Monthly Archives: July 2013

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee's A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Ellen Cline is an intern in the ImaginAsia family program at Freer|Sackler

Being an intern in Washington, DC, often means spending your day answering phones, running for coffee, and providing Washingtonians with plenty of fodder for intern jokes and stories.

I can say these things because I am a DC intern, but my own experience at the Sackler couldn’t be more different. From my first day at the museum, I’ve been immersed in hands-on experiences that range from rummaging through artifacts in storage rooms to helping children make art during the ImaginAsia family programs.

When I arrive at the museum each morning, I usually take the stairs down one level to the ImaginAsia classroom, not so much for exercise, but for the feeling of grandeur I get when I descend majestically (backpack notwithstanding). A few weeks ago, I was headed for the stairs when I walked by artist Rina Banerjee installing her sculpture in the Sackler pavilion. As a sculpture student who had been eagerly anticipating Banerjee’s exhibition, I wanted more than anything to duck under the black stanchions and watch the artist at work.

I soon had the opportunity to do just that—and more. Stephen Eckerd, head of ImaginAsia, told me to go upstairs and see if Rina Banerjee needed any help with her installation. “Tell them you’re from ImaginAsia,” he said. He didn’t have to ask twice.

A true child of my generation, my first impulse was to post something on Twitter. Instead, I took the stairs two at a time and then tried to cover my excitement with some level of professionalism as I walked over to Banerjee and curator Carol Huh. I introduced myself and was immediately put to work.

Art and art-making in particular have an incredible ability to create instant community. This was certainly true of my experience assisting Banerjee. Her group of helpers ranged from the curator to museum conservators to young interns—all gathered around one evolving work of art. Some of us high-fived as we untangled portions of the piece; the conservators and interns swapped recommendations about DC art exhibits; and Banerjee supervised with humble, unassuming authority.

In a way, this joining of forces, even around something as simple as the addition of threads to a rope, added meaning to Banerjee’s already rich work. The installation focuses on environmental losses, cultural changes through global movements, and rivers in their life-giving and life-threatening nature. As we worked, Banerjee talked about the river’s vital role in communities. How appropriate, I thought, as we worked quietly, that we, too, are gathering around this symbolic and reimagined river.

Banerjee’s piece, A World Lost, and various elements of the work suggest more foreboding notes, like the pieces of coral that allude to the environment’s negative effect on coral reefs. Helping the artist enriched my thinking about endangerment and loss. If we are to counteract global losses, we must make small, steady actions, and repeat them without losing hope: like threading a needle, running it through a rope, and then doing it all over again. Focused on the individual actions, I didn’t immediately see how much ground we covered that morning—all working together, hundreds of threads forming a hair-like covering, the strands intertwining and indistinguishable from one another.

Watching Banerjee’s piece come together before my eyes was educational and inspiring. It’s often said that learning is best achieved by doing. By kindly letting me into her process, Rina Banerjee allowed me to learn about art installation firsthand. From her patient demeanor as well as her flexibility throughout the process, I also learned the value of humility and approachability.

A World Lost, like all of Banerjee’s work, is filled with textures, objects, and associations. It now carries a special, personal association for me as well. This site-specific installation will be on view through June 8, 2014. If you come to see it, consider taking the stairs down to the museum’s other exhibitions. You may see a short, dark-haired intern heading toward another unexpected adventure at the Sackler.

Eels in July

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

The Japanese words for the subject of this painting, unagi nobori, mean “a fast, rocket-like rise.” Eels have been an important delicacy in Japan since the Edo period (1615–1868). Eating eel during the hot, humid summer was believed to increase stamina. It is still customary to consume the fish on a certain midsummer day on the lunar calendar that usually falls in late July.

Confident sweeps of the brush define with utmost simplicity the forms of two eels and ashrimp; gold pigment highlights the edges of their bodies. The artist’s elegant, hand-painted design of maples and grasses serves as a harmonious silk mounting for the painting. Kimura Buzan studied painting under Kawabata Gyokusho (1842–1913), an artist who knew both European and Japanese painting methods. Kimura also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (founded 1876) and was active in exhibitions of the Nihon Bijutsuin, an association of artists founded in 1898.

On Rina Banerjee’s “A World Lost”

Rina Banerjee installing "A World Lost" in the Sackler Paviion.

Rina Banerjee installing A World Lost in the Sackler Pavilion.

Hetty Lipscomb is development writer and stewardship manager at Freer|Sackler.

“Hospitality starts with a glass of water”
Artist talk with Rina Banerjee

Scientist and artist Rina Banerjee has created a site-specific work in the Sackler Pavilion as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art, called A World Lost, referencing the major rivers of Asia. Actually, the full title is: A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this. It’s a wonderfully organic work, “growing” like a sea creature with tentacles and debris spilling all over the gallery’s stone floor. For Banerjee—and for all of us—the river is a metaphor for life and what we value, and an actual source of survival for many people around the world.

An experience with her mother a few years ago spurred Banerjee to think about the importance of water and inspired the sculpture. Her mother wanted to sell some property in Bangladesh, and Banerjee traveled with her from New York to help with the transaction. After they signed various papers in the local magistrate’s office, her mother wanted to to see who was living at the site. Property rights allow for squatters if the land is not occupied; whoever needs it can use it.

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee's "A World Lost."

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost.

When they arrived, they saw a small house next to a pond. Inside the house, two little girls were digging in the dirt floor to reach the water table. Actually, one was digging, and the other was straining the water through an old cloth to make it drinkable, evidently a daily task. Tradition requires that when a visitor comes to your home, the first thing you do is offer her a glass of water. When one of the little girls spotted Banerjee and her mother, she immediately poured the water into a plastic cup and handed it to them. To be given something so valuable and so hard earned is an honor. In turn, Banerjee honors the young girls’ generosity and the vital importance of water by incorporating plastic cups in the Sackler installation.

Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost will be on view through June 2014.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.

A Flowerful Fourth

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion.

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion; photo by F|S intern Katherine Nau

Did your July 4th go off with a boom? Ours at the Sackler is more of a bloom. In honor of the holiday, Cheyenne Kim, Smithsonian horticultural specialist, created a unique display that proves that fireworks don’t always have to be loud … or, even outdoors. Sometimes, quiet and contemplative is best.

If you’re planning a visit this weekend, don’t miss the flowers!

Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!

Danielle Probst: From Child’s Pose to Yoga Messenger

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst is marketing manager for River’s Edge Yoga studio in Alexandria and Virginia Yoga Week. In her role as Yoga Messenger, Danielle is helping to get the word out about our upcoming exhibition, Yoga: Art of Transformation.

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve spent many hours in museums, first as a child with the ubiquitous school tour, then, more memorably, as a teen. Back in the days before teens lived on their cell phones, I was a museum hound. My mother, a single parent, was more than willing to send me to this “Mall” to wander for hours. With a Metro farecard and a sandwich in my bag, the Freer|Sackler was among my favorite haunts. I recall stepping into the cool, quiet galleries, a refuge from the jungle-grade humidity of a Washington August.

What drew me in first was an interest in India. Small paintings, like pages from fantastic, magical books, lay upright in glass cases. These exquisite pictures amazed me with their vibrant colors, gold leaf, and miniature brushstrokes a hair’s breadth wide, bringing to life sari-garbed girls by the river being wooed by a playful young man with blue skin. These tiny worlds frozen on paper sucked me in and I was transported, and hooked.

The terrifying faces of wrathful deities on giant thangkas held me in awe. Gnashing teeth, blood dripping from swords, eyes rolling in wrath—I could almost feel the hellfire they walked in. From the secret mathematics of Durga’s Triangle to Lakshmi’s glittering coins, each room held objects of wonder. Every Buddha and yogini thrilled me.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in art school. In my years of traveling and study I spent many hours visiting Asian art in cities such as Chicago, London, and Berlin. As the wheel of my life spun, I returned again and again to read Buddhist texts, groove to the sounds of Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, and learn how to make my own paneer and naan.

When I heard about the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I knew I’d be back to visit my friends—those magical manuscript pages at the Freer|Sackler—that to this day can whisper their secrets to me.

Art in its many forms is, to my mind, the purest expression of the divine. Whether it is a simple rangoli created by a housewife on her front steps or the purest tone of voices joined in chant, we can’t help but express our connection with the universe.
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Today is the last day to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Donate to “Together We’re One” or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.