A big, pioneering exhibition is turning the Asian Art Museum inside out and upside down.
Opening Friday, “Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past,” the first large-scale show of contemporary art organized by the museum, showcases old and new artworks together throughout all galleries and outside in the Civic Center Plaza, too.
“Phantoms” intersperses more than 60 pieces by 31 artists — works of stone, metal, fabric, wood and other materials in the form of masks, textiles, sculptures, ceramics, video, photographs and paintings — with objects from Avery Brundage’s historic acquisitions in the museum’s permanent collection of treasures.
Allison Harding, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, says the exhibit is meant to reveal how the museum’s collection connects to art in today’s Asia and how “traditional and contemporary objects can reveal new aspects of each other.”
Guest curator Mami Kataoka from the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo says one of her goals was to illustrate continuity. She says, “Asia is not a timeless construct. Asia has changed,” and points to the way recent prosperity in Asian countries has altered the way the international community perceives the region.
Among the show’s most notable pieces is Choi Jeong Hwa’s large 30-by-24-foot Breathing Flower sculpture in the Civic Center Plaza; its motorized, bright-red fabric leaves simulate the movement of a live lotus, an important symbol in Asian cosmology. Growing in muddy water, the lotus rises and blooms during daytime, closes at night and rises again at dawn. Similarly, Choi’s lotus emerges from the cityscape, seemingly out of nowhere.
Inside the museum, the 200-year-old Thai Buddha Descending From Indra’s Heaven sculpture is paired with Lin Chuan-Chu’s 2010 oil painting of “Verdant Mt. Jhuzih and a Cloud.” Both view mountains as sacred places where people commune with deities.
Continuing the show’s exploration of the spiritual and supernatural roots of Asian art and culture is “Anonymity,” a piece by Poklong Anading from the Philippines. It features photographs of people in Manila holding mirrors in front of them, their faces replaced with what the artist calls “a flash of energy.”
“A King of Hell,” a 16th-century Korean work, is joined by contemporary takes on the subject. Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video installation “The Class” is a seminar on death to shrouded corpses; the lecture is meant to prompt viewer contemplation about death and how the afterworld is imagined. Meanwhile, “What Kind of Hell Do We Go” by Takayuki Yamamoto is a collection of puckish children’s papier mache creations depicting their ideas of hell, such as broccoli-hell and homework-hell.
IF YOU GO
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: Opens Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except open until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes Sept. 2
Tickets: $7 to $12
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org
Note: A preview party begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday; tickets are $12 to $15.