Yuka by Miwa Yanagi, Japanese. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum.

It’s a rare opportunity to experience a new exhibition in a brand-new space. We are very lucky that the beautiful new addition of the Seattle Asian Art Museum will have its inaugural exhibition, Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art. It features 12 artists from across Asia—including Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea and Japan—who have worked, or are working, outside Asia. Featuring works from SAM’s holdings and private collections, the exhibition explores the artists’ experiences as both insiders and outsiders and their simultaneously Asian and global perspectives.

I toured the museum a few days ago before it was open to the public and talked about the exhibition with Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art. I could feel her excitement as she expressed the aspirations for this exhibition and for the bold re-imagining, a process that began three years ago, of the Asian Art Museum’s world-class collection. I heard about the deep and collaborative work that went into the new exhibitions. And as I experienced the spaces I’d walked through hundreds of times before, and the new spaces for the first time, I fell in love.

The exhibition Be/longing is in the special exhibitions space of about 5,000 square feet, the largest single space at the Asian Art Museum. The 14 works by 12 artists are visually stunning, and together they are multi-sensory experiences, from video to sound installations, from sculpture to painting, from mixed media to traditional weaving, from altered objects to art made from other objects, from manipulated photograph to photographs that documented performance art.

Some/One by Do Ho Suh. Photo by Paul Macapia.

The space is anchored by Do Ho Suh’s Some/One, “a larger-than-life armor sculpture (made of thousands of) life-size shiny-metal dog tags.” Some/One is the central figure and feels almost like the center of a wheel as we move around it and experience the other works in the gallery. I was told that it was really important to bring Some/One from Seattle Art Museum downtown to the Asian Art Museum, and it was impossible before the renovation, because the piece couldn’t even fit through the doors.

Other objects are mostly drawn from the museum’s collection, showcasing the diversity of artists and their work. The intention is that the objects resonate with each other in the space, and also resonate with the other galleries. Be/longing is part of the whole, so that visitors experience the gallery not as a stand-alone space but as part of the whole museum…a continuum.

The title Be/longing suggests many fertile ideas. It plays on the three words: Be, Belonging, and Longing.

“Be” references the idea of identity. The artist asks: “Who am I? What am I? Am I Asian? Indian? Asian American? Immigrant? Exile? What is my relationship to society? My role?”
“Belonging” references the fact that all of the artists were born in various countries in Asia and have lived or spent time outside of Asia. “Do I belong to where I live? Do I belong to my country of origin? Am I a foreigner in my own country? Am I an enemy of the state? Am I welcomed?”

“Longing.” Longing to return home? Longing to be away from my country of origin? Longing to fit in?

And Be/longing raises other questions about gender identities, religions, inequality and politics.

For visitors new to Asian art, this may turn out to be the “easiest” gallery, because the subject matters are more recent, more familiar. For example, in Miwa Yanagi’s Yuka, you’ll see a photograph of a grandma laughing her head off, riding in a motorcycle sidecar, “speeding across the Golden Gate Bridge.” The fun image is easy enough to read. So what is the story? I won’t spoil it by telling you.

The stories in this gallery are part of our 21st-century lives and are told in a stunningly visual manner. They remind us that the hundreds of objects in the other galleries also tell stories. Their stories are just as intriguing, and we are invited to listen, to ask questions. As we appreciate the beauty and craft of art objects, aren’t we just as interested in the stories they tell, the questions they ask? Stories and questions about religions, cultures, traditions, politics, society.

Some of the pieces have provocative subtexts that are not immediately visible, as in Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases. Did he pour paint on actual ancient vases and thereby damage their historical value? Or did he highlight their historical value by making us think? Where is the art? In the ancient vases, or in the painted vases?

Another set of art questions arose during the creation of this exhibition: How does a museum put art into different categories? What is contemporary Asian art? What is Asian art? In Akio Takamori’s case, his ceramic figures are categorized in the decorative arts area. As a result, while researching objects for the show, Xiaojin Wu had to look beyond “Asian art”, and through the entire contemporary art collection at Seattle Art Museum.

Exhibition design is superb. Witness the special charred wood table for Takamori’s ceramic figures, the dark wood mirroring the dark glazes in the ceramics. One really must experience these art objects live in the space. Take in the colors, the scale, the material, the textures, and the multi-sensory experience. The objects are arranged to give each work “physical and also visual space.” The thoughtful arrangement allows the art to breathe and for groups of people to gather around a single work. One can also enter the Be/longing gallery from multiple ways, from the South galleries, or from the new glass-enclosed park lobby. The exhibition design, lighting, flooring and wall colors throughout the museum all contribute to seamless transitions through the galleries.

In this time of our nation debating the question of immigration, and against the backdrop of Japanese incarceration during World War II and Chinese exclusion in our country’s history, I’d like to point out that the reinstallation’s two curators, Foong Ping and Xiaojin Wu, are both immigrants. We are grateful for their fresh talents, their tremendous contribution, their unique perspectives to ask questions of the art, and its relationship to us, to society, to the world.

A case in point. Speaking about Kimsooja’s Mandala: Zone of Zero, Xiaojin Wu invites us to “think about everything that is going on today, how to basically respect each other and live together and embrace the difference.”

Wu is also quick to give credit to others, to emphasize that the exhibition is “a project that took a village.” We can look forward to many intriguing and pleasurable special exhibitions, especially as SAM’s collection of contemporary Asian art grows.

New visitors will discover an amazing collection of art. The exhibitions are beyond imaginative, and breathtakingly beautiful. For visitors who loved the “old” museum, there are now more reasons to love the “new” museum. The exhibitions are more thought-provoking than ever. They give the art collection fresh perspectives, both scholarly and accessible. Gallery spaces transition seamlessly, from ancient paintings to contemporary art. It feels like everything belongs.

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