atlantic?

Gretchen: It is an art center in Silver Spring, Maryland, dedicated to the preservation and creation of prints, paper, and book arts. We offer all kinds of opportunities, like residencies, internships, and classes. Visiting artists come from all over the world to share their art at our center. What’s more important, though, is that we do it all: paper, prints, and books. We explore how all of these elements relate to each other. They are all important to the process of bookmaking. People can do it all under one roof at Pyramid Atlantic.

Joanna: What can participants expect when they join your workshops at the Sackler?

Gretchen: They will to get to create a book and a print inspired by works in the Hand-Held exhibition. After the workshop, they will be able to really understand how the books in the exhibition were made, especially how they were bound and printed. It ties into exhibit. It is not just an art project.

Joanna: What is unique about this opportunity?

Gretchen: This is an authentic experience. It is really exciting for me. Although I have been doing stab binding—the type of binding used in the “pouch-books”—for years, this is the first time I have tried to replicate how it was done in Japan. And we are going to use the “pouch” technique. We haven’t done that before. This workshop is an incredibly rare and affordable way for participants to get this experience.

The first classes begin this weekend. Check the F|S website for the complete schedule.

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Nomads and Networks: Archaeologists Between Digs

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Claudia blogged for Bento from Kazakhstan during the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan at the Sackler last fall.

My friends and even a former professor used to joke that archaeologists have a kind of schizophrenic life. We have lovely summers working in the field, doing surveys and excavations. During the winter months, we find ourselves in the laboratory, counting sherds, transposing field notes, and waiting for all the specialists’ reports to be completed, from the radiometric dates of ancient hearths to the metallurgical studies of ancient bronzes. In fact, this charmed existence of field archaeology usually means that you pay for all those good times in the field; for every week of fieldwork you need about three times that for laboratory cataloging, cleaning and processing artifacts, counting, creating statistics and spreadsheets, writing up reports, and interpreting the data. Most of us have learned to make our “deal with the devil.” Since January 1, 2013, I have been holed up in my attic office in Virginia, overlooking the foothills of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by books, papers, and articles, writing the early chapters of a book on Iron Age research on the Talgar fan

The view out my window is lovely this afternoon, as the sun sets on Paul’s Mountain. I am surrounded by books that range from the philosophy of science to Bronze Age Eurasia. Right now it seems impossible to condense 18 years of fieldwork, let alone the past five months of research on the Talgar fan, into any kind of readable narrative, either for an academic audience or myself.

Recently, Rebecca Beardmore, a PhD student in archaeology at University College, London, called me by Skype from Birmingham, England, where she had just finished graphing all the phytolith counts she made during the 2011 field season at Tuzusai, our Iron Age settlement site. Phytoliths, or plant stones, are the silicate cells of ancient plant remains that can be trapped in archaeological soils, such as ancient mudbricks. Rebecca’s analysis, conducted with a scanning electron microscope, has shown that the reddish-yellow and yellow mudbrick samples have lower densities of ancient plant materials than the brown-red and greenish mudbricks. All four samples of mudbrick seem to have some remnants of wheat plants, as well as wild grass parts, both husks and leaves. This means that the Iron Age builders at Tuzusai probably dumped a bunch of plant material into pits where they mixed the mudbricks, which then formed the walls, floors, and ramps of the adobe architecture we have discovered. But why do some bricks have higher densities of plant material than others?

That question sent me back to my field notes from 2011, which include chicken-scratch drawings of the red-brown and green mudbricks. Those mudbricks appear on my sketches to be large wall or foundation features, while the yellow or reddish-yellow ones are usually the tops of the platform or just beneath the plastered floors. Could it be that the ancient inhabitants of Tuzusai put more straw and debris into the foundation walls and less in the floor bricks? I told Rebecca that she should rename her thesis, “The Unseen Archaeological Record.” She says maybe she’ll title the thesis, “Down and Dirty, Mudbrick and Animal Dung.” Good thing I have those sketches of mudbricks in my notebook.

After we left Tuzusai last fall, the archaeological facts come now from the laboratory, the field notebooks, and an occasional inspiration I might have while staring out the window at the mocking bird perched on the crab apple tree. Central Virginia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains seem faraway from the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, but lest I forget, a large map of the Upper Asi Valley is pinned to the wall by my desk.

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Hiaaaaa! Drumroll, Please!

Women drummers in traditional kimono peforming on the steps of the Freer Gallery.

Taiko drummers in traditional kimono performing on the steps of the Freer Gallery (photos by John Tsantes).

In honor of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, nearly forty drummers and dancers from Tamagawa University in Tokyo, performed on the steps of the Freer Gallery to an audience of hundreds. The group is led and choreographed by Kabuki dance master Isaburoh Hanayagi, who began his career at the age of three under the tutelage of his father, Yoshigosaburoh Hanayagi.

What started out as a dreary, rainy day, gave way to a bright and sunny sky, perfect for watching—and hearing—the percussive sounds of the performers. I think the powerful combination of drumming and dancing drove the clouds away.

Taiko drummers on the steps of the Freer Gallery.

Not to be outdone by the women, the men pound out traditional Japanese rhythms.

If you missed the performers today, catch them tomorrow at the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. For more Freer|Sackler Cherry Blossom related programs, see our calendar of events.

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The Art of the Book

Case Study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Case study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer collection

On Saturday, April 6, Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books opens in the Sackler. In honor of the exhibition, we’re hosting a weekend celebrating Japanese arts and design. Check our calendar to learn more about the events that include tours, talks, hands-on activities, and music.

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Celebrating Nowruz in Cities Ancient and Modern

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo Alex Nagel

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, on view at the Sackler through April 28, 2013.

Nowruz Mobarak! Recently, many countries around the world celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year. At Freer|Sackler, thousands of visitors of all ages engaged in activities that included music, storytelling, hands-on activities, “fire-jumping,” and games. I had a wonderful time helping the chess and backgammon players, working with local experts and communities, and telling people about the ancient roots of these popular games. But how was Nowruz celebrated in the ancient world, with its multiple religions, festivals, and languages?

Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists have excavated cuneiform tablets that refer to a New Year’s festival in Babylon, including a 2,000-year-old tablet that describes the Akitu. Held at the end of March, this celebration lasted for many days and honored Marduk, Babylon’s main deity. It began in the old Esagila sanctuary in the city center of Babylon, which had one of the oldest ziggurats (temple or pyramid-like structures), the foundations of which are preserved and known as “The Tower of Babel.”

On this particular Akitu-tablet, in the collections of the Louvre, the writer praises Marduk as lord (“Bel”) and his wife Zarpanitu as “Beltia.” During the festival, the king of Babylon would lead a procession with a statue of Marduk to the river Euphrates, where the citizens of Babylon would watch as the statue was transported by boat to the Akitu Temple in the north. On the final day of the festivities, citizens brought offerings and tributes to Marduk, which became a source of wealth for the Esagila sanctuary.

Unfortunately, there’s much less written evidence for the New Year’s festivities in places like Persepolis and Susa. Some scholars have argued that there is a special significance in the bull and lion scenes found carved on the walls of the Apadana, one of the many buildings still preserved at Persepolis. Thousands of tablets excavated at Persepolis provide important information about high numbers of livestock used for cult purposes that we are only beginning to understand. And, what about jumping through fire? While it is not mentioned in the tablets, we know that the tradition of fire jumping began with people aiming to ward off evil spirits. As shown by the number of enthusiastic jumpers at the Freer|Sackler Nowruz celebrations, it is still a good way to start the New Year.

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Inspired by Storytelling

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit
circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

David Nash is program assistant in the education department of Freer|Sackler.

While we were setting up for the Shahnama storytelling performances at this year’s Nowruz celebration, a little girl named Sophia and her father arrived an hour early for the first show. As they waited, Sophia explained that she did not want to take any chances on not getting in. Sophia is nine years old and had seen the performer, Xanthe Gresham, at previous Nowruz celebrations. Her father told us that as soon as she found out that Xanthe would be performing again this year, she made him promise to take her.

As they waited outside of the theater, Sophia asked us if Xanthe would be telling Rustam stories again. We assured her that Rustam would definitely be included. We also reminded her that Xanthe asks for volunteers from the audience to perform on stage with her and suggested that Sophia sit up close so that she might be selected. She sat as close as possible and, indeed, was the very first audience member to be chosen to come to the stage and help with the story. Sophia’s face lit up as a costume was placed over her shoulders, and she performed with the enthusiasm of a great actor.

When the show was over, Sophia and her father approached Xanthe and politely thanked her for the wonderful story. Then, Sophia added, “I’ll see you at 2:30,” the time of the next show. As they left the theater I overheard the father ask, “What would you like to do next?” Sophia replied, “Let’s go play chess. But we have to be back in time for the next show.” And, of course, they did show up for the next performance, as well as for the last performance of the day. Each time Sophia was asked to play a role in the story and each time her smile beamed. After the final performance, she told Xanthe, “I’m going to be a storyteller like you.” Then she announced, “I can’t wait until next year!”

An estimated 750 visitors came through the doors of the theater to attend Xanthe’s performances in honor of Nowruz (with nearly 10,000 visiting the museums on Saturday, March 16), and enjoyed the stories tremendously. None, however, as much as Sophia … Xanthe Gresham’s biggest fan.

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Jiseul Shines Light on a Dark Past

A scene from the award-winning film, Jiseul.

A scene from the award-winning film Jiseul.

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea, has been called “Korea’s Hawaii.” A favorite destination for honeymooners and other vacationers, the island is famous for its natural wonders, luxury resorts, and “black pork,” a delicacy so sought after that Seoul-ites have been known to make the trip just to gorge on it. (Having tasted it myself, I can attest that it’s worth the trip.)

In 1948, however, Jeju was the site of a horrific crackdown by the Korean military on its own citizens. Following an uprising during which protesters were fired upon by soldiers, Jeju residents were ordered to report to the authorities or be executed as communists. It has been estimated that some 30,000 people died in the strife, which lasted until 1954—with the full knowledge of the American military forces stationed there.

Director O Muel dramatizes this little-known tragedy in his elegiac film Jiseul, which will screen at the Freer on Sunday as part of both the Korean Film Festival DC and the Environmental Film Festival. A Jeju resident himself, the reclusive O Muel crafted his film from starkly beautiful black-and-white images of the island’s snowy winter landscape, and even had his actors speak in Jeju’s dialect instead of standard Korean.

When Jiseul premiered at Korea’s Busan International Film Festival last year, experts opined that, despite its undeniable power, the film would never appeal to audiences outside of Korea because its subject matter was too local. (Screen Daily‘s assessment that “international viewers are bound to find it perplexing” was a typical response.)

But the experts were proven wrong when Jiseul won three awards in Busan and was invited to the Sundance Film Festival, where the jury took less than a minute of deliberation to unanimously make it the first Korean film to ever win the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Harvard Film Archive curator Haden Guest named it one of the best films of 2012 in Film Comment, and the director of a major American film festival told me over dinner that it was one of the best films he saw in Busan.

I agree with him. The only thing perplexing about Jiseul is how a nation could slaughter its own citizens, but you certainly don’t have to be Korean to wonder about that.

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Kim Ki-duk Comes Down from the Mountain

Jo Min-soo in Pieta.

Jo Min-soo in Pieta.

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

In 2008, fed up with his recent films’ poor reception in Korea and a series of what he considered professional betrayals, director Kim Ki-duk publicly declared himself through with the Korean film industry and retreated to a rustic house on a mountainside. He lived for nearly four years in a tent in the living room, with a wood-burning cook stove as his only source of heat, and a cat as his only companion.

He may have abandoned the film industry, but he didn’t stop creating. Alone in his primitive abode, Kim made the extraordinary documentary Arirang, a one-of-a-kind cinematic self-assessment that is so operatically self-absorbed it’s impossible to look away. In it, he drunkenly interviews himself, lists his grievances against various Korean film industry people, agonizes over an accident on the set of one his films that nearly killed an actor, and weeps while watching his younger self in one of his old movies. He also proudly shows off his homemade espresso machine, which he cobbled from spare parts using the skills he earned in his pre-filmmaking life as a mechanic.

Kim has come down from the mountain bearing Pieta, his first dramatic feature in nearly half a decade. And, true to form, he stepped right into a controversy when it upset Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to win the coveted Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. At the time, my Facebook newsfeed lit up with equally impassioned enthusiasm and outrage. Kim’s fans saw it as vindication. His detractors called it a travesty. One friend, a professional film critic, even went so far as to rant that the entire international film festival jury system should be scrapped. (It is a sad symptom of opinion-slinging in the Internet age that many of the people on both sides of the debate had yet to see the film.)

Controversy aside, Pieta is Kim’s strongest work in a long time. In the years leading up to his self-imposed exile, his films had begun to lose some of their raw, visceral energy, and were starting to feel a bit arched and contrived. Pieta is a return to form: as disturbing, haunting, and impossible to shake as the best of his work. Interestingly, its themes of betrayal and revenge echo those he obsessed over in Arirang. And, like Kim during his time on the mountain, the protagonist only eats food he kills and prepares himself. Kim has channeled his real-life obsessions into fiction in a quite imaginative way.

After seeing both films, my first thought was that every mid-career filmmaker in need of rejuvenation should make an Arirang. What worked for Kim might work for others.

Pieta will be shown on Friday, March 22, at the Freer as part of the Korean Film Festival DC.

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Stars above Pasargadae: Ernst Herzfeld and the Legacies of Cyrus

Pasargadae Palace

One of the palaces at Pasargadae, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, opening at the Sackler on March 9. Check out our calendar for exhibition-related events.

Pasargadae, located in Morghab (“Plain of the Waterbird”) in Iran, was the first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, and the famed leader’s final resting place. When the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) visited the region in 1905, he was impressed by its ruins. Revisiting Pasargadae in November 1923, Herzfeld gave the following account:

“… The morning was just gorgeous: the plain glittered as if it had been filled with millions of stars; everywhere was a hoar-frost of crystals. After last night’s marvelous sunset, I spent the moonlit night by the Tomb of Cyrus (minus 4 degree Celsius). The whole day just beautiful: the narrow valley of the Pulvar River … By the water there were willows, reeds, oleander …. The colors of the Fall: the trees yellow–orange to carmine-red, the sky in bright turquoise, the mountains violet, blue, red, yellow. Just gorgeous! I only wish I could send something of the beauty of these days back home.” (Ernst Herzfeld’s diary, November 19, 1923, Freer|Sackler Archives; translation by Alex Nagel).

While more recent fieldwork on the site has been conducted by Iranian, British, French, and Italian archaeologists, much valuable documentation can be gained from Herzfeld’s many early visits to the plain. There are more than 250 documents in the Freer|Sackler Archives referring to his fieldwork at Pasargadae, including large-scale maps, drawings, photographs, and squeezes. Pasargadae was the topic of Herzfeld’s dissertation, written for the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet in Berlin (today’s Humboldt Universitaet), and a lifelong interest.

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent cemetery, probably taken in 1923 © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent
cemetery, probably taken in 1923, © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The structure that draws the most attention at Pasargadae is the monumental tomb of Cyrus the Great, which Herzfeld documented in great detail. Inscribed clay tablets that Herzfeld excavated further south at Persepolis exactly eighty years ago, in March 1933, refer to cult activities at Pasargadae. Greek sources mention animal sacrifices at the tomb of Cyrus. According to the Roman author Strabo (64 BCE–24 CE), “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Astyages [the last Median king] … in his last battle, transferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial of his victory” (Strabo 15.3.8).

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; Drawing by Herzfeld in the Freer|Sackler Archives

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; © Drawing by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The tomb of Cyrus is empty today, but was full of items when Alexander the Macedon visited it. A later description states that “in the tomb … was placed a golden coffin, a couch, and a table … and in the middle of the couch was placed the coffin which held the body of Cyrus … the magi guarded the tomb of Cyrus.” One of the tablets Herzfeld excavated at Persepolis contains a seal impression of the name of “Cyrus, the Anshanite, son of Teispes.” This Cyrus might well have been a predecessor of our famous Cyrus the Great, whose father is referred to in other inscriptions as Cambyses, king of Anshan.

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Cyrus in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning opens at the Sackler Gallery on March 9, and the exhibition is already generating buzz on a mega-size scale. One of history’s most iconic objects and one of the British Museum’s most celebrated artifacts, the Cyrus Cylinder has never before been on view in the United States. In cuneiform writing, the object’s inscription proclaims Cyrus’s victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. It also decrees religious freedom for his newly conquered people—a statement that has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.

While it’s pictured in Times Square, we hope the Cylinder inspires visitors and passersby. It’s interesting to see a 2,600-year-old object depicted on an electronic screen in one of the busiest cities in the modern world. I like how it finds itself situated between contemporary words and signs, caught between “Engage Opportunity” and a Europa Cafe.

To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder and its historic importance, view the TED talk by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Then, visit the Freer on Thursday, March 7, to see him discuss “The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

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