Category Archives: Sackler 25

Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky’s the Limit

Black ink-like smoke rises from the tree, mimicking the flow of traditional Chinese brush painting.

At 3 pm today, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang created an “explosion event” in honor of two birthdays: the Sackler Gallery’s 25th and the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program’s 50th. Both institutions will join forces in the future, enabling artworks to be displayed at the Sackler before they are shipped off to embassies abroad.

In a series of three timed explosions, Cai Guo-Qiang created the illusion of a second tree of smoke drifting from the original pine tree, mimicking the flow of Chinese brush drawings. From prose, poetry. The archived event will be live soon.

Tomorrow, the celebrations continue with a conversation with artist Xu Bing, an Asian art and culture book fair, classical Arabian music, birthday cupcakes, and the much-anticipated opening of the Pure Land digital cave. Learn more on the Sackler at 25 page.

You Should Be Dancing

Dancing at the Freer|Sackler during the Inspired by India family celebration. (All photos by Neil Greentree.)

On Saturday, more than 7,000 people were inspired by India at our family celebration in honor of the exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran. Bollywood dancers shared the afternoon with classical Kathak dancers to create a synergy of color, light, and movement. Were you there?

What’s your favorite type of dance: traditional or contemporary?

Check out other Inspired by India events on Bento.

Learning to dance Bollywood style.

Traditional kathak dance on stage at the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Inspired by….Kathak Dance

Kathak dancer Prachi Dalal.

Prachi Dalal performs in a program of traditional kathak dance. These include stories from the temple traditions of storytelling, courtly customs, and royal challenges as well as songs of mysticism, devotion, passion, and play. The next (and final) performance begins at 3pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

Inspired by…Cupcakes

Cupcakes with the flavors of India.

The Indian palette is filled with vibrant colors, but the Indian palate…ah, that’s a different story. Thanks to Fraiche Cupcakery, we can not only admire India, but we can get a literal taste as well. Find these yummy cupcakes made with rosewater, pistachio, and cardamom, in the Freer courtyard (and don’t miss the red velvet). According to Fraiche owner, Nina Deva, “We take flavors from different cultures and combine them. It takes a lot of experimenting.” Come and try the delicious results yourself!

Inspired by…Rangoli

Rangoli, the art of painted prayers.

Led by Gayatri Mohan-Iyengar, local Indian women demonstrate the rich tradition of creating complex images on the ground with rice powder. In India, women paint simpler designs on their doorstep each morning and create more complex varieties at weddings and other celebrations.

As David Nash, educator at Freer|Sackler explained to me, “It’s a meditative art, often done at dawn to welcome the new day. The birds and ants then eat the rice powder so that it gradually all but disappears, symbolizing the power of impermanence.”

Working closely on rangoli in the Freer courtyard.

The event goes on until 3pm in the Freer courtyard and is part of Inspired by India: A Family Celebration, in honor of the new exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran.

Religion in the Gallery: A First-person Perspective

Newark Museum Tibetan Buddhist Altar, 1991, Altar Painting by Phuntsok Dorje, Commissioned by the Newark Museum, 1990

In an evening lecture on May 24, four scholars—including F|S curators Jim Ulak and Debra Diamond—explored “Religion in the Gallery” as part of our Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century lecture series. Jenna Vaccaro, assistant in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, attended the event and reported her thoughts back to Bento. 

The politics surrounding the display of religious content in museum galleries are complicated, to say the least. Opinions differ wildly on the role museums ought to play when putting religious art on view. Some argue that we must provide more context and meaning for religious art than we do for other forms of expression, as meaning dissolves with time, language, and cultural barriers. Others go further, advocating for a display that provides the viewer with a transcendent experience.

During “Religion in the Gallery,” Katherine Anne Paul, curator of the arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, presented several variations of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in American museums and abroad, and waxed philosophically on the way the different displays might make viewers feel. Bold reds and yellows among golden statues, butter sculptures—literally, lamps burning on animal fat and colorful shapes made out of butter—and musical instruments were common elements of each shrine. It appears that the goal of each exhibit was to completely envelop the viewer in color and light, described by Paul as a “more is more” method of display. The panel of speakers considered this similar to the Baroque design period: the more glitz and ornamentation, the better.

Gregory Levine speaks on Zen art at “Religion in the Gallery,” held May 24, 2012.

Paul’s Tibetan shrines were juxtaposed by a presentation on Zen art by Gregory Levine, associate professor of the art and architecture of Japan and Buddhist visual cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Zen art is much different than a Tibetan shrine, and its elements are harder to define. Generally with Zen, a “less is more” approach is taken when putting objects on display. Traditionally we see minimalism, nature, and stillness as the representative elements of Zen art, though what “Zen” means has changed over time. Meditative and natural design principles have been watered down and usurped by popular culture. Citing scholars from the mid-1900s and beyond, Levine tracked how Zen has been appropriated in America from the museum context to commercial design. Rather than using minimalist motifs for a meditative purpose, Zen styles today are used to sell a product, such as Zen mp3 players or Zen perfume.

As a casual observer, I do feel a stronger, transcendent connection to the Tibetan shrines’ display. The exhibits Paul presented demand attention and never let the unfamiliar viewer forget that this was or could be a religious space. The pieces that Levine showed did not provide the same experience. The questions I was left with after considering my own different reactions to the presentations are personal, but perhaps not uncommon: Has the appropriation of Zen religious art by American marketing and design companies already ruined the transcendent experience for me? Is there any way in which I can see Zen art as sacred when it has been a staple of American secular design for so long?

An audience member asked a question along these lines, wondering whether we must contextualize religious art that is distinctively different than the culture in which it is being displayed. Paul responded by asking if we have the same duty to contextualize a Monet painting. Jim Ulak, F|S curator of Japanese art, followed up by stating that staff at the National Gallery are constantly surprised at how many people today have trouble understanding the Christian art on display, which wasn’t the case a generation or two ago.

In my humble opinion, all religious art, particularly when we are presenting that of another culture, deserves to be given more respect and context than a Monet painting for the sheer fact that the religion and its practitioners still exist. If we appropriate the style of a Monet painting and get it wrong in our gallery, the only harm done is a misunderstanding of a visual style. If we appropriate a religious design we have the potential to misinterpret and erase important cultural meaning—the opposite of what a museum ought to do.

—Jenna Vaccaro

Monks at an Exhibition

At the welcoming ceremony for “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”; photo by John Tsantes

Monks from Tokyo’s elite Pure Land Buddhist temple Zōjōji came to the Sackler Gallery on the evening of Saturday, April 21. They performed a ceremony to protect the paintings in Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples and to ensure the success of the exhibition. A blessing and consecration typically occurs when Buddhist institutions lend works of art to secular institutions.

In the Pure Land tradition, the lotus (a primary Buddhist symbol), is the vehicle upon which souls are reborn in the Western Paradise. The image of lotus petals showering down from the heavens is a symbol of the blessings of the Amida Buddha. During the ceremony at the Sackler, Hasuike Koyo, chief secretary of  Zōjōji, scattered oversized and colorfully painted paper lotus petals around the exhibition space to indicate the temple’s fond prayers for our endeavors.

The out-of-this-world scrolls by Kano Kazunobu in Masters of Mercy were created from 1854 until the artist’s death in 1863. The Sackler exhibition marks the first time that the scrolls have been shown in the West. It runs through July 8, 2012. Learn more about Japan Spring at the Freer|Sackler.