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5,000 Years of Asian Art in 1 Single, Thrilling Conversation

5,000 Years of Asian Art in 1 Single, Thrilling Conversation

Sunday, 5 January, 2020 - 08:00
From “Arts in China,” a bronze wine vessel in the form of a goose, Han dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). Credit...Brooklyn Museum - The New York Times
New York - Will Heinrich

Redesigning an American museum’s Asian wing is no mean feat. How to convey the very real throughlines that make terms as broad as “Chinese art” and “Japanese art” meaningful, while also doing justice to the staggering variety of these ancient, and hugely populous, cultures? And what if you are also, like every other museum, under pressure to demonstrate the relevance of your antique artifacts to the present moment?

The Brooklyn Museum, a leading collector of Asian art for more than a century, satisfies these thorny curatorial problems about as well as anyone could in the virtuosic new reinstall of its Japanese and Chinese exhibits. (“Arts of Korea,” with a fascinating array of stark, monochrome ceramics including an 800-year-old sea-green cup with a scalloped rim, opened in 2017; sections on South Asian, Southeast Asian, Buddhist, and Himalayan art are still to come.)

Contemporary pieces, including some of the 50 paintings and sculptures by Chinese or Chinese-descended artists the museum has acquired in the last five years, are now integrated into brisk historical surveys, while a specially commissioned work by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, a curious mash-up of Chinese calligraphy and the Roman alphabet, occupies its own room. Not all this contemporary work is equally strong. But altogether the curators have succeeded in pulling five millenniums of art into a single, thrilling conversation.

One of the enduring preoccupations of Chinese visual culture is a fascination with the inherent formal qualities of ink and paper. Yang Jiechang’s black-on-black “100 Layers of Ink” (1994), a glossy drawing of a crinkled monolith made by saturating rice paper with ink until it buckled, could hold its own in a gallery of postwar American or European abstraction. But Wang Tiande’s 2017 ink painting, “Map of Distant Snowy Mountain Peaks,” a precise vertical landscape marked with delicate incense burns, reminds you that the contemporary Western division between abstract and figurative doesn’t reach around the globe.

Near the new acquisitions, a rapid parade of antique pots and bowls conjures a civilization that has passed through unparalleled heights of luxury without ever shedding the earthier tastes of its prehistory. Black and white stoneware from the Song dynasty (960 to 1279) is as about as elegant as a man-made object can get, while a bronze wine vessel in the shape of a goose, dating back two millenniums to the Han dynasty, has an irresistible burlesque charm. These strands of elegance and baroque whimsy converge in a 14th-century, blue-and-white wine jar discovered in a collector’s Long Island garage in 1952. Around its immaculately detailed, exuberantly bulbous surface swim a whitefish, a mackerel, a freshwater perch and a carp — four fish whose Chinese names are homophones for a phrase meaning “honest and incorruptible.”

The New York Times

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