What old objects in the Asian Art Museum strike you as modern (or contemporary) in some way? With the exhibition Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past open, now is the time to ponder this.

Send in your candidates, with a short statement for each saying what you find modern about it.  Don’t have your own photos of the collection? Find some here at our e-museum. Hint: do a search for a favorite animal, object, or interesting region to get started, and note the permalink at the bottom of each object’s entry (it might come in handy when you post your submission).

Here are a few picks by our chief curator, Forrest:

Less Is More


Vase, approx. 1050-1130. China; Hebei province. Glazed porcelain. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P157.

“We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way through to freedom from ornament.” So said the Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos in his 1908 manifesto Ornament and Crime.

For many modern artists, architects, and designers eliminating ornament—and in fact eliminating any inessential element—was a crusade. The watchwords were “Truth to materials” and “Form follows function.”

What could be more stripped down, more elegantly pure, than this nearly thousand-year-old Chinese vase? Its contours are as simple and smooth as a bird’s egg, and its surface as lustrous as a seashell. This is an artwork to get lost in contemplating.

Less Is a Bore

Elephant throne (howdah), approx. 1870-1920. India; Chhattisgarh state, former princely state of Surguja. Partially gilded and painted silver over wood, with velvet and wicker. Acquisition made possible by Nancy B. Hamon in honor of Johnson S. Bogart. 2001.12.A-.C.

Or so said the American architect and theorist Robert Venturi. We look at a lavishly ornamented silver elephant throne and can’t help taking it as a piece of high camp: garish, middle-brow, essentially laughable. What do the lion and buffalo have to do with the peacock-panther? Why the solemn coat of arms amid the riotous Indian foliage? What is THE POINT?

But we live in chaos, with every kind of thing jostling every other. Maybe occasionally things that enter our field of vision make some sort of sense together, but usually they don’t. The commotion, the confusion, the jumpin indeterminacy are the point, y’all.

Have you ever really cast your eyes on this extraordinary modern object for more than a second? Visit Phantoms of Asia and then give it a try.

Sex and Death

The Hindu deity Shiva in the fierce form of Bhairava, approx. 1300-1500. India; Karnataka state. Chloritic schist. Gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council, 2000.6.

Nothing new about them. This voluptuous naked man is a form of the Hindu god Shiva. He has cut off a head (yes, “a”) of another god and in punishment must wander the world as a beggar with the head attached to his hand.

His matted hair stands up like a fright wig and he is decked with a necklace of skulls and other gruesome decorations. Disgusting, really. But—what about those pecs, those hips, that tight waist, that provocative swagger? In the myth of Shiva’s wanderings the people  he passes are both repulsed and attracted, and so are we.

The quivering intersection of desire and violence: Jean Genet, anyone? Yukio Mishima? True Blood, Game of Thrones?  With serious religious content we’re in the realm of Dead Man Walking.

Belly Laughs

Two-handled vessel in the shape of a water skin, approx. 1200-800 BCE. Northern Iran; probably Amlash. Earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P2015.

If you’re as old as I am you remember an Alka Selzer commercial from the 1960s in which a man and a talking stomach get in a squabble. “We don’t get along. Heaven knows I’ve tried,” says the man. “He gave up hot tamales” the stomach grumbles. “Now he’s on a new kick: pepperoni pizzas.”

The talking stomach in the ad is a bag with eyes, a mouth, and sections of intestine waving like floppy antennae. Whether this 3000-year-old Iranian vessel in the shape of a water- or wine-skin can talk out loud, who knows. But it testifies to an age-old—and contemporary—delight in whimsy. The ancient Iranian potters could fashion symmetrical, precisely shaped vessels with ease. Making an irregular organic shape like a sewed up skin or bladder for holding liquid would be at least as challenging. The artistry here is in giving the clay version of a wine skin so much animation and quirky personality.

We’ve shown you some old objects that look modern. Now it’s your turn?

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