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Spotlight on Seattle, where Asian and Western art collide

20 April 2016

This spring, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) chose Seattle in America’s north-west Washington state to host its four-day conference and 75th anniversary celebrations. About half of its 7,000 members worldwide gathered for this jamboree. Between them they attended nearly 360 panel sessions at which a total of 1,750 speakers presented new research and ignited lively debate. Not all panels were about art, by any means. But many of the non-art sessions could complement an art historian’s study, enrich specialist knowledge and place it in a wider context.

But why Seattle? ‘Typically we try to keep an east-west rotation and choose cities whose universities have substantial Asian studies departments’, says Robyn Jones, Conference Manager at AAS. ‘Seattle has this, and also a large Asian population’. Delegates came from near and far – from the Pacific Rim to western Europe.

Panels ran back-to-back in three storeys of rooms, while additional attractions included a book bazaar, an evening concert, ad hoc gatherings on the roof garden, and member meetings for more than 120 specialised societies that ranged from the Korea Foundation, which works closely with a number of American museums, to the Japan Art History Forum and the Society for Chinese Manuscript Culture. Corridor discussions followed panels on reciting Persian poetry in Mughal buildings, image-making in China and – irrelevant to art but absolutely fascinating – the secret fashion within the 19th-century Dutch aristocracy for drinking Indonesian coffee made from beans collected from civets’ faeces.

Did delegates even know they were in Seattle? Those who grabbed a moment to venture into this handsome city of Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon found more than just Starbucks’ first coffee house and Rem Koolhaas’s fine public library. Doubtless some delegates headed for Volunteer Park, where the Seattle Asian Art Museum currently has shows of Buddha images from across Asia, and the use of gold in Japanese art and indigo in global textiles. But there is plenty more to the city’s thriving visual and performing arts scene, which is sustained not only by the local mega-companies but also by the great collectors – Barney Ebsworth, Paul Allen, Ruth True and others – who choose to live there.

Parinirvana, Mogao Cave 158

Parinirvana, Mogao Cave 158 (781-848), Middle Tang Dynasty, features in the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition ‘Journey to Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of the Silk Road Caves’. Image Courtesy of the Lo Archive

The Asian Art Museum is an annexe of Seattle Art Museum, fondly known as SAM, whose classy downtown premises designed by Robert Venturi were enlarged in 2007 by Brad Cloepfil from nearby Portland, Oregon. In addition to its fine Asian collection, SAM has built strong collections about its own geographic region and modern American art. Current displays include bold and mostly ritual or spiritual objects from the Pacific cultures, and extraordinary glass creations made at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state by Dale Chihuly, Preston Singletary and others who have made Washington state a centre for experimental glass. The third part of SAM, the Olympic Sculpture Park, opened in 2007. Here, the waterside setting and distant snow-capped hills form the background for pieces by Bourgeois, Calder, di Suvero, Serra, and more. When the mist comes down it evokes a Chinese painting.

If AAS delegates slipped away to enjoy some of this, fortunately all 1,750 abstracts for the panelists’ talks were uploaded onto the Association’s website, and remain there as a lasting resource for the curious. Their 2017 conference is in Toronto, 2018 is in Washington D.C.

For more information about the Association for Asian Studies conference visit www.asian-studies.org.