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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!

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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.

Posted by in Contemporary Art, Interviews, Korean Art, Talks and Lectures | 1 Comment

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.”

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Chinese Art, Exhibitions | No Comments

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.

Posted by in Film, Interviews | No Comments

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.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Family Day | No Comments

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.

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Posted by in Events, South Asian and Himalayan Art | 1 Comment

Nomads and Networks: Iron and Bronze

Michael Frachetti, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is the co-director of ongoing international field research on the archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Over the past 12 years of directing fieldwork in the mountains of Kazakhstan, it has rained—and rained hard—on the start day of nearly every project. It would seem that this sometimes harsh, though always beautiful, environment takes the first day of fieldwork as an opportunity to remind the whole team who is in charge. This year, I feel we have come to an understanding with old Mother Nature, and she shined upon us, just a few clouds and wind gusts as a passing indication of our tentative arrangement.

The Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP) began in the field in 1999, and since those days has grown into one of the largest collaborative American/Kazakh archaeology projects conducted (the other one is directed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Claudia Chang, whose posts can be followed here). The DMAP is led by myself and my Kazakhstani codirector, Dr. Alexei Mar’yashev, and generally supports research for seven PhD students. We also operate the only undergraduate field school in the country, taking up to ten undergraduates out to the field for the time of their life (at least that is how we sell it!). Add to this five to ten staff and support team members, local colleagues, and visitors, and we have about 30 people in our mountain research camp at any given time. The goal is to carry out technologically advanced, methodologically rigorous, and internationally leading field research of upland archaeological sites related to the earliest nomadic pastoralists to have occupied Kazakhstan, and, possibly, Inner Asia all together.

It is important that we transform our popular and academic impressions of Bronze Age nomads, since it is becoming clear that these small-scale societies played a major role in shaping an expansive way of life across the Eurasian continent. They were also highly influential in communicating and transforming the institutions of better-known regional civilizations, such as those of ancient China, the Indus Valley, and more. Of course, Bronze Age Eurasian nomads are important in their own right, and they set the foundations of interaction and economy that later exploded into a market for golden commodities during the Iron Age (such as those on display now at the Sackler). In fact, nomads of the Bronze Age were instrumental in establishing enduring traditions and economic adaptations that would be used by regional pastoralists such as the Turks, the Mongols, and even those who live in the mountains today.

So that is why were are here. Given our lofty goals, our research design is necessarily rooted in a slow-moving, long-term excavation program. We are satisfied with incremental, steady progress in terms of new discoveries and their ability to radically change the world’s understanding of Eurasian nomadic societies. But what are we really doing, and what are these discoveries? Stay tuned to this blog and I will guide you through a tour of some of the important findings that define Nomads and Networkson the ground, from the ground, and through the eyes of an excavator.

The exhibition remains on view at the Sackler through December 2, 2012.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 1 Comment

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Magneto and Magnetina

Magnetometer survey in a field northwest of Tuzusai with Joerg (foreground) and Claudia (background).
Peak Talgar is in the rear.

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. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

The Munich Magneto Mob, as geophysicist Joerg Fassbinder and PhD student Lena Kuhne have dubbed themselves, have almost completed a magnetometer survey of the areas surrounding Tuzusai. “Magneto”and “Magnetina” spent a week conducting magnetometer measurements over two fields near Tuzusai in search of underground architectural features.

The device they use is called a Total View Magnetometer, which measures the magnetism below the surface. Digitized as negative or positive values, the composite readings create a magnetogram. An experienced geophysicist like Joerg has read so many magnetograms he is able to easily identify old stream channels, ditches, palisade fences, and even ovens or fireplaces.

We have learned a lot from Joerg. He has let us set the lines in each of the grid units, shown us how the magnetometer works, and even given us lectures on the physics associated with the earth’s magnetic field. He has told us about working on the Nazca Lines in Peru. It is so close to the Equator there that the magnetic anomalies are almost negligible, yet in Kazakhstan there are high levels of magnetism, even more so than in his native Bavaria, which is further north in latitude. He says that this changing magnetic field is a problem that the German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss thought would be solved in the 19th century, yet two  hundred years later we still don’t know the answer.

In the photo above you see Magneto with his home-designed magnetometer, one of the most accurate ones in existence. The wooden parts are held together by parcel tape and can be broken down into smaller parts to fit into a suitcase. The magnetometer itself weighs about 18 kilograms (40 lbs). Imagine walking with the magnetometer taking readings every meter for a 40 X 40 m (131 x 131 feet) unit. We have calculated that Joerg and Lena walk 1.6 km (1 mile) for each grid they measure.

Their surveys, combined with the research done by the geomorphologists, might begin to tell us whether the Iron Age folk at Tuzusai and the neighboring areas redirected stream channels for irrigating their crops, and how they might have terraced certain areas of the settlement. It will be very helpful when all our specialists come up with results from their disciplines that can be used to make the “big picture” of life in this region.

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Nomads and Networks in the Field: At a Galloping Pace

Horses in paddock at Panfilova horse farm.

Horses held great importance in steppe culture. At our dig site, the majority of the animal bone remains have been identified as sheep and goats, followed by cattle and then horses. Yet we know from the spectacular protomes on the Issyk Golden Warrior’s headdress and the splendid belt plaques that horses played an important symbolic role, and may have been the most prevalent of the domesticated species at Tuzusai.

When Kyra Lyublanovics, a PhD candidate from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), arrived on Saturday to spend a month with us as our resident zooarchaeologist, she asked if there were any horses in Poselok Alatau. I am sure that in our fast-growing village there are still one or two people living on the outskirts who might own a horse. Then I remembered the Panfilova Hippodrome, where the president’s horses are kept, located in the collective just 4 km (2.5 miles) north of Alatau. On Sunday we took a ride in Kolya’s old orange Moskvich car to the hippodrome. Sure enough, there were beautiful horses in the stables and grazing in the vast pasturelands.

If there is a single idea that has dominated steppe culture from the Eneolithic period (4000 BCE) onward, it has been the hunting, herding, and eventually the riding of horses. In the late 1990s, when archaeologists David Anthony and Dorcas Brown examined the molars of horse teeth from the steppe sites, they saw microscopic evidence of bit wear, suggesting the presence of horseback riding more than six thousand years ago on the northern steppes of Kazakhstan. A recent article stated that DNA studies of horse populations now corroborate the archaeological evidence showing that horses were first domesticated in the steppe areas of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Whether horses were first used for riding or as traction animals remains to be proven.

Kyra riding one of the original Turkoman horses known as Alytn teke at the Panfilova Hippodrome.
These horses are the Central Asian version of Arabian horses: fast, light, and strong.
This particular horse is carmello, a truly beautiful riding horse that is white with blue and white eyes.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that horses, whether or not they were dominant in people’s diets during the first millennia BCE, certainly had a major symbolic importance. For example, some of the sacrified horses found in Berel Mound No. 11 are splendidly clothed in leather masks with ibex horns, suggesting their mythical nature.

We are very excited to have Kyra here to analyze the animal bones. Her work will provide data that can be compared to the glorious and splendid depictions of the role that horses played in steppe society.

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan remains on view at the Sackler Gallery through November 12, 2012.

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DJ Spooky at Asia After Dark

A portrait of Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, at Asia After Dark.

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Posted by in Asia After Dark | 1 Comment