Japan Envisions the West, or How I learned to take a hot air balloon to work

I’ve been so busy with trailwork and Ancora board meetings and other quotidian flotsam and jetsam that when an entire Saturday opened up in my schedule last weekend, I knew the only sensible thing to do was to spend it at the SAM and the University of Washington libraries. Oh man, it was so indulgent, taking a day away from all of my other responsibilities and general boredom to sink entirely into my mind, to look, to read, to think.

Anyway, the SAM has an exhibition on right now, Japan Envisions the West, which opened about a week and a half ago. I’ve had two info desk shifts since it opened, but I haven’t been able to leave my post to wander around upstairs, so this open Saturday was earmarked for seeing the exhibit. On Friday night, at my info desk shift, I saw that there was going to be a tour just for the gallery volunteers (you know, the people who wander around with the Ask Me! buttons) in the Asian Art galleries, and made the leap that it was supposed to be for the Japan exhibit. The SAM is desperately short of weekend docents, and there were NO TOURS scheduled for the Japan exhibit on Saturday, so I called the volunteer coordinator on Friday night and left a message on her voicemail saying that I was just going to show up for this tour. I might not be a gallery volunteer, but I’m at the info desk, and people have questions for me, so it should be fine, right? Right?

Anyway, I got downtown and showed up for the little tour at 9:45, which ended up not being for the Japan exhibit at all (I should have figured this out, since they’re short on docents). But, at least the volunteer coordinator had the chance to see how keen I was (as if it isn’t totally obvious). Afterwards I headed up to see the Japan exhibit and it was SO FANTASTIC. I don’t normally pick up the little headphone thingies, but I did this time (what do I know about Asian art??), and it was so early that the gallery was still quite empty and I didn’t feel like a total doofus carrying it around. I’m glad I picked it up — it really helped highlight the important aspects of the exhibit, and made me “see” the art more clearly.

The show was curated by the Kobe City Museum, and is designed to show how Japan was influenced by the arrival of Western traders on their shores from the 17th through 19th centuries. An insular society, the Shogun sealed Japan’s borders entirely; outsiders were not permitted to enter for any reason. When Dutch and Chinese traders initially began trading with Japan, they were forced to drop anchor in the harbor of Nagasaki, and the Japanese would come to them. With Commodore Perry’s arrival in the mid-1800’s, a deal was brokered that allowed small trading settlements in Nagasaki, but effectively Japan’s borders remained sealed. This created tremendous demand for Western objects, and also limited the information that most Japanese had about the Westerners who landed on their shores. Each artwork from the exhibit showed the interplay between East and West, whether the final destination for the object was Japan or elsewhere.

The variety of objects shown were astounding. The collection is tremendous and far-reaching, and every aspect, every impact has been considered. Objects include:

-maps from Europe that show the developing geograph of Japan (Gaipan)
-clothing made with Dutch textiles
-block print portraits of Commodore Perry
-screens showing Dutch traders with Japanese traders (you can distinguish the Dutch by their clothes and black caps — one man has curly red hair!)
-gorgeous Japanese scrolls painted with European-style botanical flowers and anatomical figures
-casement pieces that are made in Japan with Japanese-style decoration, to be shipped back to Holland for sale
-wood block prints of “life in America” that show us travelling by hot air balloon(!) or riding on locomotives which arrive on platforms that look suspiciously like shipping docks!

I must say, before this show came to Seattle, it never occurred to me that there might have occurred a reverse Orientialism the way that Chinoiserie grasped the Western imagination in the Age of Exploration in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. Nor did it occur to me that there may have been the same kind of xenophobia and racism (in this case, directed at white men) that at that time Westerners harbored towards non-Europeans. The images from the show reveal that the Japanese were just as inclined towards racial stereotypes as anyone else, and were as misinformed about the West as we were about the East (funny that I, an American of the 21st Century, lump myself into the “we” of Europeans of the 18th C). It’s a comfort to me that racial stereotypes are a natural impulse for all of us, regardless of the color of our skin. Anyway, I found the whole show to be really amazing, very eye-opening.

After I finished wandering around, I had lunch down at the Crumpet Shop (thanks, Fes!), and then plotted about how to get up to the University of Washington Art Library for the afternoon. I’ve been reading about Damien Hirst, and I wanted to get into the library to read more about the YBAs. I got there around 2, and spent three hours reading, poking around in the stacks. More when I have time. Oh, it was so wonderful. How I miss school!!

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~ by ecp on November 1, 2007.

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