Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 30, 2020
Boundless: Stories of Asian Art
Seattle Asian Art Museum, February 8, 2020–ongoing
Dragon Tamer Luohan, Chinese, ca. 14th century, wood with polychrome decorations, 41 x 30 x 22 in. (16.1 x 11.8 x 8.7 cm). Seattle Asian Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13 (photograph provided by Seattle Asian Art Museum)

After closing for two years to undergo extensive renovations, the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopened in early February with Boundless: Stories of Asian Art—an exhibition that reimagines its existing collection and presents a timely intervention into the field of Asian art. Boundless foregoes curation based on linear histories, geography, and national borders, turning instead to a thematic approach that makes space for a more expansive conception of Asia.

Criticisms of curating based on national, regional, or civilizational designations have often been lodged in art historical discourse on Asia; however, alternative approaches have been rarely realized. Historically, museums and exhibitions of Asian art have presented Asia as a composite of discrete civilizations or nations whose cultural essence lies in their pasts. Despite best attempts to convey the complexities of this vast continent, the geographical approach inevitably obscures the nuances of Asia—a place that has always thrived upon peoples and ideas intermixing while warring materially and ideologically. What often results is a sanitized presentation of history that leaves Asia in a gilded cage of Orientalism, depicted as a place of unchanging traditions and inscrutable exoticism. This effect is only compounded by the historical privileging of premodern works in the field of Asian art, which has its roots in the entanglements of Western colonialism and Asian nationalisms. Despite the present eminence of contemporary Asian art, the shadows of tradition and Orientalist exoticism continue to cast a spectral presence.

The story that Boundless tells and the interventions that it makes in these long-standing quandaries of Asian art should be read in concert with the overall changes to the museum. While architectural work on the facade of the iconic Art Deco building has remained faithful to the original, its interior spaces have received significant alterations. The renovated building reflects a careful attempt at integrating the historical and the contemporary in harmonious and even imperceptible ways. Walk through the ornate metal and glass-paned doors and you will arrive at the familiar sand-colored atrium, which now features two doorways cut into the rear wall. The doorways open out to a new extension of the museum that has floor-to-ceiling glass windows, drawing the lush greenery of the surrounding park into the stone-lined room. Gather (2019), a light installation created by local artist Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn, drapes whimsically overhead, adding a touch of levity and contemporary spectacle to the natural light filtering through the old windowed ceiling. Perched atop a fountain at the far wall is Japanese artist Kondo Takahiro’s Reduction (2015), a statue of a human figure sitting in lotus position that looks to be a premodern Buddhist work upon first view. Closer inspection reveals an intricate “silver-mist” overglaze that covers the porcelain statue, imbuing the work with a contemporary or even futuristic aesthetic. Simultaneously evoking science fiction and historic statuary, the artwork would be difficult to date if it were not for the wall text. This juxtaposition of old and new and the experience of having one’s assumptions challenged repeat throughout the museum.

Boundless extends from both sides of the atrium, occupying the major galleries of the museum housed in its two historic wings. The exhibition features a different theme in each of its thirteen galleries, covering topics ranging from the natural world and religion to clothing and identity. The omission of geographical boundaries allows for thought-provoking connections to emerge from observing differences and similarities in style, composition, format, content, and color in the objects displayed. In the “Sacred Texts and Tales” gallery, a thirteenth-century tile panel from an Islamic religious site in Iran is juxtaposed with the cloth fragments of a nineteenth-century story scroll from India that depicts the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and Ganesha, displayed on the adjacent wall. Though the medium and religious content differ, the lapis lazuli blue of the calligraphy and the earthy red background of the Persian tile echo the story scroll with its rich wash of red and accents of deep blues used on the skin and clothing of some of the figures depicted. While the connection is not made explicit in the wall texts, the visual cohesion of these objects and their placement allude to the deep history of exchange between Iran and India that extends from the Mughal era, when Muslim emperors ruled in India and when Persia was the cultural epicenter of the region. In a time of global Islamophobia and rising Hindu nationalism in India, the unearthing of these perhaps surprising connections is a powerful intervention in nationalist discourses that subsist on the suppression of more complex histories.

The curators’ attempt at presenting a history of vibrant cultural exchange and unlikely commonalities in Boundless quietly advocates for the possibility of unity in a divisive world. The exhibition displays a large variety of Buddhist artwork originating from South Korea, Thailand, India, Japan, China, and more, establishing religious philosophy as a vital link among these places. At the same time, a Japanese Buddhist Lotus Sutra handscroll from the Heian period is placed alongside a Tunisian folio from the dispersed “Blue Qur’an” in the same display case, marking the presence of alternative connections with the wider world by showcasing their striking visual similarity. Indigo dye is used on both the paper of the handscroll and the parchment of the folio, and the pieces are both richly inscribed with gold lettering. Although one is written in kanji and the other in Arabic text, the similarities between the two works are so powerful that their differences are only revealed upon closer view. This curatorial move highlights the aesthetic dimensions of these objects and allows their artifactual nature to recede into the background. The objects are freed from determined paths of history and cultural cloisters, allowing us to discover their visual affinities and ponder their historical relationships. Perhaps the best example of this is the ceramics room, where captions for each object have been removed from immediate view, enabling viewers to appreciate the objects for their timeless aesthetic merit instead of fixating upon their provenance. By inviting us to look closer and to think again, Boundless showcases how our assumed knowledges of Asia and the world at large can be reshaped when we move beyond fixed scripts and partitions.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Boundless is its seamless integration of contemporary elements in the exhibition. The arrangement of the museum’s galleries itself produces an uninterrupted transition between the two exhibitions on show at the museum, with Belonging: Contemporary Asian Art being the contemporary art counterpart to Boundless. Viewed together, the two exhibitions tell a cohesive story. Boundless and Belonging both portray a vision of Asia that is in constant conversation with its past and is crafting new futures that respond to present tensions. Issues of gender, environmental justice, and war are raised in the artworks exhibited in Belonging, and contemporary pieces that allude to similar themes are subtly worked into Boundless. In the “Divine Bodies” gallery, Indian artist Anita Dube’s photography hangs above a thousand-armed, eleven-headed Guanyin statue from sixteenth-century China. Titled Offering (2000), Dube’s work consists of intimate snapshots of a woman’s hands, pictured with palms facing upward in a position of divine devotion. The hands are covered with stick-on ceramic eyes that are commonly sold in India to adorn Hindu icons, but this also cites the Buddhist practice of depicting eyes on the palms of bodhisattvas, who are believed to “see and alleviate all the world’s suffering” (as per the wall text). The bringing together of the Guanyin and Offering draws human dimensions into the realm of the divine, evoking notions of feminine labor and suffering while articulating how ancient beliefs and practices are being grappled with in the present.

With contemporary pieces peppered throughout its galleries, Boundless succeeds so thoroughly in productively disorienting its viewers that the border between contemporary and premodern art appears to vanish. There is a special delight in discovering that what seems to be a premodern piece was in fact created in the 2000s, and what looks to be a contemporary work was in fact created centuries prior. Asia is pulled from the shadows of essentializing stereotypes and refashioned as a multidimensional entity that is in dialogue with the past instead of being confined to tradition. The Seattle Asian Art Museum’s new incarnation as a whole showcases how Asian art defies easy categorizations and generalizations—a nuanced characterization that Western art has long enjoyed. By shaking off historic conventions, Boundless has cleared a path for more imaginative and wide-ranging explorations of Asia and its art practices. It will be interesting to see how and if the museum will bring in a greater variety of work from regions such as Southeast Asia that are currently underrepresented in Boundless and further unsettle the definitions of Asia through, for example, the lens of diaspora, so as to continue telling stories that need to be told.

Christina Yuen Zi Chung
PhD Candidate, Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Washington