It’s hot, really hot. Perhaps the heat is playing tricks with my mind, and I forget why I’ve come to the Princeton University Art Museum.
Greeting me are alien figures from a time either long ago or far into the future – sculptures by Max Ernst (“Un ami expresse,” cast bronze), a Hongwe artist (“Reliquary guardian figure, late 19th-20th century, wood, copper, alloy and bone) and a Hopi (“Kwikwilyaka,” late 19th century, cottonwood root). Juxtaposed against these are the large hanging scrolls of “Full Moon” by Liu Guosong, 1971, making me feel like I’ve landed on a planet populated from characters from science fictions films.
I decide to forego reading the text and just absorb Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery, on view through Sept. 23, on my own.
I am drawn to a work in the corner that suggests a flying saucer with a staircase down to a village of thatched roof houses (“Climb Up to the Moon,” ink on paper from the 2009 series Failure by Qiu Zhijie).
Whenever I dream about what it would be like on the moon, I’m usually sipping a cup of tea. Nearby, there is a series of teapots – one tiny silver one with an ivory handle (by Thomas Farren, early 18th century) and a boxy wooden one from Alaska by a Tlingit artist that looks as if it had been used by Nanook of the North. Next to these are a smashed metal teapot, flatted to a plane, and a photograph of it by Ruth Bernhard in 1976. Here’s what Bernhard wrote: “The teapot was lying in the street. It had been smashed by a car. I saw it and it screamed… demanding that I take it home. I hung it on a nail and enjoyed it for a long time… One day it said, “Today is the day.” … Such an experience is a gift of the gods. If I follow my intuition, I have no regrets.”
The artwork in this exhibit is a gift of the gods – or, at least, Cary Y. Liu, the Curator of Asian Art who put it together, bringing works from antiquity into a new light by pairing them with contemporary works so they speak to each other and the viewer.
“It’s a curator’s joy and challenge to take things that aren’t obviously related and merge them into a meaningful display,” he says. “I hope it speaks to and challenges everyone who experiences it.”
In a case of pottery, there is a magnificent 10th century Persian plate with a blue and white design of a dragon-like creature entwined by vines, leaves and a graphic border. As if this cracked surface were not beautiful enough, its edges are broken off, worn through the centuries, reminding us how sacred the remaining part is. At this altar we can worship objects that have endured, witness to all that has passed.
Also in the case are Chinese plates from the Qing Dynasty (beginning in the 1600s) and a Dutch plate from the 18th century, whose blue and white design of a shade-giving tree suggests respite, and two contemporary pots by Toshiko Takaezu, who was at the forefront of ceramics shifting from craft to art form.
I forego my resolve to not read the text. “At the core of any encounter is an exchange of ideas that can take the form of a chance meeting, an adversarial conflict or a discovery of unknown worlds, real or imaged. Such encounters elicit curiosity, bemusement or, sometimes, ardent condemnation and rupture.”
It is interesting to postulate how modern and contemporary artists were influenced by earlier forms – Ernst and Picasso, for example, were influenced by African sculpture, such as the Hongwe artist from Gabon.
Every work of art embodies an encounter, writes curator Curator Liu; the very creation of art is an encounter between the artist and what the artist sees in the world around them. In this way, art is a cultural meeting places where people can connect across time and space.
Back to the moon: “Few things have inspired as many myths and mysteries as the moon.” There’s a whole wall devoted to the celestial orb, from photogravure and albumin prints to a 1920 painting of the earth as seen from the moon by amateur astronomer Howard Russell Butler. These are encounters with the unknown, “encounters of the third kind” that raise questions about our place in the cosmos. “Art provides a common ground or unifying medium that serves as a cultural meeting place, a platform for people across time and space to connect.”
The most monumental works here are four C prints by Yinka Shonibare, “revisioning” Franciso de Goya’s 1799 etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Here the artist creates versions for Europe, in which the figure collapsed over a desk and surrounded by owls – the spawn of reason — is clad in contemporary bright printed fabric; Asia, in which the figure is brown skinned and bald; Africa, where he is white haired; and in America, a white-haired Asian man. The ethnicities do not correspond to our expectations for the continents.
Born in England and of Nigerian ancestry, Shonibare considers himself a post Colonial hybrid and sees culture as an artificial construct or theater. The batik-type fabric each figure is dressed in is made in England using an Indonesian technique industrialized by the Dutch and exported to Africa, where it is considered to have African character, constructing an artificial African identity through fashion — a perfect illustration of the exchange at the core of encounters.
Other examples of dialogues between the arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe can be found throughout the upper and lower galleries – the curator has so engaged us, we will explore the entire museum with new perspective.