Category Archives: Contemporary Art

Artist at Work: Michael Joo

Over the past two weeks, artist Michael Joo has been in the galleries working on his latest installation. This Saturday, come in to see his silvered canvas and dynamic sculpture inspired by the rare Korean red-crowned crane.

Arwa and Ahmed: An Interview with Two Saudi Art Stars

CNN included Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami in its list of Saudi Arabia’s rising art stars a few years ago. Active artists when they met—and now husband and wife—Mater and Al Neami have continued to ascend. Al Neami became the first woman to photograph the Prophet’s Mosque, considered the Islamic world’s second-holiest site, in 2014. She also made international waves with her Never Never Land series, a moving look at how Saudi women manage to enjoy amusement parks despite the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.

Mater, considered among the most influential Saudi artists, attracted his own global attention with his piece Magnetism, an abstract interpretation of the hajj that was exhibited at the British Museum. And this year, Mater debuted Symbolic Cities in our galleries, the first US museum exhibition dedicated solely to his work. To mark the occasion, both artists visited Washington, DC, and sat down with me to chat about their work and their lives together.

Does your background as a medical doctor continue to influence your work?

Ahmed Mater: Yes, of course, because it’s about my life and journey. I think medicine falls between subjectivity and objectivity. Art does the same in my life. In my latest project, I try to explore the “intervention” with the cities, and I also call it the “prognosis” of the cities. I treat all of my projects and artwork maybe subconsciously from a medical approach. It’s a holistic approach.

Why do you think you were drawn to both art and medicine?

AM: I think it’s part of my journey. Maybe I chose it, or maybe it’s like destiny. But I manage both of them within one mission.

Why is it important for the public to see your images—particularly an American audience?

AM: I really believe in the common cultural product. When you go to Saudi Arabia, you see a lot of American life there, which is imported through the media, through commercials . . . It’s a common concern, the materialistic new life we are living now. We share that concern.

What is your favorite piece of the ones you’ve created recently?

AM: Maybe Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a film that was in the Berlin Film Festival and got a lot of attention from the critics and audiences. There is an experimental part where the film is taken by the workers themselves. I collected all of the clips from their mobile phones. [The film] has a new perspective from the people inside the construction in Mecca.

What kind of reaction did audiences have to the Never Never Land series? 

Arwa Al Neami: The first time they saw the video and the images, they loved it and were surprised. When they looked a second time, they felt sad. It’s sad because of all the rules [imposed on the women] . . . Many ladies have said to me, “Keep going, we are with you.” It changed my life because it made me think deeply about their emotion—how the rules are [increasing] and how the ladies still try to find a way to have fun. All of my artwork now is about the feelings of [women in Saudi Arabia]—how to be sexy and beautiful, how they have power even when they are covered.

Where is your art taking you now?

AAN: I have a new video called Red Lipstick. If you cover something, it becomes more sexy. If you cover just one finger and show the rest of the body naked, you want to try to see what’s on that one finger. I covered the face of my friend—she’s a Christian; it was her first time wearing the niqab . . . I put red lipstick on her, then covered her face. A fan blows up [the niqab], and you see the red lipstick becoming more and more sexy.

The other project is [based on] a fictional story. I wake up and I smell cardamom, like how my grandmother would crush it and put it in coffee in the morning. And there’s the sound of the crushing of the beans—the sound is really strong and beautiful. When you enter [the installation], you cannot see anything; you can just smell the cardamom and hear [women’s] voices. Many ladies enter and come out crying. They remember their grandmothers. The smell has a lot of memories for the Saudis.

What is daily life like in a home with two active artists?

AM: We share a studio, and we help other artists together. We started in the studio, Arwa and me, we started with this idea . . . Why don’t we find an old villa from the 1970s and renovate it and make it a hub for artists, for ladies and men together? . . . There’s a kitchen on the second floor, we make coffee, tea; sometimes we all make dinner together.

AAN: We spend all day in the studio. I have a couch, and people stay and sleep . . . We have between fifteen and twenty people every day, from local people to ambassadors.

AM: We have a small warehouse where people can debate, do standup comedy—they can test their work. . . . We call it Disney for artists.

What is the relationship between your work?

AM: It’s complementary. She talks about the issues that she feels [strongly about] and I try to cover those issues.

AAN: We try to find different approaches, which makes it more rich. . . .  It’s very important because some artists, when they work together for a long time, they clash.

AM: We try to make ourselves open to new approaches and exploration.

Ahmed Mater: A to Y

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Get to know Ahmed Mater, whose work goes on view in Symbolic Cities tomorrow, through a glossary of key terms related to this singular Saudi artist.

  • Antenna (above): Mater, pictured with his glowing sculpture Antenna, was born in 1979 in the rugged Aseer region of southwestern Saudi Arabia.
  • British Museum: The London institution has acquired and exhibited Mater’s work.
  • clock tower: With the growing religious tourism industry, hotel rooms in the new Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex have come to dominate the skyline above the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary.
  • Desert of Pharan: In 2011, Mater began photographing Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, for a series titled Desert of Pharan, referring to the ancient name for the area around the holy city.
  • The Empty Land: Mater’s first major photographic series, the Empty Land is inspired by nineteenth-century descriptions of the American West.
From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

  • From the Real to the Symbolic City: This expansive view captures the extraordinarily dense population and traditional architecture that have characterized Mecca for centuries. Pushed to the outskirts, the old quarter disappears into a horizon obscured by heavy, gray haze, where the iconic clock tower looms like a beacon over the city under construction.
  • Golden Hour: A vast field of cranes stands in the perpetual glow of construction lights as the massive expansion of the Great Mosque takes shape and much of Mecca’s history is erased.
  • hajj: For more than a millennium, Mecca has hosted Muslims performing the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage centered on the Kaaba, a cube-like building in the middle of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque).
  • jamarat: Moving east to west, pilgrims reenact Abraham’s hajj by throwing seven pebbles against each of three pillars, known collectively as jamarat. In Mater’s photograph Human Highway, we can sense both the significance of this rite and the considerable risk posed by the overwhelming mass of people funneling in.
  • Kaaba: The structure at the center of the hajj and its pilgrims are represented in Mater’s Magnetism.
  • Leaves Fall in All Seasons: In this video—Mater’s vision of Mecca through the eyes of immigrant construction workers—a lone figure perches on the golden crescent that will crown the clock tower. The worker’s mundane task becomes spectacular, as he glides through the air “like an angel bringing a warning.”
  • Makkah/Mecca: Today, as Mater’s images show, Mecca is witnessing the largest transformation in its history. “Like few cities on earth, Makkah (Mecca) seems to buckle under the weight of its own symbolism,” he says. “It is a hallowed site revered by millions and a point of perpetual immigration. In recent years, it has begun to be recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured.”
Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

  • Nature Morte: Inside the quiet luxury of a private hotel room overlooking the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary, Mater’s framing becomes a subtle commentary on how political and spatial changes are reinventing the center of the Islamic world.
  • Pelt Him!: The murmur of crowds and the continuous rhythm of pebbles striking a wall gently draw us into Mecca, one of the most restricted yet highly visited cities in the world. At several different points during the hajj, pilgrims perform this stone-throwing ritual, symbolizing stoning the devil or casting away temptations.
Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/ Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

  • Riyadh: Mater’s exploration of Saudi Arabia has led him toward Riyadh, the country’s administrative capital and largest city, and the roots of the social transformation that he is witnessing today. In his latest project, Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, Mater reimagines life in and around Riyadh and the Saudi Aramco compounds further east.
  • Symbolic Cities: This exhibition, the first in the United States solely dedicated to Mater, presents his visual and aural journeys observing economic and urban change in Saudi Arabia. In Mater’s words, the “real city” of Mecca is being replaced by a new “symbolic city.”
  • transformation: Now based in Jeddah, Mater experiments with a range of mediums in his search to understand the country’s rapid transition from an agrarian way of life to a powerful oil-based economy.
Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

  • utopia: Observing one of the many billboards of the older city that mask construction sites, Mater considers Mecca as a living city that is constantly re-envisioned: “Dreams surround it . . . in the belief that Utopia can be created here. Yet time and again, as with every age of renovation, we live within a reality of drills, demolition, and destruction.”
  • workers: Along with Mecca’s evolving urban plan and its inhabitants, Mater observed the conditions of the many immigrant workers. His photograph Artificial Light Construction is an interior view of a new sanctuary space, framed by an endless expanse of scaffolding, that reinforces the extraordinary scale—and uniformity—of the changes taking place from the perspective of the workers rebuilding the city.
  • x-rays: Mater’s first experience with photography was shooting x-rays while working in a hospital. Compare those images to the ones in his Disarm series, in which Mater photographed Mecca through the cold light of a military helicopter’s night surveillance camera.
  • Yemeni border: As Mater explains of Antenna: “Standing on the dusty rooftop of my family’s traditional house in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia, I would lift a battered TV antenna as far as I could toward the evening sky. Moving it slowly across the mountainous horizon, I searched for a signal from beyond the Yemeni border or across the Red Sea toward Sudan. . . . Like many of my generation in Saudi Arabia, I was seeking ideas, music, poetry—a glimpse of a different kind of life. This spirit of creative exploration, curiosity, and reaching out to communicate across the borders surrounding me have defined my journey as an artist.”

#5WomenArtists: Lara Baladi

Oum el Dounia; Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut, Lebanon); 2000–2007; wool and cotton; courtesy the artist

Oum el Dounia; Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut, Lebanon); 2000–2007; wool and cotton; courtesy the artist

Throughout Women’s History Month, we’re joining the National Museum of Women in the Arts in highlighting and celebrating women who are artists. We’ll introduce female artists throughout Asian art history, as well as those who currently grace our galleries with contemporary works. Use the hashtag #5womenartists to join in.

Overwhelming and vibrant, peppered with fairytale characters and archival images, artist Lara Baladi‘s contemporary vision of Egypt currently greets visitors to the Freer|Sackler. Born in 1969 in Beirut, Baladi is an Egyptian-Lebanese photographer and multimedia artist. Now based in Cairo, she created this digital tapestry—titled Oum el Dounia, Arabic for Mother of the World, a common nickname for Egypt—as part of her interest in the global perception of the country, as well as in the way technology affects visual narratives. The monumental piece, which stands nearly 10 feet tall and more than 29 feet wide, also reflects time she spent near the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt’s western desert: “traveling by jeep with friends, picnicking, and camping beneath the stars.”

“In thinking about how to represent my experience of the desert, I looked to fairytales such as Alice in Wonderland and The Little Mermaid, old picture postcards and my own archive,” Baladi recalled. “The resulting collage is a dreamlike journey, turning the stereotypical image of the desert upside down.”

Lara Baladi. Photo courtesy of Arts at MIT

Lara Baladi. Photo courtesy of Arts at MIT

Baladi’s firsthand experience of the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 marked a significant shift in her artistic practice. During the demonstrations, she began amassing a digital archive of videos, photographs, and articles related to the events in Egypt as well as other major occurrences around the world. This effort became an ongoing art and research project titled Vox Populi, through which she explores how technology can enhance access to materials that document revolution and the stories they tell.

Explore Vox Populi and Oum el Dounia online, and visit us to see Baladi’s work in person.

Celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Calling visitors of all ages: Ring in the Year of the Monkey at our second annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 6, 11 am–4 pm. Join us to explore the museum, take family-friendly tours of the suspended sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, and enjoy dance performances by the Madison Chinese Dance Academy. Plus: ribbon dancing, mask making, calligraphy, photo booth fun, and Lunar New Year resolutions!

About the Artwork

Chinese artist Xu Bing created Monkeys Grasp for the Moon specifically for the Freer|Sackler. Each of the sculpture’s twenty-one pieces represents the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages and writing systems, including Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from a tree branch to the moon—only to discover that it is just a shimmering reflection in a pool of water.

Listen to Xu Bing chat about the work during its initial installation at the Freer|Sackler (click on “Interview with the Artist”).

Friday Fave: Sugimoto’s Seascapes

An installation shot from the exhibition, "Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto," Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009

An installation shot from the 2009 Freer|Sackler exhibition “Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto.”

The Freer|Sackler has always been a place of serenity and introspection for me. I enjoy the tranquility of sitting and viewing a work, letting my mind wander and slowly digest the nuances of the piece in front of me. This intimate relationship between art and viewer, for me, is mirrored in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

My first exposure to his work was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As I turned the corner into a side gallery, I saw a black rectangle the size of a chalkboard. From afar, it appeared as a modernist void, but as I moved closer, subtle details slowly appeared. A horizon, a slight gradation of black and white, filled the space.

That particular piece was a black-and-white photograph of the ocean. It is part of Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, long-exposure photographs of water horizons taken over several hours. The resulting large-format prints are hazy, dreamlike images that are tranquil and meditative. His focus on perceiving the ephemeral is captured in these snapshots of light and time and are simply beautiful in their peacefulness. The images are recognizable, but as if recalled from a memory.

I was delighted to discover that the Freer|Sackler has a series of Sugimoto’s ocean photographs. My personal favorite is Boden Sea/Utwill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of portraying tonality and near formlessness. Air, water, time, and light all come together in a single photograph. The image is so simple, yet it encapsulates the essence of life on this planet.

While none of Sugimoto’s photographs are currently on view in the galleries, you can always see them online (along with the entire museum collection) at Open F|S.

Come visit! While the Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, the Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Peacock Room REMIX: Break it Down

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation "Filthy Lucre," 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre,” 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

If you ride Metro to work, your morning commute may have been punctuated by disturbing images of a ransacked Peacock Room. Freer not! No art was destroyed in making Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition centered on Filthy Lucre, contemporary artist Darren Waterston’s imaginative reenvisioning of the iconic interior. It’s perhaps a tribute to Waterston’s artistry that we’ve worried a few people who think we’ve gone all rock star on the Peacock Room and deliberately destroyed its contents. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the Smithsonian, people! The room is one of our treasures.

“I wanted to create my piece as a great homage, a contemporary artist’s response to Whistler,” Waterston has said. “At the same time I wanted to interrogate the ideas, aesthetics, and intentions behind the original Peacock Room.”

The Peacock Room was famously decorated by James McNeill Whistler for his friend and erstwhile patron, Frederick Leyland. Leyland didn’t like the surprise home makeover, causing a painful, permanent rupture between the two men. Though Whistler had made good on his promise of a “gorgeous surprise,” transforming the room with brilliant hues of blue, green, and gold, Leyland felt that Whistler went too far; he refused to pay the artist his full fee. Whistler, shocked and insulted, took revenge by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the room’s south wall to represent the artist and patron. He titled this bit of retribution Art and Money. The break between Whistler and Leyland inspired Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, as did the story behind Whistler’s painting The Gold Scab: An Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), currently on loan to the Sackler from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Why “Frilthy”? In one of his last letters to Leyland, Whistler wrote, “Whom the gods intend to be ridiculous, they furnish with a frill.” In addition to poking fun at Leyland’s dress, the term refers to the biblical phrase “filthy lucre” as well as to Leyland’s initials, FL. In The Gold Scab, Whistler depicts Leyland, an amateur pianist, as a hideous miser—half human, half peacock—perched uncomfortably on the roof of the White House, the studio-residence that Whistler lost as a result of his mounting debts.

Created in London, the Peacock Room eventually was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home before he willed his collection to the United States and the museum that would bear his name. In Detroit, Freer used the Peacock Room as a staging area to make connections between world cultures. It was a place of visual harmony. In deconstructing the Peacock Room, Darren Waterston has created a staged area of deliberate destruction to make connections between a centuries-old gilded age and our own world—as he says, “[altering] the appearance of visual harmony by disfiguring it.” Waterston’s breakages are rife with symbolism: The dramatic tensions between art, money, and aesthetics are still relevant to our culture today. With the REMIX, we have a clearer lens into that earlier world and, consequently, our own.

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre is on view to January 2, 2017.

Friday Fave: Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of "Over the Continents" by Chiharu Shiota

Installation view of “Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota

If your shoes could talk, what story would they would tell?

I began working at the Freer|Sackler last July. One month later, Chiharu Shiota began assembling Over the Continents as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art. Watching her work on the installation—shoes with little notes attached by red yarn—was enough reason for me to love it. Shiota spent three days carefully placing each shoe in the Sackler pavilion and then tying on the yarn, which originates in the corner of the room and connects one shoe to the next. For the artist, discarded shoes and notes link us to memories of times and people who are now lost to us.

Not only do I love the installation and the stories that it tells, I love the memory that I now have because of it. When I began working here, I was afraid that without a background in Asian art, I would have a hard time connecting to the artworks and exhibitions. Watching Shiota install her work changed that, allowing me to appreciate and understand my new place of work. Having moved twelve times in twenty-eight years, it’s very important for me to solidify a connection to a new place early on. If my shoes could talk about my first few months at the Freer|Sackler, this is the story they would tell.

A selection of the notes on view in the installation have been translated from Japanese and made available on our website and on the computer in the pavilion. The exhibition closes this Sunday, so you only have a few days to check it out!

Friday Fave: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

First-time visitors to the Sackler Gallery are often surprised and delighted by Chinese artist Xu Bing’s sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The impressive installation comprises a series of twenty-one interlocking laminated wood “monkeys.” They hang from the ceiling of the Gallery’s atrium and descend, one beneath another, through the center of the three-story stairwell to end suspended above a reflecting pool at the bottom level.

What I particularly love about this work is the seamless integration of sculptural forms, multiple writing systems and languages, and storytelling. It starts with a Chinese folktale that describes a group of monkeys in a tree that decide to capture the moon. By linking their arms and tails, they form a chain down toward the moon, only to discover that it is a reflection in a body of water at the base of the tree. Xu’s monkeys certainly look the part, despite being heavily abstracted. They have tails and arms and faces that are clearly identifiable. But each one also spells out the word “monkey” in a different language, in scripts as diverse as Urdu, German, Chinese, and Braille. People, children especially, will often work their way through the entire installation, carefully matching each monkey to a key that shows which one represents which language.

By bringing together these different languages and writing systems into such a coherent form, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon speaks to me about universal connections between peoples of different cultures. It is a fitting way to welcome visitors to an institution devoted to such a culturally and artistically diverse part of the world.

Grey Matters

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

Well, we all know what movie you saw last weekend. Enough said.

But why be satisfied with a mere fifty shades of grey? The Freer|Sackler’s newly digitized collections contain more than four hundred objects featuring most every kind of grey known to man … and woman. Enter grey (or gray, if you prefer) into the search, and hundreds of works of art will become available for your viewing, study, and personal pleasure.

Curious? Check out Open F|S and enter a world you’ve always wanted to know more about.