Head East

Experience ancient beauty in the Saint Louis Art Museum's Asian Galleries

Feb 16, 2005 at 4:00 am
In March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed a pair of 173-foot tall statues depicting the Buddha carved out of an Afghanistan mountainside. The world's collective horror at this act of senseless destruction was soon overshadowed by the greater loss of human life. But in the archived news stories from the pre-9/11 world, it's remarkable to read the pleas from Muslims, Buddhists and Christian government officials as they attempted to sway the Taliban from their actions.

That is the power of art; even when the artifact in question does not reflect one's own beliefs or culture, the qualities imbued in the object by the human imagination, by the act of creation itself, give the object a power that transcends nation or creed. Beauty simply is -- and art preserves that for all time, or until the rocket-propelled grenades come whistling over the horizon.

Fortunately for St. Louis, there have been no RPG attacks in recent memory, and so the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park reopened the Asian art galleries on schedule in early February. These newly appointed galleries receive an official public welcome this weekend with a host of activities that reflect the cultural and artistic diversity of various Asian cultures.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, February 18, Steven Owyoung, SLAM's curator of Asian art, discusses the "Asian Treasures of the Saint Louis Art Museum" in the auditorium. This lecture is free, and it serves as an excellent primer for those who want background information on the 150 works of art representing China, Korea, India and Japan, especially those who plan to return on Saturday, February 19, for a longer visit with the collection. Armed with your newfound knowledge, surely you'll find something to appreciate that you would not have noticed before. Perhaps the Northern Song Dynasty Crown, which dates from approximately the tenth to eleventh century, with its exquisitely detailed dragons picked out on the gilt and brass surface, for instance; after Owyoung's lecture, you'll know that this piece is not only incredibly rare but has never been displayed in the collection prior to now. Or maybe it will be the Northern Qi Dynasty statue Shakyamuni Buddha (pictured), acquired by the museum in 1919 (it was already a millennia and a half old at that time).

On Sunday, February 20, the museum's sculpture hall serves as an impromptu workout space for three tai chi instructors and anyone interested in learning some basic moves and forms of this ancient Chinese exercise; the free lessons begin at noon. At 1:30 p.m. the members of Dances of India perform the stylized and elegant dance-stories that exemplify traditional Indian dance. The performance is reprised at 2:30 p.m., and both shows are free.

If you still haven't soaked up enough of the beauty and antiquity of Asia, the museum also launches its new film series, Asian Cinema: Visions Through Time at 5 p.m. Sunday in the auditorium with Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 silent movie about Japanese rites of passage, Umarete wa meta Keredo/I Was Born, But... ($5). This film is not so silent after all, as the Tastsu Aoki Trio provides a live soundtrack of bass, Taiko drums and saxophone. Bassist Tatsu Aoki discusses the performance and film immediately afterward.

For more information on the Asian Galleries or any of the events, visit www.slam.org or call 314-721-0072.