Feb 17 2012

Opening of Asia Society Hong Kong Center

by Julia Tanski-Gilbert

Live surveillance cameras encircle the head of a late 2nd to 3rd century Ghandharan Buddha sculpture in MICHAEL JOO’s Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby), 2005 Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

A new kind of energy is emanating from Justice Drive in Hong Kong. The Asia Society’s Hong Kong Centre and its inaugural exhibition are a neatly orchestrated project, which opened to the public on the 10th of February. The exhibition, “Transforming Minds – Buddhism in Art,” presents ancient and contemporary Asian art in an eloquent dialogue. After ten years of preparation, the final result has been as well conceived as it is executed. The building is a convincing mix of Hong Kong’s colonial past and its present ambitions, epitomizing the broader ideas of the Asia Society—to promote past and present Asian art within a global context.

Benefitting from a hillside aspect, the Asia Society’s converted site is unusually peaceful for Hong Kong and centrally located, in the Admiralty area. In the 19th century, under British rule, the complex consisted of two ammunitions stores (known as Magazine A and Magazine B), a laboratory and a masonry building (GG Block). The Asia Society transformed the historical buildings, while retaining and restoring some of the colonial architecture’s original characteristics. The contemporary additions—stone slabs and stainless steel columns—highlight the site’s rocky, hillside aspect. The old laboratory and the GG Block were converted into administrative offices, and the two storage magazines into a gallery and auditorium. The vaulted ceilings and dark spaces of Magazine A lend themselves well to the exhibition gallery, being ideal for installations or works needing sensitive lighting. Magazine B now houses an auditorium and theatre, where the International Buddhist Film Festival will be held from 16 March to 12 May, this year.

The evolution of the exhibition lays out a clear path from the inception of Buddhism in India and Pakistan to its development in China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. And in each of the exhibition space’s three rooms a correlation is created between ancient and contemporary works. Moreover, the antique works on show are “jewels of the collection’s crown,” as exhibition co-curator Adriana Proser described them during the press visit. These were selected from the Asia Society Museum’s core collection—that of John D. Rockefeller III.

A schist stone sculpture from 11th century Bihar, India, shows Buddha seated, about to touch the ground, which represents the moment just before he reached enlightenment. Around the base of this main figure are sculpted scenes attesting to the struggle that Buddha had to face when the demon Mara put before him different temptations and finally an army of guards.

Exhibited alongside early Buddhist works such as this, are contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s ash sculptures, expressing the struggles of Buddhism and underlining its fragility in a different way. Made with incense ashes from a Shanghai temple, Zhang was inspired to create these works after a visit to Tibet in 2005. Summer Buddha (2007) gives the simultaneous impression of being created and dissolving; it hauntingly resembles Buddha statues from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2009.

ZHANG HUAN, Summer Buddha, 2007, ash, steel and wood, 140 × 152 × 85 cm. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

Buddhism itself takes on different facets, in its Mahayana and Theravada branches. Within these two main forms there are many sub-forms, such as Pure Land, which is well represented here in works including an exquisite Amitabha Buddha from 13th century Japan. With an almost imperceptible gold inlay used to decorate the drapery and stand of this wooden sculpture, the fine facial features and crystal eyes give life to this delicate piece.

The ideas of transformation and evolution, of the Buddha and of one’s spiritual self, are put into play in Mariko Mori’s video Kumano (1997-1998). In the work, Mori makes a pilgrimage to Kumano, a famous Buddhist site in Japan, and portrays herself changing from a forest spirit into a shaman, then into a futuristic tea ceremony practitioner.

Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby) (2005) by Michael Joo is the final work of the show and summarizes its discourse. Joo was asked to get inspiration from the John D. Rockefeller III collection for his commissioned video installation, and he chose this sculpture, as it conveyed his idea that Buddhism can be perceived from various different facets.

In Joo’s work a Gandharan 2nd century stone sculpture is haloed with dozens of surveillance cameras. The images of these cameras show up on the screens in the darkened installation room. The images change every few seconds, so that at one time, the viewer can see a variety of close up views of the antique sculpture’s head. Gandharan sculpture marks the point at which Buddhist iconography was touched by the ancient Greek culture and is a combination of the antique East and West worlds.

Buddhism, as an explosive agent for transforming minds, was an ideal choice for the theme of the Society’s Hong Kong opening. As the first exhibition of the first American cultural institution to open in Asia, this theme gives recognition to one of Asia’s greatest philosophical and spiritual legacies.