San Francisco

“Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past”

Asian Art Museum

By: Jessica C. Kraft

“Phantoms of Asia” is the most ambitious and impressive show that San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (AAM) has mounted this century. Featuring the works of 31 living artists, it is the museum’s first, large-scale contemporary exhibition. AAM has always been known for its outstanding collections, including classical Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artifacts. In “Phantoms,” selections from the permanent collection are masterfully interwoven with the contemporary works, creating an effect that offers dazzle, delight, and deep reflection. Curated by Mori Art Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka, in collaboration with the Asian Art Museum’s Allison Harding, the exhibition was organized under the central insight that traditional objects are not simply relics of the past, but are vibrant and insightful links to the present, which continue to guide and inspire modern Asian culture.

The exhibition starts outside the museum with Breathing Flower (2011), a 24-foot illuminated sculpture of a red lotus flower by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa. In its natural setting, the lotus pad emerges, as if spontaneously, from murky waters. Here, the eye-catching flower blossoms out into the Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco’s government center, with its inflatable crimson petals seemingly pulsing and breathing. The placement of the lotus—an ancient Eastern symbol of spiritual awakening and renewal—in an urban, Western setting, reflects the exhibition’s theme of drawing connections across different cultures and time and exploring new perspectives on Asian art.

“Phantoms” proposes that certain themes and preoccupations have always influenced (and continue to influence) various Asian arts, including cosmology, cycles of life, myth and ritual, and sacred landscapes. Set opposite a collection of fourth-century, bronze Chinese mirrors—which depict ancient maps of the cosmos on their flip-sides—is Filipino artist Poklong Anading’s Anonymity (2008–11), a series of photographs capturing brief encounters with strangers from the blighted areas of Manila. Each subject is holding a mirror in front of his or her face, causing the camera flash to burst into a halo or corona atop their necks. With their identities obscured, the figures transform into ethereal, light-filled beings and seem to reflect a sense of ineffable spirituality.

Some of the most striking works in the show involve artists exploring themes of death. In her single-channel video, The Class (2005),Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks to an audience of shrouded corpses about the different meanings of death and expectations of the afterlife. Bringing to mind Joseph Beuys’ renowned performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965)—in which the artist talks to a dead hare about artworks in a gallery—The Class makes connections with the wider world of contemporary art, while also exploring traditional Asian beliefs surrounding the notion of death.

Jakkai Siributr presents Thai “spirit houses,” which are modeled after Buddhist shrines that shelter and appease celestial beings. In Karma Cash and Carry (2010–12) he has made a personal shrine to his ancestors, with embroidered portraits and offerings, highlighting the syncretism between the animistic beliefs of Theravada Buddhism and the crass materialism that has overtaken Thai popular culture.

Fuyoko Matsui provides a stark counterpoint to the prevailing Japanese obsession with cuteness, investing her traditional nihonga painting technique with grotesque figures of ghosts, entrails and rotting corpses. Her work harkens back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) in Japan, when depictions of spectral beings in paintings called “yurei-ga” represented the universally feared unknown. Her eight works are not merely imitative of their traditional counterparts, but also push the classical yurei-ga genre into uncanny new directions with visual references to Greek myths and Victorian literature.

Curator Mami Kataoka ponders in the exhibition catalog about our presence in the here and now as being “a speck of dust.” Asia, as we know it, was born from a very long progression of diverse cultures—which are constantly evolving, molded by outside forces and coalescing into neighboring nations—that maintain a fluid relationship with one another. While slightly too large and unwieldy for a single viewing, “Phantoms” features must-see works that connect past with present and offer inspiration for the future of Asian art.