Books: Black Dragon River by Dominic Ziegler

cover image black dragon river

This is a densely-written account of one man’s journey along the River Amur, at the boundary between Russia and China, and to the north-east of Mongolia. The man in question is Dominic Ziegler, an editor at the Economist, but his focus is less on the present-day difficulties faced by this remote region, and far more on its rich and complex history. So although I was expecting a travelogue, along the lines of The River At The Centre of The World by Simon Winchester, this is at heart a history book.

The narrative contains a great deal of historical material, covering episodes such as the early life of Genghis Khan; the Mongol attack on Kiev (1240); the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I (1825); and the Boxer Rebellion and the massacre of Chinese by local Russians at Blagoveshchensk (1900).

However, the structure of the book is geographical not chronological, causing some confusion as you go back and forth in time, or find the same historical character appearing and reappearing. The geographical method works well if the episode is rooted in a specific location, and one that Ziegler is visiting. For this reason, the Blagoveshchensk episode hits the reader hard, even in a book fairly brimming with brutality. But not all the episodes had a link this specific, and then it started to feel as if the narrative was drifting.

Ziegler interweaves his history with scenes from his travels, which were less colourful than I expected. This could be down to his very neutral tone, as though at one remove from the story. There is a lack of dialogue and personalities, of the sort I enjoyed in The Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader, another travel book about remote parts of Russia.

Instead, what brought Ziegler’s story alive for me were the little factual gems strewn through the narrative: the study that showed as many as 8% of Asian men descend from Genghis Khan, for instance, or the fact that in the 18th century there was an informal Russian empire that spread down the American coast as far as Sonoma County, California.

A good resource if you have an interest in this part of the world, but not an easy read.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires
Dominic Ziegler, 2015.
Penguin, 357 pages, $27.95 (hardcover) or $17.00 (paperback).

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, narrated by Steve West and published by Brilliance Audio. I also checked the hard copy out of my local library!

Extravagant tomb treasures from China

image jade suit

Currently showing at the Asian Art Museum is Tomb Treasures, a major exhibition of archaeological finds from Chinese royal tombs. I sighed inwardly as I approached this one because, much as I love Chinese art, I was pretty sure I had seen the material before, when it travelled to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. That show had a similar title, too – The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China.

As it turned out, the Fitzwilliam show really had featured some of the same pieces from the Xuzhou Museum. These were among the objects I liked best, though, so I now count myself lucky to have set eyes on them twice – once in Cambridge and once in San Francisco.

The current show combines material from both the Xuzhou and Nanjing Museums. It includes works from four kingdoms in modern-day Jiangsu province: Jiangdu, Chu, Sishui and Guangling. Among the best preserved is the Dayun Mountain site – a 62-acre walled compound that contained the tomb of Liu Fei, king of Jiangdu, along with the tombs of two queens and other consorts and concubines. It was excavated between 2009 and 2011, to considerable fanfare. The site had been looted by grave robbers, but the collapsed floors of the outer chambers helped to conceal the objects beneath.

The exhibition is themed around different spheres of a person’s life at court, represented through items the deceased would need in the afterlife: vessels for food and drink; bells for making music; weaponry and ceramic warriors for making war; or even an advanced type of toilet for sitting on. I especially liked the more decorative items: a pair of gold belt buckles, with a tiger and bear motif; or a dragon-shaped jade pendant that was itself an antique when it was buried, reflecting the fascination of the elite with rare antique jades.

There are numerous items crafted from jade, a material believed to protect the person’s flesh from decomposition. You can see a custom-tailored jade suit for a queen, made from jade plaques sewn together with gold thread, and a large jade coffin, reconstructed from 1500 jade plaques of assorted shapes.

One quirk of this exhibition is the labelling, which has been augmented with short quotes in which a local figure from outside the art world (wine expert, food blogger, make-up artist) will say something about one of the objects. It’s too distracting and it was definitely causing some mirth among the Chinese pensioners. Aside from that, the exhibition is great.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
17 February to 28 May, 2017

Above: Jade suit. From Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: Nanjing Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.

Below: Kneeling female figurine. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Beldong Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.

image kneeling figurine v2

Below: Set of belt buckles. From a Han dynasty tomb, Tianqi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Gold. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.

image belt buckles v3

Below: Pendant in the shape of a dragon. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Zhou Dynasty, Warring States period, (approx 475-221 BCE). Nephrite. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.

image pendant in shape of dragon

Below: Jade coffin. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Nephrite, lacquer, wood. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.

image jade coffin v2

 

 

 

Books: Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

image cutting back

In Cutting Back, author Leslie Buck chronicles her four-month stay in Kyoto at the turn of the millennium. Unusually, for a woman and a westerner, she was taken on as an apprentice at a big-name Japanese landscape gardening company (Uetoh Zoen).

There is something irresistible about this type of memoir, especially when the writer is trying to lift the veil from some very traditional aspect of Japanese culture. Liza Dalby in Geisha (1983) told the story of her move to Kyoto to train as an apprentice geisha; Kaoru Nonomura in Eat Sleep Sit (1996) described how he left his job as a designer for a year of training at a Zen Buddhist temple. Both books sold well, partly because they offer a glimpse inside cultures that are essentially hidden, but also because as readers we identify so readily with the hapless novice navigating the unknown.

Buck was not really a novice when she arrived: she had run her own landscaping business in California for several years. Yet following Japanese tradition she was automatically junior to the sixteen-year-old apprentice who had joined six months ahead of her. And he, being senior, was at liberty to give her instructions on the job, even though his inexperience meant he was getting things wrong.

Buck is a natural raconteur, and excels in her descriptions of life as the female American employee of a traditional Japanese business. She deftly draws out the humour in her encounters with clients and colleagues, and much of it is self-deprecating, as she herself struggles to meet their exacting standards and keep a grip on her natural exuberance.

Yet she is open about the more difficult aspects of her apprenticeship: the language barrier, the severe winter cold, the strain of being criticised by an unforgiving team leader. The narrative falters slightly when she turns her mind to her boyfriend back in California. The fact that she missed him was part of her story, of course, but so much less interesting than her day to day encounters with the Japanese master gardeners.

There is some discussion of pruning techniques and garden design, but much of this you could find in other sources (Buck references, for instance, Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane). The book is based on the author’s journals and comes across more as a portrait of the people tending to the gardens than the gardens themselves. This means there is plenty to interest the general reader as well as those with a passion for gardening.

I did wonder, though, what happened once she returned to California. Did her Kyoto experience impact her work style or how she ran her business here? How did the boyfriend situation pan out? Overall, a light, warm-hearted read that presents a unique perspective on Japan. Recommended.

Cutting Back
Leslie Buck, 2017.
Timber Press, 280 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).

Cutting Back is available from May 3, 2017. I am grateful to NetGalley and to Timber Press for the chance to review an advance copy of this title.

Japanese Photography at SFMOMA

image shomei tomatsu

I was recently at SFMOMA, my first visit since it reopened last summer after a big three-year renovation project. My eye was drawn to this exhibition of Japanese photography, a thematic presentation, over many rooms, of works drawn entirely from the museum’s collections. It was a powerful and eye-opening exhibit, to which I gladly devoted most of my visit.

Postwar Japan saw the rise of many important photographers, whose work charts their response to contemporary themes such as urbanisation, industrialisation, or Japan’s relationship with America. For instance, Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) produced a series called Protest, Tokyo, in which he tackled protests against the American military presence in Japan, and its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Others have focused on the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. Takashi Arai (b.1978) presents a daguerreotype of a piano that survived the Hiroshima explosion in his work Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo. The use of this technique from the 19th century heightens the ghostly quality of the image: this instrument is something that survived when so much was lost. Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) makes pictures of garments from the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and they too co-opt the viewer in an act of quiet mourning or remembrance.

Later on, the show explores how photographers have responded to disasters, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in 2011. For example, Shimpei Takeda (b.1982) travelled around the Fukushima region, collecting soil samples which he packed in unexposed photographic paper for one month. The resulting papers reveal traces of radiation and are displayed as photographic prints.

The show does of course include many images that are not concerned with these headline, soul-shaking events: the natural world, portraits of people and places, cityscapes. These too are of great interest, yet for me it was the inclusion of the more provocative, context-driven material that elevated this exhibition to something well above the ordinary. Highly recommended.

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
15 October 2016 to 12 March 2017

Above: Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled, from the series Protest, Tokyo, 1969, printed 1974. Gelatin silver print. Height 20.64cm; width 30.96cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shomei Tomatsu – Interface, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2006.192.A

Below: Takashi Arai, Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo, from the series Exposed in a Hundred Suns, 2012. Daguerreotype. Height 25.2cm; width 19.3cm. SFMOMA. Image: Takashi Arai, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/PH14.046

image takashi arai

Below: Miyako Ishiuchi, hiroshima #71, 2007, printed 2016. SFMOMA. Image: Miyako Ishiuchi, at https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/japanese-photography-postwar-now/

image miyako ishiuchi

Below: Shimpei Takeda, Trace #10, Iwase General Hospital, 2012. Gelatin silver print. Height 40.32cm; width 50.17cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shimpei Takeda, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2015.146

image shimpei takeda

Books: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

cover-image-the-art-or-rivalry

The Art of Rivalry by art critic Sebastian Smee is a biography with a difference. Looking at four pairs of artists from the modern era, it explores how they influenced one other. There is a single essay devoted to each pair, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order: Freud and Bacon; Manet and Degas; Matisse and Picasso; and Pollock and de Kooning.

I liked this concept because it seemed to offer a new take on these giants of the art world. The decision to limit your focus to the impact of one particular friendship (or rivalry) allows you to go deep without dragging on too long. For instance, Degas outlived Manet by over 30 years, but those decades fall outside the scope of the narrative. The friendship between Manet and Degas was most active between 1867 and 1869, allowing you to narrow the scope even further, and investigate those years most closely.

Despite this structure, I didn’t find the writing as focused as I expected. The essay on Manet and Degas felt too drawn out, with such a host of supporting actors that the central thread was lost. The essay on Pollock and de Kooning concentrated heavily on the early parts of their lives, the years when they hadn’t even met.

I preferred the essays on the Freud-Bacon and Matisse-Picasso relationships. In each case, the narrative felt more streamlined and the story more compelling. The outsize personality of Bacon dominates the former. In the latter, it is the classic tale of artists competing for patronage that draws you in: Matisse and Picasso were both favoured by the wealthy Stein households (Gertrude and Leo on the one hand, and Sarah and Michael on the other), but their standing waxed and waned.

Given the initial premise, I wasn’t too surprised that Smee dwells less on the art and more on the social lives of the artists – many of whom were lecherous and dissolute. There is some careful analysis of individual pictures, which I enjoyed, but it is not the main driver here, and the colour plates are ungenerous. The reader is expected to know the works or to google them.

I thought Smee could have done more to highlight the resonances between the four stories, perhaps by adding a conclusion as well as an introduction. I found myself noting the same dynamics cropping up again and again, but in the main you are left to make the connections for yourself.

The Art of Rivalry
Sebastian Smee, 2016.
Random House, 390 pages, $28.00 (hardcover).

Japanese ceramics in Sacramento

_1040336

Writing my last post on The Sculptural Turn led me to reflect on another wonderful collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics, in the Crocker Art Museum of Sacramento. I visited in June 2016, and the ceramics gallery was a definite highlight, presenting a choice selection of very high quality pieces.

There are some eye-catching celadons, such as a sinuous ceramic sculpture by Kino Satoshi (b.1987). This was first formed as a cylinder on a potter’s wheel, then dissected and reassembled in a new configuration. It is from a series of porcelain sculptures called Oroshi (“strong downwind from the mountain”).

There are two celadon bowls by Kawase Shinobu (b.1950), whose work I featured in this post in 2015. The first bowl, with its 16 lobes, is a triumph of form; the second, with its delicate “kingfisher” glaze, is a triumph of colour. This multi-coloured glaze took up to eight kiln firings to achieve and the artist sees it as evoking the plumage of the kingfisher.

In contrast, a red clay bowl by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) has a primitive, earthy quality. Her work features in The Sculptural Turn, bearing similar hallmarks – the broken, unfinished edges, the cracks and fissures.

The display includes celebrated artists from the Mingei movement (focused on traditional crafts) such as Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), whose work I featured in this post in 2012 and in this post in 2016. Another key figure in the movement was Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), represented here by a square plate with a fruit motif, the colours subtle yet uplifting.

Overall, a small but enthralling selection of Japanese ceramics – definitely worth a stop if you are visiting Sacramento.

Crocker Art Museum
Sacramento, CA
Permanent collection

All photos: SF

Above: Kino Satoshi, Sculpture, 2014. Porcelain with pale bluish white celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.

Below: Kawase Shinobu, Bowl with 16 pinched edges, 2014. Porcellanous stoneware with celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040346

Below: Kawase Shinobu, Teabowl, “Kingfisher”, 2013. Porcellanous stoneware with reddish-green celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040345

Below: Ogawa Machiko, Vessel, no date. Red clay. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040340

Below: Wada Morihiro, Tea bowl, ca. 1996. Porcellanous stoneware with black glaze and red and orange slip glaze patterning. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040341

Below: Shoji Hamada, Covered box, no date. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040347

Below: Shoji Hamada, Flask, ca. 1968. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040349

Below: Sakuma Totaro, Square plate, ca. 1970. Crocker Art Museum.

_1040350

Shapes to conjure with: contemporary Japanese ceramics

_1040664

This exhibition of Japanese ceramics is small but transformative, giving the visitor space to focus not on traditional ceramic forms but on what happens when those forms are set aside. Each of the artists represented here adopts a more experimental approach, creating works that have sculptural or abstract qualities. Many of the artists are female.

The show includes work by Nagae Shigekazu (b.1953), whose extraordinary razor-thin porcelain I featured in this post in 2014 and this post in 2015.

There are angular, geometric pieces: for instance, Box by Kondo Takahiro (b.1958), a glazed porcelain work that reminded me of China’s ceramic head pillows; and Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays by Kishi Eiko (b.1948), its surface alight with iridescent colour.

There are many organic shapes that draw inspiration from the natural world: for instance, Shell Form by Koike Shoko (b.1943), Tentacled Sea Flower by Katsumata Chieko (b.1950) and Eggshell by Sakurai Yasuko (b.1969).

Other works seem to conjure images of damage or decay: an untitled work by Futamura Yoshimi (b.1959) resembles a huge fruit covered in mould; another by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) suggests a fragile entity that has been smashed or torn open.

A varied and interesting exhibit, well worth a visit.

The Sculptural Turn
Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Kempner and Stein Collection
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
9 November 2016 to 4 June 2017

All photos: SF.

Above: Nagae Shigekazu, Moving Forms, 2015. Porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

Below: Kondo Takahiro, Box, 2009. Porcelain with glaze. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040666

Below: Kishi Eiko, Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays, 2007. Stoneware with colored clay inlays. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040667

Below: Koike Shoko, Shell Form, 2013. Stoneware with glaze. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040661-1

Below: Sakurai Yasuko, Eggshell, 2008. Porcelain. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040662

Below: Futamura Yoshimi, Untitled, 2012. Stoneware and porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040665

Below: Ogawa Machiko, Untitled, 2009. Stoneware and porcelain with pooling glass. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

_1040659-1

San Diego visit, part 3: Japanese Friendship Garden

img_0289

I visited the Japanese Friendship Garden during the late afternoon – a quiet, mellow time of day when the visitors had thinned right out. It occupies a 12 acre site in Balboa Park, the cultural complex of San Diego, and scene of earlier visits to the Museum of Art and the Mingei International Museum.

The Japanese name for this garden is San-Kei-En, meaning “Three Scene Garden: Water, Pastoral and Mountain”. It is named after the San-Kei-En Garden in Yokohama, and it celebrates the link between San Diego and its sister city of Yokohama.

I was struck initially by the sheer size of the garden. It first opened in 1991 but was expanded in 1999 and again in 2015. It is set within a basin, so you experience the garden in different stages as you move down from the top to the bottom of the canyon. Although the heart of the garden is a central water channel with simple footbridges, you aren’t even aware of this section when you begin your walk down the hillside. In this way, it feels quite different from the San Mateo Japanese Garden, which in the main is more open and visible, and laid out around a single body of water.

The garden is designed using Japanese techniques, but adapted to suit the climate, landscape and plant life of southern California. Its many varied features include: a ceremonial gate, a karesansui or dry landscape garden, a bonsai collection, a koi pond, the dragon bridge – symbol of power, strength and good luck – and the dry waterfall. With the right timing, you could also enjoy the azalea, camellia and cherry tree plantations. I would love to go back.

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
Permanent attraction

All photos: JF

Above: the sloping hillsides are thickly planted, shading the pathways.

Below: dry waterfall made of rocks.

img_0269

Below: waterfall , pool and pavilion.

img_0272

Below: a duck enjoys the tranquil pool.

img_0276

Below: water channel with tree-lined walkways on either side.

img_0285

Below: a classic bamboo water feature.

img_0295

Books: Kimono for modern times

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-11-16-08

This elegant history of kimono focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries – of which the cover photo is emblematic. It shows a woman’s summer kimono with a design of plovers in flight over stylised waves, the design radiating outward from the centre front of the kimono. Dating to the years 1900-1925, the design is based on a classic motif seen in the printed pattern books 100 years earlier, but recalibrated for the modern age.

This is exactly what drew me into this book – the quest to analyse different elements of that transition from old to new, in the Meiji era (1868-1915) and beyond.  Japan was opening up and so much was on the brink of change.

Milhaupt’s narrative covers both technical aspects and social history: the growing use of foreign materials and technologies in kimono manufacture; the rise of the big Japanese department stores; and new advertising techniques, such as posters, pamphlets and women’s magazines.

She also explores more conceptual trends such as the popularity of the kimono in Europe and North America and its connotations there; and a new nostalgia in contemporary Japan for the vintage kimono of olden times. These broader themes are complemented by a stand-alone chapter that presents the individual histories of a handful of specific kimono designers.

Technical terms from the Japanese are used throughout and, though explanations are given, I think a glossary at the back would have been beneficial. The illustrations are excellent and eye-opening – there were many items I had not seen elsewhere. A detailed and interesting read, recommended for those with a passion for costume and fashion.

Kimono: A Modern History
Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014.
Reaktion Books Ltd, 312 pages, $29.00 (paperback).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Movies: Miss Hokusai

image-miss-hokusai

Screened during the Mill Valley Film Festival, this anime movie opens a window onto the household of Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese artist, and in particular his daughter O-Ei. The film is based on the manga Sarusuberi and, as the introductory speaker noted, it is not by Studio Ghibli, whose output has tended to dominate western cultural channels of late.

O-Ei makes a fantastic central character for a movie. She is stubborn and feisty, exerting considerable sway over her eccentric father and his dubious hangers-on. She has inherited her father’s talent and is shown to be a gifted and ambitious artist, prepared to tackle all subjects, even the seamier material. She is also very sensitive to the needs of her blind younger sister: the relationship between these two is among the more tender and affecting parts of the movie.

I marvelled at the convincing recreation of the late Edo period (the year is 1814), and at the references to iconic artworks such as the woodblock print The Great Wave. However, the goal here is not the pure realism of a biopic: we see supernatural forces intrude on the action again and again.

I also warmed to the earthy, slightly irreverent tone of the piece, which made a change from the more earnest Studio Ghibli productions. The soundtrack is a delight – for instance, the playful juxtaposition of contemporary rock music with a classic 19th century panorama of the city. Recommended, especially for those with an interest in Edo-period Japan or the life of Hokusai.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi) (2015)
Director Keiichi Hara
Running time 90 min

You can view the trailer below.