I witnessed 9/11, and was very much shocked and affected by the traumatizing and violent terrorism. This terrorism made me contemplate a lot on dogma of religion and its extreme violence against humanity, and at the same time, on peace for the world. I wish for a harmonized society: a Utopia.
In the inaugural exhibition Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the transformed Seattle Asian Art Museum, Mandala: Zone of Zero by globally acclaimed artist Kimsooja triggers memories of a recent past—9/11—but also sadly echoes what is happening in our even more divided world today. Displayed in its own dark room, the mixed media installation consists of three circular jukeboxes spinning in mesmerizing circles, each casting its own dimly-colored glow. Playing simultaneously from the jukeboxes’ speakers are Tibetan, Islamic, and Gregorian chants, all three hymns mixing and blurring until they are indistinguishable from one another.
Kimsooja was first inspired to create this work when she came across a gambling shop on New York City’s bustling Broadway. The circular jukebox, which she saw in the shop’s window, struck her as astonishingly similar to traditional Tibetan Mandalas—intricate designs meant to symbolize the universe and aid deep meditation. From its Obangsaek color scheme (the five traditional Korean colors of white, black, blue, yellow, and red), to its circular movement mimicking the cycle of life, to the speaker at the center symbolizing the completion of the self as an awakened being, for Kimsooja “all the elements of this kitsch jukebox speaker that matched with the sacred and religious Mandala system were ironical and intriguing to me, and that urged me to create a piece of art.” The subsequent combination of American pop culture and Buddhist symbolism is even expressed in the title: Mandala: Zone of Zero. However, what makes us ponder further is the meaning of “zone of zero.” Does it refer to the spiritual unification of mind and body, creating a perfect state of “zero”? Or does it simply express an emptiness—a sense of “zero”— that comes with the commercialization of religion?
The work is further enriched by the three chants, which surround the viewer in an almost dream-like fashion. Each recording was sourced at a different religious location. Most notably, the Buddhist Monks’ “Mandala” chant was recorded by Kimsooja’s brother in the same Tibetan temple that is home to the Dalai Lama.
Mandala: Zone of Zero’s call for religious tolerance was particularly topical at the time of its creation in the years following 9/11. Kimsooja herself was in New York on the day and bore witness to the tragedy, as well as to the years of violence and war that followed between the United States and the Islamic world. But the catastrophic event also made Kimsooja long for peace in the world, wishing for “a Utopia.” This duality between discord and harmony can be heard quite literally in the entrancing chants that Kimsooja sources in her piece. At times, the different hymns seem to clash against one another harshly and, in other moments, blend lullingly together, mingling and merging until they approach a sound of unity, a feeling of tranquility, a sweeping state of zero.
— Isabelle Qian, former SAM Curatorial Intern; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art
Next in our series of virtual tours from Suzanne Ragen, aka Nana, we’ll be looking at an ancient Hindu sculpture and a Chinese sculpture from the 14th century. A SAM docent since 1965, Ragen began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren when the Asian Art Museum had to close for the safety of the public in March 2020. She recently started to share these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us and we hope you enjoy them!
Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings
Do you remember our first object, the Indian Story Scroll Cloth that featured the Hindu god Ganesh? He starts the story on that scroll because he is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, which means the story gets off to a good start.
This stone sculpture of Ganesh was located in a niche of a Hindu temple wall. In Hinduism, there are three main gods: Brahma has four heads and is the creator of pretty much everything; Vishnu often wears a top hat and is blue and comes to earth to help when needed in the form of nine different avatars; and Shiva who is the destroyer and can end the world and then you start all over again.
This Ganesh is connected to Shiva, we know that because the snake across his round belly is Shiva’s snake. When you look at Ganesh, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, his most striking feature is his elephant head. He also has four arms, a big belly, wears jewelry, and a crown. You might notice his candy dish in his left hand (he loves candy). What do you see near his right foot? That’s Mooshika, his rat sidekick who helps Ganesh trample down or wiggle through obstacles.
Why do you think he has an elephant head? The reason starts with Shiva and his wife Parvati, who live in a big, fancy house. Shiva is gone a lot, destroying things and Parvati misses him. One day when Shiva is gone Parvati makes a child out of clay to keep her company and breathes life into him. Once she goes to take a bath and tells her child, “Don’t let anyone in the house!” But Shiva comes home unexpectedly. Ganesh stops him and says “You can’t come in!” This makes Shiva so angry that he takes his sword and cuts off Ganesh’s head.
Parvati comes out and says, “How terrible! You have cut off the head of our child!” Shiva realizes the situation and tells his servant to go to the market and bring back the first head he sees. It is an elephant. Shiva places the elephant head on his child’s body. Ganesh comes back to life and in Hindu mythology, stays as a helper to his father and a good son to his mother.
Many Hindus pray to Ganesh for good luck when they set a new goal. After hearing this story, what do you think is lucky about Ganesh?
Dragon Tamer Luohan
This Chinese wood sculpture from the 14th century came to the Seattle Art Museum soon after it opened its doors in 1933. How do I know this information? I looked at the label! If you look at the last numbers on any label (no matter what museum you go to), you’ll see there are a series of numbers. The numbers before the first period tell you what year the museum acquired the work, after the period is the number in which the object came into the collection that year. This is called the accession number. The accession number for this object is 36.13. This means that the object was acquired in 1936 and it was the 13th object acquired that year.
For the past 84 years this object was titled Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment. While the museum was closed for a recent renovation and expansion, our Chinese curator was able to examine it very carefully, using medical equipment like x-rays and CT scans, as well as looking closely. We can do that, too.
What we discovered from the scans is that the figure is hollow, made up of five different pieces of wood, held together with long iron pins, and was painted in reds and greens with a topcoat of gold, most of which has worn off. The curator was able to remove a panel in his back and found a single Chinese character inscribed inside that the museum had never seen before! It is part of the name for the Dragon Tamer Luohan. Luohans are Buddhist monks and this one’s particular job was to control the Dragon King. The Chinese believed that rainfall was controlled from the clouds by the Dragon King, so farmers would pray to this Luohan for the right amount of rain for their crops. Because of his size (more than three feet) and quality, it is thought that he was originally in a temple in Beijing.
The other big surprise that was found inside him was a mud wasp nest in his head! It must have been there for 800 years. A fragment of a wasp was sent to a UW entomologist, who was able to determine its species.
He is sitting on a tree stump, his body is twisted, legs with one foot touching the ground and the other crossed over that knee. He is grasping his robe in one hand and probably held a pail or a pearl in his other hand. He is looking upward at the sky, communicating with the Dragon King for more or less rain to fall. He seems totally animated with his swirling robes and vigorous body language. Notice his elongated pierced ear lobes, a symbol of the Buddha, who began life so wealthy that he wore heavy gold earring which stretched his ears.
Many years ago I was leading a high school group on a tour and we were talking about enlightenment and what it is? (This was when he had his first title). I suggested that it might be what happens when you are puzzling over a math problem and the symbols and numbers are just making no sense. You keep looking at them and suddenly they fall into place. Eureka! Enlightenment! When I said that, I snapped my fingers, and at that moment there was a minor Seattle earthquake. The guards came and rushed us into a doorway. I did feel a certain odd sense of power.
– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent
Image: Dragon Tamer Luohan, ca. 14th century, Chinese, wood with polychrome decoration, 41 x 30 x 22 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13. Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings, ca. late 10th to early 11th century, Indian , Odisha, possibly Bhubanesvara, sandstone, 18 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.33.
When the Asian Art Museum had to close due to health and safety concerns around COVID-19, Suzanne Ragen, a SAM docent since 1965, began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren. When Suzanne first started volunteering, Dr. Fuller was SAM’s Director and the Volunteer Park location was our only museum. She describes the reopening of the Asian Art Museum earlier this year after it’s renovation and expansion, as feeling like coming home. We are all thankful that Nana is sharing these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us!
Story scroll of sage Bhavana
Imagine that the year is around 1850 and you live in a small Indian village where most of the people are weavers. It’s been a long hot day of work but a treat is in store for all of you this evening. A storyteller is coming with his very long cloth scroll and he is going to tell and sing to you the story of Bhavana, the celestial weaver who wove cloth for the gods. He lights a lamp and starts to unfurl the long cloth that is wound on his bamboo poles. That’s how this object was displayed before it came to the Seattle Art Museum.
At SAM you can only see the beginning and end of the 30 yards of the story. Look at the first section and you will see the Hindu god Ganesh with his human body and elephant head. Even though most people in the original audience could not read, they would recognize Ganesh by his unique characteristics. Ganesh is the god of beginnings, so this is a good place to start our story. We’ll read the scroll from the top to the bottom.
Above Ganesh are the three main Hindu Gods—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. The story goes that the sage, or wise man, Bhavana was victorious in a great war thanks to his army of tigers. As the victor, he can marry the daughter of the sun. Many gods attend their wedding, some arriving in flying chariots. Where do you see the chariots? Keep looking down past the chariots, towards the bottom of the scroll. Bhavana is making colored dyes from his enemies’ bodies.
You’re part of the audience and if the storyteller did a good job, you would pay him some hard-earned rupees! You might also appreciate the donor who commissioned the scrolls for your village. Look at the patch at the end of the story and you can see the name of the person who paid for the scroll.
What are some stories that you know? Who first told you these stories and how do you show them that you appreciate their storytelling?
We are now jumping from 19th-century India to 2001 for a look at Some/One, a sculpture by contemporary Korean artist Do Ho Suh. You might not be able to tell from the image, but this is a large sculpture, taking up almost the entire gallery. It’s located in the new expansion of the Asian Art Museum, along with art from all over Asia mostly done by currently living artists.
By looking at this picture, can you tell what the sculpture is made of? There are a ton of small, silver rectangles. These are stainless steel military dog tags that soldiers wear around their necks to identify themselves. The artist commissioned a veteran, or someone who served in the military, to manufacture hundreds of these dog tags, but with made-up names. Do Ho Suh sculpted the dog tags into a kimono-like garment that would have to be worn by someone over eight-feet tall! A steel structure holds it together, covered with a glass fiber reinforced resin and rubber and copper sheets.
Do Ho Suh made this as a student when he was given an assignment to create a piece of clothing that could serve as his identity. Suh had moved to the US for school from South Korea, where every male citizen must serve at least two years in the military.
Why do you think Suh titled this work Some/One? One reason might be that each dog tag represents an individual soldier, but as a whole they make one—the military. When you see this work in person, you’ll notice that the tags are so shiny that you can see yourself reflected in the kimono. How do you think it might feel to see yourself in this art?
If you were asked to make a piece of clothing that reflected your identity, what would you create?
Later in our virtual tours we will look at a Japanese terra cotta soldier called a Haniwa from around 500 AD who is also wearing armor.
Imagine that you live in the city of Edo (now Tokyo, Japan) around 1800. Unlike today’s Tokyo that’s filled with tall, steel skyscrapers, 200 years ago, the houses were made of wood, bamboo and paper; the floors are covered with tatami mats made of straw. These materials would be very flammable! Now, pretend you are a fireman, a highly esteemed profession. The only way to control a fire in your city is to destroy the buildings around the one that is on fire to stop the spread. When the alarm comes, you reach for a coat like this one.
The fireman’s coat is made of very thick cotton, dyed with indigo. You would soak the coat in water before going to the fire, which might make it weigh 75 pounds, but would help protect you. The outside is solid navy blue and bears your fire brigade ID. The design of the rabbits is on the inside of the coat, closest to your body—that means when you see this at the museum, the coat is displayed inside out.
Why would rabbits be on a fireman’s coat? There is a traditional Japanese story that the Man in the Moon came to earth disguised as an old starving traveler. He met three animal friends on the road. Monkey was agile and could climb trees to bring the old man fruit. Fox was clever and could swim and bring him fish. Rabbit could only gather grass, so he asked the old beggar to light a fire. He jumped into that fire to offer his body as a meal. The old man was so touched by Rabbit’s sacrifice that he pulled him from the fire and invited Rabbit to live with him on the moon. He is still there. Do you agree that Rabbit is an appropriate emblem of protection from fire for firemen?
Can you tell what the rabbits are doing on the coat? They are pounding rice to make mochi in the enormous pot, with steam clouds floating above them and a few plant fronds at their feet. Have you ever eaten mochi? Mochi is rice pounded into a paste, often with added water, sugar, cornstarch, and coloring, then molded into shapes. It is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. Mochi is especially popular around the New Year as a symbol of good fortune.
Now when you see the Man in the Moon, you might think of this story and enjoy a delicious treat.
The recently renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum reopened only a few short weeks before SAM had to close due to COVID-19. In this virtual docent tour, Carol Frankel takes us through one of the reimagined galleries—the Color in Clay gallery overlooking Volunteer Park. Carol Frankel has been a SAM docent since 2007. After 25 years at the University of Puget Sound, she became a docent and found her real interest in Asian art. She travels regularly to Japan to visit friends and seek out new and interesting places. When not sleuthing out some Asian art object, she cooks with her grandchildren by FaceTime if not in person.
Many may find this gallery, which is organized solely by color, perplexing. It is filled with several objects, none of which have a label. For me, it’s the most rewarding room to explore, with so many interesting and thought-provoking opportunities. To help narrow our virtual tour, we’ll focus on two colors: blue and white.
We’ll start by looking at blue pieces. Blue can be the most desired and difficult color to achieve in textiles, paints, and ceramics. While we’re focused on this precious hue, you may be surprised that our first three objects are primarily brown, green, and cream.
These are sancai 三彩 ware. The name literally translates to “three colors.” A railroad company named these precious objects! There were Tang dynasty tombs still in-tact all over China in the 1920s when the Longhai Railroad started developing rail lines throughout the country. In the process, they dug up many tombs and ceramic pieces. The most prevalent were glazed in three colors: brown, green, and cream. These works were sold to museums all over the world under the name “Tang Dynasty Sancai.”
So why are these on our blue-themed tour? If you look closely, you can see touches of blue and whenever we see blue in Chinese ceramics we can assume it uses cobalt that came from West Asia—also known as the Middle East—where the element was prevalent. This confirms that in the 7th and 8th centuries CE China was trading across the continent. (Additionally, we can see the evidence of trade with the west in the facial structure of the wine merchant.)
The development of glaze was a notable achievement of the Tang Dynasty, but most important in our exploration of blue and white pottery was the move from the darker clay popular in China at that time to the whiter clay, which eventually led to porcelain. At the end of the gallery, you can see how this change in materials created a spectacular lack of color.
We’ve now seen blue and white separately, and if you were to look to your left in the gallery, you would see the colors combined.
We have now skipped ahead maybe 700 years to the Ming dynasty in China. The Ming blue-and-white objects are what some consider the pinnacle of ceramic ware. In the gallery is a large Ming plate, pictured above, surrounded by blue and white examples from Vietnam and present-day Iran (the origin of the cobalt blue glazes used in the sancai ware).
While Persia had the natural resources to create a deep, rich blue, what they didn’t have was the white clay available in China. Their clay was dark and in order to create a good blue and white, they had to first glaze the piece with a white glaze! If you were to look at the unglazed foot of each of these pieces (the back of the plates), you would see a dark gray clay, whereas the accompanying Chinese ceramic’s foot shows a bright white. You can also notice differences in the glazes of these two cultures. While the colors are similar, the lines are slightly different. Look closely at the Persian works and you’ll notice the blue glaze is somewhat blurry and the Chinese blue and white edges are crisp. In China, potters learned to mix the cobalt glaze with some of the indigenous kaolin clay and were able to obtain the sharp edges seen in Ming ceramics.
The world really opens up through the lens of only two colors. Once the museum reopens, you can return to the Color in Clay gallery and explore using another color combination as a vehicle to consider materials, trade, history, and fashion.
– Carol Frankel, SAM Docent
Images: Installation view Color in Clay gallery, Asian Art Museum, 2019, Jueqian Fang. Figure of foreign merchant holding wine skin, 8th century, Chines, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze, 14 5/8 x 10 x 6 1/2in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 38.6. Tripod plate, 8th–9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and incised decoration, 1 7/8 in., diam. 7 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.49. Phoenix head ewer, 8th-9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and molded decoration, 12 5/8 x 4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Silk Road, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., September 16, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silk-Road-trade-route. Jar, 9th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze, 8 3/4 in., Silver Anniversary Fund, 59.121. Dish with the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols, late 15th century, Chinese, porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, h. 1 9/16 in., diam. 7 1/2 in., diam. bottom 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.85. Dish with foliated rim and Chinese landscape, late 15th to early 16th century, Vietnamese, stoneware with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, diam. 13 1/4 in., Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Plate, 16th century, robably Iranian (Persia), Mashhad, stonepaste with underglaze-blue, black, and sage-green decoration, h. 2 3/8 in., diam. 12 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 57.17. Plate, 17th century, Iranian (Persian), stonepaste with underglaze-blue decoration, 2 1/2 x 13 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.146.
When the Asian Art Museum closed for renovation and expansion our curators and conservators had the opportunity to conduct new research on an ancient sculpture in our Asian art collection. Hear from Foong Ping, SAM’s Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art, and Geneva Griswold, SAM Associate Conservator, in this detailed discussion about the new findings that led to renaming one of our sculptures. Previously known as “Monk at The Moment of Enlightenment,” learn why this enigmatic sculpture is now titled, “Dragon Tamer Louhan.”
This talk was originally presented in 2019 as part of SAM’s popular member-only Conversations with Curators lecture series and was adapted into a virtual art talk for everyone during Seattle’s “stay home, stay safe” directive so that you can stay connected to art while you stay home with SAM. The current season of Conversations with Curators is taking place virtually and is free for SAM members. It’s a great time to join or renew your membership.
We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!
One of the most unique features of the newly remodeled Asian Art Museum is the Asian Paintings Conservation Studio. As the only conservation studio on the west coast entirely devoted to the care and conservation of Asian paintings, the studio provides new opportunities to care for SAM’s Asian art collection. Once it is fully operational, the studio will also accept conservation projects from regional museums and private collectors. Designed so that the public can view the studio through large glass doors, the studio is located on the lower level of the Asian Art Museum. When you peer through the glass doors, you will immediately notice a beautiful tatami platform enclosed with sliding shoji doors. This platform will serve as a dedicated work area for a small team trained in the care and conservation of Asian paintings.
The tatami platform and shoji doors were built by a local master craftsman, Koji Uchida. Mr. Uchida’s company, Wafu Builders, designs and builds indoor and outdoor spaces using traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. Based on research conducted by our Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman, on research trips to Asian paintings conservation studios in Asia, North America and Europe, Mr. Uchida and Mr. Dorman collaborated on the design of the studio. We are so lucky that Mr. Uchida lives within driving distance of the museum!
Mr. Uchida built the tatami platform and shoji doors from the ground up. Before the remodel, this area housed staff offices and is part of the original building footprint. As you would expect in an old building, the floor and walls are not completely square or level. To create a level foundation for the tatami, Mr. Uchida built a two-by-four frame. As you can see in this photo, he used hundreds of custom-cut shims to level the platform.
Once the substructure was complete, Mr. Uchida began to build out the visible elements of the platform. The platform features 12 tatami mats, which are surrounded by a border of fine-grained Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The next image shows the beautifully interlocked corners of the platform. Creating this careful fit required precision cuts and impeccable measurements. Mr. Uchida’s workmanship is meticulous, and he spent many hours carefully fitting and refitting the various pieces of wood until the final composition met his high standards.
Though Mr. Uchida used power tools to rough cut the wood, many details were executed with hand tools. In the image below, you can see that the slot in the vertical beam is hand chiseled. Be sure to notice the unique grain pattern of the vertical post. Made of Kitayama cedar, this post was strategically cut to showcase the wood’s wavy grain. A building material often used in traditional Japanese architecture, Kitayama cedar grows in and around the Kitayama area of Kyoto. The wavy grain is created by pruning branches from the trunk as it grows and tightly binding the trunk with pieces of plastic and wire. Left in place for several years, this wrapping creates a distinctive and highly prized grain pattern.
Below is another view of the same corner. With the horizontal support in place, you can see how careful measuring and cutting creates a perfect fit.
Once the platform and the shoji framing were complete, Mr. Uchida returned to his studio and began making the tatami mats. Using tatami omote (the woven facing) imported from Japan, Mr. Uchida constructed each mat. The blue edging, or heri, is made from hemp and is also imported from Japan. Tatami heri vary from plain colors to subtle patterns. Mr. Uchida felt that for such a unique and special space, hemp heri would be appropriate and signify its importance.
Sliding shoji doors were the final component. Working from his home workshop, Mr. Uchida built the lattice for the doors and carefully glued the paper facing to the lattice. Faced with mino paper from Japan, the doors can be left open for public viewing or closed for when a conservator is working on a tricky treatment. Both the lower shoji and the upper ranma slide smoothly and quietly.
It was a pleasure to observe the work of Mr. Uchida throughout the process. Every day, I feel lucky that my desk is adjacent to this beautiful space. Once the Asian Art Museum can reopen, be sure to stop by and take a peek at the studio. When we are ready, we will offer opportunities for the public to come inside the studio and learn more about Asian paintings conservation and current studio projects. In the meantime, we are making plans for future conservation projects and looking forward to reopening the studio. We can’t wait to welcome you back to the museum!
– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Paintings Conservation Studio Associate
Did you know the Asian Art Museum is the original home of the Seattle Art Museum? In 1933, the Seattle Art Museum opened in our Art Deco building in Volunteer Park. In 1994 the museum expanded into our downtown location and the building in Volunteer Park became dedicated to exhibiting art from SAM’s Asian art collection. Many Seattleites have been visiting the Asian Art Museum right from the beginning and are sharing their love for SAM, Asian art, and the future of the Asian Art Museum in this video.
Hear about the history of the Asian Art Museum in the life of the city and the lives of the people that live here. Today’s Asian Art Museum is boundless. Placing a bodhisattva from Pakistan, a stupa from India, and a demon from China side by side reveals unifying ideas such as spiritual guides and guardians while sharing culturally specific meanings. You will no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan, or India. Instead, vibrant artworks from Vietnam to Iran, and everywhere in between, come together to tell stories of human experiences across time and place.
Following a three-year long major renovation and expansion, the Asian Art Museum reopened in February 2020, only to temporarily close again in March for the safety of our community. We miss you and can’t wait to share the love for Asian art with you once again when we can reopen! Until then, stay home with SAM and enjoy videos like these.
We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!
“Without the periodic conservation of these works, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore. So this work is really critical and we are conserving our collections so that they are lasting in perpetuity for generations to come.”
– Nick Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator
When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you’ll be able to stop by to learn about the conservation of Asian paintings by peeking through the public viewing window into the conservation space to see the progress! Through a $3.5M challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the conservation, mounting, and study of Asian paintings. The new conservation center serves the museum’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region. This is the first museum center of its kind in the western United States. We hope to have it completed by 2021.
If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.
April showers may bring May flowers, but the passing of the
clouds bring clear nights to see the bright face of the moon. Moon gazing isn’t
an easy task here in the Pacific Northwest, especially with all the rainstorms
and grey days; however, in East Asian countries, Moon Viewing is a popular
mid-autumn festival for celebrating the harvest and contemplating the beauty of
the night sky. In Japan, this is called Tsukimi, and is held on the 15th day to
the 18th day of the eighth lunar month––so, sometime in September or October,
depending on year. In the past it was time to write waka, a form of Japanese poetry, which originated within the
aristocracy. Today, Tsukimi is celebrated all over Japan with displays of
pampas grass and white balls of mochi (sweet rice cakes).
At the Asian Art Museum, we have our own example of Tsukimi revelry in the form of a 19th century hikeshi banten, or a commoner’s fireman coat. Made of tough cotton to impede burning debris, this coat has a surprisingly playful depiction of rabbits on their hind-legs, pounding at a vessel of mochi. Made of glutinous rice, mochi needs to be pounded to make the smooth, stretchy texture for which it is known.
So why rabbits? At first glance it would seem odd to connect
these bunnies to mochi creation, or Tsukimi at all. However, in terms of
mythology, rabbits have a lot to do with both. In the West, we have a fairy
tale about the man in the moon, so created by how the moon’s dark craters seem
to mimic the features of a face. In many Eastern folktales, however, it is not
a human face, but a rabbit. Specifically, it is a rabbit with a mortar and
pestle. In China, this is because the rabbit is a companion to the moon
goddess, and pounds her medicine of immortality. In Japan and Korea, this
rabbit pounds mochi, and has an entirely different reason for being engraved on
the moon. In the Konjaku Monogatarishu, a collection of tales from the
Heian Period, the story is told like this:
A long time ago, the Man of the Moon came down to Earth in secret in the
guise of an old man. There, he came across three friends: monkey, fox, and
rabbit, who had all taken a vow of charity. To them, he begged for food.
The monkey, being nimble, brought him fruit. The fox, being clever,
brought him fish. The rabbit, only able to gather grass, had nothing to offer.
So he asked the old man to light a fire and jumped into it, offering his own
body as a meal.
The old man changed quickly back to the Man of the Moon and pulled the
rabbit from the fire. He was deeply touched by such sacrifice and said “Rabbit,
you are a kind creature, but do not give yourself up for me. As you were
kindest of all, you may come and live with me upon the moon.” The rabbit agreed,
and was carried to his new home. He is still there to this day. If you look up
at the moon, you can see his figure upon it.
Between the flame that the rabbit tossed
himself into, and his associations to the moon and food, it seems a little
clearer why there would be the image of a mochi-pounding rabbit on a fireman’s
coat. The rabbit was miraculously pulled from the flame and provided honor for his
sacrifice––the perfect emblem of protection for a fireman.
Even with social distancing, we can still look up and see the rabbit, pounding away at mochi on the surface of the moon. It makes you wonder if he is an essential worker, too, and whether they have such worries in the night sky. When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you can see this rabbit hikeshi-banten on view in the galleries as a fine example of what would have once defined a fireman.
– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art
Images: Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417