In an all-white room, black and white ink images flash across the walls, drawings of photos that create a snapshot of protest and history. The accompanying music, singing, and sounds of a ticking clock are haunting, full of both anxiety and a yearning to know what’s to come next.
Contemporary Chinese artist Chen Shaoxiong is a featured artist right now at SAM’s Asian Art Museum. The exhibition Chen Shaoxiong: Ink. History. Media. opened on July 19 and features two of his most recent videos as well as their companion ink drawings.
For the Ink Media video, Chen downloaded news photos of protests around the world and then re-enacted the scenes with ink drawings. The video shows the commonalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities of protests, while also highlighting the true power they have for change.
The other video, Ink History, plays in the same room and is a three-minute history lesson.
“The 150 drawings capture the 100 years of history in China between 1909 and 2009,” said museum curator Xiaojin Wu. “We have 24 of the drawings here. And we have a catalog so you can take the time to really look at all of the images. The video goes by quickly and it’s good to watch it and then really look at all of the detail.”
Born in 1962, artist Chen Shaoxiong was a founding member of the “Big Tail Elephant Group,” a group of conceptual artists who worked together in Guangzhou in the 1990s. He now works both independently and as part of the “Xijing Men” collective.
Another exhibition featured at the Asian Art Museum right now is Mughal Painting: Power and Piety. It highlights works of art produced under the Mughals from 1526-1857. The Mughals were a Turko-Mongol dynasty whose emperors created the most expensive and dominant Islamic empire in the history of the subcontinent.
“Some of this is quite cosmopolitan,” Wu told me, as she showed me around the collection. “Sometimes we forget how many influences they had and cultures they came in contact with.”
Right now, the paintings and drawings are displayed in frames on the wall. But they were initially preserved in manuscripts and albums. The texts chronicled the reigns of rulers and preserved literary classics.
“The detail is absolutely stunning,” Wu told me, pointing to one of the delicate paintings. “Look at the architecture in the background.”
Wu is correct; the detail in the drawings and paintings is amazing, delicate, and fascinating. From patterns on textiles, to individual strands of hair, exquisite attention was clearly paid to each stroke of the brush or pen.
While the collection is mostly drawings in paintings, there are also daggers and other personal belongings on display. The daggers are beautiful and terrifying at the same time, a good testament to the power and piety of the Mughal rulers.
Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 is also still on display at the museum. The exhibition lets you experience a moment in Japan’s cultural history when Art Deco united traditional Japanese craftsmanship with modern innovations. From sculptures, to movie posters, to intricately painted kimonos, there are nearly 200 objects in this collection.
“I saw Deco Japan two years ago in New York,” said Wu. “And it was eye-opening for me because very few of us have seen much about Japanese Art Deco. When I joined SAM just about two years ago, my boss called and asked if I thought it was an interesting exhibition and I said ‘Of course! Yes! I just saw it.’ And, of course, the museum building itself was built in 1933 in Art Deco style. So we thought there could not be a better venue for this show!”
One of my favorite parts of the collection is the illustration accompanying the “Ten Qualifications for being a moga” (Modern Girl).
Number one is: Strength, the “enemy” of conventional femininity. Number two is: Conspicuous consumption of Western food and drink. And number three sounds really fun: Devotion to jazz records, dancing, and smoking Golden Bat cigarettes from a metal cigarette holder. (You’ll have to visit the Asian Art Museum to see the rest for yourself.)
Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 will leave the museum on October 19. The Chen Shaoxiong: Ink. History. Media. and Mughal Painting: Power and Piety exhibitions will be on display until December 7.
Seattle Asian Art Museum
1400 E Prospect Street