Making the Band

POSTED BY , ON February 23, 2012, Comments Off on Making the Band

The Ando Gallery was originally commissioned by the Art Institute from the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando to display byobu, or Japanese screens. Ando aimed to create a space that would present the byobu not as art objects in isolation, but within “the spirit of the original Japanese space.” Many objects are thus placed at floor-level as they would be in traditional spaces and the rift-sawn oak pillars that frame the gallery entryway recall the columned porches or entrance halls of Japanese buildings. The current exhibition in the space, Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments, transports the viewer in a similar manner and introduces us to traditional instruments that come from ancient traditions.

Japan’s oldest type of classical music is the gagaku (orchesteral court music). It dates from the Heian period (794–1192) and includes music from the zither (gakusô) and pipes (shô). There are two sets of pipes on view in the exhibition and despite the fact that one is from the 17th century and one is from the 19th, they look nearly identical. They both include 17 bamboo pipes (although two are silent) and both emit tones in a resonant cluster, often providing a constant backdrop for gagaku performances. The zither on view would have just been used for gagaku performances, as is evident by the elaborate decorations and inlaid mother-of-pearl, ivory, and gold. It has thicker strings to produce the deeper sound characteristic of these performances.

The exhibition also includes a video of a gagaku performance by the Japanese Imperial Palace Music Department, which provides helpful context for the objects and their potential.


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The New Weston Wing

POSTED BY , ON October 18, 2010, 1 COMMENTS

At the Art Institute, it has been very exciting, as we close in on our museum-wide reinstallation program, to see a familiar space transformed into something new and different. The new Roger L. and Pamela Weston Wing and Japanese Art Galleries are just that. The galleries opened on September 26, with their physical layout fluidly reorganized around certain focal points. They feel incredibly elegant and feature many recent acquisitions. The space was designed by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Planning; fans of Tadao Ando’s gallery of pillars will be happy to learn that Ando was Yantrasast’s mentor, so the slight renovations to the lighting in the Ando gallery were in good hands. The new galleries are subtly beautiful, with details like plush carpeting, diffused lighting, and cool wall colors. These touches complement curator Janice Katz’s selection of objects, which include ceramic tomb figures dating back to 12,500 BCE, Buddhist and Shinto sculpture, objects related to the tea ceremony, paintings from the Edo period, and contemporary ceramics and prints.

As an educator, I am most excited about the fact that the new galleries are spacious enough to accommodate groups with gallery stools! This means that docents can return to objects that are perennial favorites with kids and adults alike such as Shukongo-jin, the Thunderbolt God.

The new installation weaves together traditional and contemporary art in very interesting ways, and the inclusion of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works throughout the galleries makes a clear statement that Japanese art is a living tradition that is still unfolding. I especially like the special exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints, The Jack D. Beem Collection: Emerging Japanese Print Artists of the 1960s, 70s, and Beyond, on view within the Japanese art galleries through January 9.

On your next trip to the museum look out for more gallery re-openings coming soon. On deck are new textiles galleries in November, followed by new galleries for African and and Indian Art of the Americas in February.


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Coming soon…

POSTED BY , ON January 12, 2010, 4 COMMENTS


If you visit the Art Institute sometime in the near future, you may be disappointed to learn that the Japanese galleries will be closed until fall 2010. The good news is that the reason for this closing is a renovation of the existing space and reinstallation of the Japanese art collection.

One set of works that will be displayed for the first time in the new Weston Wing for Japanese Art are four carved wooden architectural transoms (ramma panels) that were created by master Buddhist sculptor Takamara Koun for the Japanese pavilion, the Phoenix Hall, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition here in Chicago.

The Phoenix Hall was Japan’s main national pavilion at the fair. Modeled on an 11th century temple outside Kyoto, it stood out against the beaux-arts buildings that made up the majority of the rest of the fair, the so-called “White City.” After the fair, the Japanese government gave the Phoenix Hall to the city of Chicago. However, two fires in 1945 and 1946 (supposedly acts of arson) destroyed the structures and necessitated their demolition. The only four pieces of the building remaining were the four ramma panels. These were stored—and forgotten—by the city under the bleachers of Soldier Field until they were discovered there in 1973.

These icons of Chicago history and Japanese art were then separated: two panels were given to the Art Institute and two to the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, following UIC’s concerns over the condition of their ramma, their two panels were given to the Art Institute in order to better conserve and display them. The museum is currently raising money for the restoration of the four panels so that they can be displayed together for the first time outside of the Japanese pavilion.

And the moral of this story is…you never know what you’re going to find under the bleachers at Soldier Field.

Takamura Koun. Japanese, 1852-1934. Carved transoms (ramma) panels from the Phoenix Hall (detail), 1893. Wood with polychromy. 79.4 x 278.8 x 7.6 cm (31 ¼ x 109 3/4 x 3 inches) each.