Asian art in the Musee du quai Branly

image musee du quai branly blossom

It is a decade since the 2006 opening of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, under the auspices of President Jacques Chirac. The collections span Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and the focus is on ethnology and art combined.

The opening generated plenty of excitement at the time, but when I visited in March the Parisians I spoke to seemed less enthused. One friend criticized it for being too dark inside; another for poor quality labeling, with not enough effort to explain or contextualize the objects.

This was my first visit and – given the negative comments – I was pleasantly surprised. The building is unusual and somewhat womb-like inside, with its organic contours and earthy colours. The galleries are not always easy to navigate and there is, deliberately, no demarcation between the four main sections, allowing a free flow from Oceania to Australia to Asia and so on. But the collections are huge and cover every area of human activity, from masks and bowls to spears and boats. The displays are spacious and easy on the eye (although it is pretty dark, especially for taking photos).

The Asia section is interesting because it focuses on the folk art and indigenous cultures that regular museum displays tend to overlook. These include the Miao and other groups from China, represented here by their textiles – jackets, headdresses, baby-slings and so on. These displays work well but in other parts the Asia section can feel a bit thin, as though a single object is being introduced as proxy for a whole culture – perhaps the Buddhist statue from 11th century Nepal, exquisite but isolated on its plinth. It makes for a visit that has great moments but doesn’t quite satisfy. Overall, though, the museum is a must-see.

Musee du quai Branly
Paris, France
Permanent collection

Above: trees in bloom at the Musee du quai Branly. Photo: JF.

Below: Buddhist temple door, Myanmar. 19th c. Teak, traces of red lacquer. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image temple door Myanmar

Below: Buddha, Myanmar. Late 19th to early 20th c. Wood with gilt and lacquer, glass inlay. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image buddha Myanmar

Below: Shakyamuni Buddha, Nepal. 11th century. Copper, mercury gilt. Height 52.5cm. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image Buddha Nepal

Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).

Architecture of Life at BAMPFA

bampfa hall

We made a family visit recently to BAMPFA, the newly reopened arts centre for the University of California, Berkeley. The acronym stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and while the focus is on both art and film, we went to see the inaugural exhibition, entitled Architecture of Life.

I found this a hugely energising show to explore, and I would love to go back. It takes the twin themes of architecture in the human world and architecture in the natural world, and interprets them in an open and unstructured way. It brings together works from different cultures and different periods, so that you abandon all thoughts of context and give yourself up to the visual ride, just focusing on the objects in front of you. Several exhibits are drawn from scientific projects, increasing the sense of an inter-disciplinary, trans-boundary adventure.

Given how the format emboldens you to look at things together and make unexpected connections, it seems counter-intuitive to zero in on objects with an Asian link, which is my usual practice here. However, those I find myself highlighting are as mixed a selection as any I might have chosen, so in that sense it is representative.

“Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata is a series of five models by Japanese architects, seeking to create a new structure in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The final version was constructed by volunteers, using cedar logs damaged by the sea.

Photographer Yuji Obata (b.1962) pays homage to an early photographer of snowflakes, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), through his photographs of snowflakes in freefall. He uses a technique perfected over years in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

Noriko Ambe (b.1967) creates sculptures made from hundreds of small sheets of flat, synthetic paper, individually hand cut then stacked to create abstract forms in organic shapes.

Hyun-Sook Song (b.1952) is a painter whose work I first encountered on my visit to ART14 London. I was a little blown away to find three big canvases, more sombre though than those I saw previously. 21 Brushstrokes shows the shrouded body of the artist’s mother prior to burial, resting alone on a bier, and  has a particular bleakness.

These are just a few examples, however. The whole experience is diverse, stimulating and highly recommended.

Architecture of Life
BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA
31 January to 29 May 2016

Above: Atrium at BAMPFA. Photo: SF.

Below: Toyo Ito (b.1941) and others, “Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata, 2012. 1:20 scale model; wood, styrene board, styrol, plastic. Photo: SF.

toyo ito home for all scale model

Below: Noriko Ambe, A piece of Flat Globe, Vol 12 and Vol 22, 2010-12. Cut YUPO. Photos: SF.

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe A

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe B

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 21 Brushstrokes, 2007. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 21 brushstrokes

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 4 Brushstrokes over Figure, 2012. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 4 brushstrokes over figure

Open air sculpture at RHS Wisley

hongxun jin links v2
A visit to the RHS Garden at Wisley provided an unexpected glimpse of contemporary sculpture by various artists, including works by Yuelong Shi and Hongxun Jin.  The garden is the setting for an open air display by Wellers Auctioneers, featuring 100 pieces for which you can bid online until 14 June.

There is a strong showing of artists of Asian origin, but I was drawn particularly to these two, both working in marble to produce pieces of singular grace and monumentality that sit well in the great British outdoors.  Yuelong Shi pays homage to Rodin in figurative works such as The Thinker and Emerging III, in which coloured veins in the marble are used to highlight the contours of the female form. Hongxun Jin offers more abstract pieces, taking a basic ring doughnut shape and then elongating it, or flattening it, or stacking it, to create new, sinuous forms that have a very tactile quality.

Wellers at Wisley
RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey
16 May to 14 June 2015

Above: Hongxun Jin, Links. Marble. Height 162cm. Shown at RHS Garden Wisley, 2015. Photo: SF.

Below: Yuelong Shi, The Thinker. Marble. Height 123cm; width 66cm. Shown at RHS Garden Wisley, 2015. Photo: SF.
yuelong shi the thinker

Below: Yuelong Shi,
Emerging III. Marble. Height 109cm; width 115cm. Shown at RHS Garden Wisley, 2015. Photo: SF.
yuelong shi emerging III
Below: Hongxun Jin,
Doodle. White marble on black granite base. Height 120cm; width 73cm. Shown at RHS Garden Wisley, 2015. Photo: SF.
hongxun jin doodle
Below: Hongxun Jin,
Perspective. White marble on black granite base. Height 152cm; width 53cm. Shown at RHS Garden Wisley, 2015. Photo: SF.
hongxun jin perspective

Post Pop at the Saatchi Gallery

ai weiwei sofa in white

I was last at the Saatchi Gallery for the Korean Eye show in 2012. But I was no less intrigued by their current offering, which looks at the spread of the Pop Art movement, especially its impact on the Soviet Union and China.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with artists from East and West shown side by side. But an artist can cover multiple themes, meaning different works by the same artist end up at opposite ends of the exhibition.

From Ai Weiwei (b.1957), we find Sofa in White (a marble armchair) under the “Habitat” theme, while Coloured Vases (Han dynasty vases covered in spray paint) is assigned to the “Art History” theme. I enjoyed comparing this presentation of his work with the Blenheim Palace exhibit of 2014, which featured some similar pieces – they had more visual impact in the all-white exhibition space but they felt less playful somehow.

Artists from China and Taiwan feature prominently in the section on “Advertising & Consumerism”. Wang Guangyi (b.1957) in his Great Criticism series combines Western consumer brands such as Benetton and Swatch with Chinese propaganda images, intimating their similarity of purpose. Michael Lin (b.1964) in his large acrylic paintings focuses on the presentation of individual Chinese brands, evoking the seductive power of marketing.

Also popular were the themes of “Ideology & Religion”, where Christian iconography butts up against Communist propaganda. I was drawn, though, to something more contemplative – Confucius’s Confusion, by Mei Dean-E (b.1954), a large textile piece in which the man’s beard flows out across the floor in great piles of white and black thread. There was one truly unnerving piece in this section, but by Russian artist Sergey Shutov, so I shan’t spoil the surprise.

This is a stimulating show, no question, but moments of aesthetic delight are rare. One notable exception is the installation United Nations – Man and Space by Gu Wenda (b.1955), best described as a huge cloth pavilion made of flags, where each flag is rendered from skeins of human hair. I’m not clear why this is Pop Art, but the lighting is just magical.

Post Pop: East Meets West
Saatchi Gallery, London
26 November 2014 to 3 March 2015

Above: Ai Weiwei, Sofa in White, 2011. Marble. Private collection. Photo: STF.

Below: Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases, 2007-10. Han dynasty vases and industrial paint. Photo: STF.
ai weiwei coloured vases

Below: Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Swatch and Great Criticism: Pop, 1992. Oil on two canvases. Overall dimensions: height 250cm; width 360cm. Photo: STF.
wang guangyi great criticism

Below: Michael Lin, Yunnan Puer Tea, 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Height 300cm; width 200cm. Leo Xu Projects. Photo: STF.
michael lin yunnan puer tea

Below: Mei Dean-E, Confucius’s Confusion, 2003. Installation, mixed media. The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: STF.
mei dean-e confucius's confession

Below: Gu Wenda, United Nations – Man and Space, 1999-2000. Human hair, white glue, burlap. Photo: STF.
gu wenda united nations

Japanese Buddhist sculpture in Norwich


I managed to incorporate a trip to Norwich into the family vacation, where I was blown away by the collections on display at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The museum is out of town, on the campus of the University of East Anglia (UEA). It benefits from a soaring glass and steel building, designed by Norman Foster in the late 1970s.

The collections are primarily those built up by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury and are presented in one vast space. The objects and pictures are from all over the world and span 5000 years of global history, but presenting them in this way enables the space to unify the artworks, encouraging the viewer to embrace connections and correspondences.

The Buddhist sculpture from Japan is a definite highlight. There are several fine bronzes: figures of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing; small figures of Tanjo butsu, the Buddha at birth; the seated figure of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Equally impressive are pieces carved in wood: the fragmentary seated figure of Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic Buddha; the standing figure of Jizo Bosatsu.  The craftsmanship is brilliant, the expressive qualities of the figures fully realised.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Norwich, Norfolk
Permanent collections

Above: Standing Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of Healing. Nara period (710-794). Bronze with traces of gilding. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.

Below: Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of Healing. Later Heian to early Kamakura period, 12th to 13th c. Bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.

Below: Two figures of Tanjo butsu, the Buddha at Birth. Nara period (710-794). Left figure: gilt bronze. Right figure: bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: Seated Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Kamakura period (1185-1333). Gilt bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: The same seated Amida, viewed from behind so that you see the construction. Photo: STF.


Below: Fragment of seated figure of Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha. Late Heian period (794-1185), ca. 1000. Wood, traces of lacquer. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: Standing Jizo Bosatsu. Kamakura period (1185-1333). Wood, pigment, metal, glass. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Ju Ming arch at the Ashmolean

ashmo sculpture

The Ashmolean last year acquired a monumental sculpture by Taiwanese artist Ju Ming (b.1938).  I tried to photograph it a month or two back but the habitual greyness of the Oxford winter was not in my favour.  This week, however, the brilliant sunshine lit up the façade of the museum, creating a pleasing contrast between the very dark, organic surfaces of the piece, and the white and golden neo-classical masonry behind.

The sculpture, Taichi Arch, is made of bronze and belongs to a series on taichi, inspired by the physical and mental aspects of this ancient martial art.  The arch is an abstract form of tuishou, pushing hands, a two-person training routine in taichi.  In its current setting, it is a focal point of the forecourt, very much inviting the curious visitor to take a tour around it, and investigate the more secluded space within.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Permanent collection

Above: Ju Ming, Taichi Arch, 2000 3/8. Bronze. Ashmolean Museum. Donated by Juming Culture & Education Foundation in honour of Michael Sullivan. Photo: STF.

ART14 London: paintings galore

pic lee hwaik booth

ART14 is a big contemporary art fair that launched in London last year and includes a strong showing of artists from Asia and the Middle East.  There were 180 galleries participating, making it impossible to describe here the sheer breadth of what was on display – every kind of media, format, colour and style cheek by jowl, and bright sunlight pouring down on it through the glass roof of the Olympia building.

Within this kaleidoscope, I was drawn particularly to paintings with a Korean or Chinese connection: sunlit rooms by Jeong Bo-Young (b.1973) at the LEE HWAIK Gallery; brushstrokes mimicking falling fabric by Song Hyun-sook (b.1952) at the Hakgojae Gallery; swirling abstracts in cream and blue by Wou-Ki Zao (1921-2013) at the Aktis Gallery; dynamic ink painting by Wang Jinsong (b. 1963) at Michael Goedhuis; tightly understated flower heads by Jun Tan (b.1973) at Galleria H.

In contrast, the “ART14 Projects” showcased three-dimensional pieces, including the faintly horrific Waterfall by Zhao Zhao (b.1982) at the Alexander Ochs Galleries.  There were also sculptures by Ai Weiwei (b.1957), Scale No. 1 and No. 2 (2008) – low structures of stainless steel and copper, made from interlocking rhombus-shaped plates set at different angles.  They allude to the art of Chinese paper-folding (zhezi); the visual effect is more like an optical illusion come to life.

ART14 London
Olympia Grand, London
28 February to 2 March 2014

Above: Lee Hwaik Gallery at ART14, featuring paintings by Jeong Bo-Young and work by Meekyoung Shin. Photo: STF. 

Below: Song Hyun-sook, 8 brushstrokes over 1 brushstroke. Tempera on canvas. Hakgojae Gallery. Image at:

pic song hyun-sookBelow: Wang Jinsong, Flowers No. 8, 2008. Ink on rice paper. Height 137cm; width 69 cm. Michael Goedhuis. Image at:

pic wang jinsongBelow: Jun Tan, Phenophase XVII. Acrylic and paper collage on canvas. Height 90cm; width 50 cm. Galleria H. Image at:

pic jun tanBelow: Zhao Zhao, Waterfall, 2013. Paraffin wax, paint on lacquered MDF. 310 x 410 x 250cm. Alexander Ochs Galleries Paris Beijing. Image at:


Meekyoung Shin: London show

140123 opaque vases

I first came across the work of Meekyoung Shin as part of Korean Eye 2012 at the Saatchi Gallery.  I found her Translation – Vases exhibit hugely appealing: a room filled with replica vases made of coloured soap, posed on shipping crates.  The work conveys her interest in the transfer of material objects from one culture to another, and the assumptions that are then made about them.

This recent solo exhibition in London featured a further round of Translation – Vases, with fewer pieces but a more dramatic presentation, set against the dark backdrop of the exhibition space.  The replicas are impressive because they seem so precise, so convincing – except perhaps for an extra glossiness on the surfaces.  Yet they somehow tease the viewer, as “ceramics” made of something soft and impermanent.

The more abstracted Translation – Ghost Series borrows the forms but not the surface decoration of the originals, resulting in a bold array of shapes in translucent soap of different colours.  In another twist, Toilet Project features soap replicas of antiquities that were left in UK museum toilets for handwashing purposes, then reunited for this display.  Had I encountered one in situ, it would definitely have featured here!

Meekyoung Shin: Unfixed
Korean Cultural Centre, London
12 November 2013 to 18 January 2014 (now closed)

Above: Meekyoung Shin, Translation – Ghost Series, 2007-ongoing. Soap, varnish. Photo: STF.

Below: Meekyoung Shin, Translation – Vase Series, 2007-ongoing. Soap, pigment, varnish, mirrored stainless steel plates, wooden crates. Photo: STF. Shown at Korean Cultural Centre 2013-14. The dark backdrop and intersecting spaces suggest a less formal setting, more like a warehouse or storage area, as compared with the big, white-walled gallery space at Korean Eye 2012.

140123 meekyoung shin vases

 Below: A single vase from Translation – Vase Series. Photo: STF. Shown at Korean Cultural Centre, 2013-14. This continues the butterfly theme from my last post on Kyosuke Tchinai.

140123 vase with butterflies