Meiji-Era Sculpture Returns to AMAM

Harley Bosco

Upon hearing about the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s new Return of the Dragon exhibit, I couldn’t help but be excited: The exhibit, which honors the return of the infamous Coiling Dragon statue to King Sculpture Court, sounds more like the anticipated sequel to a popular chain of movies than an art show. I perhaps built the exhibit up in my mind. I expected something grand — the kind of visually overwhelming stimuli a summer blockbuster might bring. In some sense, it was like a summer blockbuster, but in all the wrong ways.

As I approached the AMAM, I prepared myself to be totally blown away by the might of, well, dragons. After all, dragons are one of the most aweinspiring creatures in mythology. How could one not be amazing by an exhibit entirely devoted to their visual might? As I pushed back the doors of the Allen, my anticipation was quickly overcome by a wave of confusion. Where were all the dragons?

Directly in front of me was “Coiling Dragon,” sitting where it had always sat prior to a renovation at the AMAM. The Meiji-era bronze sculpture stands over two feet tall and is visually stunning. Dynamically poised, the roaring beast is covered in what must be at least a thousand scales, all of which shine brilliantly.

I expected the exhibit, like the statue to which it pays homage, to be both captivating and inspiring. Parts of the exhibit truly shine, but it isn’t given the opportunity to be the best it could be. The exhibit itself, which consists of 16 pieces, is set up a bit awkwardly. While half of the exhibit is in King Sculpture Court, the other half is relegated to a corner of the South Ambulatory. The two sections are spatially disjointed; it feels like something is missing in between. The mission of the exhibition, as stated by this description, is “to introduce visitors to the symbols, stories and spectacle of dragons in East Asia” through “dragon-themed works in a diversity of media.” Provided with this lens to view it, the exhibit does in fact accomplish what it sets out to do. There is a generous variety of media and techniques represented in this exhibition, including woodblock printing, bronze casting, pottery, ivory, wood, embroidery and ink. Having a unifying theme between these works allows space for a viewer without any extensive knowledge of East Asian art to engage with these pieces through a point of comparison that familiarizes them with Eastern aesthetics while introducing them to a variety of techniques utilized in Eastern art.

One piece that particularly amazed me was Articulated Dragon,” a Japanese okimono, or decorative art object, from the 19th century. Hand-carved in ivory, each joint and section of the carved dragon is totally movable — an aspect that can be viewed on your phone b scanning the QR code on its museum label. The labels that accompany the pieces on display in the exhibit are one of the best aspects of its curation. These labels are incredibly in-depth, going to great lengths to give viewers the correct vocabulary, cultural knowledge and individualized history needed to think critically about these pieces.

Though the pieces and their individualized presentations have clearly been thought out with much attention to their viewers, the overall exhibit suffers from its layout as a cohesive exhibit. Unfortunately, because of the light that pervades the sculpture court and the delicate nature of some materials traditionally used in Eastern art (scrolls, woodblock prints and embroidery on silk), it is impossible to display much of the work within King Sculpture Court itself without incurring damage. In fact, as the show continues throughout the year, pieces such as the scroll “Artist Painting a Dragon” will likely be interchanged with other dragon related pieces in AMAM storage to preserve their quality. This, on one hand, is exciting: The exhibit will continue to evolve over time, an occurrence rarely seen in shows not considered a part of the permanent collection, and that will allow visitors to expand their repertoire and knowledge of East Asian art. However, it is also this conservationism that severs the exhibit between the South Ambulatory and the sculpture court.

The execution of the exhibit within King Sculpture Court is even more troublesome than the separation of the Court from the South Ambulatory.

Firstly, only two out of the eight walls that account for the Sculpture Court are dedicated to the exhibit. The two walls happen to be opposite each other and are arranged as symmetrical counterparts, though one is devoted entirely to Japanese depictions of dragons, and the other entirely to Chinese. This is actually an incredible feat for the AMAM, which, despite owning an extensive Asian art collection, has not allotted it much physical space in the past. However, in the context of this exhibit, it feels like too little, as the other half of the court is filled with Western pieces that are unrelated and detract from the purpose of the exhibit.

The more unforgivable part of the exhibit’s arrangement in the Sculpture Court is the walls that are directly perpendicular to the exhibit showcase. These two walls display two beautiful but completely unrelated Islamic prayer rugs. Though aesthetically this choice may make sense as it creates a pleasing symmetry between both sides of the exhibit, it decontextualizes both the rugs and the work on exhibit in Return of the Dragon. By placing these works next to each other, they are drawing a connection for the viewer between the works, which confounds the two completely different purposes and iconographies as being synonymous. It also further divides the room into what is accepted as work from the Western canon and work that is symbolic of an “Oriental” aesthetic. This diverts the attention away from appreciating the artistic vocabulary that is utilized in East Asian art as something that is unique to a cultural purpose and makes it more about how this vocabulary can be compared and contrasted to a Western canon.

Though it is clearly arranged for a Western viewer, the exhibit does make many meaningful strides in the way Asian art is presented at the Allen. It is an exhibit crafted with good intention. The care given to the pieces’ individual presentation makes up for any discrepancies or disconnects in the overall layout of the exhibition. In the end, the exhibit is successful in what it aims to do, and even if an understanding of East Asian art goes soaring above your head, these beautiful depictions of dragons will surely soar straight into your heart.