The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is currently doing its best to relate to a contemporary audience hungry for art that reflects the audience members’ daily lives, questions of identity and struggles. The institution is making a conscious and visible effort to prove itself a space not only for art history and conservation, but also for essential conversations on the Asian American experience.
Such efforts are manifest in the San Francisco cultural mecca’s latest exhibit, “Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan,” a chronicle of the friendship and artistic partnership between Isamu Noguchi and Saburo Hasegawa. Both men distinguished themselves in their respective artistic fields — Noguchi as a sculptor and designer and Hasegawa as a painter and abstract theorist — and came together over pressing questions of Japanese national identity and the preservation of tradition following the global uproar of WWII.
The most straightforward and essentialist way to go about framing an exhibition as contemporarily relevant is to strip it down to its barest bones and demonstrate how the crises of today are founded upon the same skeleton — and, perhaps, even how we can see the same muscles and joints built up by the exhibition’s subject bolster ourselves in a present predicament. In “Changing and Unchanging,” the museum has taken such an approach. As curator Karin Oen explained at an opening reception panel for the collection, it’s an exhibition about finding solace in community and hope in troubled times. Noguchi, born in the U.S., and Hasegawa, born in Japan, turned to cooperative artistic work in the tumultuous years following the eruption of violence on the global stage of WWII, drawing upon Japanese tradition — to which they inevitably related to in a markedly different fashion — to alleviate the aches of some of the tearing of cultural fabric and even begin to restitch its fissures.
Oen specifically cited the recent climate strikes — calls to action against another universally-spanning issue demanding collective action and mobilization – as an issue with which viewers may choose to put this exhibition in conversation. “This is a moment of rupture that we are trying urgently, urgently to work against,” Oen said. “This is about the joining of voices in a conversation that is pondering the same (sorts of) issues,” she stated.
According to the supplementary material posted on the walls, the friendship that spurred the works in this exhibition was born out of the artists’ shared hopes “ ‘to find yugen (profundity)’ and ‘the spirit of things (past).’ ” It’s a rather vague mission, but fittingly so for the creation of art bounded only by the pair’s joint interest in building off of the reverberations of centuries of Japanese tradition — from tea ceremonies to zen-inspired ink drawings. The exhibition suggests that culture, as enforced by such ancient rituals, continuously shapes our lives, just as much so today as it did almost 70 years ago for Noguchi and Hasegawa.
While vastly ranging in medium — from paper lanterns to ink paintings — the works included in “Changing and Unchanging” are united by a sense of “groundedness” in the actual world. They are not flashy, sticking with gentle tones of whites, blacks and tans and at times even appear weightless, as in Noguchi’s delicately bent “Pregnant Bird,” and none would seem out of place in a serene garden.
It’s fitting, in a moment, as Oen mentioned, marked by a fundamental disconnect between today’s conception of modern living, that this exhibition, full of works conceived at the turn of modernity, also includes its fair share of odes to Mother Earth herself. Some of Hasegawa’s works employ salvaged wood, left relatively unembellished. Noguchi’s bronze “Lessons of Musokokushi,” inspired by Zen Buddhist rock gardens, mirrors stalwart rock formations.
There are plenty of hot-topic discussions to be had in relation to this exhibition: conversations about the contemporary reverberations of WWII, transnational Asian American diaspora, cultural heritage and belonging, the footholds that the process of artistic creation can provide in times of duress. At its most basic, however, “Changing and Unchanging” finds grounding in the simple fact of an unofficial joining of two artists — quite simply, a friendship.
It’s this simple fact of its foundation, a story of kinship that, after all, speaks to the universal human need for connection, that at the end of the day makes this exhibition relatable.