Friday, May 11, 2007

Japanese Art at the LACMA

Having resolved to actually experiencing the LA life, I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) this weekend. The size of the museum means that it might take a whole week to cover everything. Second largest art museum in the US, 1,50,000 pieces of art, several blocks etc. And so we had to pick and choose to optimize the experience. Looking into the map and agreeing on the Japanese Pavilion as most exotic, we got started.

Inside the pavilion were walls with hangings of Zen Buddhist art, mostly in the form of calligraphy. Now, I've gleaned from a few Chinese (Yimou) and Japanese (Kurosawa) films that in those cultures calligraphy is considered high art and is closely associated with concentration and meditation. On confronting the real thing, I couldn't make head or tail out of it. Moreover, some of the calligraphy looked like careless squiggles. Civilized gults would describe the experience as chukkal . After reading the more accessible descriptions could eventually make out a little bit of the idea of conveying emotion, instruction, warning, beauty through the shape, stress, form in the calligraphy letters. I will now try and convey the general idea behind the art with an example. There was one piece with stylized letters which translate to "Seas and Mountains". After staring at length, I felt that the artist had captured through the composition of these letters the turbulence of the seas and the loftiness of mountains. Decide for yourself from the picture below. (Click on pictures to enlarge)

Daruma (Bodhidharma), the Indian monk
who introduced Zen Buddhism to China.
The penetrating look reminds followers to
remain steadfast in their quest for enlightenment.

Calligraphy samples, the one on the right is titled
"Seas and Mountains". A note below commends the
"compositional genius".

Adding wonder to the befuddlement was where these pieces are housed - a helical gallery lined with a continuous, twisting glass railing that runs along all four levels. The outer walls of the gallery are completely built of translucent fiber slats and create an interesting lighting effect, apparently a common feature of traditional Japanese living rooms.

Next were historical artifacts through the centuries, few of them dated 2000 B.C. This date made me uncomfortable and I said "too thoujen beecee" very many times.

Rounding up the Pavilion experience was a display of printmaking artwork by Saito Kiyoshi.

As we walked out the Pavilion, a small gallery caught the eye and the thought was, "might as well walk through". Netsuke miniature art is unlike anything I've seen before! The amount of detail, the precision, the playfulness, the perfection - really it is beyond words. Unfortunately the photos did not come out as well. A few samples:

After this and coffee, we went through rooms and rooms of European art through the centuries. I was too tired by now to be completely interested in everything, but work by the prolific sculptor Rodin and an Egyptian mummy were the highlights. In the Modern and Contemporary Art building was a most baffling exhibition of arrangements consisting wholly of fluorescent lights of various colors by Dan Flavin. Very interesting. Also, to me, very incomprehensible. Check out the online slideshow here (the explanations help, but only a little). Coming out, we walked into an open air jazz concert, a first ever experience.

LA will see more of me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower, Color and Scale in Zhang Yimou's films

Curse of the Golden Flower is the latest film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou. A historical fiction story, it is set in 10th century China under the rule of Emperor Ping of the Tang dynasty [1]. The Emperor, of course, is all powerful and is shown to demand absolute obedience and compliance to his wishes. This extends to his family - the Empress, who is his second wife and three sons from his apparently long-deceased first wife. The Empress dares to speak her mind occasionally and in return, he tortures her subtly, by prescribing a medicine she has to take every two hours, every day. She has been taking this medicine for the past ten years, but now, the Emperor has had enough and secretly orders a new ingredient also be added to the medicine, which will ensure she will lose her mind in a month. The sons are in awe and obedient to him, but one of them has just returned to the palace after being banished to the border for three years for something he "wanted to take by force", and on learning of the vile potion, vows to save his step-mother. What follows is a sordid tale of jealousy, incest, murder, doomed "revolution" and fatal redemption. All this happens in the midst of immense wealth and splendor. In the special features, the director tells of a Chinese saying "Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside". Gong Li is superb in her portrayal of the Empress who suffers the repression in spite and because of her position and is driven to desperate rebellion. The character is greatly victimized, but is not without faults of her own. The cherubic Cho-Yun Fat is transformed, both by the makeup and costumes and his own acting, into the regal, sadistic Emperor. The character also shows fleeting glimpses of humane feeling but his heart is far too blackened for redemption.

I have seen two of Zhang Yimou's earlier movies, Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, both featuring the fantastic wuxia martial arts. All these movies involve complex characters and story lines, but the most striking features are the flamboyant use of color and scale. Imagine this: colossal, elevated palace with hundreds of wide steps, acres of land separating the palace from the gates, blanketed with yellow chrysanthemum blooms in small pots. An army of ten thousand, all clad in gold, come trampling over the flowers to attack the palace, only to be faced with an even bigger army in shimmering silver. The golden army gets killed to the last man, the bodies are dragged away and the chrysanthemum pots are all replaced by the royal servants, with everything looking as before(in Hero, similar palace and an army of thousands of soldiers clad in black armor, running up those steps in huddles).

The costumes of the Emperor and Empress are grand and elaborate, and very intricately so. The colors used for the insides of the palace, and in Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, the colors of the costumes themselves and the outdoor locales are breath-taking. And there are so many other things that I am amazed by in all three movies that I wish I could control adjectives better.

[1] Ping and the story are fictional. The Tang dynasty did exist and at its zenith, was apparently the most powerful empire in the world.