When you visit the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, which reopens this weekend after three years and $56.5 million in renovations, you’ll likely be struck by its comely new look. The revitalized sandstone facades. The luminous, drooping installation by Seattle-born artist Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn that hangs from the central gathering space’s ceiling. Or the new park lobby, so fenestrated that an adjacent beech tree’s limbs feel like they surround you even indoors.
A subtler shift: Instead of being organized by countries or time periods, the 13 galleries now center on themes—precious materials, the afterlife, color and ceramics, etc. Thus, in a gallery called “Bringing Blessings,” you might see a Chinese Dragon Tamer Luohan from the 14th century paired with a Nepalese copper statue of the god Indra (also 14th century) and a couple of Filipino bulul statues from the 19th century—united because all bring rain.
In part, the shift allows the museum greater flexibility with what it exhibits. If one country's collection is smaller, its pieces can still be displayed. (Only around 4.5 percent of SAAM's collection will be displayed at any given time, in part to preserve light sensitive works.)
The experiential repercussions of this change are interesting. I have a tendency, in historical museums, to cling to the text beside objects for ballast. Sometimes it’s as if I’m walking through a book with more vivid illustrations. Here, though, I felt freed, well, just to look, to approach the objects as art more than artifact, so that I experienced work that’s hundreds of years old similarly to pieces in the contemporary gallery in the back of the museum (where works orbit around Do Ho Suh’s Some/One, a suit of armor made from thousands and thousands of dog tags). Indeed, in the room dedicated to ceramics, the arrayed plates don’t even have titles by them. For info, you need to go to screens in the room and bring it up.
That shifting emphasis can be healthy, I think, since why should I pretend I know much more about Chinese culture after inspecting a collection of decontextualized snuff bottles? But damn if the minuscule painting inside those tiny bottles isn’t stunning (done after they were formed, with tiny brushes!). And I do now know something about Chinese snuff bottles. There’s upside to acknowledging your ignorance: It’s fertile ground for curiosity.
You might engage a similarly generative ignorance in a very different exhibition at Arts at King Street Station. The American War, a new show by photographers Pao Houa Her and Sadie Wechsler, opened last night.
The title comes from the Southeast Asian term for what the U.S. calls the Vietnam War, a conflict that wreaked havoc and trauma not only in Vietnam, but in the adjacent countries—Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Her was born in Laos in 1982 while the repercussions of that war, and the CIA’s Secret War, reverberated. (As recently as 2017, the country still contained 80 million unexploded bombs.) Her’s family fled into Thailand when she was a child, some of the hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees, and in 1986 they came to the U.S. Her befriended Wechsler, who grew up in “a family of white American peace activists,” in Yale’s photography MFA and brought her to Laos for a trip.
You’ll get that context, and a little more, from a curatorial statement as you enter The American War. But the images—some archival, some taken by Her and Wechsler—do not form a tidy narrative of war reconsidered, a troubled past we can look at, and assume to comprehend, from the American present with safe distance and disinterest.
Instead you enter an associative visual conversation between the photographers, on the reverberations of the war, on how we consume it in image and how tourism might skew that image. Titles consist of things like Snake Whiskey Still Life and Hot Springs. The artists' names beside the prints accrue significance. What does it mean for Her to photograph a landscape in Laos, where as the curatorial statement says the war “ravaged more than 30 percent of the countryside”? What does it mean when a white American tourist (Wechsler) photographs a different landscape and includes aerial shots of the land from the U.S. National Archives (all called Area of Responsibility)? Why in Wechsler’s images do people appear in photos of photos, like Photo Op 1 (above), the haunting image of a tourist spot where visitors can put their faces in an enlarged photo of people pulling up a bomb? And why does Her portray people—Hmong veterans, a cousin in Thailand—more directly?
The exhibit offers no easy answers. But if you want to engage the history and present of a continent—in part (like a country that’s carelessly lumped into the umbrella term of Vietnam War) or in whole—easy answers are the worst kind anyway.
Asian Art Museum Housewarming
Feb 8 & 9, Asian Art Museum, Sold Out
The American War
Feb 6–Mar 21, Arts at King Street Station, Free