Hakuin and the Zen Koan

June 9, 2011

Hakuin Ekaku, Hotei Meditating, Ink on paper, Ginshu Collection

Well, monk, what a surprisehave you come to do zazen today?


…so reads the inscription on this painting by Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku, currently on view in the exhibition The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin. Seated meditation or zazen in Japanese, is a key part of Zen Buddhist practice.

Hakuin emphasized the importance of solving “koans,” riddles or non-sensical statements, as part of a Zen monk’s intellectual and spiritual training.

In this video curator Rob Singer talks about Hakuin’s most famous koan: “What is the sound of one hand?”

Kristin Bengtson

Time Marches On, until it Stands Still

June 7, 2011

After its much ballyhooed 24-hour screening in the Bing Theater last month, Christian Marclay’s epic film collage The Clock was moved to a smaller gallery space in the nearby Art of the Americas Building, where it is on view every day during regular museum hours through the end of July. I’d watched many hours’ worth of the piece during the inaugural screening at LACMA, but after hearing the news that Marclay has been awarded the prestigious Gold Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale for The Clock, I decided to pass the time once more, in its new setting.

It’s easy to get caught up in The Clock. It hurtles ever-forward, constantly telling you how many minutes you’ve spent sitting in the dark as the day goes by outside. The Clock is often ominous, usually anxious, sometimes cavalier, and occasionally breezy. Depending on when you watch—not only what time of day, but also your proximity to the top of the hour—the ride can become quite exhilarating. Approaching the hour, the characters on screen are nervously approaching some moment of truth—a deadline, a standoff, a showdown—while just past the hour new characters are scrambling to get to something they’re in danger of missing—a bus, a test, an interview.

Christian Marclay, The Clock (still), 2010, purchased with funds provided by Steve Tisch through the 2011 Collectors Committee

The more you watch, the more The Clock seems to be fixated not so much on the time but on your time. Seconds are passing, minutes, hours. Soon the day will be done—soon your day will be done! Time is ticking. You can’t stop time from ticking. Even if you walk out of The Clock, there’s still a watch in your pocket, a sun in the sky, the earth revolving. The Clock is thousands of clips moving at a clip. The faster it goes, the more inevitable its conclusion. A character in a scene from The Twilight Zone, which occurs a little after 2 pm, puts it most succinctly: “When my clock stops ticking, I’ll die.”

That’s why it’s such an apt juxtaposition, coincidentally or not, with The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, on view in the adjacent gallery. The thirty-seven small sculptures on view originally ringed the tomb of John the Fearless, who died in 1419. The figures were placed in a processional around the tomb in a state of eternal sorrow and prayer.

Installation view of The Mourners, photo by Steve Cohn

In other words, no clocks necessary. The installation for The Mourners is intimate, dimly lit, and serene. Standing in the gallery with the sculptures, you can feel the rhythms of your body slow as you look at each of the individual figures carved from alabaster, each with their own personality and body language. Most of the figures’ eyes are downcast, if their heads aren’t altogether concealed by their cloaks. A few look upward, as if they’ve just heard their names called. One, amusingly, holds his nose—stench of death, see. The closer you look at each Mourner, the more powerful the exhibition becomes. It’s in the details of their faces: some are sorrowful, some are solemn; others are pious, regal, resigned—resilient!—bold, or baleful.

Sitting in the mini-theater setting of The Clock is a heady rush of imagery and sound which at times feels, not quite literally, like life is passing before your eyes (Hollywood’s gussied-up version of life, at least). Standing amidst the tomb sculptures of The Mourners, on the other hand, you might find the serenity and peace to contemplate what it all amounts to. From these two darkened galleries, you’re then at liberty to return to the daylight and go on living in the here and now.

Scott Tennent

Watts Towers’ California Color

June 6, 2011

The iconic view of the Watts Towers shows the massive spirals silhouetted against the sky, emphasizing the magnitude of Simon Rodia’s artistic and engineering marvel.  What’s missing from this image, however, is the exuberant color of Rodia’s mosaics, which line the walls, archways, and even the towers themselves.

Watts Towers, detail

Watts Towers, detail

Many of the fragments that make up these vibrant designs come from local pottery manufacturers, whose solid-color dinnerware inspired a national craze in the 1930s.  The trend started in Southern California, where companies like Brayton Laguna and Catalina Pottery began producing vivid colored earthenware in late 1920s and early 1930s.

Detail of the Watts Towers showing Metlox mark

Detail of the Watts Towers showing Vernon Kilns mark

Daniel Gale Turnbull for Vernon Kilns. Ultra California coffee pot, c.1937, LACMA, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition Fund and partial gift of Bill Stern

Larger companies, such as J. A. Bauer Pottery Company, Vernon Kilns, Metlox Manufacturing Company, Gladding, McBean & Company, and Pacific Clay Products began to produce their own versions, marketing them across the country. Brand names like Metlox’s Poppytrail (visible in the plate above) and Gladding’s Franciscan traded on romantic images of California’s beauty.  Their success spurred Eastern and Midwestern potteries to launch imitations—most famously the Fiesta line, introduced by West Virginia’s Homer Laughlin China Company in 1936. The California Pottery Guild, founded as a joint advertising venture by the five major Los Angeles-area producers, worked to remind retailers that the fashion for “California color” had originated in the Golden State.

Watts Towers, detail

Watts Towers, detail

Louis Ipsen and Victor F. Houser for J. A. Bauer Pottery Company. Stacking storage dishes, c. 1932, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition Fund and partial gift of Bill Stern

The heyday of California pottery overlaps with Rodia’s construction of the towers (1921–1955), so it’s no surprise that fragments of the characteristic colors and deco-style lines of their products, which would have been inexpensive and plentiful, pop up so frequently in his work. The bright ridges in the archway above may very well have come from a set of Bauer stacking dishes, like this example from LACMA’s collection.  While the towers as a whole demonstrate the powerful vision of one man, the individual pieces give us a glimpse of the material world that surrounded him.  The exhibition California Design, 1935–1960: “Living in a Modern Way, which opens in October, will take a broader look at this world, including the designers behind the colorful pottery that was so appealing to Rodia and his contemporaries.

Staci Steinberger, Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design

This Weekend at LACMA: Gifts of the Sultan Opens, Tim Burton Film Series, Zen Painting, and More

June 3, 2011

This weekend we are opening our fourth exhibition in a month—Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts, which presents 200 works associated with the Islamic courts from Spain to India, from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries.

Sindukht Comes to Sam Bearing Gifts, Folio from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Iran, Tabriz, 1525–35, 18 3/8 x 12 3/8 in. Aga Khan Museum Collection, Geneva (AKM00496) Photo © Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Geneva.

And of course Tim Burton, which opened last weekend, is still the talk of the town. In conjunction with the exhibition our Burton film series continues this weekend with two double features. Tonight, Beetlejuice and Corpse Bride. For Beetlejuice, none other than Catherine O’Hara will be here in person, as well as production designer Bo Welch. Tomorrow night, Mars Attacks! is followed by Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which also includes a screening of Burton’s 1984 animated short Frankenweenie.

On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon you can learn how to create a Zen painting using traditional Japanese materials and techniques. While you’re here, check out The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin in the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

Hakuin Ekaku, Japan, 1685 1769, Daruma, 18th century, Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Image: 44 1/2 x 19 3/4 in. (113.03 x 50.17 cm); Mount: 77 3/4 x 25 in. (197.49 x 63.5 cm), Gift of Murray Smith. M.91.220.

We’ve also got a free concert happening every day this weekend (as we do all summer long): tonight, Greg Reitan takes the stage for Jazz at LACMA; tomorrow, Brazilian guitarist/vocalist Téka performs for Latin Sounds; and on Sunday pianist Mark Robson performs works by Liszt in honor of the composer’s 200th birthday.

Scott Tennent

What to Get for the Ruler Who Has Everything

June 2, 2011

“Hey Queen Elizabeth, what’s on your iPod?” 

Could there be a stranger question to ask the Queen? And yet, thanks to a gift from President Obama back in 2009, she could now reasonably be expected to answer, “The Fugees.” This trendy gift followed a previous gift from Obama to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown of a DVD box set (including copies of Citizen Kane, Psycho, ET, and The Graduate).

I was reminded of these gifts while listening to NPR last week, which detailed his latest gift to the Queen on his latest diplomatic tour—a photo album containing photographs of the Queen’s parents’ 1939 visit to the U.S.  The NPR story, which also delves into past diplomatic gifts during the Bush, Clinton, and Johnson administrations, explains the importance of such gifts between heads of state. As former chief of protocol Lloyd Hand put it, “The substance of the visit could be very challenging, but if you create an atmosphere conducive to people wanting to work with you, then you’re successful.”

This isn’t a new idea, as our latest exhibition, Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts,  makes clear. The show, which is on view now for members and opens Sunday to the public, looks at gift-giving in the Islamic world during the eighth through nineteenth centuries. It is broken down into three sections: personal gifts, pious gifts, and diplomatic gifts.

Portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah, Iran, Tehran, c. 1800–1806, Musée du Louvre, Paris, on loan from the Musée National de Versailles (M.V. 6358), photo © Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY (ART412052), by Hervé Lewandowski

Clearly the diplomatic gift has a long and far-reaching history. As the gifts in this exhibition demonstrate, they weren’t always so cheeky. Take for instance this portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834), who presented his portrait to none other than Emperor Napoleon in 1806. The depiction of the shah, in opulent jewels and a golden throne, was intended to communicate to the empire-building Frenchman that Iran possessed both might and political stability.

Sindukht Comes to Sam Bearing Gifts, folio from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Iran, Tabriz, 1525–1535, Aga Kahn Museum Collection, Geneva (ADM00496), photo © Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Geneva

Elsewhere in the exhibition you can find pages from a 1525–35 folio of the Shahnama, or “Book of Kings,” which were originally produced for the Shah Tahmasp. The Shah later sent them as a gift to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1567, who had recently taken the throne. Included in these pages of the Shahnama are textual and visual references to gift giving, as well as long lists of gifts from one ruler to another. In addition, Shah Tahmasp also gave the Sultan a Qur’an manuscript, possibly written by ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed.

Now that’s a gift. Your move, Obama.

Scott Tennent


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