Jay Xu: bringing emperors to life in San Francisco
... 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).”