‘Immortal Present’ links China’s past and present at Berkshire Museum

“China is in transition,” said Berkshire art historian Gary Smith. “They are wrestling with many things — how to be traditional and still modern.”

“Is culture indelible, like a tattoo?” asked Berkshire Museum’s director of interpretation Maria Mingalone, recalling Chinese artist Huang Yan, who paints shan-shui tattoos on skin — landscapes from the Song Dynasty — and preserves them in photographs.

Yan, a Taoist poet, artist and lecturer at Changchun University, will bring work to the Berkshire Museum through the summer (2015), in a group of contemporary artists who invoke traditional forms from shadow puppets to cut paper, ink drawing and sculpture in bronze or in bone.

Their work appears among more than 350 objects across more than 2600 years in “Immortal Present: Art and East Asia,” a wide-ranging show of contemporary artists and traditional artwork going back to 600 B.C.E.

The show has taken years in the making, Mingalone said. The museum won a grant several years ago to catalog the museum’s Asian art collection. Once they knew what they had, they wanted to draw a show from it.

They contacted Williams College, she said, and found Smith to co-curate the show. His wife, Scarlett Jang, is a professor of art history at Williams and an artist in the Chinese tradition of Literati painting, and he has taught at Williams and at Berkshire Community College.

He found some surprises and some notable works in the museum collection, he said. For this show, he and Mingalone have brought in loans to augment the collection and works from 17 contemporary artists with links to Asia and Asian traditions.

Together, he and Mingalone have created stories around paintings, drawings, carvings and screens, she said. They want to make the themes and feelings in the work feel familiar even to people meeting them for the first time. Over time, they have traced themes in East Asian daily life, connections with nature, and afterlife.

Faith and philosophy

They will begin with the soul: The first room in the exhibit explores the changing forms of Buddhism.

Buddhist thought links all of Asia, Smith said. They have gathered Buddhas moving through time and space from the faith’s roots in India to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan — to Gonkar Gyatso’s Buddha made this year as a collage from pop cultural stickers.

Though the museum has not commissioned Gyatso’s work, he finished it to be in time for this show. Born in Lhasa, Tibet, Gyatso has lived in the West for many years. He has studied to be a thangka artist in the tradition of Tibetan painters, and he also studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art and Design and founded the Sweet Tea house gallery in London.

His cartoon-collage Buddha emphasizes buddhist philosophy in the world and of it, not separate from it, Smith said.

Buddhist images have changed over time from the beginning, he said. An early Buddha from India may show influence from Rome, because India lay at the edge of the Roman empire, and it may look more naturalistic, while an East Asian Buddha may seem more abstract.

Buddha images evolved a language of symbols, Mingalone said. Mudras, hand gestures, can have specific meanings: calming fear, offering, teaching, meditating, touching the earth — a gesture that called out an earthquake to defend him against the demon Mara in one legend.

Buddhism grew from a philosophy into a faith, Smith said. One man looking for ways to live in India, where he was born, became one in a line of Buddhas. Bhodisattvas, enlightened beings, emerged to serve them. Smith and Mingalone trace these legends as they spread and grow and change.

An Indian Bhodisattva, Avalokitesvara, “one who looks down on the world in compassion,” traveled to China and became Guanyin (Kwan yin), Kannon in Japan — a woman, goddess of wisdom and mercy.

Painting the land

“Immortal Present” moves from faith to landscape. The show takes its name from Daoism or Taoism, a philosophy going back before 600 B.C.E. that also began with one real or legendary man and collection of teachings. As in Buddhism, Daoism also grew into a cosmology, system of beliefs and legends. Gods ride in clouds and take the shapes of dragons or cranes.

The show finds immortality as a theme in these centuries of artwork, Mingalone said, and in the works themselves, still here, still beautiful centuries later.

Currents of thought and belief influenced many forms of art, she said. The Chinese name for a landscape painting, shan shui, means “mountains and water,” and water and mountains became powerful symbols in Confucian, Buddist and Daoist thought.

The natural world became important in Asian painting by the 10th century, she said, while portraits and figures remained the chief theme in the West for another 800 years. Chinese court artists painted natural scenes, birds, flowers, bamboo.

Here, alongside Chinese court paintings of sunlit lakes, contemporary photographer Taca Sui has built a series of photographs inspired by places in the oldest Chinese poems, the 8th-century Book of Odes, and Berkshire artist Hideo Okamura, born in Japan, offers a contemplative film looking closely at trees in the wind.

While court artists painted natural scenes, in 11th-century China another style evolved. A group of artists who called themselves Literati developed a completely new style, Smith said. They called it playing with ink — painting images that caught the artist’s thoughts and feelings, not realistic scenes.

These Literati were not aristocrats, Smith said. They came from a class of scholars who had become government officials. They thought of themselves as amateurs, an artistic elite — intellectuals. The 11th-century literati often painted a group of scholars in a garden or in a natural area, practicing their arts and talking together. They practiced calligraphy, poetry, music and painting.

And they were all men. Rare women might become artists, Smith said, but no woman could sit for civil service exams and hold government offices. Today women can and do paint in the literati school. Jang, Smith’s wife, who has work in the show, learned from a woman steeped in the literati tradition.

Life and afterlife

From poets in the garden, “Immortal Present” moves indoors to everyday pleasures, Mingalone said. It explores life at home through ceramics and silks, netsuke — carvings worn from a sash like a wallet or a pocket — and Japanese woodblock prints of beautiful women, performers at the theater or boys fishing for carp in cherry blossom time.

In contrast, Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara will show darker images of childhood. And daily life will merge into afterlife in ancestor portraits — to pay respect to departed family and ask advice — and in art meant to come with a soul beyond death.

One rare piece on loan, a jade suit, would have covered a body in a tomb, Smith said. Jade acted as a protection for the soul, to preserve the body as a place for the soul to live. Full suits became illegal after the Han dynasty because they encouraged looting, and few have survived.

From afterlife to legend, the show will finish on a lighter note, he said. The final room is bright with dragons and fabulous monsters, even a red and gold parade dragon on loan from the Chinese Cultural Center of Taiwan.

In a photograph, Beijing artist Liu Bolin blends into an azure and white wall of dragons. He has painted himself to match the mural behind him. He created a “Disappearing in the City” series in part to protest that his city itself is disappearing, Migalone said. As Beijing prepared for the Olympics, the government bulldozed artistic communities.

They were often the most picturesque parts of Beijing, Smith said. Tourists now come to the few surviving neighborhoods. They used flourish across the city, and now they are rare.

Bolin asks people to do what this show asks, Mingalone said — slow down and look closely. See the human face and body, the glinting dragon scales and the blue of the summer sky.

This story (lightly updated here) ran originally in Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont magazine in the Berkshire Eagle. I wrote it in May 2015 in my time as editor there.

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