Feb 14 2020

Seattle Asian Art Museum Reopens With Strengthened Cross-Cultural Focus

by Jennifer S. Li

The sandstone facade and metalwork details of the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s Art Deco building, designed by Carl F. Gould in the 1930s, were cleaned and preserved. Photo by Tim Griffith. Copyright Tim Griffith. All images courtesy the respective photographers and Seattle Asian Art Museum.

If, as in many Asian cultures, dragons are a symbol of fortune and good luck, then the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum after a three-year renovation and retrofit by Seattle-based LMN Architects of the 1930s Carl F. Gould-designed Art Deco building boasted an auspicious beginning. A large, one-meter-tall wooden sculpture dated to 14th century China depicting a man swathed in tempestuous, wind-whipped robes—previously thought to be a monk—was discovered to bear an inscription on his back during its time off view. The inscription revealed that the work was instead of a Dragon Tamer Luohan, a disciple of the Buddha and a figure associated with controlling rain, coincidentally apropos of the fact that it rains almost half the year in Seattle.

The true subject of this 14th century sculpture of a Dragon Tamer Luohan from China—believed for decades to be a “Monk of Enlightenment”—was discovered during its time off view. Installation view of “Boundless: Stories of Asian Art” at the Asian Art Museum, Seattle, 2020. Photo by Jueqian Fang.

Purchased by Richard E. Fuller, the founder of the original Seattle Art Museum from which the Seattle Asian Art Museum branched off in 1994 as an affiliate, the work is an apt symbol for the revamped institution. Curators Foong Ping, the Foster Foundation curator of Chinese art; Xiaojin Wu, curator of Japanese and Korean art; and Darielle Mason, consulting curator of South Asian art, orchestrated moments of kismet, discovery, and wonder, with space for visitors’ personal revelations as they interacted with the reinstallation. Forgoing typical categorization by country or period, the galleries were organized thematically, a choice that, in our increasingly connected world, immediately felt fresh and relevant. Historical robes from across Asia, spanning the royal to the matrimonial, were shown alongside Yeondoo Jung’s C-print diptych Bewitched #2 Seoul (2001), of the same young girl in her workaday ice cream shop uniform alongside her fantastical avatar as an Inuit hunter complete with furs, spear, and a fierce sneer. The photos enlivened the historical objects by turning what could have been received as staid, aged frocks into an introspective consideration of the archival garments as signals of one’s identity and culture; the aspirations placed upon us by ourselves and by others; what it means to don a costume and inhabit a role, whether suited to you or not.

YEONDOO JUNGBewitched #2 Seoul, 2001, C-print, 159 × 131 cm. Copyright the artist.

YEONDOO JUNGBewitched #2 Seoul, 2001, C-print, 159 × 131 cm. Copyright the artist.

A window-filled gallery anchored by a long case of porcelain and ceramics from various cultures invited one to bask in the beauty of each of the vessels and of the vistas of Volunteer Park below. Organized by color with no labels, the display gave the sense that perhaps this is how the ancient objects were appreciated in a time before digital distractions. If more information was desired, a subtle, pristinely installed custom digital screen on an opposite wall provided virtual museum labels and further context.

Brand-new, expanded gallery spaces; a conservation lab for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean painting (the only one of its kind on the West Coast); extended education facilities; a renovated auditorium; and temperature and seismic retrofitting round out the state-of-the-art facilities, but one easily missed moment exemplified the new Seattle Asian Art Museum. A side-by-side presentation in a single vitrine of a late 12th century Japanese Lotus Sutra and a page from the famed 9th century North African Blue Qu’ran sparkled with unlikely synergy. Centuries, cultures, languages, and religions apart, the two items are uncannily the exact shade of saturated dark indigo, and both are inscribed with precious gold script. The two works seem more alike than they are different, and this was perhaps the message of the revamped museum—that, although technically a niche museum dedicated to Asian art, it is ultimately a place where all are welcome to find and create shared meaning.

Installation view of “Boundless: Stories of Asian Art” at the Asian Art Museum, Seattle, 2020. Photo by Jueqian Fang.
Installation view of “Boundless: Stories of Asian Art” at the Asian Art Museum, Seattle, 2020. Photo by Jueqian Fang.

Jennifer S. Li is ArtAsiaPacific’s Los Angeles desk editor.

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