Archive for January, 2009

Programming the Cosmos: Leo Villareal at the National Gallery

Posted in Contains Video Elements, Contemporary Art, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2009 by Liz Hager

Hypnotic, mysterious, mesmerizing, cosmic, soothing, ephemeral. . . enlightening. These are some of the sensations that wash over viewers as they encounter Leo Villareal’s Multiverse in the underground concourse between the East and West Buildings of the National Gallery. A computer geek from teen-hood, Villareal harnesses one of the fundamental attributes of the computer—simple rules, complex patterns—to create unique and kenetic light sculptures.

With 41,000 LED bulbs Multiverse is by far Villareal’s most complex work to date.  The software he developed for this project generates several different layers of synchronized patterns (Villareal likens what he does to composing music) that alternately shoot in straight lines down the length of the tube, explode in a big bang-like effect, bounce along in ball-shaped clusters, or just pulse.  The concourse is a transitional space; its ceiling is oppressively low, the space claustrophobic. Normally it must make for a rather prosaic journey. But whisked along the moving sidewalk under the twinkling stars, one is liberated into the cosmos, living a brief  StarTrekian moment.  The universe talks to us; we try to decipher its meaning.

While Villareal’s art acknowledges artistic forbearers in Dan Flavin and James Turrell, the underlying concept of his light pieces relates more to Sol LeWitt‘s wall drawings, Agnes Martin‘s grids, and even Peter Halley‘s paintings.

Comments Villareal: “I’m very interested in rules and underlying structures, which all tie in with the code I’m writing. There are things in nature that inspire me, like wave patterns or natural systems that at first glance appear to be very complex, but when I study them further there are simple rules that govern them. That’s what I try to get at in my code—building simple rules that refer to some of these ideas. Laws are another thing I’ve been working on lately. I’m not a physicist, but I use rules to create software and in the software I’m able to play with parameters like gravity, velocity, friction. I’m able to use these parameters and access them as an artist and see what compelling things result.”

Not everyone has been wildly enthusiastic about the project. Some critics feel that Villareal didn’t have enough mature work to warrant membership in the National Gallery club with Picasso, Titian, Rothko and Sol LeWitt.  The lack of critical thought surrounding Villareal’s work and the superficiality of the work (technology for technology’s sake, not art’s sake) are other criticisms.  Programmers have gone on record as saying that Villareal’s software is pretty basic stuff.

Multiverse may not embody a BIG ART IDEA, but what’s wrong with a little Sybaritic pleasure now and again?

Wider Connections

Multiverse

More Leo Villareal

Other light artists

Cool Hunting

A Novel Proposal: US Secretary of the Arts

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Politics with tags , on January 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

In November, during a WNYC radio interview, Quincy Jones indicated that he would “beg” now President Obama for a permanent US Secretary of the Arts.  Musician Jaime Austria took up the charge, creating an online petition in support of Jones’ efforts. To date, 216680 people have signed.

In conceiving of the idea presumably Jones saw a cultural need  that went beyond the jurisdiction of the NEA—i.e. a policy-making entity in addition to the funding agency.  As Jones has pointed out, every other first world country has a “minister of culture.”  Its staggering how much support the European countries give their artists. 

In Jones’ key argument for this position has been the welfare of kids. He believes that art has the power to transform education, give kids a deeply-grounded (as opposed to artificial and fleeting) sense of self, and ultimately help prevent the alienation and self-hatred that has led to senseless mass killings in American schools.  

Certainly HEW could be tasked with improving arts education. But there’s a bigger picture here. Promoting ones culture at the international level is perhaps the most effective form of informal diplomacy.  Sure, to paraphrase Wim Wenders, American culture has colonized the subconscious of peoples around the globe.  But couldn’t elevating the focus on the arts to the Cabinet level demonstrate a (new) seriousness in our belief in the glorious multiplicity of influences that make up the American culture? Wouldn’t that be a good thing as we work to repair deteriorated relationships abroad?  

Sign the Petition

Wider Connections

Colin Stutz weighs in.

Support the Hustle

Rolling Stone

Washington Post

 


Inauguration Fever: Proud to Be an American (Again)

Posted in Liz Hager, Politics, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , on January 21, 2009 by Liz Hager

“. . . On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. . . “

 

 

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photo ©2009 Liz Hager


As shots appear on the Jumbotrons, the enormity of the visual impact made by 1.8 million of us on the Mall was clear. The symbol of hope seen ’round the world.  On the ground, the crowd sizzles with pent-up energy.  Eight am rolls into 9 am and 10 am; the Mall filled. The rainbow coalition is reporting for duty.  The weather oscillates between biting cold (wind chill in action) and almost tolerable. People shuffled and marched to stay warm, aided by Sunday’s concert re-play on the Jumbotrons. 

With the arrival of dignitaries on the podium stage, we forget all about our frigid bodies. Anyway, the sun has come out, a portend of things to come. Random and large cheers rupture, ripple, reverberate. John Lewis, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Puff Daddy come and sit.  Cheney rolls in on his wheelchair—what righteous symbolism!  With the announcement of the man soon to be “Formally Known As,”  the crowd sends forth loud boos, chants of “Good Riddance,” “Go Back to Texas”and choruses of “Na, Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Goodbye.”  The party is underway!

And then The Moment arrives. Our Man waits for the Chief Justice to get the words straight; alas he is unable, so our Man, poised as ever, repeats the wrong sequence.   “Congratulations, Mr. President.” The crowd goes wild.  Ding, dong the witch is dead!

 

 

. . . The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. . .”

 

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©2009 Liz Hager

 

“Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

 

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©2009 Liz Hager

 

“All this we can do. All this we will do.”

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Inauguration Fever: Martin Luther King/National Day of Service

Posted in Liz Hager, Politics, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2009 by Liz Hager

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Moving in a Straight Line ©2009 Liz Hager

We brave Massachusetts Avenue and the traffic jams at Union Station (hoards of people arriving today), then head SE down Pennsylvania Avenue and cross the Anacostia River. It’s a part of town none of us have ever been in. From the elevated overpass, we can see a small part of Anacostia Park below us. Anacostia is a very large park, which hugs the river for miles upriver. The park looks bleary in the hazy low-slung sunshine of the afternoon. The Pennsylvania Avenue overpass bisects the park, creating a no man’s land underneath it.  A collection of shabby buildings huddles together at one end of the park  and a sorry playground sits forlornly on the downriver side. With some trees standing along the river, this part of the park seems to be holding on to a last shred of dignity.  The river, industrial structures lining its shores here and there, chunks of ice bobbing along, definitely gives this area an aura of bleakness. It’s the dead of winter on the Eastern Seaboard.

We turn into the park and head towards the parking lot. 

Anacostia borders one of the poorest districts in Washington, DC.  The Anacostia River was once referred to as “DC’s forgotten river,” because of its state of severe pollution, caused by the dumping of raw sewage and industrial waste. Since 2004 a coalition of the willing—including No Child Left Inside, the National Park Service, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and a number of Senators and Congresspeople—have banded together to spearhead clean up efforts. It seems that the Park too has its share of the audacity of hope.

A lot of us have come for speeches and a tree planting on this National Day of Service.  Senators Steny Hoyer and Ben Cardin are here. (Hoyer gives a truly impressive speech linking Martin Luther King’s legacy to all of us.) The formidable Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC’s representative without a vote) is here. Even former Mayor Marion Barry is here, his drug-related problems apparently behind him.  There has been a rumor that Obama might show up. That would be truly exciting, but we’re content to support No Child Left Inside and the Park Service, even if he doesn’t come. And, as big fans of Friends of the Urban Forest back in San Francisco, the idea of participating in a tree planting feels like a way to be a good national neighbor on this National Day of Service. 

A local gospel choir kicks off the event; their undulating sea of rhythm is infectious. Speeches follow—most are

Inauguration Fever: The Pre-Game Show

Posted in Liz Hager, Politics, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on January 19, 2009 by Liz Hager

 

With this post Venetian Red begins coverage of the Inauguration. 

 

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Shot Rings Out  (photo ©Liz Hager)

It’s Sunday mid-afternoon in our nation’s capital. The temperature is warming. 

As our afternoon activity, we’ve opted for the National Gallery, not the Reflecting Pool. (Need to store all of our crowd-coping reserves for Tuesday’s event.) After a wholly-satisfying perusal of the East and West buildings (more on this in later posts), curiosity about the outside world has gotten the better of us. We head along the short block from the Gallery to the Mall. 

The Capitol building is festooned with garlands of flags, its stage visible visible from the first two Mall “yards.” Phalanxes of port-o-potties stand at attention along the edges of the Mall, their virginity preserved by plastic clasps. The feed towers, news stages, and Jumbotrons are all up.  A few thousand people have gathered together in loose clumps in front of the immense screens. As we round the corner of a supporting vehicle, we look up to see Bono’s be-spectacled face beaming down at us.  It seems we won’t miss a concert experience after all. 

The crowd is a joyous one, shuffling around to the beat, many singing along. More of us sing along with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. When Byoncé appears on the screen, she transfixes us (that girl has a set of pipes!). By the end of her performance our crowd has erupted in cheers.

And then the Man himself appears on screen to give us a sobering and uplifting pep talk. More than a few eyes are brimming with tears. 

We feel a disembodying sensation to be outdoors with thousands of people (truly a rainbow coalition) WATCHING TELEVISION. Though the concert is a short, straight shot away at the Lincoln Memorial, our gathering has its own unique make up, emotions, rhythms. But one thing is for sure, we’re all in this together, and that’s an expansive feeling.

This afternoon we’ve had a small preview of what will come.

The Unpredictability of Life: Annie Leibovitz’s Sarajevo Bicycle

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, Sarajevo 1993

Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, (Sarajevo, 1993), Kodak T-Max P3200 (©1993 Annie Leibovitz)

Though she is best known to the general public for her glossy “celebrity” portraits, Annie Leibovitz began her photographic career in the gritty tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, that is to say, wandering around “looking for stories.”  The unpredictability that characterizes photojournalism is a thread that runs through all of Leibovitz’ work, even those staged portraits.

In 1990,while reviewing images for a retrospective of her work, the photographer realized a pressing need to get back to “reportage.”

I was developing my own style of setting up formal portraits and theatrical scenes at the time, but I didn’t consider those conceptual portraits to be journalism. Portrait photography was liberating. I felt free to play with the genre.  Photojournalism—reportage—was about being an observer. About seeing what was happening in front of you and photographing it. You didn’t tamper with it. For my generation of photographers the rules were very clear. That’s why so much is still written about whether Robert Capa did or did not stage the picture of the falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War and why Roger Fenton moved the cannonballs for the picture of the battlefield in the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. What they did matters…

In the summer of 1993, Leibovitz found an opportunity through Susan Sontag to go to Sarajevo. The city had been under siege for over a year; Serbs had been shelling the city from many points along its ring of mountains. Basic amenities—food, water, shelter—were minimal. Necessities, such as medicine, were scarce. Life in the city was extremely dangerous. People tried to go about their daily lives. Snipers were shooting at random.  “Death was random,” remarks Leibovitz.

. . . Jeffrey Smith of Contact Press Images had helped me get in touch with someone who rented armored cars to news organizations. That’s how I met Hasan Gluhić. Hasan was my driver and guide. He got me everywhere. Hasan was with me the day I went to the apartment of a woman who had just won a beauty pageant. She had been crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo. There was some irony intended, I think. Miss Besieged Sarajevo lived in a high-rise development on the western edge of the city where there was a lot of shelling. A mortar came down in front of our car as we drove through her neighborhood. It hit a teenage boy on a bike and ripped a big hole in his back. We put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way. . .

. . . The concerns I had before I went to Sarajevo about what kinds of pictures I would take were erased simply by being there. There wasn’t time to worry about whether I was taking a portrait or some other kind of picture. Things happened too fast. You could only respond to them.

—all quoted texts from Annie Leibovitz, At Work, pp. 102-110 (Random House)

Put its difficult subject matter aside for a moment and notice that Bloody Bicycle is actually a graceful, well-composed still life. While serving up images of war, it’s a good trick for a photographer to play to an audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. (Do pictures of war need to be nasty for us to feel, to get the point?)  The arc of the blood smear echos the shape of the bicycle wheels;  the hurried brushstroke of blood counters the stationary mass of the bicycle. In some ways, by shooting in black and white, Leibovitz must have wanted to suspend our preconceptions about war, at least for a moment. No shocking red blood. Despite these strong pictorial components, the most powerful element in Bloody Bicycle is the unseen presence. The absent rider is the shocking reminder that the circumstances of death are the ultimate unpredictability of life.

Connections

American Masters: Life Through a Lens

Lee Miller’s Dachau photographs

Bridge Coaker: The New Photojournalism

Into the Valley of Death

Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others

A World in the Process of Becoming—The Girl Project

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , on January 15, 2009 by Liz Hager

This photograph was taken by a teenage member of The Girl Project.  (The Girl Project© 2009)

Adolescent girls are some of the most exasperating creatures on Earth. Their multiplicity of moods—giggly, self-obsessed (or just plain obsessed), shy, petulant, inquisitive, obstinate—can wear on the most patient and sympathetic adults, even those who remember what it was like to be an adolescent girl.  And yet, from a sociological point of view, girls are fascinating for the glimpse they offer of a future world (culture) in the process of becoming. 

That’s why, when I recently heard about The Girl Project, I knew it had the potential to captivate universal audiences. Conceived by photographer Kate Engelbrecht, The Girl Project is a national photographic documentary on female adolescence from the point of view of the adolescents themselves. The project involves Engelbrecht sending free disposable cameras to girls from the ages of 13 to 18. She asks them to document themselves and the world around them. She plans to cull the most interesting shots into exhibitions and ultimately a book. She expects the collection to reveal “unseen truths about teenage girls and our culture.”

Humans have long been fascinated with female adolescence. The promise and hope behind their eyes… the purity and romanticism youth represents, the razor thin line between immaturity, maturity, innocence and rebellion. 

In today’s world it not only piques our curiosity—it feeds our insatiable need for drama. The supposed lives of teenage girls have become modern entertainment. Our ideas about them grow from what we read about Lindsay Lohan in The New York Post or what we saw on last week’s episode of The Hills. We learn what they like, buy and wear and what they believe, think and do… and just as quickly as we get our fix, we fail to understand the complexity and truth behind the very group we obsess on. 

With the hope of reintroducing them to us, The Girl Project explores the lives of American teenage girls through images they create themselves. Using the raw, honest qualities of photography, girls reveal their self-perceptions in a daring act of intimacy- both behind and before the camera. 

—Kate Engelbrecht, The Girl Project statement

Engelbrecht  is well on her way to achieving this objective. Last month, The Girl Project was featured at SCOPE Miami. That exhibit featured 150 photographs by 57 girls.  Engelbrecht continues to send cameras. My guess is that more data will reveal overall patterns and unexpected nuances. Our jigsaw puzzle of the future will look more complete.  

The photographers themselves will benefit in many ways, not the least of which is that many girls will be inspired to a life of creativity.  But it seems to me that no benefit is as powerful to them and us as this: knowingly or unknowingly, as the girls capture what is meaningful about their current world, they will be exploring the shape of the future. 

Encourage participation in The Girl Project, by passing along linkages below to girls near you!

Connections

Kate Engelbrecht  

Girl Project website

Girl Project blog

Girl Project Facebook

Henri Matisse and Judas Iscariot on the Côte d’Azur

Posted in Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on January 11, 2009 by Liz Hager

Henri Matisse, Branch of a Judas Tree, 1942. Charcoal on paper, 10 3/8 x 15 7/8″ (26.3 x 40.3 cm). Gift of John Rewald in memory of Frances Weitzenhoffer. (© 2008 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)  

Originally from the Mediterranean, the Judas, or Redbud, tree is a small, shade-loving tree. Matisse would have seen the tree during his sojourn on the Côte d’Azur. Even had the artist not dated the drawing (8/42), we would know that it had been sketched sometime after May. While unassuming in appearance for most of the rest of the year, as one of the first blooming plants in early spring, the Judas tree bursts forth with magenta flowers on its bare leafless shoots. 

The tree received its moniker through Greek legend,  which suggested that this was the variety from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Judas, of course, was the Betrayer of Christ, having agreed to lead the chief priests to Christ and identify him by a kiss on the cheek.  Legend has it that, as a result of its association with Judas,  the tree’s white flowers turned red with blood or shame and bloomed violently pink from then on as a reminder of the act. 

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas repented his betrayal (27:4 —“I have sinned in betraying innocent blood”) and tried to return the silver to the chief priests, throwing the coins on the Temple floor. He then committed suicide by hanging himself. 

(The Book of Acts, however, offers a different and more Draconian account of what happened to Judas. It is said Judas purchased a field and fell in headfirst onto the field where, in wonderful descriptive “all his bowels gushed out.” —Acts I, Verse 18). 

An Illicit Affair in Paris: Utamaro at the Bibliothèque National

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

Guest contributor Gina Collia-Suzuki reports from Paris on one of Utamaro’s most famous prints. It’s just one of hundreds by many Japanese printmakers on view as part of the exhibit Estampes Japonaises: Images d’un Monde Éphémère at the Bibliothèque National de France until February 15, 2009.  


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Kitagawa Utamaro, Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu, from the series Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers) , published by  Nishimuraya, c. 1798-9 (© Bibliothèque National de France)

The Estampes Japonaises: Images d’un Monde Éphémère focuses on ukiyo-e (“floating world”) genre of prints, so named for their depiction of the scenes of everyday life in Japan and the impact of the rising merchant class on Japanese society.  These woodcuts were generally produced during the Edo (1603-1867) and later Meiji (1867-1912) periods. Beginning in the 1870s the Western world was introduced to these prints, and artists, most notably the French Impressionists, began to incorporate their distinctive stylistic characteristics into their own paintings.  

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) produced a number of sets of prints depicting ill-fated lovers, shown in both half-length and full-length, as well as in different poses. None surpasses the monumental series bearing the title Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers), which is comprised of 21 known designs.

The most well-known print in this set portrays two lovers, Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu.  Created during the Edo period, it is often referred to as La Sortie (The Departure), because it depicts the michiyukispecifically, the moment in the lovers’ journey when they are preparing to leave and make their way to Daichô-ji Temple, where they will end their lives together. Under cover of night (as suggested by the gray background) Jihei is shown raising the walls of the collapsed paper lantern he holds. His white head covering disguises his appearance, and provides a masculine contrast to the black veil of his lover Koharu. She stands protectively over his shoulder, tenderly shielding the candle from the wind. Utamaro depicts the two in this pose of intimate communion, foreshadowing their fate.  The restricted color scheme also emphasizes the union of the two lovers. 

The dramatizations of the story of Koharu and her lover Jihei were based on real-life events which took place in 1720, when Kamiya Jihei—a 28-year-old married paper merchant with two children, from the Temman district of Osaka—and Koharu—a 19-year-old prostitute belonging to the Kinokuniya brothel—committed suicide together at the Daichô-ji Temple in Amijima. The story was adapted for both the puppet and Kabuki theatre, with the most famous version being Shinjû ten no Amijima (Double Suicide at Amijima), written by the well-renowned playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) for the Bunraku theatre and staged for the first time in Osaka in the December of 1720. 

In 18th-century Japan marriage was primarily a convenience. Taking a wife was more akin to engaging a housekeeper and nursemaid than choosing a lover and lifetime companion. Tales in which passionate romantic love endured against all odds were incredibly popular among the Edo townspeople, because they offered a glimpse of an intense and intimate relationship that many ordinary Japanese men and women could not hope to experience.

These tales of scandalously illicit affairs, double suicides, and passionate encounters between lovers, who risked all to be together, thoroughly captured the imagination of Edo’s inhabitants. Dramatic tales of ill-fated lovers, which invariably ended badly, were popular in literature, in prints, in songs, and on the stage. The couples portrayed in these tales represented the ideal of romantic love and unwavering devotion.

The exhibit includes many other Japanese printmakers from the , including examples from perhaps the best-known, Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Below left—Suzuki Harunobu, Beauty Sailing into the Void from the Balcony of the Kiyomizu Temple, 1765, calendar print; Below right—Kitagawa Utamaro, Furtive Glance, 1799-1800, woodcut (all (© Bibliothèque National de France).

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Below—Katsushika Hokusai, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-Siz Views of Mt. Fuji, 1829-1833, woodcut; Bottom—Ando Hiroshige, Big Fish and Abalones, 1832, woodcut  (all © Bibliothèque National de France).

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About Venetian Red guest contributor

Gina Collia-Suzuki is a writer and editor, who lives on the southwest coast of England. While a student at Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, she began collecting the woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro. Since then she has devoted herself to the study of the artist’s work, focusing specifically on his illustrated books and broadsheets. She is the author of Utamaro Revealed: A Guide to Subjects, Themes, and Motifs and The Wonderful Demise of Benjamin Arnold Guppy. Collia-Suzuki’s blog can be found at Floating Along.

Blinded by the Light: Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2009 by Liz Hager

Without art, there would be no record of the culture. —Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society. 

 

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Statue of the Buddha at moment of unwrapping, April 2004, Kabul (©National Museum of Afghanistan)

 

The context in which we view art often infuses it with additional meaning the artist never conceived or intended. Sometimes the contextual circumstances are so compelling that they become our predominant experience of the piece, eclipsing even the work’s artistic merits. 

Such is the case with the art on exhibit in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul on view at the Asian Art Museum until January 25. The story of how these 228 items came to be on view—and, conversely, of how they easily might never have come to be on view were it not for the efforts of a small group of Afghanis—is thrilling. Like a good tale of espionage, this too is chock-full with elements of wartime danger and intrigue, brutish villains, high suspense, selfless acts. At its core this is a tale of collective heroism committed in the name of a greater good, in this case art. 

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One of a pair of pendants showing the Dragon Master, Tillya Tepe, Tomb II; Second quarter of the 1st century CE; Gold, turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearls, National Museum of Afghanistan (Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)

 

First, the details of the story. The National Museum in Kabul was established in 1922. By mid-century its collection totaled some 100,000 items, including pre-Islamic and ethnographic pieces uncovered in 20th-century archeological digs throughout the country. Arguably the most famous of the excavated items—known as the Golden Hoard—were exhumed by Viktor Sarianidi in the fall of 1978 from an unassuming mound known as Tillya Tepe in the ancient land of Bactria

The Museum’s collection unequivocally established Afghanistan as a country with a sophisticated cultural heritage that stretched at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Moreover, the collection reflected the country’s central position at the cross-roads of great human migrations—Alexander’s march to the Indus, Buddhist monks trekking to China, Islamic armies fanning out from the Arabian peninsula, Silk Route traders, the campaigns of Persian conquerors, the invasions of Genghis Khan. And although the art of the Afghan region is stylistically unique, the museum’s artifacts displayed the telltale signs of the influences of Greek, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese, and nomadic tribal cultures.

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Statuette of a woman standing on a makara, possibly a furniture ornament, Begram, Room 10, 1st-2nd c. CE, ivory 


The 1978 coup and ensuing Soviet invasion in 1979 made it clear that artifacts housed in Afghanistan’s museums were in grave danger.  It wasn’t until 1989 that curators began the process of moving pieces from the National Museum in Kabul, hiding them locations around the city, including the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank Treasury vault within the Presidential Palace.  Over the next few years, thousands of pieces were transfered. Workers were sworn to secrecy; “key holders” for various vaults were unknown beyond a tiny circle of people. Curators kept silent throughout the years of civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

Unfortunately, not all of the collection could be moved by the Spring of 2001, when the Taliban mounted a catastrophic campaign to “destroy all images.”  Many will remember the most public of the casualties, the Buddhas of Bamayan.  But, museums suffered mighitly. As a result of the campaign, nearly two thirds of the 100,000 pieces in the National Museum’s collection, including many of the items stashed in the Ministry of Information, were destroyed or stolen.  

In a dramatic moment in 2004, after the Taliban had been run out of the country, curators gathered in at the Presidential vault. Sealed since 1989, noone knew what to expect. Museum inventory records had long been destroyed. Miraculously,  the Golden Hoard and many others of the magnificent treasures of the National Museum were safe.

Opening of the safe found to contain a trove of priceless Bactrian gold objects,  April 2004. (Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, ©National Geographic Society)

 

Given this extraordinary context, the exhibit cannot help but transcend pure artistic considerations. This is not to say that the pieces here are not delicate, elaborate, sophisticated, finely-wrought, entertaining, and fascinating for the glimpse they provide into lost civilizations. In the vein of Hiebert’s thought, however, it seems apparent that the overriding message of Hidden Treasures—the light that blinds us—is the enormous finality of culture extinguished. It’s almost impossible when viewing these recovered treasures not to ask “What if the Taliban had succeeded in removing this art from the world’s view?”  Thus, we are reminded that at stake is more than the culture of one peoples, but an exquisite record of humankind. 

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Decorative plaque with a narrative scene, Begram, Room 13, 1st century CE, ivory and paint, 5.9 x 11.3 cm (©National Museum of Afghanistan)

 

Connections

Hidden Treasures brochure

Vandalised Afghanistan—Frontline (Hindu on Net)

Afghanistan Wants its “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Buddhism Back—British Library acknowledges that it has no idea how the scrolls came to London from Hadda.

Afghanistan: Images from an Era of Peace

Nancy Hatch Dupree—Museum under Siege and List of Stolen Items

Other Images

LACMA Head of a Bodhisattva (Gandahara)

Unique lunette with Buddha surrounded by adorants from Hadda area.

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