Asia is a multi-dimensional entity. The most populated and diverse continent in the world, it gives birth to a prism of cultural nuances and personalities in the realms of architecture, fashion, language, music, philosophy and religion. The Asian Art Museum, located in the vibrant Civic Center in San Francisco, Ca., is an eloquent testament to this. Within its 90,000-square-foot building, exquisitely designed by renowned Italian architect Gae Aulenti, a multitude of artifacts and creative explorations inhabit – each drawn from the continent’s most fascinating subtleties.
Its walls contain objects as old as 6,000 years – gold-mines that pre-date written history. There are contemporary offerings as well, each filtered and curated through modern means. Ranging from Tibetan Buddhism to a fully-functioning Japanese tea room to celebrations of fashion in its “Couture Korea” gallery – offering a glimpse backward in time at the robe of a joseon-dynasty king to a glimpse forward at what is to come.
It is a collective summoning, asking that the visitor journey through their own enlightenment, transcendence and – ultimately – discovery of self through the mirrors we call art, ritual and history. A reverent yet unabashed celebration of diversity, each corner of the building provokes the kinds of conversations the world most craves.
I was most captivated by the third floor, which seems to hold echoes of thousands upon thousands of stories just beyond the veil of its meditative quietude. “The Fierce Feminine” exhibition, located in the heart of it, offers a celebration of Warrior Women in Himalayan Buddhism. It infused me with the eeriest feeling – as though one of its deities had swooped in with the softest kiss, exited with a thunderbolt and scurried off into nirvana.
There are ghostly offerings of folklore and legends of centuries past. Evidence of daily life – from simple ceramics to stunning porcelain wares. Displays of precious jade. Bronze weapons used during battles and sacrificial ceremonies. Intricately-carved sculptures. A bejeweled Buddha figure. Some ancient artifacts, some historically-accurate recreations.
Jeff Durham, Associate Curator for Himalayan Art for the museum since 2011, finds his domain on this floor. Durham expresses a sense of wonder as to how modes of artistic expression and culture, as well as the past, present and future, symphonize in these exhibitions for the public to experience it. “But I also have a sense of humility that I get to be the guy who captains it into public consciousness,” he says.
Durham has been responsible for many of the exhibitions visitors most marvel at, though he admits it has often meant embarking on a series of demanding – though immensely rewarding – journeys. “All exhibitions begin with hours upon hours of conversation. We examine floor plans and art objects, searching for symbolisms we can draw out. The questions is always: How can we use either symbolism or simple esthesis as a stratagem for hooking the interest of the visitor?”
He is currently immersed in curating two exhibitions to be launched in the spring of 2018. The first is “Divine Bodies: Sacred Imagery and Asian Art.”
It was constructed from a simple question, posed in simple conversation: What happens when the infinite divine gets a finite body, in artistic terms? While in New York City for Asia Week with some of his fellow art professionals, he and Qamar Adamjee, Curator of South Asian Art for the museum, were exploring the city, discussing how much the streets resembled blood vessels. “‘We are like bodies within the body,’ we said to each other. We started speculating that this notion of being a body in a body in a body might be the fundamental insight into the mystery of embodiment,” says Durham.
On the basis of a conversation had while dodging pedestrians and puddles in the frenetic streets of Manhattan, the two enthusiasts returned to San Francisco and began discussing how the various images they had in collection at the museum might create a brand new kind of exhibition. “We decided we wanted to develop a sort of metalanguage of the spirit. We’re all searching for truth to connect everything. So, considering that, we are asking: Is it possible to use art as a springboard from time to eternity? I think the answer is yes. This upcoming exhibition is a great exercise in making that case,” says Durham.
And, all seriousness aside, Durham is having colossal fun assembling it. “It is a coming together independent of my personal intent. Curators are isolationists. They like to hide out and build ivory towers, then stick them in museums. But this is not an isolated curator sitting in a room coming up with some master plan; it’s now a conversation the whole museum is having,” he says.
Which is sort of what Durham wishes will invite the public to also do as well. Durham enjoys working with Adamjee on this, not only because it is their collective brainchild, but because she brings her expertise in south asian painting and sculpture. Karin Oem, Curator for Contemporary Art for the museum, is also heavily involved.
“This is a triple-curated show, which has never been done before,” says Durham. “And it will be smaller than our normal exhibitions. It will be open and airy – inspired by contemporary modes of art presentation. The idea is that you, the visitor, get to be your own explorer through this exhibition.”
None of the objects will be labelled. Instead, they will be grouped thematically and in an easy-to-navigate format. Each visitor will be handed a booklet which will guide them through the objects by tokens of information about each. The goal is for the interplay between viewer and object to be more interactive and individually explored than that of traditional exhibitions. “We want it to be completely immersive and – with any luck – transformative,” says Durham.
Much like when one bends closely into a mirror and identifies unfamiliar details of their own features – from the tiny specks of gold in their eyes to the curved tip of their nose – that they would never be aware of otherwise, perhaps art is also a mirror. It is a mirror of consciousness. If the way we perceive the world is merely a projection of what is stirring inside, the way we perceive art is also illuminating. What we fall madly in love with, what calls to us and what lures us like a magnet – those are all projections. Art can awaken us to that which imprisons or liberates us. And it reveals to us the playful curiosities, longings and wonders trampling about inside of our souls – whistling and waiting to be imagined and brought to the natural.
Durham, who specializes in Tibetan art, says the idea of art being a guide to one’s own transformation is sort of what fuels everything he has ever curated – from the perceivably dark to the light. “Tibetan Tonka paintings are actually called mirrors. It mirrors back to us our own awareness, and that is what all art can do,” he says.
Which brings us to his next venture: “A Guided Tour of Hell.” This exhibition is by no means a celebration of evil. Rather, it is an artistic journey that asks the viewer to welcome its notion of contrast in order to broaden their own scope of awareness. Perhaps “A Guided Tour of Hell,” ironically, is a roundabout and winding invitation to seek Heaven.
It came about on an unsuspecting day. Durham was positioned at his office desk and staring out of his window into a buzzing downtown San Francisco. The phone rang, rattling him from his trance. It was Samuel Bercholz, Founder of Shambhala Publications (the largest Buddhist publishing house in the world), who Durham had long admired but had never met. Durham expressed that he was pleased to meet him by phone, unprepared for Bercholz’s response. “‘Well, I died,’ he told me,” says Durham.
Leaning fully into the conversation, Durham listened with total arrestment as Bercholz delved deeply into sharing his experience of having had a massive heart attack, then flatlining in a bed at a Palm Springs, Ca. hospital. Whether a hallucination or reality (or both, or neither?), Bercholz was absolutely certain he had ascended out of his body and dropped straight into the belly of hell. He revealed that, through that experience, he saw an almost kaleidoscopic-like variety of conditionings that were crafted from the conditioning each being he saw had created for themselves.
“He described it as an exploration of different modes of different karmic retribution. It was obviously a really powerful experience for him but, for a couple of years, he didn’t know what to do with it. Then inspiration called him to do something with it, so he contacted Illustrator Pema Namdol Thaye to transcribe his vision for a book. That happened and, now, I’m involved. It is becoming an actual exhibition here,” says Durham.
Much of the imagery will be derived from those contained in “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” making it a fusion of contemporary and traditional inspirations. Durham says the exhibition will not only show Thaye’s paintings of Sam’s visions, but also one of Thaye’s traditional Tonka paintings of the same sorts of visions. “This brings about both Euro-American and Tibetan voices into a single equation,” he says.
Most fascinating of all? “This coming spring, at the Asian Art Museum, we will essentially have Heaven and Hell in the same building,” says Durham, with a chuckle.
For Durham, it’s incredibly serious but, at the same time – is it? He has moments of having to force his enthusiasm to surrender to focus and meditation, enraptured by the beauty, irony and humor that emerges through the disciplined processes. But, like the majority of his colleagues at the museum, he also feels a deep responsibility to bring it all forth.
“I think the world as it stands is in a frantic race between mindlessness and mindfulness, and I feel that anything I can do to put the brakes on that race, I am going to do that,” says Durham. “I feel that the Tibetan Meditative Tradition is without question one of the best ways to attain human mindfulness. So when I can get the art involved in that tradition and in front of people’s eyes, I am then fulfilling whatever mission or destiny I may have to the best of my ability.”
This exclusive feature is from our Holiday 2017/2018 issue, along with others including Hollywood power player Kiki Ayers, legendary branding guru Louis Upkins, NY Times Best-Selling Author Danielle Walker and expert tips for becoming your healthiest version in the New Year. You may download the digital version of the Holiday 2017/2018 issue here.
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