Seated Guanyin and Radiograph, Chinese, Song Period (960-1297)

I have to admit something to you, something that might get me fired from my internship. I just don’t understand ancient Asian art.

With western art, I can typically draw at least one (shaky) line from a work that I know to the piece sitting before me in a museum. Not so when it comes to art from the orient, especially when it’s from a long-ago dynasty. It’s not that I don’t want to revel in the beauty of Japanese paintings or Chinese pottery, it’s that I don’t know enough about the cultures, the styles, the artists, the periods…

That’s why I spent the first chunk of my time at the Seattle Art Museum staring with admiration at glorious works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Morris Graves and the like. Only after that did I nervously wander up to the third floor, where Luminous: The Art of Asia was showing. The exhibition displays 160 Asian masterpieces from the museum’s archives, accompanied by contemporary artist Do Ho Suh’s own meditations on the connections between the ancient and the modern.

The exhibition was literally illuminating, though I’m not sure it solved my problem. It included some pretty cool explanations of how curators and art historians learn the stories of ancient works.


The work…


…and its radiograph

X-radiography helped curators look into Seated Guanyin and learn about the orientation of the wooden blocks from which it’s made, allowing them to match the construction method with other contemporary sculptures. It also showed how- and when- the statue was altered.

“Close inspection of Guanyin‘s forehead indicates the presence of a wood plug, and a shallow wooden insert is actually visible in the radiograph. This suggests that like other similar sculptures of Guanyin from this period, this figure once had a jewel or crystal in the forehead that was later removed and filled.”

You can also see nails in the radiograph of Guanyin‘s head. Because the nails are machine-made, curators know that the headdress has been altered in certain spots.

Okay, so now I’ve literally looked inside the sculpture, but I’m equally as befuddled about the darn thing. Where exactly did Seated Guanyin come from? Why was it made? What does the sculpture’s expression or facture or style tell me about the artist or culture? Like so many western exhibitions of Asian art, the caption offered the most cursory of explanations.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The exhibition has a lot of charm. Its most innovative touch is Do Ho Suh’s Gate, a life-size silk replica of the portal to his parents’ Seoul home. The semi-transparent construction becomes a screen for whimsical and scary projections. The video loop starts with a calm time-lapse video of the real-life gate and ends with the white, glowing door being swarmed by a great mass of crows.


It’s enough to make a Hitchcock fan lose his lunch.


The piece is all about objects and reality, displacement and surrealism, the past and the present- anything that a gate divides, obscures, illuminates or opens. The caption included a comment contrasting the East and the West.

“Our notion of emptiness is quite different in the East,” Suh explained of the white screen that fills with crows and then empties again. “The void is not empty or bleak but charged with meaning.”

I’m intrigued. Luckily, I have thousands of Asian works at the Schnitzer to comb through. If I still have a job, that is.

P.S. That’s the last of my Seattle posts. Notice how I went to SAM without getting conned out of my parking money!!! I’m starting to regain faith in the world.


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