An Exclusive Interview with Jay Xu of the Asian Art Museum

Mr. Xu has been the  Museum Director since 2008. This is his first interview with Cultural Currents. The piece will also appear in the June print edition of Bay Crossings.

Bay Crossings: Our readers are devoted riders of the ferry. Are there pieces in the permanent collection that speak to this tranquil mode of transportation?

Jay Xu: Absolutely, images of water-based transport flow through so much classical and contemporary East Asian art. Right now we have some large scroll paintings from China as well as a beautiful screen from Japan, an island nation where crossing water and watery landscapes make up important themes.

The Japanese screen shows an army fleeing by boat from the 13th century Tale of Heike, and it’s just a superb example of gilding and ink drawing. The Chinese paintings are actually from the 1960s, by the artist Chao Shao-An. One includes an inscription about a boat ride in Hong Kong that I think all evening ferry riders can relate to:
The single returning skiff glides lightly across a vista of sky
and water set aglow by the setting sun.
The quiet mind listens not to bewildering thoughts.
A sudden gust of wind brings sound of the night journey.

BC: Have there been any recent exhibits that concentrate on crossing bodies of water?

Xu: Crossing a body of water is a really beautiful artistic metaphor to communicate complex ideas about change and challenge. For instance, in The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe — our award-winning exhibition of art from Southern Asia last year — there is a famous scene where Hanuman the monkey king leaps to the island fortress of Lanka where a princess is held captive. The action expresses both the leap of faith we all have to take sometimes in seeking out what we most cherish, but also how this kind of journey transforms us. When he returns from Lanka, Hanuman is a changed monkey, and he is at last able to lead an army. His jump across the ocean clearly made an impression on artists from many different cultures given the frequency it appears in art. We also had a scene of our hero, Prince Rama, crossing a giant river in a tiny boat as he headed into exile. The fragility of the passengers compared to the fierceness of the rapids contrasted with the soft watercolor palette, which I believe underscored Rama’s essential goodness, his willingness to sacrifice his happiness for peace. It was a beautiful, memorable image.

Our 2015 exhibition of contemporary art, 28 Chinese, also featured a giant “Boat” (2012) by Zhu Jinshi: it was an installation of 8,000 sheets of crinkled calligraphy paper that hung down from the ceiling to form the ribs of a giant boat. It was meant to send visitors on a symbolic journey that would block out the real world.

Bay Crossings: Any other “water” themes that will speak to our readers?

Xu: We feel that the tranquility and reflection of the ferry experience is related to what some people find appealing about meditating. This year, we’re doing a number of pop-up meditations in partnership with the San Francisco Zen Center, with many happening during our big Summer of Love exhibition, Flower Power (June 23-Oct.1, 2017).

Bay Crossings: Angel Island is a major destination for many ferry passengers, yet it carries a lot of emotional weight for the descendants of Asian immigrants. Has the museum concentrated on these areas of sensitivity? 

Xu: On July 16, for the second year in a row, we are partnering with the 3 People Project, which worked with students at the Donaldina Cameron House in Chinatown to capture the immigrant experience in a film that we’ll present at the museum. The screenings take place with a panel put together by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation that features community elders discussing their fears and their motivations for leaving their homelands. As a museum that strives to connect all of the Bay Area community with the Asian and Asian American experience, past and present, it’s a privilege to help keep this history alive and even relate it to current events through these kinds of engaged conversations.

BC: Finally, how can our readers explore your library and archives for more information on Bay Area Asian culture?

Xu: We continue to digitize our collection, which is available on our website, and we also have a really robust video library on our YouTube channel of lectures, performances, exhibition walk-throughs, curator talks, and other programs highlights from our Late Thursdays like “Tasting Menu” with local Asian chefs and “Artists Drawing Club” which invites in contemporary artists to create original work.

Teachers and educators can also receive extensive curriculum development support through our education portal, which I think even curious readers would be interested in. If researchers want to take the leap from digital to analog, it is very easy to schedule visits to our amazing library, which is open 9 AM – 4 PM, Monday to Friday. Our long-time librarian will be thrilled to help answer questions!