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Luminous art with some baggage

Seattle is home to one of the most extensive collections of Asian art in North America. It lives at theSeattle Asian Art Museumin Volunteer Park. But over the next several weeks the collection’s best pieces are on display at theSeattle Art Museum in downtown.

The exhibit is called Luminous: The Art of Asia. It features ancient Buddhas, delicate pottery, and a new modern work which ties everything together and transports you to a different place.

This is not the first time these 160 objects have been on display together. They all were on tour last year, in Japan.  The exhibit's curator Catherine  Roach knew the show made an impression when she recently took a trip to that country.

“I had several people hear I was from Seattle. Normally it’s all about the Mariners. Second, is always about Starbucks, ‘do I know Howard Schultz.’ But this time, I was asked if I was affiliated with the Seattle Art Museum. That told me that the exhibition put Seattle on the art map."

In Japan, people were in awe of a Buddha that is 15-hundred years old and intricate painted screens that once served as closet doors for the very wealthy in Japan and paintings from India that were created by artists long ago using brushes made with 1 single hair in order to paint in such fine detail.

The exhibit if Seattle is different from the show in Japan for several reasons.

For one, it’s co-cur rated by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, who created the 2003 piece called Some/One. It’s the large Korean warrior robe constructed out of silvery dog tags that sits on one of SAM’s main gallery spaces.

Suh and Roach talked about how the exhibit should address the fact that many of the pieces on display are far from their original homes and have a dark, complicated history.

Roach says some of the text panels in the exhibit deal with the sticky topic of the origin of art hanging on museum walls all over the world.

“I’m not sure how to solve the problem, but to at least raise the question and remind viewers of the odd nature of museums in general. and remember that most grew up in the late 19th century. Euro explores all over Asia. and so yes, these objects were arriving under somewhat contentious circumstances.  We have to be more provocative in the questions asked and more transparent in. Contemporary art doesn’t come with this baggage. We could either do away with museums period, but I don’t think that makes a lot of sense.”

One of the few pieces in the show that doesn’t carry this ethical baggage is Do Ho Suh’s new work simply called Gate.

Gate a one to one replica of the gate you walk through before entering Suh’s childhood home. If you were dropped into the room, you might think for a few seconds that you were about to enter the house once you walked through the gate. It’s made out of silky celadon and a video of the gate and the house just beyond it is projected onto the material that serves as a screen.

Tweeting birds, blue sky. It all feels very real. Then the crows appear.

 They represent the crows on one of the painted screens in the exhibit from the 17th century called Crow Screen. The animated crows fly all at once through the opening of the gate that you too can walk through. Other moving images appear. Deer prancing lightly from the Deer Scroll and butterflies found on another scroll.

Gate is part of Suh’s desire lately to explore staircases, bridges and other transitional places.

Suh, who is difficult to reach due to the fact he is very much in demand, talks about this “Fabric architecture” in a video produced by the Tate museum in London.

“I’ve been more interested in these transitional spaces rather than destinations because I truly believe life is a passageway. Life is moving through these different series of spaces.”

The Seattle Asian Art Museum would love to purchase Gate for its collection. But Suh says he doesn’t want to part with it just yet. The museum says it would definitely boost attendance.

It’s not clear. where Gate will head to next. Suh, who lives a nomadic life at the moment, says one of the reasons why he makes these pieces out of such light material is because they can be folded up into a suitcase and go on the road with him, reminding him of home.

A Related Story: The Seattle Art Museum Grows Up by Bellamy Pailthorp


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.