Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shanghai Garden

At the San Francisco Asian Art Museum I saw the current special exhibition: Shanghai : 1850 to Present. Fortunately for me, my favorite part of the show was a contemporary piece by Zhiang Jian-Jun (born 1955) installed where photography is allowed – in the skylit courtyard outside the galleries.

The wall label explains that Vestiges of a Process : Shanghai Garden "... is an installation composed of two Taihu rocks simulated from silicone rubber, as well as a silicone rubber vase, all arrayed atop a pavement of gray antique bricks acquired from the demolition of Shanghai houses constructed between 1923 and 1926. The silicone rocks were made in moulds formed directly from the type of rocks commonly used in traditional Chinese garden design. They are prized for providing city dwellers with a kind of symbolic access to nature. For the silicone vase, the artist morphed the original form of early ceramic vessels into a reenvisioning of the vessel that reflects a transition between old and new visual idioms. Deployed together, the rocks, the vase, the bricks, and the garden conventions transcend the bounds of their original distinct functions to find broader meaning in the present."

These are affectionate pastiches of the justly famous Chinese scholar-rocks. In one of the permanent galleries on an upper level of the museum devoted to Chinese furniture, there are usually a couple of genuine vintage scholar-rocks displayed as ornaments on top of chests or cabinets. Examples can even be found for purchase in Chinatown antique shops, and I have often fantasized about buying one. They are surely mysterious and gorgeous enough to covet, but actual ownership of such a precious object would, I know, feel to me more like a burden than a pleasure.

Later I took a walk around the upstairs colonnade where the building's original identity as the San Francisco Public Library survives most visibly. Between pilasters, the openings now filled with modern-looking skylights were solid walls in library days – walls covered with murals of early California landscapes, now removed and reinstalled at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. After creating these openings for the admission of daylight, architect Gae Aulenti installed plexiglas vitrines for ceramics. The glazes cannot be damaged by light exposure, so they can display in full sun, unlike most other art works.

I'm particularly fond of the group of ivory-glazed vessels (immediately above) silhouetted against the wood-lattice light-filters that cover sculpture-gallery windows on the far side of the courtyard Aulenti ingeniously created when given the challenge of converting the badly earthquake-damaged early-20th-century library building into a safe & functional (and serenely lovely) early-21st-century museum.