High Fashion for Muslim Wear

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

New designs from Java strutted down the catwalk on September 10, kicking off this year’s Performing Indonesia festival and its theme of Islamic Intersections. Held at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design, the fashion show featured fresh garments for Muslim women created by Meeta Fauzen and Helen Dewi Krana, two leading designers from Indonesia. Fauzen took the time to answer a few questions about her creations.

Bento: Why have you been inspired to design for Muslim women?

Meeta Fauzen: After returning from the hajj, I started to wear Muslim dress. I wanted to create Muslim wear that fits my style. I learned how to design Muslim women’s fashion to give people more choices.

B: How would you describe your design aesthetic or approach?

MF: My design aesthetic is simple and elegant, to make it easy for Muslim women. And I mix my designs with Indonesian traditional fabrics such as batik and tenun.

B: How have your designs been received at home and abroad?

MF: In Indonesia, I have several customers in my hometown, Bandung, and in other cities such as Bogor, Jakarta, Surabaya, and Batam. And from abroad, I have also some clients in countries where I’ve done my show, such as Perth, Kuala Lumpur, the United States, and eastern Europe, although it’s not a big number yet.

There were big numbers for the show on September 10: a capacity crowd of two hundred guests filled the Corcoran Gallery atrium. The runway presentation was preceded by a lecture and discussion with anthropologist Carla Jones of the University of Colorado, as well as a Q&A with the designers.

The Performing Indonesia festival is made possible through a partnership with the Embassy of Indonesia, and this year is held in cooperation with George Washington University. See what’s in store.

Performing Indonesia: Andy McGraw, musician and teacher


Andy McGraw plays the kendang drum with Gamelan Raga Kusuma, one of the ensembles that will perform on September 22.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Andy McGraw, who was involved in the festival’s planning, is part of two ensembles performing the evening of September 22. An associate professor of music at the University of Richmond, McGraw describes himself as “a dad, an ethnomusicologist with wide research interests and a performer of many kinds of musics.” 

Q: When and why did you take an interest in Indonesian music?

A: In 1995, I was playing in a jazz band in Kansas City (my hometown) when I was contacted by someone in Singapore interested in a temporary house trade. One of the musicians in the jazz band had studied in Indonesia and suggested I go and retrieve some instruments he had left in Bali. So I arranged to have a friend cover my drum-set students, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I headed over to a part of the world neither of us knew anything about.

After exploring Singapore, she headed north to Malaysia and I headed south to Indonesia, without a guidebook or any knowledge of the language. I immediately became lost in the chain of islands between Singapore and Sumatra. I rode sailboats up river into Central Sumatra, where I spent several days believing I was in Java. After several more days of travel through Sumatra and Java, mainly by “goat class” train cars, I ended up in Bali.

Throughout this passage, I was amazed by the striking cultural differences (music, language, food) between villages and humbled by the consistent generosity I was shown. Despite being completely ignorant of local customs, likely committing faux pas after faux pas, I was almost always treated with patience and grace.

When I arrived in Bali, I began studying with I Wayan Gandra. With his father I Madé Lebah, Gandra had led the first Balinese tour to America in 1952 (famously appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show). On my second night on the island, he took me to see not a tourist performance, but a mabarung temple festival contest between two of Bali’s finest gamelan ensembles. I had never experienced such intense musicianship. The cohesion of the ensemble, in absence of conductor or notation, introduced me to social and musical forms I did not think were possible. I was immediately hooked.


McGraw plays cello with the kroncong ensemble Rumput, also performing on September 22.

Q: You teach courses about global music. Why should students—particularly American students—study this subject?

A: My primary teaching goal is to introduce students to aesthetic difference: to challenge students’ aesthetic common sense by exposing them to musical systems foreign to their prior experience. This is intended to perform two ethical functions: 1) to demonstrate the mutability and variability of human culture globally, reminding individuals that their own culture is constructed and changeable and 2) to instill a sense of expansive collectivity: that they have a link, and maybe even a kind of loyalty, to people they have never met, to people that represent the cultures they are studying.

Music evolved primarily to foster social relationships. Its very ambiguity (we never agree exactly on its meanings) allows us to connect through it (we can all agree that it feels good). That shared emotion creates empathy. When an American student shares a concrete musical experience of joy with a visiting Indonesian musician, for instance, they establish a connection that would be difficult to forge through writing, or online, or even through casual conversation. But beyond that, it connects that student in a concrete way not only to another individual but to “the Balinese” and “Indonesians” in a way I don’t believe a history book (or, more often today, Wikipedia) can.

It is crucial that young Americans develop a felt empathy for as many cultures as possible. I’m talking about informed, specified understandings and interests in concrete cultures, not some vague, generalized camaraderie or cosmopolitanism, which I don’t think does much to energize a real sense of obligation. Being the foremost military and economic power in the world today, America can wreak historically unprecedented levels of damage globally, but it also holds almost immeasurable potential for enacting positive change. The better informed individuals are about the world and its cultures, the more likely they are to act in ways that sustain and respect those cultures. Most importantly, the more likely they are to listen to those cultures.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

Q: Tell me a bit about your plans for the September 22 performance.

A: My primary plans for the September 22 performance are to not make any mistakes! Momenta is a wonderful ensemble, and although I’ve performed with them before, I’ll admit I’m a bit afraid! I am excited about this performance partly because of the wide variety of genres on the program. I Wayan Yudane and Jack Body’s House in Bali is a lush, lyrical work that buzzes with the incommensurable tuning clashes between Western and Balinese instruments. Tony Prabowo’s works lean towards the more austere style of global modernism. Thrown into the mix are Indonesian kroncong asli tunes, which the visiting Indonesian singer Ubiet Raseuki has recently been reviving. Kroncong is a “light classical” form that was very popular in independence-era Indonesia (circa 1950s–60s) with a deeply nostalgic resonance. This form is almost never heard in America. Both Gamelan Raga Kusuma and Orkes Kroncong Rumput, the Balinese and kroncong ensembles we have in Virginia, are working hard in preparation!

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away?

A: I want the audience to take away a sense of the incredible variety and vibrancy of Indonesia’s musical ecology. Most importantly, I hope they come to see Indonesia not only as host to many different kinds of “traditional” music but experimental, modernist, collaborative, and classical musics as well. I hope that audience members do not get aesthetic whiplash! Finally, I also hope audience members feel free to ask questions after the concert and to stick around to interact with the gamelan and kroncong instruments.

Reserve tickets now for Strings Meet Gamelan: Chamber Music from Indonesia on September 22. 

Notes from the Desert

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill's, stares down from a tree. Her gaze challenges the viewer. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print, 61 × 76.2 cm; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2014.16

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill’s, stares down from a tree, challenging the viewer’s gaze. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; S2014.16

Tomorrow, we debut Notes from a Desert, comprising recollections and photographs by contemporary artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been photographing marginalized communities in the remote desert region of western Rajasthan, India.

In 2003, she was asked to participate in a Balika Mela, a fair that provides girls the opportunity to learn and play in a safe environment. Gill led workshops teaching basic photography and darkroom techniques. Reminiscent of the traditional itinerant photographer who would travel from village to village with his equipment, Gill also invited the girls to have their portraits taken in a makeshift studio. She gathered backdrops and props from local sources and asked the sitters to choose how and with whom they wanted to be photographed.

From the more than eighty portraits, Gill chose only a few to be printed at close to life-size; three are on display at the Sackler, including the one below. With a direct gaze and slightly clenched hands, Kanta conveys a sense of determination and cautious self-awareness. The spare use of props, plain backdrops, and natural desert light emphasize Gill’s subjects, while the large scale of the black-and-white prints asserts an iconic, self-empowered status.

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

A key figure in Gill’s work in Rajasthan is Izmat, a single mother she has known for nearly two decades. Gill repeatedly photographed Izmat, whom the artist has described as a “strong woman of tremendous character despite having lived a very difficult life,” and her two daughters, Jannat (1984–2007) and Hooran. In the portrait at top from the series Notes from the Desert (1999–present), Izmat’s face emerges from the dark foliage of a tree set against the blinding light of the desert sky. Barely perceptible in the stark landscape and shot from below, she challenges the viewer’s gaze.

Gill frequently revisits her vast archive of negatives and composes different series around a central theme. In 2011, she gathered under the title Jannat forty-four photographs and eight facsimiles of letters that she and Izmat had exchanged. This group of fifty-two prints, one for each week of the year, is a poignant memorial to Izmat’s daughter who died at twenty-three. A portrayal of Jannat unfolds through glimpses of the joy, pain, and tenderness of everyday life.

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Witness these images in person when Notes from the Desert opens tomorrow. Visit between 2 and 4 pm for a chance to meet Gill and ask her about the stories her photographs tell.

Reviving “The Death of the Historical Buddha”


Standing sixteen feet tall, The Death of the Historical Buddha by Japanese artist Hanabusa Itchō is among the most important Buddhist paintings of its time. Two of our conservators recently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help restore this massive hanging scroll, which hasn’t been treated and remounted since the 1850s. With the help of a GoPro camera, we’re able to give a quick look at their many hours of work. Below, supervisory conservator Andrew Hare talks about the project and the conservation processes seen in these time lapses.

Fellow conservator Jiro Ueda and I headed up to Boston in August to join the MFA’s conservation project. Over the past month, we have helped restore and remount a large Buddhist painting in one of their galleries, with public access available throughout the process.

As seen in the video above, we applied a temporary facing to the painting (front and back) using water and several layers of synthetic and Chinese papers. This process protects the painting’s surface while gently drawing away staining and soiling. We then placed the painting between layers of felt to dry.



Next, we covered the work table with several layers of protective paper. We then laid the painting on the work surface and humidified it before removing the temporary facing from the front. After more humidifying, we turned the painting face down on the table. We removed sections of the old lining paper that covered creases in the work, and then brushed out those sections to expand the creases and make the painting flat.



In the third video, we are carefully removing the old lining paper from the back of the painting using tweezers and bamboo spatulas. This is careful and time-consuming work. To complete the removal as efficiently as possible, Chinese painting conservation colleagues from the MFA Boston team joined in to help. As we removed large sections of the old lining, about a quarter of the painting at a time, we applied a new lining of thin Mino paper with wheat starch paste. Once the entire painting was relined, we again left it to dry between felt.

The project continues in Boston, where the public can watch the conservators at work. Follow along on our blog and the MFA‘s. 

Chrysanthemum Wine on the Double Nine

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

An age-old tradition in China is to climb to a high place on the ninth day of the ninth month, or the Double Ninth, to eat and drink with family and friends and enjoy the autumn scenery, especially chrysanthemums. These seasonal blooms are particularly associated with Tao Qian (365–427), the magistrate of Pengze, who grew the flowers and loved drinking wine. Drinking chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth is said to promote good health and prolong life.

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

This sixteenth-century Chinese scroll bears a poem by the writer Cui Shu (active mid-8th century) titled “On the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month, Climbing the Terrace of Looking For the Immortal.” To observe the holiday, Cui Shu and his friends climbed a high terrace built by Emperor Wen (reigned 179–157 BCE), a scenic spot in Shaanxi province that evoked for the poet a series of historical and literary associations:

Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty raised this high terrace,
Which today we climb to watch the colors of dawn begin.
Cloudy hills of the Jin States stretch off to the north,
Gusting rain over Twin Knolls comes down from the east.
Who would recognize the warden of the far frontier gate?
The old Immortal-on-the-River is gone and won’t return.
Let’s search nearby instead for the Magistrate of Pengze,
To happily imbibe with him a cup of chrysanthemum wine.

Performing Indonesia: Tickets On Sale!

House of Angklung #4

Tickets are on sale now for this year’s Performing Indonesia, our third annual celebration of Indonesian cultural expressions. Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of volcanic islands, is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and more Muslims than any other country in the world. We’ll explore these “Islamic Intersections” through a fashion show of contemporary Muslim designs, a puppet play (wayang) about a mystical journey, concerts of music by Indonesian and American composers, a lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation, and a symposium on Islam and the performing arts.

In total, more than eighty musicians, dancers, and other performing artists from Indonesia and across the United States will appear at the festival, which runs from September 10 through November 19. Check out the full lineup and reserve your spot!

Chinese Red

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries F2015.2

In “Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko,” opening tomorrow, this superb Ming dynasty dish is juxtaposed with a Mark Rothko painting to display the power of red across time.

China has always privileged the color red. Cinnabar and red ochre were used in ancient burials, probably to represent lifeblood and to help the deceased make the transition from death to immortality. Over time, red became associated with all things auspicious and happy. The Chinese valued its symbolic connection to fire, the sun, the heart, and the southern direction—all positive forces of energy.

For centuries, red has been China’s color of power, celebration, fertility, prosperity, and repelling evil. It has been chosen for the robes of high officials, traditional wedding dresses, babies’ clothing, envelopes for gifts of money, and the walls surrounding the Forbidden City to keep its occupants safe. On Lunar New Year, now as in the past, streets and homes are bedecked with red lanterns, and finery for the day is red or accented by it. Even China’s national flag is red—chosen both as an emblem of the People’s Revolution and as the traditional color of the Chinese people—summing up the color’s importance to national identity.

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

The English-speaking world has long recognized China’s love of red. Pantone, the standardized color matching system, includes “Chinese red,” a description that can be used to buy house paint or nail polish. But what color is it? “Chinese red” is a vivid orangey-red best described as vermillion. Originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar and later produced synthetically, vermillion can include a range of warm hues, from bright orange-red to a duller bluish-red. In China, people sometimes refer to “Big Red,” which is a vibrant vermillion; the name also refers to the color’s place on the visible color spectrum, on which red has the longest, strongest presence. Underlying this term, you can feel the deep association with red in the Chinese imagination.

Cinnabar/vermillion is the most common shade of red in China, but it far from the only hue. Dozens of color names that translate as “scarlet,” “ruby,” “crimson,” and “rose” appear in the Chinese language. To suit each art form’s technical requirements, different pigments are used for dying silk, coloring lacquer, or decorating porcelain, thus ensuring a large palette of reds in Chinese art.

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Throughout the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), red was favored to connote power and status. The dynasty was founded in the south, which is represented by the color, and the ruling family’s name, Zhu, means “vermillion.” Porcelain, beloved by the early fifteenth-century emperors, was decorated in reds created with a variety of techniques. An iron-red was developed for painting the five-clawed dragon—symbol of the emperor—on a vessel after it had been fired. This achieved a color similar to vermilion, which itself was not suitable for the heat of the kiln.

To create an all-over monochrome red—like the one seen on our dish in Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko, opening tomorrow—artists had to use a technique in which nanoparticles of copper oxide colored the glaze. The result achieved a tone in the bluish end of the vermillion spectrum, rather like crushed raspberries. “Fresh red” (likened to the blood of a freshly beheaded chicken) and “sacrificial red” are Chinese terms applied to this luscious red glaze. Instead of a blood sacrifice (a common misconception in English), “sacrificial” here refers to the early Ming emperors’ use of copper-red-glazed vessels to present offerings in ritual ceremonies at the Altar of the Sun.

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

The copper-red color must have pleased the Ming emperors at least as much as any of the other red hues that surrounded them. They continued to order this color despite the fact that it was so difficult to make; this explains the many unsuccessful attempts that have been discovered in a rubbish heap at the imperial kiln. Examples of copper-red glaze that did make the grade attest to the Ming potters’ amazing control of a demanding technology, as well as to their artistic sensitivity. While this shade may not initially strike you as “Chinese red,” spending time with our dish may prove that its particular hue is the most mesmerizing red of all.

Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake

One of the "Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake" by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun

One of the “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake” by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun


Ninety-three years ago today, the Great Kanto Earthquake rocked Japan, destroying Tokyo and Yokohama and wreaking widespread damage. The jolt struck at 11:58 am, when many residents were cooking their lunches over open fires. As stoves were overturned and gas mains ruptured, blazes quickly erupted, ravaging the cities’ wooden houses and anything else in their paths. A 300-foot-tall fire tornado, or “dragon twist,” tore through an area near Tokyo’s Sumida River where tens of thousands had sought shelter from the chaos; only a few hundred survived.

The earthquake’s epicenter was in the waters of Sagami Bay, triggering a tsunami that reached heights of forty feet. In the ancient capital of Kamakura, a twenty-foot wave killed some three hundred people and shifted the city’s Great Buddha—weighing in at 121 tons—by more than a foot. A total of about 140,000 people perished in the disaster.

Nishimura Goun (1877–1938), a Kyoto painter known for his soft, lyrical renderings of birds, fish, animals, and flowers, turned to the earthquake as the subject for this handscroll, which he completed two years afterward. To report the devastation of September 1, 1923, Goun adopted the traditional horizontal format of episodes linked by text. Although Goun was a Kyoto artist, his scenes seem to be based on first-hand observation. The result is an odd union of harsh subject matter and his signature gentle style.


(Every Day is) Dog Day



Give your pup some love for National Dog Day! Small jade animals like this hound were enjoyed as handsome decorations by China’s elite. Due to jade’s cool surface, they were also used as objects to caress. Hounds are, in general, well regarded in China; one of the years of the zodiac is named after the dog. In fact, this jade object might have been presented to someone born in the year of the dog. The slender animal wears a collar with a bell, suggesting that it is a hunting dog.

Incense box with relief figure of lion

Incense box with relief figure of lion

The mythical lion dog, such as the one that decorates this incense box, symbolizes strength and protection, especially of children. The image of a lion dog frolicking among peonies is a favored combination in both Chinese and Japanese imagery.

Puppies in the Snow

Puppies in the Snow

Japanese artist Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) produced some 150 designs of flowers, birds, and animals. In one of his most charming works, seven puppies huddle together under a shelter that protects a blossoming narcissus from the snow. The print incorporates references to 1778, the year of the dog and when it was published. Calendar prints like this example were distributed as gifts at the beginning of the New Year; on the lunar calendar, this fell in mid- to late February, when narcissus began to bloom but snow might still fall.

Word Play

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.

Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.

Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.

“Xu Bing: The Living Word” at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”

When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.