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Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

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.

– Kimsooja

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

Image: Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, Kimsooja, Three-channel sound installation with three jukeboxes, 9 min., 50 sec., Gift of William and Ruth True in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa and the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2020.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

New Views of Some/One

Now that the Asian Art Museum has expanded, we can fit this monumental sculpture by Do Ho Suh inside the galleries! Some/One is part of Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art and while the Asian Art Museum is temporarily closed we are taking you behind the scenes of installing this impressive and important artwork.

Some/One, 2001, represents artist Do Ho Suh’s interest in individual and collective identity. A minimalist sculpture, Do Ho Suh explores how art transforms public and private spaces through a painstaking amount of intricate detail that is not always apparent at first sight but is an integral part of the artwork. Some/One, as the title of the work indicates, juxtaposes the collective—represented by a larger-than-life armor sculpture—and the individual, consisting of life-size shiny-metal dog tags, each unique and representing a single soldier. This allegory is carried forward by contrasting the hard, insensitive character of armor with the delicate aspect of the dog tags, which are made up of thin sheets of metal and embody the poetic symbolism of fallen warriors.

While the Asian Art Museum was closed for renovation and expansion we reimagined the presentation of art to include community perspectives on art works. Below is a reflection on Some/One from artist HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull. You might remember her large-scale artwork on view at Arts at King Street Station as part of yəhaw̓. Check out some photos of Bigfoot, the artwork referenced in her statement.

The one thing that people of all races have in common is we have our protectors. My Crow family recognizes me as a warrior, because I used to be a police officer and got shot in the line of duty, and survived. We use either elk hide or buffalo to dress our warriors, which takes on a similar shape, and sometimes paint the rawhide side with the story of that veteran. It’s a way of them owning their story and being able to wear it with pride, but it also has the sad side to it too: the death, the destruction, the pain. With my contemporary artwork, Bigfoot, there are plastic toy natives next to the head, there’s one with the war bonnet on, and he’s representing the warriors in my family. It’s about dealing with the past, with assimilation, with boarding schools, with genocide. Bigfoot talks about the foundation and accepting your past even if it’s ugly. That’s what this artwork does here too. War is not pretty. 

– HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull, artist

We also include community voices on the free smartphone tour featuring artworks from SAM’s Asian art collection. Listen to musician Deems Tsutakawa discuss this artwork and how he relates to it in his own life.

We worked to represent a variety of voices in presenting Do Ho Suh’s Some/One because the sculpture is about both the individual and collective identities. One of these voices belongs to the artist. In an interview with Art21, artist Do Ho Suh talks about the dream that inspired Some/One.

“I saw this light in the stadium, and so I thought there’s some kind of activity going on. And as I approached the stadium… I walked slowly and went into the stadium on the ground level, and then I see this reflecting surface in the dream. And I realized I was stepping on these metal pieces that were the military dog tags. And it was slightly vibrating; the dog tags were touching each other, and the sound was from that. And from afar, I saw the central figure in the center of the stadium. I slowly proceeded to the center, and then I realized it was all one piece that gradually rose up and formed this one figure…. So, that was the dream and the image that I got. After that, I made a small drawing. The small drawing was about this vast field of military dog tags on the ground and then a small figure in the center…. That was the impact that I wanted to somehow convey through that piece.”

– Do Ho Suh, artist

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!

Photo: Jueqian Fang
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Object of the Week: Focus No. 37

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

From across a gallery, Focus No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and gender seem ambiguous.

This work is part of the Focus series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself, family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters, tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives and friends.1

Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2

While the thread in Focus No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.

Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator

1 https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/interview-lin-tianmiao-art-influence-and-bodily-reaction-inspiration

2 https://www.tate.org.uk/research/research-centres/tate-research-centre-asia/women-artists-contemporary-china/lin-tianmiao

Image: Focus No. 37, 2004, Lin Tian Miao, black-and-white photograph on vinyl with white embroidery, 55 1/8 × 66 15/16 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2004.25, © Lin Tianmiao.

SAM Connects Asian Art to Seattle for Free!

The Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens February 8 and we want to be sure you know all the free and discounted ways that you can visit the reimagined and reinstalled museum!

Even though the Housewarming: Free Reopening Weekend is sold out and we are not accepting walkups on February 8 or 9, there are many other opportunities to visit for free. Today’s Seattle Asian Art Museum breaks boundaries to offer a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological, exploration of art from the world’s largest continent. The restoration of the historic Art Deco building, improvements to critical systems, expanded gallery and education spaces, and a new park lobby that connects the museum to the surrounding Volunteer Park are just some of the ways the Asian Art Museum has been transformed and preserved as a cultural and community resource for future generations.

An important part of the work that took place while the Asian Art museum was closed for renovation and expansion isn’t something you will notice about the architecture or art. The City of Seattle financially supported the preservation and improvements of SAM’s city-owned Art Deco home and in return, we made a commitment to offer more free ways for members of the community to visit the Asian Art Museum!

  • All exhibitions are suggested admission at the Asian Art Museum when purchasing tickets onsite. You can pay what you want.  See Boundless: Stories of Asian Art and Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art on view when the museum reopens!
  • Many programs such as lectures, performances, and tours at the museum are free and include free entry to the galleries. Check out our Free First Saturdays series for kids!
  • SAM provides discounted rates for students, teens, seniors, and military with ID.
    • Seniors (65+) and military can visit for $12.99
    • Students and teens age 15–18 can get tickets for $9.99
  • Children (14 & under) are always free.
  • SAM members are free. Join today and RSVP to see the museum before it opens to the public during the Members Open House on February 5 and 6.
  • First Saturdays and the Second Thursdays of every month are free to all.
  • The First Friday of every month the Asian Art Museum is free for seniors.
  • Bring a group of 10 or more and get discounted tickets. Find out more about group visits!
  • Educators can visit for free anytime with ID. Mark your calendars for a special Educator Open House at the Asian Art Museum on February 27!
  • Did you know that we now offer free school tours for all public schools at all SAM locations? We also offer bus subsidies for title 1 schools. School tours at the Asian Art Museum start march 1—find out more!
Photo: Jueqian Fang

Reimagining the Galleries at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

When the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens next year, visitors will experience the museum’s renowned collection of Asian art in a whole new way. Most of the original galleries will showcase the museum’s collection, while the building’s new gallery—housed in the expansion—will focus on rotating special exhibitions. SAM’s curatorial team saw the renovation process as an exciting chance to rethink how visitors engage with the Asian art collection. “How often does a museum go offline and move everything out?” notes Foong Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. She continues, “This was an opportunity to dream a little bit.” 

The curators convened groups of scholars and community advisors to explore approaches to displaying SAM’s artworks. Moving away from the chronological and geographic organization of most museums, they took a thematic approach instead. Each gallery of Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, the new collection installation, focuses on a theme central to Asia’s diverse arts and societies, ranging from worship and celebration, to visual arts and literature, to clothing and identity. For instance, a gallery titled Spiritual Journeys brings many objects together, from a Pakistani Bodhisattva, to an Indian Stupa, to a Chinese demon, to explore spiritual imagery through unifying ideas such as spiritual guides and guardians. The reinstallation provides an experience of great diversity and a broad context within which to engage with artworks.

Boundless also presents varied voices and perspectives on artworks to offer visitors a wide array of approaches to appreciating SAM’s collection. Along with traditional curatorial texts, artists and Seattle community members also offer their perspectives. The Color in Clay gallery presents a large selection of ceramics from China as well as vibrant works from Vietnam to Iran in a natural light-filled gallery without any contextualizing text. Monitors with more information will be available, but Foong’s hope is for visitors to be immersed in looking closely at subtle differences in tones and textures in the clay and the glazes. “I’m particularly excited about this display because it represents a completely different experience than we’ve ever had at the Asian Art Museum,” she says.

The first special exhibition Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art also draws primarily from the museum’s collection. It brings together works by 12 artists born in different parts of Asia—Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan—who have all lived outside of Asia and are exploring their Asian heritage from global perspectives. Be/longing features Some/One by Do Ho Suh—a sculpture so large that we were previously unable to exhibit it at the Asian Art Museum. SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art Xiaojin Wu explains, “Some/One is an imposing work that compels the viewer to think about identity and our relationship with society—issues we all care about.” Positioning Some/One alongside works by other contemporary artists, visitors will encounter its powerful resonance in a new exhibition, a new gallery, a new building, in the new year.

Images: Some/One (detail), 2001, Do Ho Suh, stainless steel military dog-tags, nickel-plated copper sheets, steel structure, glass fiber reinforced resin, rubber sheets, diameter at base: 24 ft. 4 in.; Height: 81 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2002.43, © Do Ho Suh. Dish with Foliated Rim, late 15th–early 16th century, Vietnamese, blue and white ceramic, 13 1/4″ diameter, Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Lined robe (detail), 20th century, Japanese, plain weave silk crepe with paste-resist stencil decoration (Oki., bingata) lined with modern replacement silk broadcloth, 47 3/4″ long (from collar) x 43″ wide, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 89.155, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Bodhisattva, ca. 2nd–3rd century, Pakistani, Gandhara region, dark gray schist 45 x 15 x 7 in. Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.63.