Set within the beautiful Volunteer Park, the Seattle Asian Art Museum is absolutely wonderful. There, I said it. I was lucky enough to visit on an equally wonderful, sunny day in Seattle which only added to my afternoon.
As a local, I was surprised to find that I had never been to Volunteer Park before, let alone the SAAM. I chose a great day for my first trip. Sunshine, flowers, and people strolling through the park on a Wednesday afternoon. What a great day! And let me tell you, it got better. Prepare yourself, I’m about to faun over a museum.
SAAM currently resides in what was once the home of the entirety of the Seattle Art Museum, a 1933 Art Moderne beauty. SAM moved downtown in 1991 and the original building reopened as the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1994. The two share management and resources, as well as offering admission to both venues for the price of one (if visited within one week). The Art Moderne building alone would be the reason for me to love this museum, but it has so much more to offer than a pretty face.
I began my visit in a gallery on Liu Xiaodong, “A Hometown Boy”, which featured paintings, sketches, and a documentary by the artist. It seeks to capture the life in a typical Chinese town, the artists home, with a focus on the mundane. He depicts real people, in their homes, living their lives. It was a thought-provoking examination of the role of art in society. Is it merely aesthetic or does it serve to tell a story? The video, in particular, was interesting as it showed the artist interacting with the same people shown in his paintings.
The next gallery in this long white hallway was rather small and only contained one piece. The museum was featuring a new acquisition, AI Weiwei’s “Colored Vases”. The large traditional earthenware pots were dipped in industrial paint and left to drip dry. They played with the idea of old versus new and authenticity. One thing I noticed immediately in this space was the excellent use of lighting, something I later came to realize was a common theme in this museum.
From there I moved into a realm more suited to me than that of contemporary art, historical art. The galleries in this area focused on China from the Neolithic to the Qing. I am moderately well versed in themes present in Chinese art, so the pieces were relatively familiar. What surprised me most was the display techniques utilized by the museum staff. The ceramics mounts were quite simply beautiful. The use of lighting and color were spot on and in many cases, the visitor could view the cases from all sides. One thing I did notice a few times was an odd emptiness to some wall mounted cases. They were quite large but featured low-profile objects. Perhaps they once housed larger/taller artifacts?
The last gallery on this side of the museum was another contemporary exhibit, this time on Wan Qingli’s ink paintings. I loved his use of a traditional Chinese art form to depict modern subjects, like square watermelons and urinals.
The Foyer in the center of the museum offers visitors a place to sit and rest. It also houses some truly lovely stone reliefs, most from Buddhist, Taoist, and Jainist temples. I was eager to see the rest of the galleries, but I would have liked to stay and appreciate these reliefs in more depth.
The other half of the building is designed in contrast to the previous with dimmer lighting and dark wall colors. These galleries focused primarily on Seattle collectors of Asian Art, many of whom contributed works to the museum. Here you have more diversity of origin. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art of a variety of periods as well as photographs and stories about the families who collected it. One piece of note was the “Poem Scroll with Deer”. Parts of this massive scroll are owned by several museums, only two of which are SAAM and SAM, but you can view it in its entirety through an interactive display. Shown in either English or Japanese, the display zooms in and translates sections of the poem as directed by the user. There is also a segment discussing the year-long conservation project undertaken on this piece. It was a delightful display and added greatly to the enjoyment of the scroll.
One other gallery with a wonderful interactive display was “Dr. Richard Fuller & Beyond: Chinese Art”, which showed visitors the online catalog of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy. I was completely unaware of this resource prior to visiting the museum and I am so excited that it is accessible anywhere! They have a display in the gallery which accesses the website for visitors to explore, but they also include information for viewing it at home.