While Asia is quickly becoming a hub for contemporary artists, you’d never know it walking into San Francisco’s stoic Asian Art Museum. Known for showcasing priceless objects from its massive collection, the forty-six-year-old institution was wavering on the brink of bankruptcy in 2010. Taking smart steps to broaden its appeal, the museum restructured its debt, got a fancy new look, and is now mounting its first large-scale exhibition devoted to contemporary Asian art. Titled Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past, the show consists of 140 objects culled from the museum’s permanent collection and thirty-one contemporary artists, many of whom made pieces especially for the occasion (like the twenty-four-foot-tall kinetic red lotus that Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa erected in Civic Center Plaza last weekend).
The Asian Art Museum tapped Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, to curate Phantoms. Her proposal stood out among the twenty-four others who applied for the privilege, as she wanted each work to offer a different perspective on Asian cosmology and spirituality instead of merely juxtaposing old and new art. It’s an exploration of aesthetic connections across space and time, as well as a smart strategy for drawing on its vast collection. Two-thousand-year-old objects are presented as dynamic links to the present.
Instead of being crammed into the first floor’s three rooms, which are usually the site of special exhibitions, Phantoms runs throughout the entire museum. Expect to see photographs hung alongside ancient Buddhas, and contemporary paintings set beside others centuries their senior. Highlights include Sun K. Kwak’s site-specific drawing made with black masking tape in the museum’s North Court, which relies on her process of “lyrical meditation” that detects faint energy in a room. Then there’s Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video installation titled The Class, which depicts the Thai artist giving a seminar on death to a group of blanketed corpses. A series of spooky screen paintings by Fuyuko Matsui line the Japanese rooms on the second floor, while Hong Kong artist Adrian Wong uses ceremonial objects from the museum’s collection to construct two rooms following the order of feng shui. Japanese artist Motohiko Odani transforms traditional Noh masks into strange cross-sections of the human face, Indian artist Jagannath Panda makes a snake out of plastic pipes to mimic the cycle of consumption, and Singapore-based artist Heman Chong’s Calendars (2020–2096) comprises one thousand and one calendar pages, each plastered with one of his photographs depicting a public or domestic space.
A series of events will take place throughout the exhibition, including panel discussions with participating artists, a yoga class for kids, a street parade, and more, which are updated via the museum’s blog. Will contemporary artists fit in at the Asian Art Museum? We’ll let the art decide.