Asia Society Museum Presents The Art of Impermanence
Through nearly 70 masterpieces of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, ceramics, lacquers, and textiles drawn from two of America’s great Japanese art collections, The Art of Impermanence examines Japan’s unique and nuanced references to transience.
Impermanence is a pervasive subject in Japanese thought and art. Objects in the exhibition span from the Jōmon period (ca. 15,000-300 BCE) to the twentieth century. From images that depict the cycle of the four seasons and red Negoro lacquer worn so it reveals the black lacquer beneath, to the gentle sadness evoked in the words of wistfully written poems, this exhibition demonstrates that much of Japan’s greatest art alludes directly or indirectly to the transient nature of life.
A richly illustrated catalogue copublished by Asia Society Museum and Officina Libraria accompanies the exhibition which is curated by Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator of Traditional Asian Art.
In her introductory essay for the catalogue, scholar Melinda Takeuchi of Stanford University notes: “Although cultures have decried the impending end of civilization through the ages. . .impermanence takes on a particular urgency—and particular irony—in today’s world.”
The exhibition continues Asia Society’s long history of presenting Japanese art and culture through exhibitions ranging from Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan to Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool. A series of related programs has been organized to coincide with the exhibition.
The exhibition begins with a section on “Retrieving Lost Worlds” comprising sculptural objects from Japan’s ancient civilizations. A flame-style vessel with elaborate designs and ridge ornamentation, which dates from the Middle Jōmon period, is one of the highlights of this section and the oldest piece in the show. No records exist of the Jōmon people who made vessels such as this one, and the reason it was made was lost with the culture that produced it. Coil-built by hand out of moist, soft clay, it is assumed to have been used for the preparation of food or drink for consumption during rituals.
A section titled “Buddhism: Accepting Impermanence” explores the notion of impermanence as a central existential condition in Buddhism and the idea that holding onto things is the source of human suffering. Included in this section are sutra scrolls, reliquaries, and sculptures depicting Buddhist figures. A stunning rock-crystal reliquary from the Kamakura period (fourteenth century) that enshrines five transparent quartz pebbles as relics is in the form of a Five-Element Pagoda (gorintō). The square base represents earth, the sphere water, the pyramid fire, the hemisphere wind, and the teardrop-shaped finial space.
“Tea: Choreographed Ephemerality” comprises aesthetically compelling teabowls, trays, and other objects crafted for use in the Japanese tea ceremony. Rooted in Zen Buddhist philosophy called chanoyu, the Way of Tea, these carefully orchestrated gatherings lasted from twenty minutes to four hours. Calm and beautiful surroundings often paired with elegant, tactile, and functional stoneware and lacquer objects aided this experience in which participants were able to quiet their minds, focus on their senses, appreciate the beverage and their surroundings, and tap into feelings of wistfulness associated with the transience of life.
The concept of impermanence has also permeated the written word in Japan, with laments about ephemeral things filling Japan’s earliest writings. The word sabi (loneliness), which Japanese learned from Chinese Tang dynasty poetry, originally connoted wretchedness. Over time, it took on the notion of an introspective type of beauty brought on by solitude. The four seasons connote impermanence though cyclical change and serve as a prevalent theme in the Japanese poetry, calligraphy, and scroll painting on view in the final section of the exhibition. The ephemeral cherry blossom graces a number of works in this section. Writings invoking the imagery of loneliness and solitude, as well as idealized portraits of Japan’s early poetic geniuses, are also included.
The exhibition coincides with Asia Week New York. A series of related programs has been organized exploring Japanese art and impermanence, including:
-Members opening reception and lecture with Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator of Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society and curator of The Art of Impermanence, on Tuesday, February 11, at 6:30 p.m.
-First Friday Leo Bar w exhibition tours, tea tastings and matcha demonstration, and more on Friday, March 6, from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
-Lecture with Sinéead Vilbar, Curator of Japanese Art, Cleveland Museum, on Wednesday, March 11, at 6:30 p.m.
-Lecture with Simon Kaner, Director for the Centre for Japanese Studies, University of East Anglia on Tuesday, March 31, at 6:30 p.m.
-Lecture with Melissa McCormick, Professor of Japanese Art and Culture, Harvard University, on Friday, April 24, at 6:30 p.m.
For tickets and the latest program updates, visit AsiaSociety.org/NY or call the box office at 212.517.ASIA (2742), Monday through Friday, 1pm to 5pm.
Support for The Art of Impermanence: Japanese Works from the John C. Weber Collection and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection comes from the Japan Foundation and an anonymous donor.
Support for Asia Society Museum is provided by Asia Society Global Council on Asian Arts and Culture, Asia Society Friends of Asian Arts, Arthur Ross Foundation, Sheryl and Charles R. Kaye Endowment for Contemporary Art Exhibitions, Hazen Polsky Foundation, Mary Griggs Burke Fund, Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and New York State Council on the Arts.
About Asia Society Museum
Asia Society Museum presents a wide range of traditional, modern, and contemporary exhibitions of Asian and Asian American art, taking new approaches to familiar masterpieces and introducing under-recognized arts and artists. The Asia Society Museum Collection comprises a traditional art collection that includes the initial bequests of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, and a contemporary art collection.
Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission during The Art of Impermanence is $7; free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, from 6:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. (September through June). A mobile phone audio tour is included in the price of admission. Find out more at AsiaSociety.org/NY.
Asia Society Museum is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with extended hours on Fridays until 9:00 p.m. (September through June). General admission to the museum during The Art of Impermanence is is $7.
Asia Society Museum is free on Fridays from 6–9 p.m. Free Friday evenings are suspended in summer when the Museum closes at 6 p.m.