Category Archives: Contemporary Art

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.

Why is the Smithsonian Covered in Yarn?!

Scenes from last night's yarn bomb.

Scenes from last night’s yarn bomb.

If you pass by the Smithsonian Castle today or over the weekend, you may be surprised to see its gates and gardens wrapped up in red yarn. Why would the Freer|Sackler do such a thing? Read on to find out!

What are you doing?
We’re yarn bombing!

Yarn bombing involves covering the surface of large objects with knitted material—in this case, six miles of bright-red yarn. The yarn was knit in separate pieces, and then attached and connected to the gates, benches, lampposts, and other parts of the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Opening this weekend in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an installation by contemporary Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whose art uses everyday objects such as yarn, shoes, and keys to create room-filling works that have deep personal meaning. In her installation, called Over the Continents, she used 350 donated shoes and 4 miles of the same shade of red yarn used in the yarn bomb. Part of the Freer|Sackler’s Perspectives series of contemporary art, Shiota’s work will be on view for the next year. The yarn bomb, unfortunately, can only stay up through Labor Day.

How is the yarn bomb related to the exhibition?
Yarn is one of Shiota’s signature materials—it’s lightweight, flexible, and familiar—and she uses massive amounts to create something greater than its original form. As Shiota herself explained, “The threads are woven together. They become entangled. They tear. They unravel. They are a mirror of the emotions.” Red yarn, in particular, symbolizes the human body and states of being.

There’s also an element of community in Shiota’s pieces. She crowdsources many of the components, and she appreciates how people can come together for an artistic experience. For example, many visitors dropped by to watch her work during the public installation of Over the Continents on August 18–21. Similarly, the yarn bomb was created by many volunteers. It’s a fun way to alert people outside that there are dynamic things going on inside the Freer|Sackler.

In addition, the view of the gates and the castle is among the most iconic at the Smithsonian—and it happens to be right in front of the Sackler’s entrance.

Who is doing this?
The marketing staff at the Freer|Sackler started the yarn bomb, but once word got out, the project quickly grew to include more than 120 volunteers from around the Smithsonian and the DC area. People knit, helped to string up and attach the works, and spread the word among their friends and networks.

When was it done?
The yarn bomb was installed the evening of August 28 and revealed early in the morning on August 29, the day before Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota officially opened to the public. We had been knitting for about two weeks to create all of the pieces.

Are you making fun of the artist?
No, we certainly aren’t! We were inspired by Shiota’s use of simple, everyday materials, her involvement of community in her projects, and the vibrancy of her choice of color. The yarn bomb is a way to honor that outside the museums and to inject a little bit of the unexpected into everyone’s Friday commute or weekend visit to the Galleries.

What was the hardest part of the project?
The trickiest aspect was planning it. After we figured out what could be covered (benches, poles, fences) and what couldn’t (trees, flowerpots), we mapped out the surfaces and lengths of yarn we needed, working backward to convert it to lengths and then to skeins of yarn. It was comparatively easy to find the right shade of yarn, and easiest of all to learn to knit (which many of us did just for this project)!

What will you do with the yarn once it’s taken down?
We’re not sure yet! We hope to put the yarn to good use (it’s covered with a substance to make it fire resistant, so that presents some limitations). We’d love to hear suggestions, which you can tweet to @FreerSackler (hashtag: #perspectives) or post on our Facebook page.

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.

Mei-ling Hom on Contemporary Korean Ceramics

Inside Lee Inchin's studio  (photo by David McClelland)

Inside Lee Inchin’s studio (photo by David McClelland)

Bento had a chance to touch base with artist Mei-ling Hom in advance of the talk on contemporary Korean ceramics that she and independent scholar David McClelland will present this Saturday, February 9, at 2 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Bento: We know you as a sculptor and installation artist, but what is your relationship to ceramics?

Mei-ling Hom: As an undergraduate at Kirkland College my major was ceramic sculpture. After Kirkland I moved to Philadelphia and worked solely in clay for 15 years until I entered the graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1985. That’s when I started working in installation and exploring the nuanced understanding of spatial perception in varying cultural contexts. After graduate school, I returned to my teaching position in Philadelphia, where I taught ceramics and three-dimensional design for 26 years.

B: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Korean ceramics?

MH: While I was teaching at the community college, the NEH sponsored the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) to infuse Asian content into existing curricula, thereby bringing diversity to American educational systems. I knew that Korea had a lively art scene but I knew very little about it, so I applied to ASDP. I was one of twelve teachers accepted into this program nationwide. We were flown to Hawaii, where we had three weeks of academic lectures, and then onto Korea for another three-week lecture program with field trips and official government luncheons. To my dismay, there was nothing addressing contemporary art in the six-week course. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to return to Korea and conducted the research myself.

B: Tell me about the year you and David spent in South Korea on a Fulbright.

MH: To work successfully in Asia it is important to have the right contacts. When we arrived we had two: Lee Inchin, the director of the Ceramic Research Institute at Hongik University, and Cho Chung Hyun, an emerita professor of ceramics at Ewha University. We had studied with her 26 years earlier in Edwardsville, Illinois, when she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Our first line of business was to define a list of candidates to interview. We spent days at the Ceramic Research Institute poring over exhibition catalogs to compile our “artists of interest” list. We also had to prove our credibility to the ceramic community, so we enrolled in intensive Korean language study, attended every weekly gallery opening, and introduced ourselves. As Korean artists learned of our project, they suggested ceramic artists we should contact.

About three months into the Fulbright, we started interviewing artists. Our Korean language skills were very sketchy so we usually traveled with a translator if the artist did not speak English. David would usually photograph the studio and the artist while I conducted the interview. In the beginning we had one interview per day, but as artists learned of our project we sometimes had to schedule five or six per day. We tried to spend a lot of time with each artist so we could really develop a sense of his or her work and process.

The majority of our interviewed artists live in Seoul, where one-fourth of Korea’s population resides. By the end of the summer we were traveling outside of Seoul to visit pottery studios and conduct interviews. For the appointments in the southern tip of the peninsula we took an extended journey and found lodging along the way. The artists were extremely generous. Often they would take us to meet other potters in out-of-the way locales, and of course they shared their delicious local cuisines with us.

An unexpected side benefit to our stay in Korea was learning about Korean classical music and the new compositions being produced for classical instruments. One of the potters we stayed with in Kwangju played the Korean bamboo flute. He would wake us in the mornings with the lilting notes of his flute and in the evenings local musicians would gather at his studio to jam together. For the our CD on Contemporary Korean Ceramic Artists, we used Hwang Byungki‘s music on the kayageum, a zither-like string instrument, in the background.

B: What defines contemporary Korean ceramics? How have time-honored traditions changed in the hands of the artists you met?

MH: Ceramic artists in Korea draw on their thousand-year history of working with high-fire stoneware and porcelain. But porcelain can be used in ways far removed from Chinese prototypes. Yoon Sol has forms and a size range that clearly are influenced by his youthful obsession with putting together plastic fantasy models. Now he has translated his “hand thought” (a delightful West African term for craftwork) into a rather severe, Northern European-influenced precisionist model—which is really Korean, because it echoes a cultural preoccupation with the clarity and beauty of high-fire porcelain (itself an echo of the purity and hardness of jade).

Other artists, such as Lee Kang Hyo, Yoon Kwang Cho, and Cho Chung Hyun, draw directly on the form and surface decoration of historical pots. Their works are not recreations of any specific era but sit comfortably with their predecessors while pointing in a new direction. Shin Sang Ho is sui generis. His work can not be easily inserted into the flow of art history and perhaps we shouldn’t try. I’m sure he would quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam.”

B: For your 2005 installation at the Sackler, “Floating Mountains, Singing Clouds,” you said that you were drawn to clouds because “they travel everywhere and are perceived by different cultures in different ways.” Can a similar statement be applied to clay?

MH: The cloud is different because you cannot touch and manipulate it—it is an experienced phenomenon we understand through a mental and emotional process. Clay is utterly responsive to every nudge, squeeze, and pull of the hand. So in touching clay, a very personal and direct impulse can be conveyed.

B: How has your time in Korea influenced your own work?

MH: When I returned from Korea I was anxious to touch clay again. At the time I was involved in two large public art commissions, one for the Philadelphia International Airport and the other for the Raleigh Durham International Airport. I was, however, able to work with a country potter in North Carolina for two months. There I produced a body of wood-fired ceramic clouds, which were exhibited at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in 2010.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky’s the Limit

Black ink-like smoke rises from the tree, mimicking the flow of traditional Chinese brush painting.

At 3 pm today, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang created an “explosion event” in honor of two birthdays: the Sackler Gallery’s 25th and the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program’s 50th. Both institutions will join forces in the future, enabling artworks to be displayed at the Sackler before they are shipped off to embassies abroad.

In a series of three timed explosions, Cai Guo-Qiang created the illusion of a second tree of smoke drifting from the original pine tree, mimicking the flow of Chinese brush drawings. From prose, poetry. The archived event will be live soon.

Tomorrow, the celebrations continue with a conversation with artist Xu Bing, an Asian art and culture book fair, classical Arabian music, birthday cupcakes, and the much-anticipated opening of the Pure Land digital cave. Learn more on the Sackler at 25 page.

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!

Ai Weiwei: A Model Exhibition

A rendering of Ai Weiwei’s installation “Fragments” in the pavilion of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s monumental work Fragments opens at the Sackler this Saturday, May 12. Exhibition designer Jeremiah Gallay gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes to prepare for a new installation.

We exhibition designers generally love to draw, and we try to draw things as accurately as we can. Our job is to create scale drawings and models, perspective renderings, and mock-ups to study display options and to provide instructions for the production and installation processes. The rendering shown here, for Ai Weiwei’s Fragments in the Sackler pavilion, was one of about a dozen options drawn up in multiple views, using computer software that allows us to create complex digital models and place them within architectural environments.

In addition to design visualizations, we create detailed production drawings for wall demolition and construction, cabinetry, electrical work, painting, mount-making, environmental graphics, and other custom fabrications. It’s always fun to see the drawings come to life—to walk into a real space after designing it on paper.