I had never been very familiar with Asian art, but all that changed when I took a docent-led tour of the Smithsonian’s most recent Asian collection at the Sackler Gallery. Throughout the museum I reveled in the intricacy and labor of the work, noticing recurring themes of illusions and connections, and my time in the museum flew by.
The first illusion is the building itself. It leaves much to the imagination; once inside a spiraling staircase takes visitors to a vast underground collection covering most of Asia. Like the neighboring African Art Museum, the Sackler Gallery is built “Down, not Up” to preserve the integrity and space of the National Mall. The surrounding garden is actually a rooftop garden, hiding a not-so-distant journey to the near and far East beneath one’s feet. On a sunny September afternoon, the numerous Monarch butterflies and flora in full bloom do not make an unsightly façade for the Oriental treasures below. Inside, visitors are immediately greeted by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s colossal installation Fragments (2005). Constructed of reclaimed lumber from Qing Dynasty temples, Fragments forms a map of China from a bird’s eye view. Ai uses ancient materials and 2,000 year-old joinery techniques to highlight the value of our past by connecting it to today. The fragmented lumber, connected at the top, resembles a circle of stooped figures with clasped arms, reminding descendants of China that while they may be separated from their land or each other, they are united by their common ancestry.
Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasping for the Moon (2001) is the next striking piece that literally grabs visitors’ attention. The installation resembles a barrel of monkeys grabbing each other by the tail. Spanning all three levels, it connects floor to ceiling and adds interest to the spiraling descent to the museum’s depths. While it appears to be constructed of heavy wrought iron, it is actually made of lightweight laminated wood. Once again my eyes deceived me, and assumption was thwarted. Just as Fragments connects past and present, Monkeys does the same by touching the shining skylight of the present to the underground chambers that catapult visitors centuries into the past.
I couldn’t help but thank Dr. Sackler for putting his publishing fortune toward the purchase of vast Asian artifact collections. If you don’t have a De Lorean time machine, there is no easier way to travel to the Tang and Zhou dynasties, where you can find ornate jade pendants carved by string, observe high-tech candle fixtures that direct light and smoke, and ward off evil spirits with fearsome gargoyles. And that’s just the China wing.
There’s much more to explore at the Sackler and reason to celebrate its 25th year. Get connected with ancient cultures, contemporary perspectives, and find out why there’s more than meets the eye.