Category Archives: Events

Afghan Arts and PechaKucha

Our speakers at tomorrow's open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Our speakers at tomorrow’s open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Tomorrow afternoon, we celebrate Afghan Independence Day and Afghan arts at our third and final open house of the summer season. This six-hour event is an opportunity for making art, tasting Afghan food, hearing from artisans, watching musical performances, listening to traditional stories read by ARCH International, and exploring the arts of Afghanistan, as seen in our Turquoise Mountain exhibition.

The day concludes with PechaKucha-style presentations—a talk given alongside twenty images, each shown for twenty seconds—by social entrepreneurs working with artisans in Asia and beyond, who will share how they got involved and the lives they’ve seen changed. Read their stories below, and meet them tomorrow at 5 pm.

 

Dawa Drolma was born and raised in Kham Dege, Tibet. Fluent in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, she is passionate about Tibetan culture and traditions and has focused on cultural preservation and folklore studies since 2009. Her documentary films and photos about Tibetan culture have won several international awards, and her first book about Tibetan folksongs, Silence in the Valley of Song, was published in 2012. Drolma also is the brand director of Khyenle, a Tibetan bronze artwork business.

Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo is a Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, technologist, and educator. Her artwork, centered around themes of time and transience, has been internationally exhibited and performed, including at the Kitchen (NYC), UCLA Hammer Museum (LA), Point Éphémère (Paris), and the Museums of Modern Art in Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia). Since 2003, Jaramillo has worked at the New School in New York City, where she is currently associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design and interim vice president for distributed and global education. Her published research is in the area of community-engaged and socially responsible design education. In 2013, Jaramillo was honored with a Fulbright Scholarship for the inaugural Higher Education Administrator’s Program in France.

Brendan Groves is a national security lawyer, a military veteran, and an experienced social entrepreneur. He has received the Bronze Star Medal, the NSA Director’s Award, and two awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other honors. Apart from his government service, Groves is the cofounder of Flying Scarfs, a veteran-run enterprise that empowers marginalized widows in Afghanistan and Kenya by selling handmade artisan items. He also founded the Wishing Well, a nonprofit that has funded more than one hundred water projects in the developing world.

Peggy Clark is vice president of policy programs and executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, as well as director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. She has had a thirty-year career working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. Serving in founding and leadership roles at the Ford Foundation, Save the Children, and Realizing Rights, among others, Clark has been a leading figure in identifying and building industries, movements, and creative advocacy on key issues. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise from President Bill Clinton, and she was instrumental in passing the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Ethical Recruitment of Health Workers.

Annie O. Waterman has more than a decade of experience within the global artisan sector. She is the founder of AOW Handmade, which works with wholesalers, designers, and retailers to create unique, high-quality artisan collections while sustaining craft traditions and creating market exposure for artisans worldwide. Waterman recently worked as a project manager for ByHand Consulting, for which she traveled extensively, identifying new artisan companies that qualified for exhibiting in the artisan resource market at NY NOW. She also was a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication dedicated to global creativity and sustainable design.

Old-School Kung Fu

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Some of you (and you know who you are) have been coming to our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival since it started way back in the 1990s. Others of you may have gotten hooked on Hong Kong movies by watching kung fu flicks on TV as a kid. Well, I have good news for all of you: the final weekend of this year’s festival is a celebration of old-school kung fu.

Celluloid fetishists also will want to know that the two films we’re showing tomorrow, The Blade and A Terra-Cotta Warrior, are being shown in rare 35mm prints. This one-two punch harkens back to the glory days of Hong Kong martial arts movies and will remind you why Hong Kong’s film industry took the world by storm.

The festival concludes Sunday with an appearance by Bobby Samuels, who joined our panel of African American martial artists last year. A martial arts champion before he began working in movies, Samuels was the first African American to be inducted into the Hong Kong Stuntman’s Association. He will discuss his experiences in the Hong Kong movie industry and present one of his films: The Red Wolf, a hijacking drama that has rightly been referred to “Die Hard on a cruise ship.”

Memories of Mecca and Medina

A view of Mecca. All photos by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

A view of Mecca. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

There are some cities you would expect to be frozen in time, perpetual testaments to past eras, like Pompeii or Petra. Mecca is not that city. Instead, the city is more modern than Times Square—and twice as crowded. At its axis is the holiest shrine in Islam, the Kaaba, believed to be built by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Isma’il). The Kaaba sits at the center of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque), itself encircled by hotels, restaurants, and many, many shops, all catering to the hordes of pilgrims who visit the site daily. This January, I was part of that horde.

The view from the hotel-mall-clocktower complexes: Ahmed Mater’s Nature Morte (S2014.6) and my parents at a window in our hotel overlooking the Kaaba.

Performing a “small pilgrimage” (umra), I was able to witness the extraordinary—and ongoing—transformation of the city, as captured by the photographs of Ahmed Mater. Our first stop was the hotel: a new skyscraper located just behind the enormous clocktower-mall-hotel complex that has dominated the Mecca skyline since 2012. From there, we were within walking distance to the Masjid al-Haram.

The outer mosque is a construction zone. Cranes intermix with minarets in the horizon. Navigating through the labyrinthine mosque was complicated, as sections were blocked off for renovation and temporary structures had been created to redirect pilgrims. And it was loud. The chanting of pilgrims both near and far intermingled with individuals on cell phones and posing for selfies. Yet all of it seemed to fade at that first glimpse of the Kaaba, when we merged into the circumambulating crowd. Stunned to be in front of the structure we turned toward in prayer five times a day, we were oblivious to our surroundings.

  • View of the Kaaba in Mecca.

My parents’ memory of Mecca and Medina paints a picture that is almost incompatible with the cities today. When they made the obligatory pilgrimage (hajj) as newlyweds in 1977, the crowds were smaller—as were the mosques. Instead of skyscrapers and malls surrounding the Masjid al-Haram, there were small houses and traditional bazaars.

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

My mother recalls praying on sand outside the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina. Now the plaza is entirely paved in marble. The small historic mosques in Medina, each tied to a critical moment in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, were then barely able to hold fifty people. They since have been rebuilt in the distinctive contemporary style of the Arabian Peninsula and accommodate hundreds. The huge increase of annual hajj pilgrims, from less than a million in the ’70s to more than two million in 2015, has pushed the mega-mosques beyond capacity, partially fueling these programs of expansion and renovation. The two holiest cities of Islam no longer feel historic as practical demands and ideologies supersede preservation. My parents’ nostalgia for the older cities was palpable as we visited each mosque.

In Medina, the juxtaposition of historic and modern was more apparent. Walking through the mosque to the Tomb of the Prophet, we could see subtle shifts in architectural style, from the very recent courtyard (left) and extension of the prayer hall (center), to early twentieth-century additions, and finally, the late Ottoman-period prayer hall that contains the tomb (F1907.222).

Running late for prayer one evening, my sister and I were still making our way through the mall within the gigantic clocktower complex when the call to prayer sounded. At that signal, every shop closed, and what had seemed like decorative floor tiles turned into guidelines for prayer lines. At that moment, we felt the same sense of community my parents had described, a feeling that permeated each aspect of our own pilgrimage. Mecca may have gotten a twenty-first-century facelift, but the Kaaba is still at its heart. Gazing at Ahmed Mater’s work in Symbolic Cities, I am transported back to those moments—when the disjunction between architecture and place was superseded by pure awe.

Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater is on view through September 18, 2016.

Teen Council: A Conversation about Art in Afghanistan

 

 

One of our jobs as members of the 2016 Freer|Sackler Teen Council is to figure out the significance that art and museums hold for our generation. For exhibitions such as Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, all twelve of us had to consider a question: Why should we be paying attention to this? First, we had to understand the context of Turquoise Mountain, an organization dedicated to reviving Afghanistan’s cultural legacy. My experience in the exhibition raised another question: Do we know what’s going on in the world?

When the Teen Council brainstormed about what we learned from the exhibition, I wrote down cultural significance. I realized that it’s difficult for Americans, and young people specifically, to understand how vulnerable a culture can be. In moments, chaos can destroy culture, even if it has a lengthy and colorful history. Culture seems like an abstract thing to us, but what Turquoise Mountain made me see is how dependent culture is on individuals and everyday people.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

After we inspected the different Afghan crafts on display, we were left considering what we and other young people should do with this new information. We learned that we would make a video about Turquoise Mountain. It soon became clear that it would be important to emphasize our own perspective. Anyone could have made an informative video on the project and the exhibition, but it was our identities as filmmakers that made it different.

To produce the video, we collaborated with the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+ production team, made up of fellow high school students. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a ceramicist who specializes in the style of pottery made in the village of Istalif, became the representative of Turquoise Mountain’s cultural revival for our video. Bilal, an Afghan American program manager at the Freer|Sackler, translated our conversations, enabling us to better understand Afghan culture on multiple levels.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

We learned that Matin’s work is characteristic of ceramics from Istalif, a village near Kabul, which are distinguished by natural potash glazes of green and turquoise. An ancient proverb says, “He who has not seen Istalif has seen nothing.” As we learned about Istalif and its distinguished history, I was struck by how long the village has been known for its pottery, and how quickly the area suffered mass destruction due to its close proximity to Kabul. This made it all the more clear why Turquoise Mountain’s work matters. After spending time with Matin, I can better appreciate how and why he is returning an age-old craft to our modern and ever-changing world.

 

The Freer|Sackler Teen Council is a group of twelve creative and dedicated high school students who help make the museum more welcoming and engaging for young people. The Teen Council plans and hosts events that bring DC-area teens to the museum to hang out, make and design art, and have unique and exciting experiences. Plus, we have a lot of fun and build an incredible community together.

Take a look at some of our upcoming summer events, including our Teen Takeover on Thursday, August 4, 6–9 pm.

Sky Blue

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Shades of turquoise and deep blue sing out on ceramics made in the Islamic world. Generations of potters throughout the region have shared the distinctive mineral colors of cobalt blue and copper green, using them as pigments to write and paint on clay or as colorants to saturate glazes. The vessels on view in Sky Blue: Color in Ceramics of the Islamic World, opening tomorrow, were created in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Uzbekistan, and span the ninth through the nineteenth century.

Over the centuries, potters have perfected a complex process to incorporate these colorants into their glazes. In Iran, for example, potters ground quartz pebbles into a fine powder to provide the silica (the “glass”) needed in traditional glaze-making practices. The ash of burned plants was a source of alkali fluxes that helped the silica melt. Silica and ash were usually combined and heated to produce a glass that was then shattered and ground into frit. This was mixed with water and other ingredients to make a glaze. Cobalt or copper oxide was added for color.

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Typically ceramic vessels were first fired without glaze to harden the body. They were then coated with glaze and fired again at a temperature high enough to melt the frit mixture into a smooth, translucent surface. Lead and tin oxides were added if an opaque glaze was desired. Sometimes vessels were fired several times, depending on the complexity of the decoration.

The cheerful, eye-catching shades of blue and green belie the effort required to bring them forth. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a potter from Afghanistan whose work is on view in the exhibition Turquoise Mountain, describes the blue-green glaze of his bowls as “the color of peace, the color of competence.”

See more of these blue-green bowls in "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan."

See more of these blue-green bowls in “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

Q&A: The Silk Road Society

Silk Road Society reception. Photo by Albert Ting.

Silk Road Society reception. Photo by Albert Ting.

The Silk Road Society is the Freer|Sackler’s young professionals membership group. Our members are united by their passion for the wonders of Asian art, as well as a curiosity to explore the Washington, DC, area and meet fellow Asian art lovers. We gather together at least once a month for exclusive events including curator-led tours, previews of special exhibitions, artist studio visits, receptions, embassy tours, and visits to contemporary galleries. A year’s membership costs $150 and can be shared by two members, or a single member can use it to bring one guest to all non-ticketed events.

Earlier this year, Silk Road Society Advisory Board member Albert Ting spoke with A Creative DC about his experience as an SRS member. We’ve excerpted the interview below. Read his thoughts and see his fantastic photos for a sense of what it means to be in the Silk Road Society.

What’s the vision behind the Silk Road Society, and what led you to join? The goal is to gather a group of smart, well-cultured creatives who are interested in exploring classical and contemporary art of Asia and the Middle East, as well as the cultures of the regions the galleries represent. A friend of mine who is a gallery gal invited me to a Silk Road Society event about four years ago, and I was hooked! After living and working in Japan for a brief 2 year stint between 2007 and 2009, I had amassed quite a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artwork as well as some antiques that I found during my weekly jaunts through antique shops and festivals held outside shrines and temples throughout Kyoto. Silk Road was my gateway to the Smithsonian’s collection of Japanese art, which I personally find fascinating.

Silk Road Society reception for "Sōtatsu: Making Waves"

Silk Road Society reception for “Sōtatsu: Making Waves”

What’s been the most fulfilling aspect of membership? People attend Silk Road Society events for different reasons. Some people enjoy the social aspect of networking and sharing wine in a gallery setting; other people love the chance to meet face-to-face with artists and curators. For me, as an Advisory Board Member, I find my involvement as a small way to support the art world while having fun discovering new art with a group of friends I have a lot in common with – people who have the desire to learn and see different perspectives of the world, without even having to leave DC!

This past year, we attended exclusive curator-led tours at the Freer|Sackler and at local DC galleries. We went to the Textile Museum and discovered Qing Dynasty China through the lens of John Thomson, and in January, we saw masterpieces of Japanese art in the Freer | Sackler exhibit Sōtatsu: Making Waves. We also participated in cultural events at local embassies around town, including a private tour of the Embassy of Uzbekistan and the Ippakutei Japanese tea house at the Embassy of Japan. The Silk Road Society also sponsors gallery and studio talks in support of local emerging artists, like performance artist and photographer Naoko WowsugiHedieh Ilchi, whose work explores her cultural identity as an Iranian-American immigrant; Linling Lu, whose colorful and large circle paintings have been seen at City Center DC and Hemphill Fine Arts gallery; and Nara Park, a Hamiltonian Gallery fellow and sculptor.

Silk Road Society visit to "Shirin Neshat: Facing History"

Silk Road Society visit to “Shirin Neshat: Facing History”

You just came back from the Society’s Asia Week in New York. What exhibits did you all check out? Asia Week is definitely the highlight of my SRS experience each year! [In March,] a group of Silk Road Society members headed to New York for an exciting array of weekend programs (it was sold-out!). We toured the new Met Breuer (housed in the former location of the Whitney Museum) before it opened to the public, we explored contemporary Japanese art at the Onishi Gallery and the Joan Mirviss Gallery, we viewed lacquerware at the Erik Thomsen Gallery, and we had a private viewing of ancient Chinese treasures at the Gagosian Gallery. A Friend of the Smithsonian graciously hosted a lunch for us at the University Club, and our evening was topped off with a private tour (with an open bar, haha) at Sotheby’s.

Tour of the Japanese Embassy Tea House

Tour of the Japanese Embassy Tea House

 

Most Instagrammable part of the Freer|Sackler?
That’s a good question. The Freer is closed for renovation through 2017, but the Sackler is still open and has lots of lovely spaces. At the Sackler, I would say it’s the suspended sculpture called “Monkeys Grasp for the Moon,” which follows the museumgoer as they walk down the steps to the inner sanctum. The work is made up of wood pieces, each representing the word “monkey” in a different language, each piece linked to one another forming a chain that reaches all the way to the bottom of the museum.

Interview conducted by Savannah Harris
All photos by Albert Ting | @pootie_ting

Heart “Happiness” to Win!

Meet Kara Wai and Carlos Chan at the world premiere of "Happiness" on Friday, July 15.

Meet Kara Wai and Carlos Chan at the world premiere of “Happiness” on Friday, July 15.

Tomorrow, happiness is just a Facebook comment away. To celebrate the kickoff of our twenty-first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, we’re giving away reserved seats to Happiness tomorrow night—and a meet-and-greet with its two stars, Kara Wai and Carlos Chan. To win, be among the first five people to comment “I heart Happiness!” on our Facebook post about the giveaway, which we’ll share at noon on Thursday, July 14. Then, get ready to spend Friday night at the National Museum of American History with a legend of Hong Kong film.

 

Review the full contest rules:

  1. Entrants must be natural persons, current US residents, and 18 years of age or older, except that entrants may not be a regent, officer, employee, fellow, intern, research associate, or volunteer of the Smithsonian Institution or a member of any of the foregoing’s immediate family or household.
  1. To win, be among the first five people on Facebook to comment “I heart Happiness” on a post about the contest, to be shared at 12 pm on Thursday, July 14, 2016. The contest is associated with the first film in the Freer|Sackler’s Twenty-First Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.
  1. One entry per person. Multiple entries are void.
  1. The Smithsonian will award the same prize to five people. The winner and one guest together will receive a meet-and-greet with actors Kara Wai and Carlos Chan on July 15, 2016, at 6:15 pm, as well as two reserved seats at the film Happiness at 7 pm that evening (all times Eastern). Both events are held at the Warner Brothers Theater in the National Museum of American History at 14th St and Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001. Winners are responsible for any costs, including their travel to the prize events, associated with acceptance and usage of the prize.
  1. Smithsonian will notify winners via Facebook. Failure to respond within 24 hours means the winner forfeits the prize. Winners may be required to execute an affidavit of eligibility, publicity and liability release. Winners may not request prize substitution.
  1. The Smithsonian will announce the winners by name on Facebook.
  1. All entrants hold the Smithsonian, its regents, officers, employees, fellows, interns, research associates, and volunteers, as well as Facebook, harmless from and against all claims of any nature arising in connection with entrant’s participation in the contest, acceptance or use of prize. The Smithsonian and its regents, officers, employees, fellows, interns, research associates, and volunteers are not liable for any costs, damages, injuries, or other claims incurred as a result of entrants’ participation in the contest or winner’s acceptance and usage of the prize.
  1. The Smithsonian is not responsible for incomplete or misdirected entries, technical or network malfunctions or failures, or causes beyond its control. The Smithsonian reserves the right to disqualify any entrant whose entry or conduct appears in any way to: inhibit the enjoyment of others; tamper with the competition; violate these Rules; infringe on the rights of third parties; or act in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner. The Smithsonian reserves the right to cancel the contest or modify these rules at any time for any reason at its discretion. In the event of a dispute regarding the winners, the Smithsonian reserves the right to award or not award the prizes in its sole discretion. By entering this contest, entrants agree to be bound by these Rules and the decisions of the Smithsonian, which are final and binding in all respects. No purchase necessary to enter or win. Contest void where prohibited. Winner is responsible for all taxes on the prize, if any.
  1. This contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, or administered by, or associated with Facebook, and entrants cannot hold Facebook responsible in any way.

Kicking off Made in Hong Kong

"My Young Auntie" screens Sunday, July 17, at 2 pm.

“My Young Auntie” screens Sunday, July 17, at 2 pm.

The Made in Hong Kong Film Festival is the Freer|Sackler’s longest-running annual event. This year, we are kicking off in unprecedented fashion with the world premiere of the film Happiness on July 15. Not only that, its stars Carlos Chan and Kara Wai will be on hand to celebrate, join an audience Q&A, and sign autographs. Hong Kong-heads will know Wai from her days as a butt-kicking martial arts heroine in many wonderful Shaw Brothers films. She will also join us on July 17 at a screening of one of her most famous films, My Young Auntie, for which she won her first Hong Kong Film Award.

Opening weekend is just the beginning, however. The last year has been an exciting one for Hong Kong cinema. Stephen Chow’s latest outrageous comedy The Mermaid broke box office records, the low-budget dystopian sci-fi omnibus Ten Years rose shackles on the mainland while resonating with Hong Kongers, and eminence grise Johnnie To finally released his very first musical, Office. All this and more awaits you at the National Museum of American History’s state of the art Warner Brothers Theater, where our festival will screen this summer.

The Man behind the “Mania”

A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956) 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Owls, skulls, demure shepherdesses and bucking broncos: all of these figures and dozens more coexist in Walter McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures. These “stupas,” as he describes them, are part of Chinamania, an installation named for the craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that swept London in the 1870s and still exists in the West. Coated in glistening crystalline glazes, the stupas are juxtaposed with Kangxi period (1662–1722) ceramics from our collection—as well as a piece made up of 3D-printed replicas of these historical objects. While installing the exhibition, which opens July 9, McConnell sat down with Bento to talk about his work.

Bento: Tell me about your travels to China. Why did you go?

Walter McConnell: As a ceramic artist, I was really interested in experiencing ceramic production in China. In the States, I had been working with this collection of recycled hobby industry molds, weird figurines, kitsch ceramic bric-a-brac, and the like. I had an invitation to participate in an international workshop held in a figurine manufactory in China, so I was curious to see what confluences there might be in terms of outputs from these different cultural milieus. Though the manufactory I worked in was mostly producing high-end items, they were also very good at producing kitsch novelties, like statuettes of Bruce Lee in various karate poses.

On that same trip, I had the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen, the source of the blue-and-white porcelains I rearranged for the Chinamania show. . . . I remember being enamored with the dizzying array of ceramic products on display in Jingdezhen market stalls, one after the other after the other—literally stacks of pots, enormous porcelain vessels, and figurines. So in China, I constructed an early version of my “stupa” sculptures by shopping the markets of Jingdezhen for seconds and castoff pieces. I built a piece called Pagoda—a tall, cylindrical stack of market ceramics, figurines, teapots, roof tile, etc. . . . with a waxed paper parasol on top, a motif often represented on the finial of architectural stupas as well.

Bento: Why do you refer to your works as stupas?

WM: The stepped pyramid architecture allowed for an arrangement of ceramic objects that is presentational: you can see them all at once as you circulate around the work. And then, of course, the structure bore a strong resemblance to the stupa and other Asian temple architecture. Furthering the analogy, they’re also, in a sense, reliquaries, housing cultural remains of North American popular ceramics.

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China's Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

My interest really is in the way that these objects are evidence of a kind of collective consciousness, an encyclopedic display of a slice of popular culture at a particular moment in time. These things don’t have an explicit function; they’re objects of a momentary caprice, perhaps, a particular passion—[someone deciding] “I need this thing” to fit my home décor, my curio cabinet. So you find things in the mix that are readily familiar or completely arcane, objects that have gone in and out of fashion.

Take an inventory: There are vessels of all kinds, beer steins, adorable animals, neoclassical motifs, collectables, commemoratives, Americana, all markers of cultural heritage and class structure. There’s the pastoral, the shepherdess, garden ornaments, antiquities . . . All facsimiles, of course—relatively cheap, slip cast replicas. Ceramic has always been a medium for translating the aristocratic into the democratic, accessible, cheap, ubiquitous.

Bento: Do you collect anything?

WM: I don’t, at least nothing obsessive that we live with. Perhaps, intermittently, Fiestaware and pottery—but generally I’ve saved the compulsion for my artwork. The obsessive/maniacal part of this is in the accumulation, surely, but also in the arrangement. I think I’m a little obsessive compulsive about how these things get placed and displayed. But that’s what’s required, right? The meticulous arrangement really compels the audience to sit up and take notice. Otherwise, the objects are simply dismissible novelties. Coat them with a fabulously flamboyant glaze with blooms of crystalline zinc and accretions of sand and you get this sense of geologic strata, which allows the stupa and its collected relics to feel connected to nature in some way.

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

BentoChinamania complements Peacock Room REMIX, a contemporary take on Whistler’s masterpiece. How does your work relate to the Peacock Room?

WM: In one sense, they both say something about the psychology of the collector and collections, the need for systems and order. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetic of abundance and ostentatious display in porcelain rooms that predate the Peacock Room. I’ve researched the history of porcelain manufacture and its migration and reinvention in the West—the aristocratic nature of the medium, the maniacal passion for collecting. In the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger to make lead into gold, and instead reinvented porcelain in the West. Augustus famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of porcelain vases, a well-known early narrative of a kind of Chinamania.

Bento: How do your 3D printouts play into the installation?

WM: The connection between the stupas, the Kangxi porcelains, and the 3D prototypes is an interesting one. I was entertaining a number of things that I could do with your collection, yet I was somewhat stymied by prohibitions on actually handling the originals. I’d been doing some scanning and prototyping in another body of work, so I proposed to scan and prototype the blue-and-white collection. Now I can touch them; I can possess a complete set of these extraordinarily detailed facsimiles (but of course, not the originals). The digital clones are democratic, more accessible. That was the motivation, to bring about a question of how objects circulate like this in culture high and low.

I imagined the original Chinese porcelains displayed in a glowing case inset in a dark wall, floating as if an apparition, less tangible than their miniature clones. Those are now in the room at 40 percent of the original size, set in their souvenir boxed set, replicating with some precision the objects at a distance on the wall. So now the boxed set almost seems more accessible than the things that are illuminated in the case. You have more access to it. I was hoping to affect an oscillation between those states.

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722)

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722), and their miniature, 3D-printed counterparts.

Bento: What do you hope visitors take away from your installation?

WM: I think the “Stupas” have a lot of different entry points. You walk around them, you find something that catches your eye, evokes a memory, creates an entertaining, improbable narrative, provoking your delight or disdain. They do seem to compel circumambulation by the audience—again, an analogy to the Buddhist model. That kind of active engagement with memory, I suppose, becomes part of what they are.

I think you have to be astonished by their scale, the sheen, the meticulous stacking and improbable structure. Otherwise, they don’t work. The objects are perhaps overly familiar; you can find these things anywhere, an apartment window, your neighbor’s lawn. It’s aesthetic astonishment with the cumulative effect that rouses empathy for the collective consciousness on display here. I hope the work is capable of that.

Forever Kiarostami

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1998; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.125

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1998; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.125

Even in a year that seems to have taken a disproportionate number of world-changing artists from us, the news of Abbas Kiarostami’s death still hit me especially hard. I still remember how profoundly changed I was by seeing Through the Olive Trees (1994) in film school in the ‘90s. The film contained humor, compassion, tragedy, and a painter’s eye for the awe-inspiring power of nature. Yet it managed to blur—in a sophisticated, almost avant-garde way—the border between truth and fiction.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of both experiencing and presenting Kiarostami’s work many times. His 2001 traveling retrospective came to both the Freer|Sackler and LACMA, where I was working at the time. In addition to showing his films over the years, the Freer|Sackler also owns two of his photographs. And we exhibited his video installations The Ta’yieh (2003) in 2010 and Five: Dedicated to Ozu (2003) just last year.

Stills from "Five Dedicated to Ozu" (2003, 74 minutes) by celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami.

Stills from “Five Dedicated to Ozu” (2003, 74 minutes) by celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami.

In the Guardian’s posthumous tribute, Kiarostami’s fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi described him “a modern mystic.” Among critics and scholars, Kiarostami is rightly praised a modernist formal innovator, beginning with his groundbreaking masterpiece (the first of many) Close-up (1990), which blended truth and lies, real life and fiction in ways that had never been attempted on film. It was this modernist innovator side of his work that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote that “film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”

But what makes Kiarostami’s formal innovations so compelling is that they always derive from deeper philosophical, even spiritual concerns. They are not empty exercises in form for form’s sake. Even when he temporarily stepped away from feature filmmaking at the height of his fame in the early 2000s to concentrate on photography and experimental video work, his formal experiments still sprung from that mystical impulse Farhadi mentioned. His many photographs of trees in snow, studies in minimalist visual composition, also evoke the life lying dormant in the bare trunks and branches.

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1997; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1997; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Kiarostami’s most rigorously pared-down film from this period, Shirin (2008), consists entirely of shots of actresses’ faces as they watch a play taking place offscreen. It would come across as a gimmick if it didn’t so unnervingly force the viewer to ponder how much each actress is performing for the camera and how much she is reacting with true emotion to the play. It emphasizes how permeable the line between self and performance truly is.

When artists die, one is always compelled to parse their work for their attitudes toward death. With Kiarostami, you don’t have to look far. Two of his most famous films, Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), are explicitly about death. But they are not about being obsessed with or fearful of it. They are about what being in death’s presence teaches us about living. And for this, they are worth watching over and over again, because each viewing reveals something new.

In my early years on the festival circuit, Kiarostami was one of the people I was too in awe of to even approach. When I finally did get up the courage to talk to him, I found him to be, as Martin Scorsese put it in his tribute, “quiet, elegant, modest, articulate, and quite observant.” Though I hadn’t seen him in several years, just last month I had the pleasure of meeting some of his former students, recent graduates of an art school in Tehran where he taught, who stopped at the Freer|Sackler on a tour of the United States. In the passion and intellectual rigor with which they talked about their work, I saw the flame Kiarostami lit within them. May it burn on in them and in everyone who has been moved by his work, now that he is gone.