‘Phantoms’ takes a modern look at ancient Asian cultural beliefs

JUST ONE OF THE ‘PHANTOMS’ ­— Motohiko Odani’s “SP Extra: Malformed Noh-Mask Series: San Yujo” (2008) is one piece in a set of three. The Noh mask is made of wood, natural mineral pigment and Japanese lacquer. © Motohiko Odani. Courtesy of Yamamoto Gendai. photo: Keizo Kioku.

Exploring themes of life, death and beyond, “Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past” is the Asian Art Museum’s first large-scale contemporary art exhibit. Examining timeless themes and questions of the cosmos, “Phantoms” features more than 150 artworks, combining 60 new works with objects from the museum’s current collection. This exhibit blends new perspectives of contemporary art with the cultural traditions, myths and rituals of different Asian cultures.

Co-curated by Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and Allison Harding, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, they collaborated to put together a provocative and ambitions exhibition in its scope, featuring an exhibit with a wide variety of art mediums that opens itself to a range of diverse experiences for visitors.

Before even entering the museum, as you walk by San Francisco City Hall, you’ll be greeted by Choi Jeong Hwa’s “Breathing Flower,” a cheery, red, giant lotus, swaying and undulating in the breeze. However, once you enter the museum, the entrance to the exhibition takes a whole different tone, with Sun K. Kwak’s somewhat ominous looking, black swirl drawing, “Untying Space,” created with masking tape that freely passes through the space, climbing the walls outside the doorways to the exhibition.

By re-examining the religious unknown, “Phantoms” takes a modern look at ancient Asian cultural beliefs of nature, spirituality and the cosmos, sometimes hitting upon notes that may cause visitors to feel a bit uncomfortable, but will surely inspire conversation. “What Kind of Hell Will We Go To,” by Takayuki Yamamoto, undertakes a fascinating collaboration with Artseed, an afterschool program in San Francisco’s Bayview District. After being taught about Buddhist paintings depicting death, afterlife, and how it is believed that people are sent to hells based on their own unique flaws and sins, children were invited to create original dioramas of what their personal versions of hell would be like. Yamamoto also took video of them explaining their unique types of hells, with punishments that included ogres, sharks, and stabbings. The combination of the somewhat dark and adult theme of hell with children’s perspectives creates a fresh, slightly satirical view on sinning and its religious ramifications.

“The Class,” by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, is a video of the artist in a teacher role, teaching a seminar to six cadavers, barely shrouded on the floor in front of her. Projected up against an entire wall, there is a degree of shock value that is experienced at first glance. After a thought process of denial of, “Are those bodies real? Are they really dead?” visitors will learn, and absorb, that the answer is: Yes, they’re real, and yes, they are dead. If you can get past that, and stay to listen to the seminar that Rasdjarmrearnsook gives (which is aptly, on the subject of death), the eerie stillness and silence of her “students” amidst her lecture will give you a unique opportunity for reflection.

The artists in “Phantom” also re-interpret how we interact with the divine. “SP Extra: Malformed Noh-Mask Series” is a piece that at a distance, look like a set of noh masks. Noh masks are traditionally used for performances, which are highly ritualistic, and hold special symbolic meanings in Japan in both theater and in worship. In Motohiko Odani’s masks, we see these masks partially or completely skinned, exposing the muscles and sinews beneath the face, making the faces more human in an entirely unexpected way.

Viewing the contemporary works alongside the older ones will give visitors an interesting comparison and invite them to reflect upon and redefine their own beliefs while understanding their origins. Long after you’ve gone home, “Phantoms” will have you thinking about life, your existence, and your time on this earth. Going alone, versus going with others creates two entirely different experiences. Going alone will offer more introspective moments, while providing the opportunity for self-reflection and remembrance. Going with others will invite conversation about some of the more provocative pieces, and lively dialogue. Without a doubt, no matter what your beliefs, upbringing or opinions, “Phantoms of Asia” provides visitors plenty to experience, and much to think about.

“Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past” will be on display through Sunday, Sept. 2 at the Asian Art Museum, which is located at 200 Larkin St. in San Francisco. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours on Thursday, until 9 p.m., from January through October. Cost of admission includes: Asian Art Museum members: free, Adults: $12, Seniors (65 and older with ID): $8, College students (with ID): $7, Youths ages (13-17): $7, Children (12 and under) and San Francisco Unified School District students (with ID): Free, Members of the U.S. Armed Forces (with valid I.D.) plus one guest: Free, MATCHA evenings after 5 p.m.: $10. For more information, call (415) 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org.

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