This case of Tibetan figurines. The story is a spoiler, so I tell it in the review below.
Oh, this one hurts me a little. I really, really wanted the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art to be a diamond of enlightenment in the heart of Staten Island. An amazing, secret Shangri-La in the midst of Shao-Lin. I really did.
But it’s not to be.
Near the geographic heart of Staten Island, high on a hill, there’s a lighthouse. Climb the road up that hillside. Pass the lighthouse and enter a well-to-do neighborhood of big houses. Eventually, you will reach a large stone wall, festooned on one end with distinctive Tibetan prayer flags. Stairs lead you down to a library, exhibit hall, and a small, steep, garden. Perched on the hill like a miniature Potala Palace, you’ve found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art Continue reading “Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art”
I loved a small room entirely filled with Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Crossing Boundaries,” a cubical, laser-cut steel sculpture from 2015 that cast amazing shadows on the walls, floor and ceiling. Immersive, serene, and beautiful, and none of my photos do it justice. (See link to her site at the end of this review.)
In terms of attempting to cover an enormous mandate in an undersized area, the Asia Society Museum wins the prize for New York City museum with the most chutzpah.
In two modest floors of gallery space, it aims to present the world’s largest landmass, home to a population of billions and myriads of diverse cultures. Call it “Asia” or “the Orient,” either way the label lumps together people who have nothing in common aside from location in a place that Europeans for centuries defined as “that exotic place that’s not here.”
The Asia Society Museum doesn’t succeed. Moreover, it can’t succeed. Well, it can. The Met will give you a great overview of the arts and cultures of China, Japan, Korea, India, the Himalayan cultures of Tibet and Nepal, the Islamic world, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. But you need an institution the size and scope of The Met to do that under one roof. Continue reading “Asia Society Museum”
Tibetan Buddhism has a macabre streak a mile wide, and I find it deeply endearing. They make bowls out of skulls and trumpets out of human leg bones. Perhaps not for everyone, but I consider that a healthy attitude toward mortality. What goth (or goth sympathizer) wouldn’t love the idea of dancing in the charnel fields with the Lords of the Cremation Grounds?
Update: Feb 17, 2024: I’m very sad to learn that the Rubin Museum of Art is closing down as of October, 2024. As you can tell from this review, I love the Rubin, and will be sorry to see it go, or as they euphemistically put it become “a museum without walls.” Uh huh. Well, Buddhism is nothing if not about cycles, perhaps a future wall-bound incarnation will return someday. In the meantime, New York will be poorer for the loss — go while you can!
But I believe only one museum in the city exists in a former department store. The old Barney’s, on 17th Street near Seventh Avenue, is now the home of the Rubin Museum of Art. It’s audacious that a former home of high-end fashion retail now teaches people about Tibetan Buddhism and related Himalayan cultures. Both rarefied atmospheres in their own ways, but that’s the only thing they have in common.
The Rubin, though, stands as a supremely successful museum conversion. It offers seven floors of exhibit space, a far better restaurant than you’d expect, and (hearkening back to the DNA of the building) a lovely little gift shop full of Buddhist and New Agey treasures (but sadly no leg bone trumpets).
Inexplicably, the jade burial suit included round bits just where the nipples should go. Mysterious, as there were no jade abs or jade belly button. Still, it created a link across times and cultures from Han Dynasty China to Ancient Greece and Rome to the awful Val Kilmer Batman movies.
The China Institute occupies second floor space in a fairly anonymous office building in the Financial District. It appears they will soon move to much more prominent ground-floor space, which should help drive awareness and attract visitors.
The Institute broadly recently turned 90 years old. Like the Japan Society and the Korean Cultural Center, it serves multiple purposes: hosting talks and language classes and, since 1966, a gallery as well. Unfortunately, the China Institute frowns on photography, so this will be a relatively un-visual review.
The gallery is reasonably sized, windowless, and neutral. The current exhibition divides into four themes or sub-topics, and to match that the curators divided the space into four rooms, using modular internal walls. It worked well.
Have a Good Afterlife
The space, then, is fine, and right now they’ve filled it with treasures. “Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou” displays examples of the funerary goods buried with a prominent Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) ruler. It includes terra cotta figures selected from the army-in-miniature they buried kings with. While not as impressive as the life sized ones from Xi’an, these were much more portable. It also featured various other terra cotta servants, including a beautiful dancer, all long sleeves and sinuous curves. And finally, various beautiful and luxurious objects made of jade, bronze, and gold, all complementing the showstopper at the exhibition’s heart.
That would be the jade suit. Literally, a head-to-toe burial costume comprised of 4,248 little jade tiles with tiny holes pierced in the corners allowing each piece to be tied to the next with gold thread. According to contemporary beliefs, burying the nobility with appropriate jade accoutrements–handgrips, plugs for the nine orifices, and the full suit–helped ensure the preservation of the body (and therefore the soul) forever.
I felt just a little bit suspicious about the state of preservation of the jade that makes up the suit. Other jade pieces in the show look…older. They definitely restored it significantly, but the exhibition doesn’t specify just how much. I’m no archaeologist and I’m not reviewing the suit, so I’ll not say more on that subject.
On the other hand, the well-written labels and wall texts explained things well and thoroughly. They even sneaked a pun into one of the section titles, “Rapt in Jade.” I doubt that works in Mandarin, but in English it made me smile.
Where else in New York can you take a tour through the tomb treasures of a 2,000 year old Han Dynasty ruler? Actually, by coincidence, one place: you can see very similar, but even more extravagant, artifacts at The Met’s “Age of Empires” show. But outside The Met, you’d have to go to China.
Under the Radar no More
The China Institute has flown under my radar in the past. I won’t let that happen going forward. Their ability to borrow the Han tomb artifacts from the Xuzhou Museum bespeaks strong connections with cultural institutions and government leaders. I’d compare it to the Onassis Center in terms of ambitions and capabilities.
Who should visit? The Met’s China galleries will always offer a better overview for those seeking the full sweep of Chinese art history. But sometimes you want something smaller and more focused, or you don’t have a whole day to spend on art overload. For sure anyone with an interest in Asian art should definitely go, and keep an eye on their calendar, too.
When it comes to prepping for the afterlife, I’m not convinced about having jade plugs stuffed in my nine orifices and being dressed in a jade suit. Judging from history, it seems like an invitation to grave robbers to mess you up. Three orifices plus some terra cotta dancers to keep me company would be plenty, thanks. I’ll share more on my preferred funerary practices when I get around to visiting Green-Wood and Woodlawn.
100 Washington Street, Manhattan (entrance at 40 Rector)
It can be hard for an untrained modern viewer to distinguish between youths and women in Japanese prints. There are subtle but important hairstyle and fabric differences but in terms of face and body shape, they were depicted very similarly. I wonder how many pretty women I’ve seen in woodblock prints over the years have actually been pretty dudes.
The Japan Society’s home, Japan House, was designed in 1971, by architects Junzo Yoshimura and George Shimamoto of Gruzen & Partners, and built on a site near the United Nations donated by the Society’s then-president, John D. Rockefeller the Third. The Society’s history, however, goes back much further than that; it was founded in 1907 in the wake of an official U.S. visit by two Japanese dignitaries. Its fortunes have waxed and waned along with Japan-U.S. relations, and today the society is a great place to take a language class, hear a talk, see a movie, or see some art.
The building feels simultaneously modern (for a midcentury architectural definition of same) and Japanese, and the first thing you notice on entering is the sound of water from a gentle fountain, replete with a stand of bamboo, a modernist, completely enclosed and skylit, take on a traditional courtyard garden.
The Society’s gallery space is on the second floor, in rooms arrayed around the courtyard. They program all kinds of stuff there. It’s one of the first places I saw Haruki Murakami’s work; they’ve done great shows on crafts like contemporary Japanese basketwaving and ceramics; they did a show a couple of years ago on cats in Japanese art (I bet the Brooklyn curators were jealous the Japan Society thought of it first)… It’s a broad and varied list, always tied back to Japan.
The current show is called A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, and looks at societal impressions of essentially tween- and teenage boys in early modern Japan. It makes the case that they were viewed as beautiful and desirable by both men and women, and displays a variety of contemporary woodblock prints, books, and other artifacts to examine how they were depicted and described in that society.
I am emphatically not going to use this blog to discuss concepts of gender or the politics of sexuality. But I was disturbed by this exhibition, because it robs the subject of the show of all agency: there’s nothing in it that says whether tween and teen boys in Japan liked being or wanted to be the objects of lustful attentions from grown up men and women. To me it feels uncomfortably like looking at TV shows and advertising from 1950s and 1960s America and concluding that women then enjoyed being secretaries and housewives and having their butts pinched by the boss.
My misgivings aside, like all Japan Society exhibitions I’ve attended it was well curated and thoughtfully designed. While none of the pieces in it is super-famous or a masterpiece, it leverages depth of collection to examine an otherwise unknown facet of life in Tokugawa Era (ca 1600-1868) Japan.
Unless you’re a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun (full disclosure, I am a fan, and have been a member of the Japan Society for well over a decade) I don’t think the Japan Society generally merits a special trip to the far eastern reaches of midtown Manhattan. But they put on a good show, and if you happen to be by the United Nations it’s an excellent place to imbibe some culture that will almost certainly be beautiful and interesting.
Mr. Spock was the first biracial person on American TV. I’m not 100% sure that’s true but it was mentioned in a brief section on “hapa” (bi- or multi-racial) identity. As Spock himself might say, “fascinating.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA for short). I knew the space would be great — it was designed by Maya Lin. But having recently been a bit disappointed by El Museo del Barrio, I had some concerns about how they’d program it.
MOCA is indeed a beautifully designed museum. The space is consists of a series of rooms that surround a central open atrium, which extends from a skylight down to the classrooms, office, and restrooms on the basement level. Scarred bare brick underscores the age of the building, and its more industrial heritage. And windows carved into the rooms around the atrium ensure there’s always some natural light filtering in. The windows aren’t just openings, though: videos projected onto them make them serve a very clever dual purpose — the videos are also visible, of course, from the atrium side of the glass as well.
The educational program succeeds as well as the building does. MOCA does exactly what you’d expect: tells the story of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States. The show is largely chronological, starting with Chinese immigration to build the railroads and the subsequent racist reactions to Chinese immigration in the 19th century, which led to laws that essentially prevented most Chinese immigration, as well as constraining the kinds of work Chinese immigrants could do.
It explores work that was available, explaining the rise of the Chinese laundry, and the role of Chinese restaurants.
There’s a segment on Chinese portrayals in popular culture, some of which are hilarious and some of which are really painful. And also a look at the communities Chinese Americans built for themselves, including New Years celebrations, Chinese opera in America, and a great, immersive, reconstructed traditional storefront.
Along the way there’s a timeline compiling key events in US, Chinese, and Chinese-American history. And in several rooms, one wall features glowing rectangular boxes that create a hall of fame for Chinese Americans from Ah Bing (who created the Bing cherry in 1875…who knew?) through Michelle Kwan.
The museumology here is terrific. The amount of information packed in is a little overwhelming, but important and well chosen. Audio clips as well as video helped balance out the wall texts.
In addition to the main space, there are two areas for temporary exhibitions. They currently feature an awesome look at Chinese food in the US, featuring about 33 chefs. Wall projections show video interviews where they speak about their lives and work and their take on “authenticity.” The museum set up one room like a banquet, with place settings for each chef that includes a short bio. This is a missed opportunity in our photogenic food-obsessed instagram age: there should be pictures of each chef’s signature dish at their setting. Still it’s a fun show, including a collection of personally meaningful objects: cleavers, cutting boards, menus, and such. Martin Yan’s wok is there, and Danny Bowien’s favorite spoon.
Should you visit the Museum of Chinese in America? This place succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. The building is beautiful. It features a tough, important slice of the American immigrant experience, and a story worth telling. It is also a particularly timely story as the American government in early 2017 once again seems to be intent on closing the door to immigrants based on who they are and where they come from. Definitely pay a visit.
Nicholas Roerich was a major collaborator with Stravinsky on “The Rite of Spring,” helping him sketch out the plot and designing the costumes and scenery. He did a ton of other things, too, but for me, this notable contribution to the most scandalous classical music event of the 20th century is huge.
Nicholas Roerich and his wife were Russians by birth (he was born in 1874), seekers and spiritualists by inclination. He had a varied education and early career, but started painting based on Russia’s long and mystical past.
And for reasons that I have yet to quite figure out, a brownstone tucked away on a side street in Morningside Heights is home to a museum of his art, along with works he collected in his journeys.
Architecturally, the Nicholas Roerich Museum is a place after my own heart. It’s a beautifully intact rowhouse, three stories of which are open to the public, with lots of period detail–fancy fireplaces, beautiful ceiling moldings, a terrific staircase–that in most similar New York buildings was lost during apartment conversions long ago. The big windows on the parlor floor are blocked out, so that the former living room functions better as a gallery space. But the museum conversion was very gentle and you can clearly see the house’s past in its present.
Roerich’s early paintings led to him working on stage design for operas and ballets for the many of the great late 19th/early 20th century Russian composers, including Stravinsky as mentioned above. His stage work extended to Wagner and designs for plays by playwrights outside Russia as well. Even his later paintings often have a sort of backdroppy, set designish look to me. His landscapes are very still and serene, often distant mountains. It’s easy to imagine great events unfolding in some unpainted foreground.
There’s also something Georgia O’Keefe-light about some of his works, which sounds somewhat like a criticism, and I guess it is that, although I also mean it as a compliment as well. Both worked to convey in paint a sense of place distilled down to its essence in color and form.
But my favorite thing about the way the museum is curated is the mix of objects from the Roerich’s travels alongside his work. Buddhas, Native American ceramics, Russian Orthodox icons, and a gigantic geode all happily and serenely coexist in the syncretic world Roerich’s paintings create. A painting of St. Francis right above one of Kuan-Yin makes perfect sense.
The Roerichs moved around a lot during the tumultuous 20th century. They got into yoga and developed their own brand of theosophy, creating a group called the Agni Yoga Society, which was (quoting from the museum brochure) “dedicated to the recording and dissemination of a living ethic that would encompass and synthesize the philosophies and religious teachings of all ages.” Small dreams…
Eventually their wanderings took them from New York to India, where they lived in the Himalayas and studied and explored the region, and, judging by the number of mountainous paintings, thoroughly loved the place. Roerich died there in 1947 and the museum was founded in New York in 1949.
I’m amazed it’s taken me this long to go to the Nicholas Roerich Museum. I live literally three blocks from it, I have no excuses. Is it mind boggling? Does everyone have to go? No, and no. But it’s a perfect example of how this city hides treasures behind anonymous rowhouse facades on anonymous streets in random neighborhoods. If you’re nearby and feeling stressed, take 30 minutes and drop in. I wager you will leave feeling better for it.
A set of embroidered Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, inspired by statues in a particular grotto. Spectacular and almost three-dimensional even though they’re flat pieces of textile
Yesterday was both International Women’s Day and the start of Asia week and so it was appropriate (though if I’m being honest, unplanned) that I celebrated by going to the Korean Cultural Center to see a small show on the life and art of Young Yang Chung, a contemporary female Korean embroiderer.
The Korean Cultural Center has a small space for art tucked away on the eighth floor of an anonymous office building on Park Avenue in Midtown. Still, it’s well appointed and well lit and good for a small-scale show like this one.
It was interesting to me that Dr. Young does both very contemporary-looking pieces and much more traditional ones as well. Her large screens with deer and flowers and fish and such are impressive technically and in terms of the time it must’ve taken to make them. But I was much more partial to her more experimental, contemporary pieces. In addition to the Buddhas I mention as the “best thing I saw,” the show included a series on Venice that consisted of pieced fabric and quilting and embroidery that were just beautiful, and a fairly adorable frog based on a Japanese woodblock print by Kitagawa Utamaro.
The larger point of the show is that embroidery was always considered “women’s work” and not really “art,” and people like Dr. Young have done much to show that there’s high aesthetic and artistic value in it, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a good example that you don’t need a big show, or a large exhibition space, to say something interesting and important.
Should you go? I liked the space. If “The Movement of Herstory” is a good example of how well they curate it, I’d definitely recommend checking out future shows there.