The Asian Art Museum in San Francisc

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By preserving, displaying, and interpreting Asian art, the National Museum of Asian Art helps us understand Asia, the United States, and the rest of the world better. This is a point that the museum has long emphasized. In addition to displaying large-scale installations in the ground-floor lobby areas, curators have incorporated modern and contemporary paintings, ceramics, and other small- and medium-sized works in several of the collection’s galleries. But frequently, these seemed to be isolated postscripts. The presence of contemporary art has grown and become more pervasive. They may devote one of the current first-floor galleries to contemporary commissions and acquisitions thanks to the addition of a brand-new, cutting-edge, 8,500-square-foot gallery for special exhibitions. Los Angeles-based architect Kulapat Yantrasast included a rooftop art terrace in the design of this addition, which is scheduled to debut later this month or at the beginning of September.

Ala Ebtekar’s “Luminous Ground,” a 55-foot-long expanse of handmade tiles on which the artist has printed images from the Hubble telescope using cyanotype, an early photographic process with a Prussian blue hue, will join two works already in place: “Don’t Mess With Me” and Ai Weiwei’s 2007 “Fountain of Light,” a glittering, glass-beaded rendition of Vladimir Tatlin’s spiraling 1919-20 “Mon Visitors will be able to enter the collection galleries on the second and third floors from the terrace, stepping into a past that was occasionally as diverse, lively, and international as the world in which artists work now.

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A case of Indonesian gold jewelry, for example, or a room with dark walls and Chinese jade sculptures, are just a couple examples of the selections from the museum’s 18,000 or so items organized here among geographic divisions that include both historical sequences and theme groupings. Each part also highlights one or two masterpieces that have been presented in more attractive and illuminating ways.

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For instance, in the Korea exhibit, a big asymmetrical moon jar built between 1650 and 1750 is shown in a corner surrounded by handmade paper sheets. A video in the South Asia gallery traces the intricate writing on a jade cup from the middle of the 15th century. The tiny object traveled from Samarqand, Uzbekistan, to the court of Emperor Jahangir in India. A 9-inch-tall, chubby rhinoceros stands watch over ancient bronzes in the China section. Its naturalistic form and plain surface stand out in contrast to the abundant supply of stylized animals and decorative patterns on the other vessels. Made most likely between 1100 and 1050 B.C., It acted as a ritual vessel, and a wall-mounted movie and an interactive monitor both highlight its ownership, use, and rarity.

The galleries are filled with factual material, from a list of Hindu deities to explanations of symbolic themes and a film demonstrating how Japanese craftsmen created life-size statues out of hollow lacquer more than 1,200 years ago. However, curators rarely make an open invitation for people to consider aesthetic issues. Three Vishnu sculptures from various regions of the Indian subcontinent that date from around the same period (12th and 13th century) serve as a reminder of the wide range of regional artistic traditions. And evidence of a connected world may be seen in an exhibition of second to fourth century sculptures from Gandhara (in modern-day Pakistan) that incorporate Greco-Roman design characteristics. However, the collection’s general presentation begs for more strategies to inspire viewers to consider a work’s history or context in addition to its artistic decisions.

Consider the majestic, temple-like scene with a diminutive gilded Buddha seated on a throne that is over 11 feet tall and is flanked by statues from Thailand and Myanmar. The Buddha, who was created in Myanmar between 1860 and 1880, is in the same earth-touching position as an Indian Buddha from the 10th century that is located a few galleries away and is hailed as a masterpiece. But they treat their hands extremely differently, which is a detail that doesn’t need to be addressed but, when it is, it causes us to consider how we would react to each and keep an eye out for other variations.

A museum with a 6,000-year-old collection would be proclaiming, “Asian art is a phenomenon with a past!” if it welcomed us with modern artwork from Asia and the Asian diaspora.”


Written by John Mark Villafranca

John Mark Villafranca is a Digital Marketing Intern of PS Media Enterprise and a 3rd year Bachelor of Arts in Communication student of Batangas State University ARASOF.


A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization
based in California that advocates
social inclusion of minorities with
Asian heritage though cultural awareness.


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item The Asian Art Museum in San Francisc
The Asian Art Museum in San Francisc
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