Creativity and Curation

Posted on in On Our Radar by Jeff Durham

“Melting” the Traditional and
Contemporary in Asian Art


From playlists on NPR to dinners at culinary academies, “curated” experiences are rapidly becoming a hallmark of our 21st century zeitgeist. Such experience go far beyond what we find in the museum world, which gave birth to the curatorial profession about a hundred years ago. At that time, curators worked as guardians, and sometimes knowledgeable interpreters, of cultural heritage and artifacts. They would arrange, classify, display, and store the objects that were beginning to flood into museums from Euro-American colonial enterprises.

Under these conditions, the term “curator” suggests an intent to calcify, freeze-dry, or somehow embalm the past so that it remains available to present and future museum visitors. Such a task, while justifiable from many perspectives, would seem anti-creative, or at least anti-change, if that were all there were to it. But twenty-first century curation is very different from the passive classification and storage that comprised the scope of work of the earliest curatorial positions in museums. Now curators are as much detectives, interpreters, and even artists as anything else, much more than our twentieth-century predecessors might have recognized, let alone admitted.

The first step in the creative course of curation is the identification of visually fascinating artworks capable of telling an equally intriguing story. Usually, curators begin with a single object or group, noting such key grounding ideas as where it came from and when it was made. Then curators proceed to create connections between objects with similar physical, symbolic, or historical properties. Curators make these connections in a variety of ways. One of the most important involves carefully installing artworks so that their spatial arrangement puts them into visual conversation with one another.

This disciplined, stepwise manner of curating art exhibitions runs into difficulties at two specific pain points. Both demand that the curator cease passively to analyze and classify, and instead begin actively to synthesize and interpret artworks — in other words, to reframe the selection, organization, and interpretation as a fundamentally creative process.

The first pain point is global contemporary art. Being both everywhere and now, it flummoxes the space-time art object classifications that have provided the intellectual foundation for traditional museum curation.

multi color picture

Religious or spiritual art presents the second of these curatorial pain points, because religious art intentionally downplays its historical aspects; the purpose is to reveal something that stands outside space and time, namely the infinite, eternal divine. Indeed, since world religious traditions appear across cultures, the artworks they produce cannot be fully explained in terms of national or ethnic specificities.

The contemporary and the spiritual—those bugaboos of conventional curation—find their union in a work created by Tsherin Sherpa, son of a Tibetan master painter and until December 2017 one of our Bay Area neighbors. Tsherin’s painting, entitled The Melt, represents a spiritual being, but does so in a decidedly contemporary manner. Indeed, at first glance, The Melt might seem a work of abstract impressionism, where swirls of brilliant, intricate color dance with an inner dynamism against a luminous gold-leaf background. Yet as we look more closely, representational details begin to emerge: here an eye, there a hand; bits of a green serpent and an orange tiger skin move and mutate. As yet, it is difficult to tell what the main image might be, but another work by Sherpa allows us to reverse, at least imaginally, the transformations that this figure has undergone in the course of his “melting.” In this traditional work we see the esoteric Buddhist deity Mahakala in his ordinary form. By applying a mathematical algorithm to each successive “melting” transformation of the original image, the final, almost abstract image is produced. Theoretically, by reversing the equations, we arrive at the original image.

For Sherpa, this work is not only contemporary, but also spiritual, for The Melt represents in visual form the kinds of distortions that have taken place in Himalayan painting and spiritual traditions in the wake of China’s cultural revolution and annexation of Tibet, as well as the tradition’s transplantation into the Euro-American west.

And yet despite the tradition’s displacement from its original cultural context, The Melt assures us that the original message is still fully intact—we merely need the interpretive tools with which to recover it. Thus, along with the identification and selection of visually and intellectually powerful artworks, the curatorial task centers on finding artworks that will make such accurate interpretation possible—regardless of the distortions that may occur when we dare cross the boundaries between sacred and secular, traditional and contemporary, or Asian and Euro-American. Perhaps in this way we may learn to create visual and interpretive languages that allow us to bridge our various worlds of experience. If there is a more important task in our rapidly globalizing world than recognizing aspects of our shared humanity that transcend cultural specificity, it remains, so to speak, to be curated.

Jeff Durham is curator of the Himalayan department at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. His exhibitions include Enter the Mandala, Hidden Gold, and A Guided Tour of Hell. Prior to joining the Museum, Dr. Durham served as professor of religion at St. Thomas Aquinas College and the University of North Carolina.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.