For SAM's 'Luminous' exhibition, an illuminating gateway

Korean artist Do Ho Suh's installation at the Seattle Art Museum offers visitors a less Westernized way of seeing art. "Luminous: The Art of Asia," a unique exhibition of SAM's Asian treasures, runs through Jan. 8.

Korean artist Do Ho Suh's installation at the Seattle Art Museum offers visitors a less Westernized way of seeing art. "Luminous: The Art of Asia," a unique exhibition of SAM's Asian treasures, runs through Jan. 8.

Do Ho Suh, artist of the gate created for SAM and its current “Luminous” exhibition, wanted to invite a new kind of appreciation for this celebrated display of nearly 200 of the museum's finest works of Asian art.

Suh's “Gate” is a multimedia installation, a three-dimensional stitched-fabric replica of the courtyard gateway to Suh’s parents’ house in Korea. Time-lapse photography of the family home is projected onto the gauzy surface. As the picture fades, animated images from the exhibition cross the white expanse, including the well-known crows from the golden "Crows" screen and a deer from the delicate "Poem Scroll with Deer" (both in the slide show at right).

Above Suh's animated deer floats a companion poem from the scroll, because calligraphy and literary composition are inseparable from painting. Traditional Asian artists “have to master all these forms. They are Renaissance men,” Suh said while in Seattle recently. Their versatility is made explicit in the exhibition galleries by “The Four Accomplishments,” a Japanese work depicting a cultivated gentleman’s requisite mastery of music, painting, the game of Go, and calligraphy. For the maker of the 17th-century deer scroll, said Suh, “You can't separate the imagery from the text.”

This vision of unity, a non-Western way of seeing art, is what Suh wants visitors to enter as they step into the exhibition, which opened in mid-October after an acclaimed tour though Japan and will run through the first week of January. Its individual works have not been divided into countries or periods of origin, as is customary in our museums. Instead they are arranged to suggest the communion throughout Asia among the aesthetic traditions of masterpieces that were born thousands of years ago and those that emerged over the centuries that followed.

No borderlines exist between works of art from different eras or regions of Asia, said Suh. When Western museums put them in separate categories and rooms, they create artificial boundaries that are “problematic, a false statement” to which visitors grow so accustomed they don’t even notice. By making his installation a “threshold that connects all the dots with animation,” which is a “time-based art,” he introduces and enhances exhibition curator Catherine Roche's fluid arrangement of the works.

One awkward note comes from Suh's animated deer. The stylized liquid grace of the images on the scroll do not — perhaps could not — survive being translated into a cartoon; the animal projected on the gate plods rather clumsily along. But other projections work well, and the crows funneling into the gateway with a tumultuous flapping of black wings are wonderful.

Previous works produced by Suh reflect his deep sense of the connectedness of things. One of SAM’s third-floor galleries displays his arresting sculpture of a giant armor-like robe made of overlapping Korean army dog tags, its vast skirt flaring in a beautiful curve. More than 40,000 metal disks were welded together to make this piece, called “Some/One.” It reflects a favorite theme of the artist: “issues of the individual and the collective, what we share and what we don’t.”

For a different exhibition at SAM in 2002, Suh created hundreds of small human figures holding up a transparent thermoplastic floor that gallery visitors walked on. The artist has said this work was not meant to send a particular message; still, it evokes for me the millions of nameless persons living and dead whose labors make our roofs stay up and our foundations safely bear our weight. The figures do not look oppressed. They’re just doing their job well together and carrying their share of responsibility for others.

A related piece is an outdoor public art installation of massive-looking white slabs ready for a larger-than-life statue to pose on. But the monument remains vacant except for the hundreds of tiny human beings standing under the plinth and holding it up in harmony. “I just want to recognize anonymous ordinary lives,” the artist has said. (These two works can be seen starting at minute 4:12 in a marvelous short PBS documentary, and if you watch from the beginning you'll also see images of Suh's fragile, spectacular gossamer houses.)

Suh’s “Gate” extends his theme of connectedness in several different directions. One starts from the fact that the installation replicates the smaller gate within the courtyard of his parents’ home instead of the large main gate to the street. The inner gate in traditional Korean architecture not only divides but also connects nature (the courtyard) and culture (the house), said Suh.

Generally, too, these gates have low lintels, he said. “So you have to kind of duck” when going through. “The moment that you duck — it's a kind of marker that helps you to realize your own body and prepares you to enter the different space,” he explained. “A very humble gesture: bow and then enter.” Without the willingness to bow down a bit, maybe our senses cannot connect with — cannot open to and receive — a new place, an unfamiliar way, the person on the other side?

A different kind of interplay happens between the images projected on the fabric, as they fade in and out, and the materiality of “Gate” itself, Suh said. Visitors approaching the galleries are being encouraged to notice how their attention to different works in “Luminous” will shift from subject (e.g., crows, deer, gate, dancer), to form or genre (painting, calligraphy, installation, sculpture), to materials used in their creation (gold, ink, cloth, brass), and back again.

Ideally, then, moving through “Luminous” the visitor becomes aware of the subtle mergings and reciprocities between time, space, nature, people, and art in diverse media and forms. Asian artists tend to “see the world as one moving thing, constantly changing and ephemeral,” Suh said. The gateway and the design of the exhibition suggest that the things of this world are not permanent or self-sufficient. They are fluid and interdependent, and these qualities are central to their beauty.

In the land of fixed categories (past as opposed to present, art as separate from life, Korean as distinct from Japanese, culture vs. nature, Democrat vs. Republican), a visit to “Luminous” is a holiday from dividedness.

If you go: Luminous: The Art of Asia,” Oct 13, 2011–Jan 8, 2012. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave. Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thu-Fri 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Suggested admission: $15 adults; $12 seniors & military; $9 students and teens 13-17; free for children 12 and under. Free days: First Thursdays for all; First Fridays for seniors; Second Fridays for teens (13-19).

Lecture Friday, Dec 2, 2011, by Yukiko Shirahara, SAM’s former curator of Asian art (now chief curator at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo), on “The Four Accomplishments,” by Kano Takanobu (Japanese, 1571-1618). Tickets: SAM members, $5; adults, $10; students and seniors, $8.


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