Category Archives: Events

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.

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.

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.

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.”

The Language(s) of Love

Making a Valentine's Day card in the Imaginasia classroom.

Making a Valentine’s Day card in the ImaginAsia classroom.

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!

Mei-ling Hom on Contemporary Korean Ceramics

Inside Lee Inchin's studio  (photo by David McClelland)

Inside Lee Inchin’s studio (photo by David McClelland)

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.

The Search for Ancient China … Begins in New Jersey?

Paul Singer's apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo byJohn Tsantes).

Paul Singer’s apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo by John Tsantes).

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.”

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! Shintoho Films at the Freer

Revenge of the Pearl Queen

Author and film critic Mark Schilling is the curator of our Shintoho retrospective, named “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” after the films’ sometimes-scandalous subject matter. Bento had a chance to interview Schilling in advance of his appearance and book signing at the Freer this Friday for the screening of Revenge of the Pearl Queen at 7 pm.

Bento: What first attracted you to chronicle Japanese culture, especially film? Was there an “aha!” moment?

Mark Schilling: I wanted to review films long before I became interested in Japanese culture. I was one of the many Woodstock-era wannabe critics under the spell of Pauline Kael. What made me first want to write about Japanese films in particular was the work of Juzo Itami, including The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1985). His social comedies weren’t about samurai and geisha, but rather contemporary Japanese citizens; that is, the sorts of people I saw around me every day. The films were saying something fresh and incisive about the Japan I had been living in for the past decade, and I thought reviewing them and other Japanese films like them would be more fun than being the one thousandth critic to opine on the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I still think so.

Bento: Tell me about movie-making in Japan after WWII, and the establishment of the Shintoho studio in 1947.

Mark Schilling: Shintoho began as a ploy by its corporate parent, the Toho studio, to keep production going during a prolonged period of labor unrest. Though it later became independent, Shintoho was the smallest of the six studios active in the 1950s—the Golden Era of Japanese cinema—and it was constantly struggling against bigger and better-financed rivals. It made quality films with name directors and stars in its early years, but box office hits were few.

When veteran showman Mitsugu Okura took over as president in 1955, he dumped the expensive auteurs and began to give more assignments to assistant directors on the studio payroll, while boosting unknown actors to stardom. He also began targeting young audiences with the same sort of exploitation fare that was filling drive-ins and grindhouses in the United States. His horror films and erotic thrillers didn’t win prizes, but they drew audiences—and enabled Shintoho to survive a few years longer than it probably would have otherwise.

Bento: I can’t remember a more memorable title for a film series than “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” What defines a film from Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: During the Okura era, which lasted from 1955 until the studio folded in 1961, Shintoho films were known for their racy, lurid titles and posters—all approved by Okura—that promised forbidden delights to their mostly young, male fans. Okura wasn’t particular about the films’ contents as long as they delivered on the promise of the title. This allowed talented directors such as Teruo Ishii and Nobuo Nakagawa to put their signature on their films and make them stand out over the competition. It’s hard to say that Shintoho had a distinct style, but its best films had a vitality that the staider products of other studios lacked and still makes them watchable today.

Bento: Since you’re coming to introduce Revenge of the Pearl Queen, can you tell us something about this film?

Mark Schilling: It was based on a true story about a Japanese woman who found herself on a small island in the Marianas with several dozen Japanese guys escaping the US invasion of Saipan. The men ended up fighting each other for her favors, while she played off one lover against another—and escaped the island unscathed in 1950. Her story inspired Anatahan (1953), the last film by Josef von Sternberg.

The Shintoho version resembles Sternberg’s in its focus on sex and violence, but the woman played by Michiko Maeda is no hapless victim or wily femme fatale. Instead she begins the story as a young woman who has it all, including a handsome, ambitious fiancé (Ken Usui), but loses it in a murderous corporate coup. She gets her revenge with her wits and by enlisting the aid of her male allies on the island, so she is really a strong figure, and one atypical for the era.
Maeda, however, became notorious for one brief, if striking, scene in the film, in which she was shot unclothed from behind. This was a first for an actress in a Japanese film, and paved the way for hundreds of nude scenes to follow in the 1960s and beyond.

Bento: If I’m not mistaken, you conducted Maeda’s most recent public interview. How did she remember her days at Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: She was very reluctant to speak with me and a Japanese journalist who helped arrange the interview. In fact she had given only one other on-the-record interview about her days at Shintoho. She had been burned badly by the Japanese media and was distrustful of journalists.

But when we finally met she was incredibly generous and forthcoming, even giving us little drink mats she had crocheted—a first for me as an interviewer! She resented the way she had been treated—she was fired from the studio and banned from the industry for a minor act of insubordination—but she was also proud of what she had achieved in her brief career. Even though she had had a hard life, working for years as a waitress in a noodle shop, she still had the aura of stardom and quality of steely resolve that come across so strongly in Pearl Queen.

Bento: Can we see any evidence of Shintoho’s influence in movie-making or popular culture in Japan today?

Mark Schilling: Shintoho’s strongest impact was in the horror and erotic genres. Every Japanese horror director today owes a debt to Nobuo Nakagawa, who pioneered the mix of modern and traditional kaidan (ghost story) elements that characterizes Japanese horror.

Also, Shintoho films about ama, women pearl divers who worked in figure-revealing attire, may be mild by present standards, but they were considered bold provocations in their day. In their commercial success and pushing of borders, these films laid the groundwork for the huge pinku (erotic) film industry that was to arise in the 1960s and play such a major role in popular culture in the decades to follow.

Roads of Arabia Family Day: Dig In!

Digging for buried treasure during Eid al Arabia.

In honor of its new exhibition, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sackler Gallery recently hosted Eid al Arabia: A Cultural Celebration. The morning began with a symposium on archaeological discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, followed by a day of activities for families. These included sessions on Arabic calligraphy; storytelling by Surabhi Shah; concerts of traditional Saudi music; and an archaeology program for budding explorers. All told, nearly 3,000 people traveled the roads of Arabia, digging a little deeper into the art, history, and culture of the ancient kingdom.

Taking a closer look at the exhibition Roads of Arabia during the family day celebration.

Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Celebrating Diwali in Mumbai.

F|S photographer Neil Greentree is in India and captured this photo of Diwali festivities in the Juhu section of Mumbai. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a five-day celebration; its name is derived from Deepavali, meaning “row of lamps.” The festival celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. During the celebration, lamps are lit and houses are cleaned in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. Marigold flowers are woven into garlands. It’s a time to wear new clothes and share sweets with friends and families. Firecrackers are also part of the celebration, helping to drive away evil spirits. As Neil has reported, given how loud it was until 3 am in Mumbai the other night, the score must remain firecrackers 1, evil spirits 0.