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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 42
SAM hosts Luminous: The Art of Asia
13 countries, 160 treasures on view
Arts & Entertainment
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SAM hosts Luminous: The Art of Asia
13 countries, 160 treasures on view

by Milton W. Hamlin
SGN A&E Writer

One of the interesting ironies about the Seattle Art Museum's new in-house exhibit, Luminous: The Art Of Asia, is that the exhibit's newest work is the most sensational in a show of ancient masterworks.

Korean-born Do Ho Suh combines a three-dimensional replica of the gate of his father's home in Korea that he recreated in silk several years ago. Several copies of the life-sized silk fabric replication belong to private collectors and other museums. The one shown at SAM is the artist proof from Suh's own studio. For Seattle, he added a large silk scrim, which becomes a gallery-wide screen for a series of new projections, turning his existing 'Gate' fabric sculpture into a multimedia work that honors major items in SAM's broad collection of Asian antiquities - the truly beloved 'Crow Screen,' a 17th-century Japanese screen that was one of the museum's earliest purchases, and the world-famous 'Poem Scroll With Deer.'

The animation is basically divided into three sections: black crows burst out of nowhere and fill the scrim's multipaneled screen with their animated flight; a time-lapse photography sequence follows a 24-hour period at the actual gate of Suh's childhood home; and the final sequence includes an animated deer and dozens of butterflies, which fly with attached poems, recreating a famous Japanese work. Suh, whose famed 'dogtag' sculpture, 'Some/One,' recreates a traditional Asian robe now made out of metal dogtags, is installed on the Museum's third floor, worked closely with the Luminous curator, Catherine Roche, and SAM's large staff in preparing the show. As he worked with Roche, his involvement became more and more important. When he offered to transform his earlier three-dimensional silk 'Gate' into a multimedia work, Roche and SAM were delighted. It was a wise decision. Suh now lives in New York and London but was in frequent contact with SAM staffers via modern technology.

Overall, the exhibit - the first Asian show at the downtown facility - was an iffy prospect. Fifty major objects from the collection were returning from an extended loan to a major Japanese museum. Looking for a short-run, 'fill-in' show at the downtown space, SAM's staff decided to expand the exhibit to include a total of more than 160 works, mainly masterworks from their vast Asian collection but with some decidedly modern additions. What originally seemed a questionable show - sort of a 'Greatest Asian Hits' collection - turned out to have more power than anyone could have expected.

Luminous runs through Jan. 8, 2012. It ends then so that SAM can prepare for an expected blockbuster, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, which opens Feb. 9 and runs through April 29. While there is no doubt that the upcoming Gauguin show will be another in a long line of attendance-breaking hits, the irony is that Luminous may very well turn into a blockbuster of its own. Interestingly, as the economy slowly recovers, many major museums in the U.S. and other countries are turning to their own collections with a new eye. Without the expense of importing a major show - and all the headaches of transportation and security - many institutions are finding mini-blockbusters within their own resources. Such it is with this wonderful show.

While Suh's 'My Father's Gate' will be the centerpiece for many visitors, the whole show is understatedly overwhelming. SAM and curator Roche has arranged many works 'in conversation.' A fragment of one work from one of the 13 Asian countries represented may be displayed near a fragment of another, similar work from another country, creating an unexpected visual dialog. This scribe sat in front of the famous 'Crows' paneled screen watching the animated crows on Suh's multimedia installation. As other journalists walked through the three-dimensional Korean gate, one colleague mentioned that she found me 'caught' between the famous Japanese screen crows and Suh's frantically animated flying crows. An incredible experience - one clearly designed by SAM and its staff.

Toward the end of the show, a scroll painting of 'Five Beautiful Women' (1804-18) captures the strata of Asian society. The elegant upper-class wife in her lavish robe sits at the top of an assemblage of five women. A courtesan, with her overstated robes and hair, is midway down the grouping. A lowly servant spreads out at the base. The scroll, by Hokusai (most famous for his nearby 'Wave' block print), captures a social moment more than 200 years old. It's easy to overlook the content because of the beauty of the painting, but it is one of most charming works in the show.

Dozens and dozens of other works lure the viewer. Paintings, screens, scrolls, ceramics, wood, stone, lacquer, and metalware drawn from SAM's 7,000 Asian holdings fill gallery after gallery.

The final gallery is a thoroughly modern exhibition of museum conservation, detailing the technical study and conservation treatment of three objects from SAM's Asian collection. The three sculptures - one a six-foot-tall Chinese Buddhist icon from between the 10th and 13th centuries - were X-rayed while moving through a scanning device to show glimpses of the interiors of the work. Old restorations, wood decay - even insect channels - were revealed for the first time. The works, and their X-rays and other examinations, make a fascinating final display.

SAM is open Wednesday through Sunday with varying hours. Admission is by suggestion, meaning no one will be turned away because of the 'suggested price.' (One art reviewer checked out this policy by offering 50 cents - she was happily ticketed.) Various free admission times are offered each month. Complete details are available at (206) 654-3100 or at www.seattleartmuseum.org.

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