field notes SF – flower power

this post is part of the Bay Area “field notes” series.

Have you ever walked into a place and immediately realized what was missing from your life? San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is that place for me. It brings D.C.’s Freer & Sackler galleries to their knees, its collection is second-to-none, its commitment to education is infectious, its Far Leaves tea canisters are scintillatingly aromatic.

impressions – FLOWER POWER

  • mono no aware – “the wonderful sadness of things” (Japanese) – another non-translatable word for the collection.
  • ikebana – Japanese art of flower arranging. Ikeru = “to live”, hana = “flowers.”
  • takashi murakami‘s pop-art flowers – nothing if not creepy. Why do their eyes seem to follow and taunt you? Why are Murakami’s colors so precise? “an over-abundance of saccharine grinning begs the question of what sinister elements lurk just below the surface in art and in life.”
  • Courage is the purpose of life in the world.” – Persian calligraphy
  • plum = ideal femininity (Chinese Confucian), enlightenment (Japanese) – 梅瓶, meiping, Chinese for “plum vase,” is a play on words: 梅 is a homonym for 美, “beautiful.”
    • plum + pine tree + bamboo: “three friends of winter” (岁寒三友, suihan sanyou, Chinese) – common motif in Chinese art. The trifecta symbolizes perseverance, constancy, & integrity under adversity.
  • tulip = popularly traded in the Ottoman Empire, came to symbolize wealth.
  • rose = Islam symbol for sophistication, sometimes represents Muhammad.
  • lotus = symbol of the Hindu god Krishna, when he takes on one of his many forms, Kama (similar to Cupid).
  • chrysanthemum = Korean autumn flower; also symbolizes hermit Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365-427).
  • hydrangea = wanderer (cross-culture)
  • hibiscus = fragile beauty (cross-culture)


  • “interweaving stories”: spread of buddhism, trade, & culture
  • stupas – most important symbolic building in Buddhist monasteries. Often enshrines bodily relic of the Buddha/other holy object. The levels of a pagoda are actually elaborations of the stupa base.
  • representations of women: drastically different in Hindu & Buddhist art vs. Confucian, Muslim, Taoist
  • Thai Buddha is portrayed in four postures: sitting, standing, walking, reclining.
  • chair racks! perfect for resting your feet in front of Persian sculptures, the museum’s oldest artifacts.
  • china: jade treasury: “Jade is the beauty of stones”; blue & white porcelain a nod to Islamic art; the incredibly lifelike Taoist eight immortals are carved in ivory & on display.
  • korea: unostentatious, homogeneous, neutral; cobalt discovered 1464
  • philippines: the museum’s most political collection. a long, painful history of colonialism has seeped into every aspect of Filipino life; non-static communities portrayed by painter fernando amorsolo.
  • japan: ancient jōmon pottery; warrior government/samurai combat = many intimidating armor displays; netsuke = playful miniature sculptures, vehicles for expression when kimonos sans pockets were worn (!!); egrets popular in paintings/panel screens, symbolize elegance and success.

parting notes

Of all that I learned at the AAM, one thing I remained most impressed with was its quiet tenacity. None of its curation was politically imposing, yet its celebration of art we rarely encounter, in such quality all at once, and its dissection of the “Asian” concept, were wholly convincing. In a sense, I didn’t realize what I was missing until it was right in front of me: deeper appreciation for, and the desire to discover more of, my own heritage. #flowerpowernow

“Asia is not one place.”

“flower power” runs 6.23 – 10.1 | asian art museum of SF | larkin st.

other posts in this series
overheard on the Caltrain
sfmoma x munch
ramen, etc.

field notes documents my travels.

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