The San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past is a neat twist on the traditional notion that contemporary art is influenced or inspired by whatever has preceded it. Featuring 60 pieces by 31 contemporary artists, as well as 90 objects from the museum’s collection, the exhibition, which was curated by Mami Kataoka of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and Allison Harding of the AAM, fills the museum’s entire first floor, as well as nooks and crannies on its second and third, juxtaposing old with new in the hopes that the latter will inform our experience of the former.

It mostly works, in no small part because ancient objects appear aloof to most contemporary eyes — they generally need all the mediation they can get. Equally musty are the exhibition’s lofty subjects, from Korean, Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cosmologies to meditations on the afterlife and the region’s countless deities. “Where did we come from? Where are we going?” asks Kataoka in the first two lines of her catalog essay. Good grief, this is going to be heavy slogging. But for the most part, the contemporary work on view serves its purpose of easing our eschatological load, infusing the sometimes somber galleries with light and color.

Poklong Anading, Anonymity, 2008-2011.

Sometimes the light is blinding, as in the photographs of Filipino artist Poklong Anading, whose nine pieces from his Anonymity series resemble bland portraits, except for the searing light that seems to emit from the face of each subject. In fact, the people in Anading’s pictures are each holding a mirror in front of them, thus using light not to illuminate but to obscure. Cleverly, the curators have paired these photos with ancient Chinese bronze mirrors, which are decorated on one side with depictions of the cosmos and were buried with the dead, as if to help them find their way on the other side. Anading gets us thinking about all this, mostly because his work is so deliberately unhelpful.

The Hindu god Shiva slaying the elephant demon, from approximately 1850.

In other pairings, the deliberate clumsiness of a contemporary piece causes us to look more closely at the older works nearby. The Cult of Survival II from 2011 by Jagannath Panda depicts a snake consuming itself, its body crudely formed from pipe as it twists and writhes, at one point rising almost nine feet into the air. “Snakes,” we mutter, doing our best Indiana Jones, and then we notice a five-headed example from around 1800, depicted in a miniature watercolor from India. The gods and demons churn the ocean of milk the legend reads, and we have left the heroic scale of Panda’s sculpture for the intimacy of the watercolor. (As an aside, Panda’s The Cult of Appearance III from 2012, which is also nearby, is one of the best new paintings in the show.)

Ceremonial vessel in the shape of a phoenix, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

There are numerous examples of connections like these on the first floor. I particularly liked the “Envisioning the Invisible” room, which featured stunning traditional sculptures of Vishnus, Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the middle of the space, with gorgeous paintings and drawings by NS Harsha, Lin Xue and Varunika Saraf on the walls. But the exhibition kind of falls apart on the upper floors, which were too crammed with ancient objects to allow much breathing room for the new stuff, let alone creative pairings of the old and the new. Still, I didn’t totally mind the treasure-hunt aspect of the second and third floors when the rewards were encounters with the obsessively decorative, jewelry-like work of Raqib Shaw near a howdah, or elephant throne, from India’s Raj era. For completely different reasons, I also found myself drawn to Pouran Jinchi’s quietly beautiful, blue-on-white, painted ceramic Prayer Stones from 2011 and Fuyuko Matsui’s hanging scrolls from 2006 and 2007, in which decay and disintegration preys on the flesh of humans and snakes alike.

Phantoms of Asia is on view through September 2, 2012, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit


Ben Marks

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