"Noble Splendor: Art of Japanese Aristocrats" — a small installation of Japanese art at SAM, some of it resurfaced from the vaults of the currently-under-renovation Seattle Asian Art Museum — also serves as an experiment on how to best engage museum visitors.
In 2011, one of Japan’s most famous 2-year-olds went to Harborview Medical Center for a CT scan.
Doctors and technicians carefully placed the child in the machine, looking for something in his stomach. They didn’t find anything, which was mildly disappointing.
“We were hoping!” said Xiaojin Wu, curator of Japanese and Korean art at Seattle Art Museum. “There’s a very similar sculpture of Prince Shotoku at age 2 at Harvard Art Museum. That one had tons of stuff inside, like a sutra. He was considered a reincarnation of Buddha, so people put devotional things in there.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what’s inside him. SAM’s “Prince Shotoku at Age Two” (exquisitely carved from hinoki cypress around 1300 A.D., with crystal inlaid eyes) looks like he can see right through you.
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According to old stories, Prince Shotoku was born in the doorway of a horse stable but, at the age of 2, put his hands together and chanted the name of Buddha, eventually bringing Buddhism to Japan.
“It’s interesting to see how much wisdom you can see in a 2-year-old,” Wu said. “On one hand, you can see the big belly, the chubby face, the cuteness of a toddler. But he looks enlightened.”
The Prince is the centerpiece of a small but experimental installation of Japanese art at SAM — some of it resurfaced from the vaults of Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) in Volunteer Park, currently under renovation.
And the show, “Noble Splendor: Art of Japanese Aristocrats,” comes with its own set of surprises.
For example: While SAM staffers were carefully boxing up and cataloging the work at SAAM, they found something strange. Someone had donated lacquer boxes to the museum 50 years ago, Wu said, but until SAAM closed for renovation nobody had peeked inside. SAM staff found over 100 clam shells, inlaid with gold and intricately painted, as part of a matching game.
“Those shells were in the lacquer boxes for 50 years and nobody ever took them out!” Wu said. “They’re exquisite. It’s interesting how well organic materials like shell can preserve so well.”
The gold-coated shells glisten in the museum, alongside old silk-scroll paintings, a 14th-century cosmetics box, and other objects that, Wu said, haven’t been displayed for years.
The installation’s other big surprise hasn’t been revealed yet, not even to Wu: data.
“Noble Splendor,” she said, is a “prototype gallery” with surveys asking people what they think of the wall text (a few objects come with three different versions), or even the title of the show. (Sample question on the survey: “Which title for this installation do you prefer?” The options: “No Realer Than Dreams,” “Noble Splendor: Art of Aristocrats in Japan,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Pious.”)
“The museum world in general is moving away from ‘the authoritative voice’ to a more engaging approach,” she said.
Some of the show’s wall text is traditionally straightforward (“according to legends, the Kasuga Shrine was built in the 8th century…”) and others are phrased as jaunty questions (“what do you think these objects symbolize?”).
“These days, people don’t slow down to actually look at the objects and read the labels,” Wu said. “How do we engage these busy minds who visit the museum?”
Ideally, the objects themselves (all commissioned by aristocrats) should suffice: antique cosmetics boxes, religious paintings on silk, the baby Prince Shotoku and his piercing eyes.
But Wu is curious to see how people react to their presentation. (On the day I visited, a clear plastic ballot box looked about half full.)
She hasn’t crunched the numbers yet, but the votes will matter. “We have to rewrite hundreds of labels now for when the Asian Art Museum reopens,” Wu said. “We’ve been having meetings about label-writing for years.”
Wu has been curating Japanese-art installations at SAM since April of last year on themes: urban life, women, the current aristocrats show. Next up: samurai.
“It’s always fun to have something for the kids,” she said. “So we’ll have samurai in the spring.”
“Noble Splendor: Art of Japanese Aristocrats.” Through March 3, 2019; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; by donation; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org.