Q&A with Buddhist Monk Hyon Gak Sunim

December 10, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Hyon Gak Sunim (Ven.), the much-respected Buddhist monk who will be at LACMA on Saturday to join in conversation with the head of our Korean art department, Hyonjeong Kim Han. I was especially eager to talk to Hyon Gak since I recently had the very powerful experience of partaking in the Buddhist blessing ceremony for the Pensive Bodhisattva, which will be on view here through Sunday.

Hyon Gak Sunim (Ven.)

Q: Can you tell me about the place art holds within Korean Buddhism?

A: In any religion, art is the communicator of the life of what cannot be seen—the spirit, the soul; our Christ nature, our Buddha nature. Art creates a representation of what we cannot see with our eyes. It performs the same function as in Christianity but in Buddhism the difference, perhaps, is that art tries to convey an enlightened state—the light, bright, clear, compassionate mind. Some religious art shows how sinful or dirty people are but Buddhism is not oppositional in that way. The aim is to show the enlightened state.

Q: I felt privileged to take part in the blessing for Korean National Treasure number 78, the Pensive Bodhisattva, when it arrived here earlier this year. Are prayers like this commonplace in Buddhism?

A: All of these pieces of art were not made for museums, which are a modern construct. The Pensive Bodhisattva, the Sistine Chapel, and other similar, iconic works, were not made as objects to be looked at themselves. These things belonged in ceremony and were always having prayers performed around them.

Q: I suppose it was really a matter of context—of having a religious experience in a secular place.

A: Yes, it was a devotional experience that may have been just as powerful if it were a Catholic blessing.

Q: One line in the prayer really struck me: “It is said that to seek the Buddha through form and sound is not the truest search. However, for us who lack spiritual realization, we have brought these holy statues as a method of spiritual development.” Can you embellish on this idea?

A: The soul, true self, or true nature can’t often be experienced. This statue helps us. Looking at it, do we feel angry, jealous, bitter, or vengeful? No. If you are angry at your friend, you could feel a little calmer. Blood pressure goes down, brain waves calm; it’s been scientifically proven. Looking at the Pensive Bodhisattva, your spirit has developed for a little bit, even for five minutes.

Allison Agsten


Packing the Pensive Bodhisattva

December 9, 2009

It’s been an honor for LACMA to have the Pensive Bodhisattva, a Korean national treasure, on view here for the last three months, but after this weekend, it will be packed to return to its homeland.

Installation view featuring Pensive Bodhisattva, late 6th century

It’s not going back to Asia in just any old shipping crate, however. It will return in a box made especially for it based on scans of the object.

As you can see in the image above, cuts in the wood precisely mimic the contours of the Pensive Bodhisattva. The crate is so perfectly made for the statue that it needs very little wrapping to protect it once it is safely ensconced inside.

The assembly of the box reminds me a lot of Lincoln Logs. In fact, it’s not such a bad analogy in that nails aren’t used to keep the box together; rather, an interlocking construction holds all the parts in place. The wood itself comes from Paulownia trees, which are renowned for their light weight and strength. Paulownia wood is also a good insulator, resistant to bugs, and remains stable in spite of humidity variations. Your last chance to see this sacred Buddhist object before it’s stowed away in its fittingly special crate is this Sunday.

Allison Agsten


The Painstaking Process of Tying 15.5 Million Knots

December 8, 2009

There’s a good chance that you have a modern Oriental carpet in your home but, if you’re like me, you don’t know too much about how it was made. I recently received an education on the weaving of classical Persian carpets from our Curator and Department Head of Art of the Middle East, Linda Komaroff.

Ardabil carpet, Iran, dated 1539–40, gift of J. Paul Getty

One of the first things she taught me about Persian pile carpets, such as LACMA’s renowned Ardabil carpet (on view now), is not to refer to them as rugs. (It’s not a rule, per se, simply a more formal salutation. Linda noted that using the word rug would be similar to calling a painting a picture.) Next I learned about the three components of a hand-woven Persian pile carpet: warp, weft, and pile.

The warps form the first part of the carpet’s foundation. Wool, silk, or cotton yarns are tightly stretched parallel to each other on the loom. Next there is the weft, composed of similar threads which pass under and over the warps from one side to the other. To form the pile, dyed silk or wool yarns are tied around consecutive sets of adjacent warps to create the elaborate designs in the carpet. As successive rows are tied to the foundation, these knots become the pile.

If it sounds like a long and painstaking process, it is. As I tweeted a couple of weeks ago, an outstanding classical Persian carpet such as the Ardabil took about four years to make and, at 23 ft. 7 in. by 13 ft 1 ½ in, is comprised of approximately 15.5 million knots.

Allison Agsten


Counting Flowers on the Wall

December 7, 2009

What are the odds that two major, widely acclaimed exhibitions in Los Angeles this year would prominently feature floral wallpaper in the galleries? I would have guessed slim until I saw the spectacular Robert Gober-curated Charles Burchfield show at the Hammer recently. Burchfield, it turns out, was a wallpaper designer in Buffalo, New York from 1921 to 1929, and a reprint of one of his creations covers the walls in the third room. (Check out some very cool installation shots here.)

Sunflowers (design for M. H. Birge & Sons Company wallpaper), 1921. Watercolor and graphite on paper mounted on board, 27 1/2 x 20 in. Burchfield Penney Art Center. Gift of Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, 1975. Image courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

If you experienced our Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures exhibition in January, or if you’re a regular reader of our blog, you may have also recall floral wallpaper figuring prominently in the installation of Gerhard Richter’s installation Volker Bradke. At this rate, I’d say perennial paint favorite Benjamin Moore Super White had better watch its back.

Allison Agsten


Tour New Topographics with Kim Stringfellow

December 4, 2009

This Sunday’s next artist-led tour of New Topographics will be given by multimedia artist and educator Kim Stringfellow. Kim just happens to specialize in guiding people through geographic space. Her research-driven art projects, which explore such historically fascinating landscapes as the Salton Sea and California’s I-5 corridor, are both edifying and engaging in her study of these areas that are so beautiful and horrible in their states of decay and misuse.

Kim’s latest project, Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape 1938–2008, focuses on the strangely patriotic and ideologically sweet (but now mostly dilapidated) shacks that speckle the desert landscape of California’s Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park. These shacks are remnants of a mid-century phenomenon whereby the United States government deeded plots of land it found to be “useless” to any able-bodied American interested in leasing to own a five-acre spread of desert brush, rock, and sand on which to build whatever their heart desired—roads, water, and electricity not included. Kim weaves a grand tour of the “jackrabbit” homesteads via multiple avenues. The project’s website features stunning photography and a downloadable car audio tour with music and storytelling.

Edward Robinson, associate curator of photography, sat down with Kim to chat about how New Topographics has influenced her work as well as her contemporaries and influences such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation (whose multimedia presentations are included as part of LACMA’s exhibition) and photographer Richard Misrach.

Sarah Bay Williams, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


Kid Lit Goes to the Museum

December 3, 2009

What do the American Museum of Natural History, the Celesteville Museum of Art, and the Ploomajiggy Museum of Animal History all have in common? Children and animal visitors from literature. Fascinated by all things museums, LACMA’s Collection Information staff have recently researched children’s books with museums as settings—and found many children’s authors frequently using museum galleries as a backdrop to explore the theme of kids-gone-wild. Maisy, Theodosia Throckmorton, Little William Everett Crocodile, Norman the Doorman, Amelia Bedelia, and Holden Caulfield are just a few of the book characters involved in museum activities like hiding, sleeping, sleuthing, time-traveling, or simply breaking priceless artifacts.

As we reached out to colleagues for feedback in compiling a bibliography of museum-related fiction [note: pdf], most surprising was the number of museum professionals who had been inspired by children’s books. I thought my colleagues might be annoyed by my request to review our bibliography, but I couldn’t believe the response. We received one recommendation after another, some citing a child’s book as their reason for entering the museum field. The book most cited by museum colleagues? From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the story of two siblings who sleep overnight at the Met in a royal eighteenth-century bed.

For holiday gifts I recommend two popular current books whose authors were especially helpful to this project: The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick, the true account of the first model-maker of life-size dinosaurs, and The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, where the young protagonist establishes the Found Object Wind Chime Museum in the California desert.

Renee Montgomery, LACMA Assistant Director of Collections Information


Meandering through The Sum of Myself

December 2, 2009

Another self-portraiture show? That was the initial response from many when our current exhibition The Sum of Myself: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection first came into being. But, hello to all of you out there blogging, tweeting, tumbling, and facebooking—today’s technology, nearly second nature to so many people, might be perceived as simply another layer of navel gazing (excuse me, self-portraiture), so to me this exhibit seems more relevant than ever. The most current form of internet “self-presentation” is on view in this exhibit by way of a sublime, multiple-video installation by Natalie Bookchin, entitled Testament, which was completed with BCAM’s galleries specifically in mind.

But I’m starting at the end of the story first. Before the internet and the permutations that Natalie wrought, we have an entire history of photography by way of more traditional means. The collection, however, is not displayed chronologically but in thematic groupings, a thoroughly non-linear path ending with Bookchin.

Natalie Bookchin, Testament, 2009 (still detail from video installation), Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Natalie Bookchin

One of my favorite line-ups includes a wall with a Robert Doisneau (1953) using the classic optic tool, a mirror, which leads to an Anne Collier (2004) disco ball, and on to Anton Stankowski— who?—who cares; it’s a stunning 1937 multiple exposure, pre-photoshop, pre-everything; and ends with a funhouse distortion by Berenice Abbott (1930).

Clockwise from top left: Robert Doisneau, Self Portrait, c. 1953, Anne Collier, Mirror Ball, 2004, Anton Stankowski, Simultaneous Enlargement, 1937, Berenice Abbott, Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman, c. 1930

To be honest, this is the way I typically travel the museum. Much as we try to hand you a very well-considered roadmap as you enter, when I tour friends through the galleries I hopscotch madly over styles and time periods. There are many such wanderings within this exhibit, moving from the more predictable photo tricks with mirrors, reflection, and distortion, to the use of light, shadow, and repetition…

Leonard Nimoy, Self Portrait, 2003

…to more complex photo collage/montage work…

Claude Cahun, I.O.U. (Self Pride), 1929–1930

…and from that, further into abstraction—the one place most people still believe photography isn’t supposed to go.

Lucas Samaras, Photo Transformation 8/19/76, 1976

After this, things become increasingly more theatrical, branching out from conceptual works by Bruce Nauman and Duane Michaels to heightened domestic scenarios by Catherine Opie.

Bruce Nauman, Study for Holograms, 1970, Catherine Opie, Self Portrait, 1993

A final grouping, experienced just before entering the Bookchin piece, is a wall of seven artists whose gaze is so strong and pure they stop you in your tracks—and this after two rooms of repeating selves. Nan Goldin stares unflinchingly at herself in a mirror despite the darkened room; Diane Arbus stands semi-nude and pregnant (a photo sent to her husband to announce her pregnancy); and Robert Mapplethorpe’s face looms dramatically out of a black void, complete with the foreboding skull cane as prop.

Clockwise from top: Nan Goldin, Self Portrait in the Mirror at the Lodge, Belmont, MA, 1998, Diane Arbus, Self Portrait in Mirror, 1945 (detail), Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988. All images in this post: The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection

Ideally, by exhibition’s end you can no longer readily say what defines self-portraiture. If your visit to this show left you with a question mark, not an answer, then something about this meander was done right.

Eve Schillo, Curatorial Assistant, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


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