3.16 / Review

Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past

By Ellen Tani May 30, 2012

Thumbnail: Heman Chong. Calendars (2020-2096), 2004–2010; offset prints on paper, 1,001 sheets; each 11.75 x 11.75 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, China; Motive Gallery, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and STPI, Singapore.

To respire is to inhale and exhale, exchanging old air for new air. In many belief systems, breath is a vital form of energy; it fuels the soul, circulates through body and spirit, and, in turn, connects the self to the universe. The exhibition Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past harnesses the vitality catalyzed through the aesthetic exchange between new and old, activating the Asian Art Museum with over sixty contemporary artworks from thirty-one artists. The first of its kind for the Asian, the exhibition weaves the contemporary into the existing collection. It transforms all of the gallery spaces under the vision of guest curator Mami Takaoka, chief curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, who was brought on to work with Assistant Curator Allison Harding to make this ambitious exhibition possible.

The first breath is an oversized red lotus by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, which is installed in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Breathing Flower (2012) faces Larkin Street in bright juxtaposition against the plaza’s rows of pollarded sycamore trees, and its lotus petals, made of inflatable fabric, move subtly under motorized control. The flower indeed appears to breathe, opening and closing as real lotus flowers tend to do over the course of a day. The work is whimsical yet brings respite to a heavily trafficked area through its slow movement, inducing passersby to stop and marvel.

The lotus is an element of the cosmological iconography and spiritual landscape that grounds the exhibition’s curatorial focus. Like Breathing Flower, Phantoms manages to be subtle but not timid—a result that is somewhat rare for a contemporary art exhibition. There are no fireworks displays, spectacular performances, or radical installations that overwhelm one’s sensory experience. Rather, sensory responses are summoned by way of a work’s theoretical innovation (Adrian Wong employs feng shui as conceptualism), exquisite craftsmanship (Varunika Saraf, Raqib Shaw, and Adeela Suleman’s contributions reward if not demand close examination), and connections to universal beliefs in religion and consciousness. Though exploring themes such as nature, death, and the cosmos is nothing new, here the resulting forms tend to reflect their social, historical, and cultural climate—a focus that director Jay Xu has publicly embraced in the museum’s efforts to incorporate work that radically departs from its extensive holdings of ancient art.

While perhaps too abstract to consistently grasp, the exhibition’s references to origins, ends, and their spiritual underpinnings is a refreshing alternative to the old trick of isomorphic comparisons between old and new. Jagannath Pandas’s Cult of Survival II (2011) twists plastic pipe into a serpentine metaphor, referencing both the “ecology of death and the renewal of life” and the cycle of capitalist production and consumption.1 For Takayuki Yamamoto’s What Kind of Hell Will We Go (2012), children from ArtSeed, an after-school program in Bayview, worked with the artist to produce cardboard dioramas inspired by seventeenth-century Japanese paintings depicting heaven and hell. Benign materials—sponges, straws, streamers, and cotton balls—never looked so menacing.

Sun K. Kwak. Untying Space, 2012; site-specific installation of black masking tape and mixed media; approx. 60 x 24 ft. Courtesy of the Artist and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Araya Radsjarmrearnsook. The Class, 2005; single-channel video; 16:25. Courtesy of the Artist and 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand.

Structurally, the exhibition is balanced between ground floor galleries, which thematically arrange contemporary works with selections from the permanent collection, and upper floor galleries, where contemporary works are identified as “phantoms” by their yellow label and embedded within the existing displays of ancient art. It is in this manner that the contemporary most explicitly breathes life into the past, creating innovative juxtapositions that link recent works with a historical and cross-cultural inheritance, and reviving spaces that visitors typically drawn to the contemporary might normally overlook. Searching for the Phantoms among the collection leads to serendipitous discoveries: one might stumble upon Yoshihiro Suda’s hyperrealistic, life-sized painted wooden sculptures of weeds and flowers or Bae Young-Whan’s Terra Incognita-Thet (2010), a hand-made mountainscape table, or Frozen Waves (2010), celadon forms that evoke maps of the artist’s brainwaves.

Sun K. Kwak’s installation, Untying Space (2012), in the North Court, a sixty-foot-long, fluid drawing made of black masking tape, gestures at these flows of energy within the building, which push and pull viewers through its spaces. In two small galleries near the tail of Kwak’s drawing, Heman Chong’s Calendars (2020-2096) (2004–2010) and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Five Elements (2011) expand the present into the future and collapse time into universal symbols, respectively. Chong’s photographs of unpopulated non-places in Singapore—apartment hallways, dining halls, malls, commercial building atriums—arranged monthly by year, transform banal scenes into haunting ones, as viewers may imagine them to be aftermaths of catastrophe, ecological disaster, apocalypse, or biochemical warfare. Sugimoto inserts small photographs from his long-exposure Seascapes (1989–1996) series into the spheres of seven small crystal sculptures. The sculptures’ stacked forms reference the Buddhist five-element pagoda (earth, water, fire, wind, and emptiness), their photographs embedding compressed time into the symbolic geometry of universal creation.

To respire is to breathe; it also means to recover hope, courage, or strength in the wake of adversity. For an institution that recently surfaced from the fiscal crisis of 2008 and faced dwindling visitors from a public less than comfortable engaging the ancient objects that constitute most of its collection, the Asian has reason to respire through this exhibition. On the day of the opening I sat down in the gallery to experience all sixteen minutes of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video, The Class (2005). Delivering a lecture to an audience of cadavers, she recites: “I seriously think that today’s topic may help us to cut straight to close ties and connections that do exist between the living and the dead. Like the ties between us, you and me.” The macabre irony of the video’s mise-en-scene situates itself in the exhibition by acknowledging the manifold dimensions of death as process, abstraction, a state of being, and the possibility of inquiry into its unknown territories. I looked over to see Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum’s director, who had been sitting on the bench with me the whole time. Xu was quite hands-on in guiding the museum through turbulent waters, reviving it through a rebranding campaign, promoting contemporary art, and embracing the unknown risk in doing so. In our brief exchange—a kind that I never imagined would occur in a gallery space—it was clear that he finally felt like he could exhale. Phantoms reveals the museum’s potential as an ecosystem for the exchange of vital energies between worlds divided by centuries and continents. It is a sustainable philosophy for a museum that has as much to look forward to in contemporary Asian art as it does to reflect upon its own renowned collection.




Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past is on view at the Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco, through September 2, 2012.


  1. Mami Kataoka, “Phantoms of Asia: Sensory Perception and Interconnectivity,” Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum: 2012), 16.

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