Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Permanent Collection – Korean Galleries Reinstallation

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently opened their new display of the museum’s permanent collection of Korean art.  The new space, on the plaza level of the Hammer Building,  is the largest space devoted to the display of Korean art outside Korea.  The museum used the existing space (which was previously used for temporary exhibition), and made only small changes to the architecture.  The space still exists as a cycle of rooms which are easy and pleasing to traverse.

After entering the double doors of the gallery you are greeted by an opening in the wall, which has been flanked by traditional paper windows, which are opened like shutters.

Highlighting loan pieces

Highlighting loan pieces

The space showcases a loan piece: The Pensive Bodhisattva, which which is graciously being loaned from the National Museum of Korea.  Also in the entry room is an approachable wall text which introduces briefly the historic periods of Korea that the works on display come from.  It also explains that the galleries are organized thematically versus by time period or by region.  This reminded me of the way the Getty Villa organizes its galleries, which I think they do successfully.  On the left side of the entry way there is a large blown-up photograph of a Korean temple, if front of which is a long bench.

Room with a view

Room with a view

The galleries had the same cement floors that previously existed in the space, except in the entry room where new luscious hardwood floors have been installed.  The walls were all a very clean white, which when inspected closer were not painted, but actually crisp rice paper.

The first room had just one object in it: a beautiful painted map of Korea.  The map is also a loan piece, but when it was displayed by itself it served as a nice way to introduce the artistic region of Korea.  Already it was obvious that the loan pieces were being displayed with great respect, and were highlighted throughout the exhibition.  The National Museum of Korea loaned LACMA a selection of 26 artworks for the opening of these galleries.

The second room focus was on painting.  The dimly-lit rooms felt warm dispute the cold cement floors and simple wood benches allowed the visitors to sit down and appreciate the paintings. Large landscapes were displayed on one wall, vertical hanging scrolls on another, and large scale portraits on the far wall.  The way the paintings were displayed in correlation to one another I though was done in a very interesting way.  There seemed to be an effort to not display things in a way that involved symmetry or balance.

Painting gallery – screens & scrolls
DSCN0937 (5-6)

Painting gallery – screens & scrolls

The two landscapes were unbalanced, the hanging scrolls purposely hung to deny bilateral symmetry, and the portraits seemed to be hung left to right in descending order.  On the fourth wall of this room was a display case with smaller scale paintings.  The paintings inside presented a variety of the ways painting could be mounted, on silk, on paper, and even on long scrolls.  A video screen even showed the entire scroll in the case unrolled.  This video was only one of many in the galleries. The didactic videos never had sound and only short snippets of text to read.  In the paintings room there was a video which showed how brush paintings are made and focused on showing technique.

A Queen’s screen

A Queen’s screen

The next room had several areas.  In the first area was displayed the “Women’s Quarters.” This area featured several painted screens which were conveniently displayed on the ground and on angles, to show how the screens actually functioned.  Also in this room were glorious glass display cases containing luxury objects.  Some cases featured only one object and some contained several objects that had similar utilitarian uses. The cases were themselves beautiful modern art objects glittering in their brand-spanking-newness.  The cases were designed by One O One Architects, and fuse contemporary look with traditional Korean materials.

Utilitarian treasures

Utilitarian treasures

On the other side of the room more display cases contained a slew of objects like ceramics, tiles, and hats.  I found the hats particularly interesting because they seemed to be the exact hats that were worn by some of the men in the portraits from the previous painting room.  It was an excellent curatorial choice to display the actual objects is such close proximity to the painted versions.  You had to go back into the painting room to continue on to other rooms, so the comparison and recognition of the objects in the portraits was unavoidable.

I just saw that hat

I just saw that hat

The next thematic room was what I assumed was the religion room.  The room featured sculpture and painting.  A longer video ran on another small discrete monitor which informed in a very subtle way the motifs and subject matter of Korean religious art.  The inclusion of both painting and sculpture was very clever as it invited comparisons about the way the same subject, themes, and story are depicted in various mediums.  Two sculptures were displayed side by side, and a formal comparison of metal and wooden sculpture was displayed.

Religious images, in wood and gold

Religious images, in wood and gold

Then it was onto to see the star of the exhibition, the loan piece of The Pensive Bodhisattva.  The piece is here in America for only a few weeks, and when you view it, you will know why Korea wants it back so quickly.  The sculpture is a masterpiece of the late sixth century.  The gilt-bronze Bodhisattva was cast in a now lost technique, and is uncommonly large in scale.  I noticed that there were cushions or pads in the room.  They were left there after a ceremony in which monks came and blessed the galleries.  The curators decided to leave the pads there for viewers to meditate on.  Or a viewer can simple walk around the Korean treasure and enjoy it in the round.

National Treasure: “The Pensive Bodhisattva”

National Treasure: “The Pensive Bodhisattva”

After this bright room was a dark room which featured works organized thematically around the art of the literati.  Brushes and small works of calligraphy were displayed in one case.  I did not stay long in this room because I was quickly courted on into the next room due to the fact that it was flooded with natural light.

Most beautiful room in LACMA

Most beautiful room in LACMA

I’m not used to seeing natural light flood the space of a gallery, which is only one of the reasons why the ceramics room was such a treat.  The exhibition designers decided to remove the existing wall, and exposed the large floor-to-ceiling windows that were behind the wall.  In front of the window are five large ceramic vessels; behind them through the windows is the green of the bark and large planter boxes full of bamboo.  This room might be the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen in an art museum.

Color-categorized ceramics

Color-categorized ceramics

The display cases in this room were organized by type of ceramic.  So in one case would be only blue and white ceramics made from Kaolin, in another would be only the jade-tone Punchong ceramics, and in another would be a collection of rich green celadon glazed ware.  One case in this room also displayed a collection of lacquer boxes. All of them were ornately decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay.  With all of these cases in the room the small differences were what matter, so in the lacquer boxes only small differences in decorative motif separated the boxes.  The close inspection required to viewer to really look closely at the works on display.

Celedon glazed ware & Turquoise inlay lacquer boxes

Celedon glazed ware & Turquoise inlay lacquer boxes

In the last room was a really innovative installation of objects.  The narrow hall forces a reflection between the grid-like contemporary painting with an innovative display case of ceramic shards.  The shards are a selection from LACMA’s 850 piece Asakawa-Henderson Korean Ceramic Shard Collection.  The collection was created by two Japanese researchers during the 1910’s and ‘20s.  According to the exhibition’s press release, “LACMA is the only institution outside Korea and Japan to hold such a comprehensive collection.”  The shards are displayed in a long case in a color-coded grid.  The accompanying map is the key to the map, where different colors signify Korea’s eight main provincial regions.  The educational tool is functional and really beautiful; a truly innovative way to communicate information to a museum’s public while still being aesthetically pleasing.

Asakawa-Henderson Korean Ceramic Shard Collection

Asakawa-Henderson Korean Ceramic Shard Collection

The reinstallation as a whole is very beautiful, and not just because it is new.  It shows that permanent collections can be displayed in creative ways that aren’t too theatrical or zany (like LAMCA’s Pardo-design Pre-Columbian galleries).  The new display also proves that education can be displayed in a non-distracting way, and that giving the viewer to freedom to choose his or her level of engagement with the educational materials really is the best way to do it.  I can’t wait to return to these galleries, because they are now my favorite in Los Angeles.

Comparison installation

Comparison installation

– H.I.

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