Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

On Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, photographed in the Sackler Gallery by John Tsantes

Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at Freer|Sackler, Nancy Micklewright is just back from a trip to Istanbul, where she met with leading scholars and colleagues and visited the city’s newest museum.

Istanbul, already a city of great museums, has a new one. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish) opened on April 28. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize laureate, conceived of his museum and his novel of the same name, published in 2008, as two parts of the same project. His novel, set in Istanbul of the 1970s, is a love story. The protagonist, Kemal, is obsessed with Füsun, his beloved, and lives out his obsession by trying to collect everything she has touched or that embodies their lives together so that he will always remember her.

Kemal’s collection, painstakingly assembled by Pamuk, is displayed in the museum, a converted 19th-century house. The 83 vitrines correspond to the 83 chapters in the book and are filled with thousands of objects—snapshots, keys, watches, salt and pepper shakers, matchbooks, restaurant menus. Some pieces have been fabricated, including the collection of 4,213 cigarette butts (every cigarette smoked by Füsun during the years of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair), but most were collected from the junk and antique stores of Istanbul. The museum’s design and installation were a collaborative effort of the author and a team of professional designers, and the result is engaging, even bewitching.

Ticket and postcard from the Museum of Innocence

Presenting fabricated objects together with historic artifacts, all in the service of a narrative that is itself a fiction, disrupts the visitor’s expectations about authenticity and reality. The multiple voices of the wall text, sometime Pamuk reporting on a conversation with Kemal, sometimes Kemal himself speaking, further confuse the visitor.

The museum offers a chance to engage with big questions: What is the relationship between objects and memory? Does a novel need a museum to complete its message? What does it mean when a museum collection is a work of fiction? What is the difference between a museum and the performance of a museum? Is there a difference?

Interested in learning more about contemporary practice in museums? The Freer|Sackler’s lecture series Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century resumes on September 12 with a look at The Gulshan Album: The Collections of a Young Prince by distinguished scholar Milo Cleveland Beach.

Hokusai by the Book

Katsushika Hokusai, Imayō Kushi Kiseru Hinagata, 1823 (Popular Designs of Comb and Tobacco Pipes)

In honor of the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Bento asked Reiko Yoshimura, head librarian at Freer|Sackler, to tell us a little about the Hokusai books in the library’s collection.

The Freer|Sackler Library has a collection of close to one thousand volumes of mostly Edo period illustrated books that originally came from Charles Lang Freer’s personal library. Freer collected these books along with other Japanese artworks that are now in the Freer Gallery of Art. The book collection includes many works by major Edo period artists as well as illustrated volumes on the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Among the most prominent works are books by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

Hokusai was as prolific a book illustrator as he was a painter and printmaker. The official Hokusai catalogue lists more than 260 titles of woodblock printed books, including novels, mad verses, painting albums, painting samples and instruction, tourist guides, erotica, and craft designs. Due to the wide range of subjects and genres, his books have been appreciated by an array of audiences, from scholars to children, long after his death. Hokusai is also known for his Hokusai Manga (Hokusai Sketchbooks), which was enthusiastically admired in Europe when it was introduced in the mid-19th century. The Freer|Sackler Library contains sixty-eight volumes of Hokusai’s books, representing most of the genres mentioned above.

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji remains on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through June 17, 2012. Charles Lang Freer had a special interest in the works of Hokusai and gathered an unmatched collection of paintings and drawings. Two complementary exhibitions in the Freer highlight these magnificent works. Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings closes June 24. Hokusai: Screens remains on view through July 29.

Ai Weiwei in Just Over a Minute

In addition to being our go-to guy for all things technological, Hutomo Wicaksono is the F|S videographer, creating features on exhibitions and special events. Here’s how he put together the time-lapse of the installation of Ai Weiwei’s work Fragments in the Sackler pavilion.

We mounted the camera high on the wall, very close to the ceiling, with the camera running for approximately eight hours each day. Every two minutes it took a picture, giving us about 250 photos each day. That part of the process took four days to complete, so by the end of day four, I had collected about 1,000 images.

Then it was on to two days of editing. I combined all of the photos together as a continuous action video using Adobe After Effects. Because we wanted to see fast-action movement, I set up the timing of each photo to be 0.05 second, so we could see about twenty photos per second. Once that finished, we searched for background music, created a video bumper, and shot some closing stills. I put everything back together in After Effects, added some mojo, and voilà, six days later, it was finished!

Grass and Honey: An Interview with Heejin Kim


Sangdon Kim, Garden of Discord, 2010- , permanent outdoor garden made of recycled flowerpots, adopted plants, and donated seeds at Art Space Pool, Seoul. Copyright Art Space Pool, Seoul

In advance of her talk at the Freer on Thursday night (April 5 at 7 pm), Heejin Kim chatted with Bento about art, Seoul, and her work as director of Art Space Pool, an alternative art space.

Bento: How would you describe the contemporary art landscape in South Korea?
Heejin Kim: The current contemporary art scene of Korea, whether be it in Seoul or in other cities, seems active and dynamic. Compared to the time of liberal government 4 years ago, the current climate of the cultural scene of Korea is relatively depressed and exhausted. But seen from the average pace in other regions, the Korean cultural scene is still super fast and prolific.

What I am concerned about is this disparity between the quantity and quality, and psycho-political depression heavily looming over creative workers. Among the art people, there is to be sure a general disappointment at the populist cultural policy of the conservative government that cared only for the number and spectacle, and drastically cuts down the budget for an infrastructure and long-term, immaterial, not-market-friendly cultural production. However, the reason is not just a bad cultural policy or a subsequent poor art market situation. It’s coming from many other comprehensive social concerns, about labor, social welfare, economic polarization, unemployment rate, education, environment, and recurring corruptions, censorship, and surveillance. No wonder there emerges an undeniable number of off-the-road informal pursuits among cultural producers as a way to sustain themselves while detouring smartly around pitfalls.

This complex strategy makes tired cultural producers. At this point, the Korean contemporary society is exhausted, yet excited about two [upcoming] elections, one of which is on April 11. We don’t expect an absolute ideal, but at least here comes a chance for reformation and change, hopefully in a better way.

Bento: What was it like growing up in the 1980s in one of the headiest times in Korea for artists and politics?
Heejin Kim: It would be a lie if I say I knew what was going on in society as a teenager. When I was in high school, students stayed at school from 6 am to 11 pm [to prepare] for college entrance examinations, repeating drills and memorizing tons of textbooks, especially English. Generally youngsters shared this sense of suffocation. I felt like there’s a huge hand oppressing and binding so hard from nowhere. And unconsciously we all knew if we shake ourselves from the grip, it will choke you in a minute.

There came some sporadic shocks right into your face, like flyers strewn at the school playground by college students’ guerilla actions. They were mostly on the Gwangju massacre of May 18, 1980, with vivid journalistic images. The shock used to last for some months, making you physically sick and full of guilt. Simply the fact that we were alive while not knowing the recent history that had occurred in our country made us sick.

Meanwhile, we heard about serial suicide protests ongoing among college students and factory workers, sometimes four times in one month. I felt sorry to be alive, in a way, and intimidated by what might come in my near future. I was mad at the reality that trapped me in the time of paradox. I entered college in 1989 and I saw the last chapter of democratization struggle getting on a sad, anti-climatic path.

Bento: As director of Art Space Pool since 2010, what do you envision as the collective’s aims for the near future?
Heejin Kim: I used to have a long-term master plan for Art Space Pool, but who can guarantee what will happen in a year? At this point, I can only tell what I’ve done so far. [There are three] very challenging goals: 1) sustaining the value of integrity and productivity without being institutionalized, 2) balancing between the artist-run space quality and realistic, efficient professionalism, and 3) balancing between regional criticism and internationalization. Practically? I wish Pool could get away from the annual nightmare of in-between fiscal year hardships at a minimum survival level.

Bento: Can you give us a little preview of your talk on April 5?
Heejin Kim: I will convey some stories on the art practices by local fellow artists around my two spaces, Pool (meaning “Grass”) and Ccuull (meaning “Honey”). Since my spaces, compared to museums, are situated almost at the forefront of artists keeping intimate and everyday relationships, I think it is my role as a curator to portray what’s going on, instead of analyze. I hope my talk could be useful for those who want to complement the Korean film and video screenings currently ongoing at Freer|Sackler, and to explore more information on contemporary art practices, art resources, art spaces, and the art system in Seoul.

Bento: For you, what is the role of the artist in society?
Heejin Kim: Helping you see, sense, recognize, remember, think, and dream better in reality by means of imaginary languages.

Eye Wonder Redux

Kenzan style desk screen with design of mountain retreat; late 19th century; Kyoto workshop; buff clay, iron pigment, enamels under transparent lead glaze; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.20

About a year ago we invited our web visitors to engage in a new form of “Eye Wonder” by experiencing the Freer Gallery of Art on Google Art Project. The Art Project is an armchair art lover’s dream, offering unprecedented online access to collections and in-gallery street views, not to mention stunning gigapixel-level encounters with selected works of art in some of the world’s greatest museums. The Freer was among the first 17 museums around the globe to engage in this new digital art adventure.

Today Google Art Project launches a considerably enhanced and expanded “phase two” version. The site now brings together a wide range of institutions, large and small: iconic art museums as well as less traditional settings for great art.

On the Freer pages of Art Project, visitors will find 100 newly uploaded high-resolution images from the collections and greatly improved street view technology. Street-view strolls now extend to the entire museum and make more artworks available for up-close inspection. A virtual walk through The Peacock Room—as restored to its appearance in 1908, when museum founder Charles Lang Freer installed the room in his home and used it to organize and display his collection of more than 250 Asian ceramics—is resplendent with colors, textures, and shapes.

After taking in all four walls of this remarkable exhibition, a visitor, perhaps sitting at home in Hamburg or Honolulu with a cup of tea, can click a mouse to explore selected ceramics in thrilling detail. Take, for example, this intriguing Japanese desk screen from the Meiji era, inscribed with a poem by Li Dongyang.

We do indeed live in a time of Eye Wonder.


Deb Galyan is the head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

Making an Exhibition: The Sequel

Ancient Chinese Jades

Ancient Chinese Jades

Here’s a view of the recently reconceived and reinstalled gallery of ancient Chinese jades. We’ll also put up some details that capture the beauty of the objects as well as of the installation as a whole. This reinstallation represents the first phase of a three-year plan to reimagine the Freer’s entire suite of six Chinese galleries.

Making an Exhibition

Installation shot of the Ancient Chinese Jades exhibition in the Freer Gallery

Installation shot of the Ancient Chinese Jades exhibition in the Freer Gallery

The Freer Gallery recently renovated four of its suite of Chinese galleries, beginning with Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes, most of which had been in storage for more than ten years. A lot of prep work goes on behind the scenes that involves curators, designers, art handlers, expert mount makers to name a few. Here, you can see a few of the jade bi on the blue cart at left, and the new cases that had been specially built to “float” them.