After a three-year closure for renovations, the Seattle Asian Art Museum only opened a month before the first pandemic lockdown. Since then, SAAM has been riding the waves of the pandemic with a now-familiar mix of reduced hours and social distancing protocols that have made visiting the renovated museum possible, but not necessarily easy. The new “Beyond the Mountain” special exhibit will be the first chance for many of us to see the new SAAM, and it offers five great reasons to do so now.
“Beyond the Mountain: Contemporary Chinese Artists on Classical Forms” exhibits contemporary works that interpret and examine the traditions of classical Chinese art. Currently featuring five Chinese artists working in a variety of media, several pieces will be shot with others by the same artists this winter when the work of a sixth artist, Tai Xiangzhou, is added. The exhibition will continue until the end of June 2023.
The immersive multimedia exhibit is small – a casual viewer could examine the handful of pieces in minutes – but it’s an exhibit that rewards a more thoughtful approach, revealing new layers and details as you watch . Each artist combines classic forms with topical themes, tackling topics ranging from street protest to quarantine. In presenting the works, curator Foong Ping incorporated ideas generated by her students at the University of Washington. One such idea was to interpret the exhibition by pairing traditional forms with the thematic challenges presented by contemporary works (e.g. ‘ink/protest’, pairing the traditional use of ink with the contemporary theme of protest) . During a tour of the exhibit, Foong talked about the artworks under each of these pairings.
“When Americans think of Chinese art, they think of ink on paper,” says Foong. But artist Chen Xiaoxiong uses the iconic Chinese medium for global issues. Chen’s brush paintings are modeled after social media images of mass protests around the world. SAAM currently presents five; five more will be featured in the second rotation. Others are re-digitized in a video montage accompanied by a Taiwanese version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” from “Les Miserables” – a song that was sung by protesters from Wisconsin to Hong Kong. Surprisingly, one of the most violent images depicts squirt gun games at a pride parade. “There’s a secondary message that it’s easy to misunderstand what we see on the internet,” says Foong.
For “Colored Vases,” iconoclast Ai Weiwei sprayed clay pots — apparently Han dynasty artifacts — with industrial paint in a challenge to the core values of Chinese society. Did he really degrade 2,000-year-old archaeological treasures? Foong says she chose not to know, “because it doesn’t change her message.” These pots were on display at SAAM before the renovation. This time they are laid out in the shape of a hiking trail to echo the lines of a mountain peak in another provocative piece.
By piling their naked bodies on top of a mountain, performance artist Zhang Huan and his friends defy the height of the mountain. Documented photographically, they embodied the Chinese idiom, “Beyond the mountain, there are still higher mountains.” Foong explains: “He translates an idea into a performance. It means, ‘Don’t be too big for your panties.’ “When the artwork rotates in the winter, this photograph will be replaced with one documenting Zhang’s performance in Seattle 10 years ago.
Foong says most Chinese people will identify the classic Song Dynasty landscape, which she says emphasizes how “you are so small compared to the importance and immortality of the landscape” as the essence of Chinese art. At first glance, Yang Yongliang’s shorts look like GIFs of old landscape paintings. But on closer inspection, vehicles rush over streams and thousands of photographs of skyscrapers make up the steep rock faces of the mountains. “Incredibly immersive, they force you to slow down and think,” says Foong.
Like Yang, Hong Kong artist Lam Tung Pang works within the context of landscape tradition. But instead of urbanization, Lam’s “The Great Escape” responds to pandemic lockdown claustrophobia. Lam’s site-specific commissioned installation “explores the idea of retreat into nature. The body is locked up, but the mind is somewhere else,” says Foong. She adds: “This work contains many secrets. There are so many details.
In “The Great Escape”, painted images are projected onto the walls of a room-sized paper lantern. The lantern contains a model that evokes the mountain retreat of a hermit. The temptation to enter the forbidden interior to see more closely is strong, even for adults. But there is just as much to see outside; Thematically related artworks – including tiny zoo animals escaping from a paper bag and a model astronaut escaping Earth entirely – are mounted on the gallery walls.