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Ancient art

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Do you sometimes wonder about those lights that are ridiculously high up on museum ceilings? Turns out there isn’t a fairy hovering around with a box of fresh light bulbs and a tiny employee badge around her neck. I turned a corner at the Jordan Schnitzer MOA to find this creature, which I first glimpsed during my night at the museum.  I swear I’ll tame that thing some day, and then I’ll lie on my belly in the basket and scoot around like I’m FLYING!

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One-Eyed Tofu Bearing Boy

The museum has lately been populated by quite a few monsters that could probably beat the spindly extendo-machine in a fight. They’re characters on a giant-size version of a Japanese Sugoroku board, which was translated and designed by UO student Faith Kreskey as part of her master’s thesis. I met with Kreskey to talk about pumpkin monsters, glowering paper umbrellas, haunted lanterns and the like.

Sugoroku is a chutes and ladders-type dice game that was popular during the Edo period (1613-1868), and this particular board has a different Japanese critter on each square. It’s kind of like a giant monster guide for little kids, who truly must have been tougher in the good old days. Think the boogie man was scary? You had it easy, sonny.

Take One-Eyed Tofu Bearing Boy, who seems to be a distant ancestor of Mike from Monster’s, Inc. Save the cyclops eye and pointy tongue, he looks like a regular little boy dressed for New Year’s. He acts as a sweet tofu deliveryboy, unless he doesn’t like you. If Tofu Boy offers you tofu with a red maple leaf on top, it be POISONED!!

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The Filth Licker

Then there’s the Filth Licker, who will creep into your house and lick things if you don’t properly clean. What’s up with this fascination with KISS-style tongues?

Also in attendance are a cat witch who’s about to get beheaded, a three-eyed priest, a transforming giant, a flying squirrel monster, a furry creature who bounces around on a very sensitive part of his anatomy, and the Kappa, who likes to eat… well, you can do more research if you want to.

At some point between Kreskey’s descriptions of the “tree that grows fruit in the shape of baby heads” and the monster that follows you around “if you don’t throw away your umbrella correctly,” I started to understand how Japanese game shows make sense in terms of cultural evolution.

As we hopped around the board, which fills an entire room, Kreskey had that rabid superfan look in her eye. It must be thrilling to physically move through a world you’ve so meticulously studied. It’s hard to explain it, but the characters are bizarrely lovable. Even you, Tofu Boy, even you.

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Sylvan Theater, University of Washington

Isn’t it strange to think that winter break is 1/3 of a summer in length? Now that it’s over, I’m grasping at hazy memories of everything I did. Just like summer’s recollections, they’ve begun to yellow under nostalgia’s warm glow.

There I am on the UW campus at the beginning of break, strolling along with my sister under a deep azure sky. I find an umbrella in the bushes and strut around like it’s one of those fancy, useless canes. We discover four Greek columns, and they’re so stark and serious and naked that I laugh.

“I’ve always wanted to know the difference between the types of columns*,” I say, reaching out to touch one. “It’s not marble!” I say, laughing again.

Oh, but in my memory, the sky has begun to shift from deep azure to robin’s egg blue, and Toy Story clouds have crept in. My sister and I aren’t alone, we’re accompanied by three giggling Muses holding a billowing cloth like a giant parachute, which threatens to lift them off the ground.

You know, kinda sorta like this:

Picture downloaded from my mind

I think that’s why we need breaks, because time is made of a different material then. There’s an added chemical in there akin to the stuff of Polaroid pictures, so that as things sit and develop we can begin to long after them (even if the sky actually was azure, and my sister’s ankle was hurting, and my hands were getting cold).

I can’t imagine ever feeling nostalgic about now, as my eyes droop and I know I have some more Spanish grammar to review and I’m facing crushing work until March.

I’ve already received a faded yellow postcard from the Muses, though, and they said they’ll be back in town over spring break. This time they’re bringing swimsuits.

*ANSWER: The pictured columns are Ionic, which are characterized by their scroll-shaped capitals (tops). Doric columns are simple columns that taper at the top, and are the oldest and strongest order. Tuscan columns are very similar to Doric columns, with simple cylindrical capitals. Corinthian columns are the weakest, and have capitals that look like leafy votive baskets. Composite columns = Corinthian + Ionic.

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Joseph McDonnell, The Bather, 1976

I didn’t need the eyes of an appraiser to know, instantly upon walking in, that these people were millionaires. It wasn’t that their walls were covered in original art, some accompanied by charming personal notes from the artists. That detail would emerge with further examination. It was the avante garde (read: bizarre) little touches that really tipped me off.

No, those aren’t twin dogs lounging on the couch. They’re explosively furry sheep hair pillows. Yes, the chandelier is a cluster of enormous glass cubes that might shatter at any moment. It’s one-of-a-kind. Oh, and now I know who buys those cowhide carpets from Ikea that I saw on my hellish journey there in October. You can’t be this aesthetically playful without very good ta$te, if you know what I mean.

It was the last day of my Seattle journey, and I’d landed at my dad’s work retreat, held at his co-worker’s chic mansion. I know I said my field trip posts were over, but the best part of this story takes place in Oregon. Just sit tight, and we’ll be far, far away from the rich and famous soon.

Besides all of the glorious pieces hanging on the walls (which included an excellent portrait of the family’s daughters… with Elphaba green skin), there was also The Bather. The sculpture sits serenely in the backyard, striking a contrast to the stunning view of Seattle’s bustling skyline.

You might recognize The Bather because a version of it was shown at the Vancouver Olympic games. As much as I’d like to relate it to the ancient Olympian sculpture Boy scraping himself or other classical works, the piece is resolutely modern and figurative. It’s all about circles and curves. McDonnell is shaping emptiness, creating an invisible ball of energy that is formed by (or holds) the bather’s body.

I wasn’t planning on writing about McDonnell’s sculpture at all, mostly because I knew the post would end up sounding like Better Home and Garden (mission accomplished). Then I went on a run with my dad at Lane Community College yesterday, and the plot thickened.

It turns out there’s an awesome network of forest paths behind the temple of questionable art that is LCC. Not far from the trail head but deep in the tangled underbrush we caught sight of a very familiar sculpture…

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LCC mystery sculpture

Okay, so it’s not exactly The Bather, but you can see McDonnell’s figure here in an even simpler form. The bottom curve looks like folded legs of sorts, while the upper twist of metal could be a bent torso. Even if you think that’s a bit of a stretch, you have to admit that the sculptures utilize spirals, curves and globes in similar ways:

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So, what landed one sculpture on the millionaire’s lawn and the other in a mass of blackberry brambles? Or maybe a better question is, which piece is better off?

“Maybe the sculptor (of the LCC work) put it out there on purpose, as sort of an interactive, natural piece,” pondered my dad. “Who says a pedestal is the best place to put a sculpture? It seems artificial.”

The abandoned sculpture has certainly gotten a lot of attention since being dumped. Though some of the marks on its skin are ugly and hateful, others are intricately crafted tattoos. It seems that, in the long run, most bent hunks of metal that we call “sculptures” will end up somewhere like this. The Lenin statue I saw the other day spent years with its face in the dirt before ending up in Seattle.

It’s an idea that makes me uncomfortable and fearful. I suppose it’s a sculpture’s final statement (or provocation): memento mori.

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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.

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The work…

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…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.

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

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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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My sister Becca in Seattle’s underground tunnels. Do you see the strange spectral blobs?

A tip for every tour guide: never admit that your attraction was once on the SyFy show Ghost Hunters. It’s not because your wimpier guests might panic. Any mention of reality stars actually cheapens the thrill, believe it or not.

“All of the Ghost Hunters had ‘personal experiences’ down here,” said our guide of the hours the tubby celebrities spent staking out Seattle’s underground tunnel system (Video HERE). “But they couldn’t actually prove anything because of all the noise coming from the street above.” Riiiight.

Better to go straight into tallying the number of corpses that surrounded us as we tripped through the city under the City. Seattle’s foolish founders originally built part of the town literally on the beach, and after years of dealing with twice-daily flooding, toilets that exploded when the tide came in, and swimming pool-sized craters in the roads, they finally erected giant walls and began building new, elevated streets on top of the old ones. Buildings’ first floors became their basements, and the original sidewalks formed a dim tunnel system.

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The tunnels…

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And the skylights, which are part of modern Seattle’s sidewalks

How did they fill all the space between the first and second levels? With literally anything they could find, including dozens of dead horses! Oh, and then there was the Chinese gent whose corpse was waiting to be sent back home. He got tossed in, too. That’s not to mention the drunkards who fell from ladders and rats who were skirmished in a dime-a-tail initiative created to deal with the “rivers” of vermin that swept the tunnels nightly. Talk about a ghost zoo.

The most haunted part of the tunnels is the site of an old bank. Rumor has it, a banker was killed inside an underground vault during a heist and still “guards his gold” to this day.

I didn’t believe it… UNTIL I SAW THIS:

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Creepy shadow figure that is surely a supernatural being

Please don’t haunt me for doubting you, oh spirits.

While the spirits seemed to be in mint condition, the art of the underground was sadly almost completely gone. I kind of expected more from a historical site less than 200 years old. Instead, I got little more than a detail of a tin building facade and a single faded panel of wallpaper.

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Tin building facade

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Fading wallpaper

The wallpaper did fleetingly remind me of Pompeii’s exquisite murals, which in their various styles indicated the tastes and classes of the Roman city’s residents just before the volcanic eruption that so exquisitely preserved the city.  I had a brief art-chaeological geek-out moment when I photographed it. What does this wallpaper say about the emporium that was once in this gloomy cave?

“It’s hard to imagine now, but it was quite fancy,” said our tour guide. On the other hand, our tour guide has been known to say a lot of things.

BONUS LINK: Here are some other brushes I’ve had with ghosties.


Jenna Han, untitled

My eyes were burning and a strange mask had been strapped to my face. I was lying in a room with hard floors, bright lights and strange white curtains. Above me, a fuzzy silhouette pointed to a shiny, multi-legged device and said, “It’s your turn.”

If you’ve ever had a friend who was in a photography class, you probably know what it’s like to be inducted into the cult of the portrait subjects. After you’ve signed your name in blood in the big golden book (or something like that), there’s nothing to be done but cheerfully participate in the creepy rituals. Just put on the ankle shackles, drink the goat’s blood and don’t ask questions.

After all, the cult leader probably knows as little as you do. What, exactly, did a terracotta warrior mask and a black pea coat have to do with my friend Jenna’s analog photography assignment entitled “Body”?

“I thought it would look cool,” Jenna said while she applied my black eyeliner.

“Okayouch,” I said.

You might wonder why I agreed to do this, and the answers are that (1) Jenna is actually much sweeter and less likely to found her own Jonestown than I’ve made it seem, and (2) after all of my adventures involving portraiture, I thought it might be time to step in front of the camera.

While Jenna photographed two other inductees, I tried to get into character. Because I’m blind as a bat and couldn’t wear my glasses with the mask on, I had absolutely no idea what I looked like. Maybe this could help me believe I was a real terracotta warrior.

My art history class is about western civilization, so I turned to Wikipedia to research my new identity. I knew that the Terracotta Army was discovered by Chinese farmers (of the Shaanxi province in 1974), but I had no idea that for centuries before that, people had been finding chunks of terracotta in the soil and at one point maybe even dug down to the army but didn’t realize it.

The first emperor of China commissioned the army’s creation so that he’d be protected in the afterlife. His burial mound is at Mount Li, about 1.5 km away, and includes a replica of his imperial palace. It also once had 100 rivers of FLOWING MERCURY and ceiling frescoes of the constellations, at least according to a historian from 145 BC.

I’d always imagined the 8,000 soldiers in one giant pit, but there are actually four main pits and dozens of auxiliary pits filled with terracotta entertainers, burial sites for horses and even an entire underground park filled with bronze cranes and ducks.

I tried to imagine just what people had to go through to make this great treasure. The monumental task employed 700,000 workers, many of whom apparently produced body parts assembly-line style. How loyal do you have to be to the Emperor to spend your life creating terracotta legs? “Left, right, left, right, left…”

At this point, it felt like the mask was chemically bonding to my face, which was a good sign. In my research, I’d found that the taller the terracotta warrior, the higher their rank in the army. I deemed my gangly, 6’5” self a general in the terracotta army. With my nose in the air, I rose solemnly and prepared for my portrait.

Jenna sat me on a stool and started setting up the shot while I attempted to arrange my face into the placid, powerful stare of the terracotta warrior. If anyone knows they’re in control, it’s these dudes.

CLICK. “Raise your head higher.” CLICK. “Okay, we’re done.”

I sat for a moment, stunned by how quick the process had been. The creative windstorm of an amateur artist comes in great, shaky gusts and passes before you can blink.

A few weeks later, Jenna handed me two prints, and I saw myself with the mask on for the very first time. I was surprised by how smooth and stony the film camera made the paper mask look, and by how it had shaped my eyes.

I’m not sure what to think about the tufts of hair sticking out from behind the mask. They destroy the illusion that my face is transforming into terracotta, but they give the picture more of a human story. I look like a disheveled guest at a masquerade party or a wannabe superhero.

Please tell me, dear reader, that just for a second you saw a terracotta warrior in the picture. The general is pleased.

BONUS LINK: My other adventure with Jenna, involving the naked Garrett Royce Kovaks, is here.

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“ASCEND”, unknown

The shades have lately been drawn over the tiny slit windows of Spanish 490’s basement classroom, killing any natural light and turning the already depressing room into a true cellar (isn’t that a wonderfully terrible word?). After an hour and a half of sitting in the dark, I wearily trudged up the steps towards fresh air, freedom and a regained will to live when I came upon this desperate message.

I imagined a poor soul crawling slowly up the passageway, his energy sapped by the treacherous journey through the entrails of the beast. With his last bit of strength, he places pen tip to concrete and scribbles a final command to his fellow travelers. The sharpie skitters across the floor, and the walls close in on him forever.

Now that I’m distanced from the passion of the moment, it’s interesting to wonder what the true story behind this tag is. My art history teacher recently talked about how just looking at art is actually an act of interpretation. His example was the classical Greek stone relief “Lapith fighting a Centaur” from the Parthenon. Because it’s a relief, the figures aren’t fully realized and the artist depends on shadows to suggest forms. How does our perception “create” the piece? How might we see the centaur differently in varying light conditions?

Or, in the case of this tag, how does its meaning change depending on whether we’re descending to get to a class or ascending to escape from one? Was the artist actually preparing for a spelunking journey when she or he wrote the message? Perhaps this is a cry of despair or a memory marker to be discovered on the return journey.

One thing’s for sure: in terms of underground journeys, I prefer to live vicariously through Wishbone. Hot diggity dawg!