In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo:Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.
The subject of the Crows screens is a murder of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw.
In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:
In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.
– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator
 Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.  Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
The six-panel Crows screen is a monument in SAM’s Asian art collection and also forms an integral part of Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, where it serves as a reference point for a digital aviary. In what other company have the Crows flown?
Back in 1936, the exceptional screen featured in a display of Japanese Buddhist Art at the gallery Yamanaka & Co., from which SAM purchased it. In 1953 it mingled with other Japanese painted screens in an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. Birds, Blossoms, Bees and Bugs—The Nature of Japan (1976) brought the screen to Los Angeles for a look at Japanese art inspired by the environment. Dozens of permanent collection displays at the Seattle Art Museum have flocked around the Crows. A 1994 installation marking the reopening of the Volunteer Park building as the Seattle Asian Art Museum situated the screen among Japanese netsuke, bronze waterdroppers, jewelry, and lacquers. Flights of Fancy (1998-1999) placed it among newer acquisitions of painting and sculpture, while Signs of Fortune, Symbols of Immortality (2000-2001) engaged its spiritual content. A Fuller View of China, Japan, and Korea (2013-2014) considered the Crows among the countless contributions to the museum from co-founders Dr. Richard Fuller and Margaret MacTavish Fuller.
Wherever the words “Asian” and “masterpiece” were used in a show title at SAM, the Crows screen was there. Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (1998-1999) displayed it among some other remarkable Japanese paintings, like the Hell of Shreaking Sounds scroll from the Heian period, and Bokkei Saiyo’s Moonlit Landscape. Care for the Crows took center stage in Five Masterpieces of Asian Art: The Story of their Conservation (2007). Over 2009–2010, they took a rare flight out of Seattle for Luminous Jewels: Masterpieces of Asian Art from the Seattle Art Museum, which traveled to the Suntory Museum, Tokyo; Kobe City Museum; Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art; MOA Museum, Atami; and Fukuoka City Museum, before landing back home.
As truly great artworks do, the Crows have spoken loudly in a range of themed and cultural contexts, amid a variety of fellow works. This restless murder continues to spark new and innovative ideas from its perch at the Asian Art Museum.
–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Image: Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, Edo period (1603-1868), pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1. Photo: Paul V. Thomas.