Jay Xu: bring­ing em­per­ors to life in San Fran­cisco

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By LIA ZHU in San Fran­cisco li­azhu@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

... My am­bi­tion is to make Asian art and cul­ture an es­sen­tial part for Amer­ica.” Jay Xu, di­rec­tor of the Asian Art Mu­seum in San Fran­cisco

At a time when mu­se­ums have changed, one con­stant re­mains through­out mankind — the love of sto­ries.

“You can­not sim­ply put an ob­ject just on a padded stool and ex­pect peo­ple to come and ad­mire it,” said Jay Xu, di­rec­tor of the Asian Art Mu­seum in San Fran­cisco. “Peo­ple re­ally want to ex­pe­ri­ence. Ex­pe­ri­ence is the most im­por­tant qual­ity of our life to­day.”

Then how to cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence that is en­joy­able, un­der­stand­able and ed­u­ca­tional at the same time?

Xu’s ap­proach is to make the ob­jects hu­man rather than re­mote sym­bols so vis­i­tors can re­late to them.

The ex­hi­bi­tion Em­peror’s Trea­sures, which runs through Sept 18 at the Asian Art Mu­seum in San Fran­cisco, shows art­works from the Chi­nese im­pe­rial col­lec­tion, which rep­re­sents Chi­nese ma­te­rial cul­ture and art at its best.

“Our show is not aimed to show the grandeur of the im­pe­rial iden­tity, be­cause ev­ery­one could see that through pic­tures like the For­bid­den City, but not ev­ery­one gets to un­der­stand em­per­ors in­ti­mately, closely, and that’s our fo­cus,” said Xu.

He said the ex­hi­bi­tion was de­signed to hu­man­ize the em­per­ors, who were “high above us” and be­hind the walls of im­pe­rial palace.

“But I think ac­tu­ally they were hu­mans, just like us. They had their own par­tic­u­lar habits. So we de­signed the set­ting of the show as if you en­tered their pri­vate stu­dios, so vis­i­tors can have in­ti­mate vis­ual con­ver­sa­tion with the em­per­ors of China in a pri­vate stu­dio set­ting,” he said.

At the past ex­hi­bi­tion China at Cen­ter, which fea­tured two large an­cient maps crafted by Western mis­sion­ar­ies and Chi­nese car­tog­ra­phers, the mu­seum adopted in­ter­ac­tive tech­nolo­gies to en­large the trans­lated names and de­scrip­tions of the land — the 17th cen­tury schol­ars in China not only wanted to know what the land was called but also its cus­toms and what was spe­cial about it.

“The maps are not only a tool for nav­i­ga­tion but very im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion,” said Xu. “It’s very in­ter­est­ing and en­ables peo­ple to see that the dif­fer­ent cul­tures and dif­fer­ent re­gions cre­ated dif­fer­ent maps from their own per­spec­tive.”

In­spired by the mu­seum’s ideal of a “bridge to un­der­stand­ing be­tween the US and Asia”, said Xu, “my am­bi­tion is to make Asian art and cul­ture an es­sen­tial part for Amer­ica”.

“The eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment makes the con­nec­tions across the Pa­cific es­sen­tial. I think the cul­tural con­nec­tion could be stronger, and we could do a lot more,” he said. “Our mu­seum is best lo­cated be­cause we are in the mid­dle be­tween the Pa­cific Ocean and the land of North Amer­ica.”

Eco­nom­i­cally speak­ing, Asia has been an es­sen­tial part­ner of Amer­ica’s, but Asian art and cul­ture have not be­come part of the main­stream of Amer­i­can cul­ture, so there’s an im­bal­ance — eco­nom­i­cally closely in­ter­re­lated but cul­tur­ally, Asian cul­ture is viewed as some­thing dis­tant, Xu said.

The mu­seum could play a lead­er­ship role in pro­mot­ing stronger cul­tural con­nec­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion and serve as a bridge through which the Asian cul­tures could be more broadly dis­trib­uted in North Amer­ica, he said.

“I think a lot of dif­fi­cul­ties, not only among gov­ern­ments but more es­sen­tially among peo­ple, are a re­sult of mis­un­der­stand­ing and a lack of un­der­stand­ing of each other’s cul­ture,” he said. “Only through closer cul­tural con­nec­tion and cross-cul­tural un­der­stand­ing can eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment be­come even more pros­per­ous; and po­lit­i­cally, I think a lot more com­mon un­der­stand­ing could be achieved.”

China’s grow­ing promi­nence on the world stage is lead­ing to an avid in­ter­est in Chi­nese cul­ture in the United States. “That’s why we’re reg­u­larly pre­sent­ing spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions from China,” Xu said.

Next spring, an ex­hi­bi­tion of tomb trea­sures, from a new arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­ery in China’s Jiangsu province, will be brought to San Fran­cisco.

The show will fea­ture the trea­sures of sev­eral kings dur­ing the Western Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-24 AD), the first uni­fied and pow­er­ful em­pires in Chi­nese his­tory.

“The story is again from the pub­lic life to the more in­ti­mate tomb and to the de­tails of love and per­sonal habits of the kings,” said Xu. “We’ll take the vis­i­tors through a jour­ney to ex­pe­ri­ence the no­ble life dur­ing the Western Han pe­riod.”

The pub­lic part of the kings’ life in­cludes ce­ramic fig­ures, jades, weapons, char­i­ots and ves­sels, and then the vis­i­tors will be led grad­u­ally to the tomb, where they will see huge brass door knock­ers, and then a mag­nif­i­cent jade cof­fin, and a jade suit sewn to­gether with gold wire.

In the third room, vis­i­tors will see the more in­ti­mate part of the kings’ life, such as mir­rors and belt buck­les. The belt buck­les were a to­ken of love. Made in two halves – one in re­lief and the other in re­cess, the set of buck­les be­come one if you put the two halves to­gether. On the buck­les were also in­scribed such words as “For­get me not”.

The ob­ject was dis­cov­ered in a con­cu­bine’s tomb. “She must have been deeply in love with the king,” Xu said.

An­other in­trigu­ing side of the Han peo­ple’s life is that they were par­tic­u­lar about hy­giene, an im­por­tant ex­pres­sion of civ­i­liza­tion, Xu said. “We have a whole set of baths from (the) tomb, such as bath basins, toi­lets and rub­bing stone.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion shows that Han peo­ple were open-minded; they were pas­sion­ate about life and pur­su­ing longevity in the next life after death, he said.

Out­side of the gallery, the show will high­light a life­sized set of replica mu­sic bells. Vis­i­tors can try their hands on those mu­sic bells and ex­pe­ri­ence what kind of sound the an­cient in­stru­ment could pro­duce.

“In do­ing so, we can show­case the great art, great tal­ent and in­ge­nu­ity of the Chi­nese and at the same time how ad­vanced the Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion is,” said Xu. “That en­ables peo­ple to bet­ter un­der­stand to­day’s China. The point is not only to ad­mire the an­cient China, but also to have closer and mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion (of the mod­ern China).”

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