East and West, Past and Present: Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads

September 22, 2011

In ancient China one’s Zodiac sign was fixed by the position of the planet Jupiter during the year of one’s birth (it takes twelve years for Jupiter to orbit the sun). On this level, Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads represents a system of measuring time and distinguishing characteristics of the human psyche linked to the heavens above.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, installation view, © Ai Weiwei

In the mid-eighteenth century the Qianlong Emperor, ruler of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty—a Manchu (not Chinese) by birth—was fascinated by European technology. On the condition that they not proselytize, he invited European Jesuit priests into the Forbidden City, where they worked as scientists, engineers, architects, and artists. These priests spoke, read, and wrote Chinese fluently; in this way they could easily communicate with the most eminent Chinese and Manchu scholar-officials in the Forbidden City. Sent to China by the Vatican with the mission of converting China to the Catholic Church (in which they largely failed), these priests nonetheless had an enormous influence on Chinese intellectual and artistic life.

Among the projects commissioned by the Emperor from the Jesuits was a grand palace known as the Yuan Ming Yuan, or “Palace of Perfect Brightness.” It consisted of a mix of styles: sections built in traditional Chinese wooden architecture and others made of marble, imitating such European palaces as Versailles. In front of one building in the European manner was a large fountain, with twelve animal-headed waterspouts. These functioned as symbols of the Zodiac and of the hours of the day (the Chinese measured the day in units equivalent to two Western hours, which when multiplied by twelve makes up a twenty-four hour day).

In an astonishing irony, in 1860 the entire Palace was destroyed and looted by British and French troops as part of military actions of the Second Opium War. Of the twelve original bronze heads, seven survive. In casting his new Zodiac Heads, Ai Weiwei carefully followed the style of the originals, but exercised considerable artistic license in designing the five heads whose models are missing (including the dragon).

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads are thus a multi-layered meditation on political power, the nature of time, and the often tormented relationship between China and West, at the same time calling into question the arbitrary nature of such concepts as “national treasure.” That all of this is accomplished with considerable humor is a tribute to Ai’s detachment. I am proud that LACMA is showing this work by one of China’s greatest artists and most courageous social critics.

Stephen Little, curator, Chinese and Korean Art

Messages from a Fragile World: Washi Tales

September 20, 2011

On Thursday night, paper artist Ibe Kyoko and curator Hollis Goodall will discuss the current exhibition Washi Tales: The Paper Art of Ibe Kyoko, followed by a special, not-to-be-missed performance based on Ibe’s work, featuring actors and an ensemble of musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments. Below, Goodall provides insight into Ibe’s work. More information on Thursday’s event can be found here.

A piece of the world was wiped away on March 11 of this year. In the northeastern area of Honshu, the main island of Japan, what is left to us after earthquake and tsunami is bits of lives that were.

For the last ten years, the washi (Japanese paper) artist Ibe Kyoko has incorporated bits of former lives in the form of torn pieces of letters and documents into her works of art. Following the earthquake and tsunami, Ibe-san’s thoughts turned to her family members and ancestors who lived in Fukushima, and to her aging mother who had come from that region. Reaching into her family’s home altar (butsudan), Ibe-san pulled out family documents dating back over 100 years. From her personal files came letters brushed on beautiful paper from her parents and close relatives, and letters in English from friends. These became the material and stimulus for her present series, called Once Upon a Time, of which several works are on display in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. Ibe-san made the first work of the series for her mother’s home. At LACMA, the largest of the pieces from the series in the gallery has the characters for “mother” and “father” displayed prominently amid the parts of documents and letters now bound into the surface of the new paper art work.

Ibe Kyoko, Four untitled works from the series “Once Upon a Time,” 2011, recycled ganpi paper fiber, old documents, mica, indigo and sumi, collection of the artist

It was a decade ago that Ibe-san went to a used book store and brought home a handwritten census from a town no longer to be found on a map. She became inspired to bring the recorded fragments of information about these forgotten souls into her works of art. How that town disappeared is a mystery, perhaps caused more by economics than natural disaster. That so many people and their town had virtually evaporated from history but for this document that she chanced upon struck her deeply. Their lives began to re-appear a small piece at a time in the surfaces of her artworks. The series called Hogosho (writings on scratch paper) recalls her early concepts about working with recycled texts.

Ibe Kyoko, Untitled, from the series “Hogosho,” 2008, recycled ganpi paper fiber, old documents, mica and sumi, collection of the artist

Sitting in a screen mounter’s studio one day, she noticed that scratch paper reused by the mounter to provide backing for the painting on a screen would begin to peek out from tears in the painted surface or backing paper as the screen aged. She became fascinated with the screen mounting itself as being a time capsule. Old records, inventories, cash receipts, or memos socked into the interior of a screen for support, as old Japanese paper is still strong and useful, represented life at the moment that the screen was being mounted. Japanese paper, most commonly sourced from the inner bark of the paper mulberry (kozo), though in Ibe-san’s case taken from antique paper originally made from the bark of the ganpi bush (a plant of the Daphne family), is both durable because of its long fibers and valuable as the plants from which they come grow relatively slowly. As such, paper has always been valued and reused. Though she refers to her works as “recycled” paper, the lives denoted upon them are in a way resurrected.

Ibe Kyoko in her Kyoto studio placing document bits to be mixed with glue and ganpi paper fiber on a paper-making screen. Photo provided by Ibe Kyoko

The power of nature is so often beyond what people can control. Harnessing that power is part of Ibe-san’s expression. Having laid bits of documents, chips of mica, flakes of gold or silver, recycled indigo paper, and other precious materials onto the paper screen, she then begins to apply paper pulp behind that surface. As she adds layers and layers of various colored pulps of recycled paper behind those, some dense with calligraphy so they take on the color of gray sumi, others pink from the vermillion of seals used to sign a document, colors merge onto the surface and fibers bind with the elements already applied. Layer upon layer of pulp is added with great quantities of water, and Ibe-san relinquishes control, allowing the water to rearrange paper fibers and draw pulp into various patterns. The power of water and the strength of plants inspire this work, while the people whose writings are merged into her paper she feels to be living again through traces of their words.

Hollis Goodall, curator, Japanese Art

A Slice of Pie

September 19, 2011

Beware! This post will most likely make you crave something sweet.

On Sunday, LACMA and KCRW presented the 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest where everyone from home-cooks to professionals submitted pies to be judged by some of LA’s best chefs and food writers. Over 200 pies were entered into one of the following five categories–cream, fruit, savory, nut, and, of course, Tim Burton-inspired.

Contestants got innovative with their pie fillings and even their pie names (especially in the Tim Burton category!)–Beetlejuice Pie with green tea slime and goo, Oogie Boogie Cherry Pie, Mushroom Forest Tart, The Apple Pie with Many Eyes, Chumpkin Pocolate, James and the Giant Bourbon Honey Peach Pie, and more.

Here’s one of the amazing Tim Burton -themed pies. View a slideshow of all of the Tim Burton entries.

Here’s a birds-eye-view of more of the gorgeous (and delicious) pies. Feast your eyes on all of the entries.

The day was full of activities–even for those who didn’t enter a pie. Bakers and eaters showed their enthusiasm for all things pie by wearing their aprons (many were homemade or vintage!) and strutting around LACMA for an apron walk-off.

Kids and families participated by making their own artful, inedible pies in our family day art activity.

Docents took visitors on dessert-themed tours of our galleries.

Pie makers served their creations to a crowd of hungry, pastry-loving attendees.

And judges presented awards to the top entrants.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Stephanie Shaiken – Classic Apple Pie

1. Stephanie Shaiken – Classic Apple Pie
2. Sam Robinson – Peach Blueberry Crumble
3. Jessica Kubel – Apple Cranberry

1. Stuart Faber – Pecan Toffee Pie
2. Kristin Anderson – Marcona Almond Pie
3. Claudia Guevara – Pecan Pie

1. Sandra Nuzzolilo – Banana Cream Pie
2. Morgan Simons – Banana Nutella Cream Pie
3. Linnea Weaver – Max’s Cheese Pie

1. Terry Sweeney – Persian Tart
2. Jennifer Wang – Tomato Pie
3. Marla Cusack – Zucchini Pecorino Pie

1. Emily Baker – “James and the Giant Peach” Pie
2. Bobbie Chi – Blueberry Pie for Tim Burton
3. Gretchen Getz – Chocolate Chess Pie


Photos by Micah Cordy

Alex Capriotti

This Weekend at LACMA: KCRW Pie Contest, Kienholz Panel, and More

September 16, 2011

Sunday is a big day at LACMA if you like pie. (And who doesn’t like pie?) LACMA is hosting the 3rd Annual KCRW Good Food Pie Contest. Kris Morningstar, executive chef at Ray’s, will join LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold and chefs from restaurants all over L.A. including Father’s Office, Hatfields’s, the Foundry, and others, to judge the pies baked by both amateurs and pros. There will also be free family art-making activities as part of our weekly Andell Family Sundays, and music supplied by KCRW DJ Anne Litt, among other activities. Get the full schedule for the day here (pdf).

Jo Ann Callis, Tigger and Apple Pie, 1980s, anonymous gift, Los Angeles, in honor of Robert Sobieszek

On the exhibition front, we have seven shows on view at the moment, plus eight smaller installations and the rest of our permanent collection, which fills a mere five buildings and encompasses art from every era and nearly every corner of the globe. So, yeah, there’s a lot to choose from.

On Sunday in the Art Catalogues bookstore, artists Ed Bereal and Joe Lewis join Yael Lipschutz of the Noah Purifoy Foundation and philosopher/social scientist Marcus Raskin to talk about Edward Kienholz on the occasion of the exhibition of his provocative civil rights work, Five Car Stud, on view now.

End the weekend with a free concert from pianist Mark Robson, who will perform operatic transcriptions of Franz Liszt for our Sundays Live concert in the Bing Theater.

Scott Tennent

Tim Burton: Art and Food

September 14, 2011

When I learned that Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s Good Food was hosting her annual pie contest at LACMA this year, I immediately began to think about how Tim Burton might inspire the participants. It turns out that food is an integral component in Burton’s art, and I began to wonder just what role it plays.

Halloween is one of Burton’s favorite holidays, and its currency–candy–makes an early appearance in the Tim Burton exhibition currently on view at LACMA. Trick or Treat, an unrealized project from 1980, includes a Candy Monster character drawn by Burton and sculpted by his CalArts classmate Rick Heinrichs. Colorful candy, cookies, and cakes abound in Burton’s version of Hansel and Gretel (1982), as the wicked witch attempts to fatten up a pair of innocent children with high-calorie treats. In his film Corpse Bride (2005), skeletons carry a massive white wedding cake adorned with skeleton heads.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, 2005, directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, shown: co-director Tim Burton on the set, photo credit: Derek Frey

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, 2005, directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, shown: co-director Tim Burton on the set, photo credit: Derek Frey

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Burton’s first feature film, shows the eponymous hero paying a visit to the Wheel Inn in Cabazon, California, on the recommendation of Large Marge, a frightening female truck driver who turns out to be a ghost. Probably Pee-Wee felt comforted by the Wheel Inn’s classic diner food, including a range of homemade pies, even though he had to wash dishes in lieu of cash payment.

Food comes to life in a dinner-party scene in Burton’s second feature film, Beetlejuice (1988): in a hilarious reprise of gothic haunted-house scenarios, shrimp cocktails suddenly reach up to grasp the throats of poltergeist-possessed diners, who–to their own astonishment–have just completed a lively dance to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song.

Burton grew up in Burbank, and his hometown served as a source for the many send-ups of suburban life seen in his later films.  In the modern fairytale Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton fondly and humorously depicted the rituals of family mealtimes and backyard barbecues, with their mashed potatoes and ambrosia salads.  Edward–a boy with scissors for hands–experiences some difficulties with peas and carrots, but discovers a talent for chopping and mincing.

Of course, candy plays a starring role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), although according to Burton, the real-life chocolate river constructed for the set was none too appetizing by the end of the shoot. Even more gruesome than fermented cocoa are the pies served up by Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (2007). As the story begins, Mrs. Lovett admits that her shop offers the “worst pies in London”; times are hard, and quality meat simply isn’t available. Then she joins forces with her murderous upstairs neighbor, Sweeney Todd (the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), and his victims become her ingredients. The menu returns from savory to sweet in Alice and Wonderland (2009), in which the Mad Hatter serves scones, jam, and other treats at a very unusual tea party.

As I thought about it, food provided an intriguing new perspective for thinking about Burton’s work. Food in film often represents the appetites and desires of the characters, and perhaps of viewers as well. Many of Burton’s most memorable characters are poised between childhood and adulthood, humor and horror, beauty and grotesquerie. Like everything else in his films, food tends to be both alluring and alarming: brightly colored, larger than life, and liable to bite back.

For the pie contest this Sunday, there is a category for Burton-inspired pies. We’ll post the sure-to-be fun entries and winners next week.

Britt Salvesen


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