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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
Last Saturday, more than 120 people of all ages made their way to the ImaginAsia classroom in search of love. First, visitors viewed a digital slideshow of images of love in Asian art. Then it was time to roll up their sleeves. Participants used printing blocks that say “love” in more than a dozen Asian languages as well as symbols of love to print vivid Valentines to take home. Languages included Arabic, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Tamil, Thai, and Turkish.
No matter how you say it, Happy Valentine’s Day!
Bento had a chance to touch base with artist Mei-ling Hom in advance of the talk on contemporary Korean ceramics that she and independent scholar David McClelland will present this Saturday, February 9, at 2 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.
Bento: We know you as a sculptor and installation artist, but what is your relationship to ceramics?
Mei-ling Hom: As an undergraduate at Kirkland College my major was ceramic sculpture. After Kirkland I moved to Philadelphia and worked solely in clay for 15 years until I entered the graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1985. That’s when I started working in installation and exploring the nuanced understanding of spatial perception in varying cultural contexts. After graduate school, I returned to my teaching position in Philadelphia, where I taught ceramics and three-dimensional design for 26 years.
B: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Korean ceramics?
MH: While I was teaching at the community college, the NEH sponsored the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) to infuse Asian content into existing curricula, thereby bringing diversity to American educational systems. I knew that Korea had a lively art scene but I knew very little about it, so I applied to ASDP. I was one of twelve teachers accepted into this program nationwide. We were flown to Hawaii, where we had three weeks of academic lectures, and then onto Korea for another three-week lecture program with field trips and official government luncheons. To my dismay, there was nothing addressing contemporary art in the six-week course. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to return to Korea and conducted the research myself.
B: Tell me about the year you and David spent in South Korea on a Fulbright.
MH: To work successfully in Asia it is important to have the right contacts. When we arrived we had two: Lee Inchin, the director of the Ceramic Research Institute at Hongik University, and Cho Chung Hyun, an emerita professor of ceramics at Ewha University. We had studied with her 26 years earlier in Edwardsville, Illinois, when she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Our first line of business was to define a list of candidates to interview. We spent days at the Ceramic Research Institute poring over exhibition catalogs to compile our “artists of interest” list. We also had to prove our credibility to the ceramic community, so we enrolled in intensive Korean language study, attended every weekly gallery opening, and introduced ourselves. As Korean artists learned of our project, they suggested ceramic artists we should contact.
About three months into the Fulbright, we started interviewing artists. Our Korean language skills were very sketchy so we usually traveled with a translator if the artist did not speak English. David would usually photograph the studio and the artist while I conducted the interview. In the beginning we had one interview per day, but as artists learned of our project we sometimes had to schedule five or six per day. We tried to spend a lot of time with each artist so we could really develop a sense of his or her work and process.
The majority of our interviewed artists live in Seoul, where one-fourth of Korea’s population resides. By the end of the summer we were traveling outside of Seoul to visit pottery studios and conduct interviews. For the appointments in the southern tip of the peninsula we took an extended journey and found lodging along the way. The artists were extremely generous. Often they would take us to meet other potters in out-of-the way locales, and of course they shared their delicious local cuisines with us.
An unexpected side benefit to our stay in Korea was learning about Korean classical music and the new compositions being produced for classical instruments. One of the potters we stayed with in Kwangju played the Korean bamboo flute. He would wake us in the mornings with the lilting notes of his flute and in the evenings local musicians would gather at his studio to jam together. For the our CD on Contemporary Korean Ceramic Artists, we used Hwang Byungki‘s music on the kayageum, a zither-like string instrument, in the background.
B: What defines contemporary Korean ceramics? How have time-honored traditions changed in the hands of the artists you met?
MH: Ceramic artists in Korea draw on their thousand-year history of working with high-fire stoneware and porcelain. But porcelain can be used in ways far removed from Chinese prototypes. Yoon Sol has forms and a size range that clearly are influenced by his youthful obsession with putting together plastic fantasy models. Now he has translated his “hand thought” (a delightful West African term for craftwork) into a rather severe, Northern European-influenced precisionist model—which is really Korean, because it echoes a cultural preoccupation with the clarity and beauty of high-fire porcelain (itself an echo of the purity and hardness of jade).
Other artists, such as Lee Kang Hyo, Yoon Kwang Cho, and Cho Chung Hyun, draw directly on the form and surface decoration of historical pots. Their works are not recreations of any specific era but sit comfortably with their predecessors while pointing in a new direction. Shin Sang Ho is sui generis. His work can not be easily inserted into the flow of art history and perhaps we shouldn’t try. I’m sure he would quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam.”
B: For your 2005 installation at the Sackler, “Floating Mountains, Singing Clouds,” you said that you were drawn to clouds because “they travel everywhere and are perceived by different cultures in different ways.” Can a similar statement be applied to clay?
MH: The cloud is different because you cannot touch and manipulate it—it is an experienced phenomenon we understand through a mental and emotional process. Clay is utterly responsive to every nudge, squeeze, and pull of the hand. So in touching clay, a very personal and direct impulse can be conveyed.
B: How has your time in Korea influenced your own work?
MH: When I returned from Korea I was anxious to touch clay again. At the time I was involved in two large public art commissions, one for the Philadelphia International Airport and the other for the Raleigh Durham International Airport. I was, however, able to work with a country potter in North Carolina for two months. There I produced a body of wood-fired ceramic clouds, which were exhibited at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in 2010.
Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.
“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”