Art That Moves

Sackler Show Spins Heads

Posted July 21, 2009 at 3:27pm

Visitors to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s latest rotation in the “Moving Perspectives— series should expect to leave with their heads spinning with Asian symbolism.

The exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Asian art gallery shows the work of two artists, Shahzia Sikander and Sun Xun. Each artist’s video work is displayed on large screens in two dark rooms, empty except for a bench or two in front of the screen.

The series began last September, and this is its fourth rotation. Curator Carol Huh said it builds on the Perspectives series in the gallery’s pavilion that changes every year but uses video to show how contemporary art is evolving.

“Throughout the entire series, what loosely sort of binds them together is some relationship between past and present, and it’s shown in video,— she said.

Sikander uses both Eastern and Western drawing and symbols in her animation. The aptly named 2003 contribution, “SpiNN,— shows people and fictional creatures moving around in front of a static background of pillars and murals. One part shows a group of Chinese individuals with their black hair tied high on their heads. Then the bodies fade away and the hair flies around in a circle, looking almost like bats. Different images come and go throughout the seven-minute film, and the music shifts the mood accordingly.

Sikander trained in miniature painting in Lahore, Pakistan, but rebelled against the genre’s more recent tilt toward kitschy art. Huh said she has only made a few videos. “SpiNN’s— message isn’t strictly political or religious, according to the artist.

“SpiNN takes imagery that forces simplified understandings of global multiculturalism to be challenged through a vocabulary that is as vague as it is specific. The notion is that a foreign image, technique, or style is creating a counter exoticism full of mutual intrusions,— she told an interviewer in an essay posted on her Web site. “The title SpiNN also alludes to powerful mass-media corporations and to the ways in which core information about a subject is often hidden behind layers of perception that can suggest multiple meanings. Perception is shaped and altered on a daily basis, and information is spun to show us what we want.—

Sikander’s more recent video, “Pursuit Curve,— is also being shown.

In the second room, Sun Xun shows two works, “Chinese Words: War— from 2005 and “Shock of Time— from 2006. Sun Xun’s videos are reminiscent of comic books and political cartoons. His main character in “Shock of Time— is a faceless magician who marches across a moving background of aged newsprint. “History is a lie of time,— the video declares at one point, and follows the bold statement a second later with a question mark. Monster movie music plays as a clock tower rises and clock parts grind.

Sun Xun’s art reflects his understanding of the transformation of his native China, according to Huh. He graduated from the printmaking department at the China Academy of Fine Arts and later opened his own animation studio.

The Sackler Gallery, which opened in 1987, was originally built to house Arthur Sackler’s collection of Asian art. It is connected to the Freer Gallery, which was named after collector Charles Lang Freer and opened in 1923. Only the Sackler includes contemporary art, however. The two galleries are across the street from the Independence Avenue exit of the Smithsonian Metro stop.

The museum also hosts Asian-inspired concerts, lectures and cinema in Meyer Auditorium in the Freer Gallery. For example, a weekly series called “Trash Nights— will bring “Asia’s best cult movies— to the nation’s capital starting on July 30.