Ah, mid-summer... these are weeks when temperatures soar and Princeton seems to become a little drowsy. The Princeton University Art Museum, however, is wide-awake and brimming over with action, including a Thursday evening film series, picnics, and summer gatherings. Even more is happening inside the museum, though. Saturday, July 14, marked the opening of two new exhibitions. One, “Root & Branch,” relates trees to the human imagination, taking artistic form and even providing a blueprint for how we present information (see photos below).
The other new exhibition, “Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery,” asks a compelling question: How do we give form to what is new, mysterious, and unknown? “Encounters” invites visitors to explore how artists from around the globe and across the centuries have answered that challenge. Misrepresentation, unexpected translation, suspicion, and idealization are only a few of the consequences of encounters (or sometimes collisions) with the unfamiliar.
Cary Liu, Princeton University’s curator of Asian art and a co-organizer of “Encounters,” gave me a preview of the exhibition a week before it opened. This provocative new show could be the subject of a long description; what follows is a short one.
If you are in the mood for an art exhibition that you can absent-mindedly move through at a near-trot and forget before dinner, Princeton Art Museum’s “Encounters” will not fit the bill. If, however, you are looking for an experience that might inspire everything from serious reflection to pure delight, “Encounters” will be a must-see. The Art Museum’s newest exhibition is more than an art show; it is a passport that allows visitors to dart between epochs and across continents –– and even vault into space –– on a grand tour of how art captures, responds to, or is even invented by “encounters” of all sorts.
Many pieces in the exhibition show how one culture reacts to another — whether the interaction generates curiosity, admiration, misunderstanding, or even revulsion. Yet “Encounters” offers a far more complex vision of its theme than that. The art objects can be testaments to how everything from trade winds, the fall of dynasties, and tricks of politics can shape the course of cultural history and even influence the forms of ... dinner plates.
All the while, the exhibition tells the story of how art grapples with that tremendous, inescapable force that both shapes lives and ends them, Time. Ultimately, though, the feeling that infuses “Encounters” above all others is pure fun.
Though two galleries are dedicated to the show, “Encounters” ripples throughout the museum –– pieces related to the show can be found upstairs, downstairs, and across other sections of the museum (look for tags identifying pieces as part of the show). This whimsical romp through a dizzying array of art objects will certainly produce a smile; it might even force you to stifle a giggle.
A quality that makes “Encounters” so entertaining is its refusal to restrict itself to art created at a distance from encounter; some of the pieces are unexpected results of interaction. A group of 18th-century snuff bottles belongs to this category. The small glass bottles, emblazoned with the faces of courtly Europeans, could have been tucked into the silken waistcoat of any French dandy. But these bottles were not. Though inspired by snuff bottles of European visitors, the objects on display in “Encounters” are made exclusively by and for the Chinese court. The objects perfectly reproduced every element of their European counterparts, including use of European faces to decorate the bottles!
Be on the lookout for other instances of such intriguing cross-pollination. While the snuff bottles were inspired by the West but made chiefly for the East, there are plenty of examples where art objects are made exclusively for Westerners. One such piece is a striking, intricately engraved tusk by a Kongo artist.
A series of detailed scenes crowd the ivory surface, beginning with representations of Kongo life and slowly morphing into images of Europeans and Greco-Roman gods. Tellingly, this piece was not an example of native art; it was destined purely for export to Europe.
Be on the lookout for a “Russian doll” effect in pieces that register multiple encounters in a single work. Consider how the following pair of art objects –– found in the 19th and early-20th century section of the museum –– nests one type of encounter within another. The first is an ink-based work from mid-19th century Japan, “Interior of the Gankiro Tea House.” Encounters abound even in the precincts of the work. First, the piece is based on what may have been the first novel (the 11th-century Japanese classic, “The Tale of Genji”). Yet the images in “Interior” import literary characters into a new setting, the foreigner’s section of a brothel. On one side of the piece, Western gentlemen play cards while Chinese visitors peep through a window on the opposite side of the work.
When considered on its own, “Interior” registers a miniature set of encounters between art and literature, old and new, foreign and familiar. But the dialogue does not end there. That work is balanced with an image that is clearly based on “Interior,” an engraving by an American. Though many elements from the original remain, the foreigners, the Western and Chinese figures, have disappeared from the composition. What kind of encounter was that anonymous artist trying to avoid? Perhaps the American artist could only represent exoticism by removing any “foreign” elements (even if he himself was one such element).
There are other cases where art integrates different influences so profoundly that they cannot be so easily separated. One example can be found in exhibition pieces in the Asian art section of the museum. A hanging scroll composed in 17th-century China by the artist Shitao is placed in silent dialogue with a painting by a 20th-century artist, Zhang Hongtu, who reproduces the earlier work but reimagines it as an oil painting, rendering Shitao’s scene with dead-on imitation of Vincent Van Gogh’s techniques.
Throughout the exhibition, visitors can play a game of “follow the object.” For example, if viewers spot one teapot on display, they can be pulled across centuries as the teapot changes forms, morphing from an early 18th-century British teapot decadently fashioned of ivory and silver to a vessel resembling a teapot made decades later in the Yukon by a Tlingit artist to an image of a smashed teapot created in 1982 by an American artist. The game can be played on an even larger scale through the exhibition’s array of ceramics. “Encounters” shows how Persian ceramics influenced Chinese designs and how Chinese porcelain reached Europe, and even reveals how the millefiori glassware that is so familiar today originated in the Mediterranean about the third century B.C. and may well have reached all the way to China, inspiring glazes as early as the fifth century C.E., only to inspire Middle Eastern ceramics in later centuries.
These are just a few examples of how “Encounters” does not just display art; it allows a variety of art objects to “talk” to each other across time and cultures. Yet visitors may find that the conversation between those objects is not just overheard and the stories that link the objects cannot be restricted to placards; rather, these discussions and stories are created by the largest encounter, the one at the heart of the new exhibition that is constantly changing, constantly being remade. Ultimately, it is the visitor’s experience that not only completes this exhibition, but is its most fluid, creative, and unpredictable encounter.
Encounters, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University campus. On view through September 23. Museum hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
Summer Gathering, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University campus. Thursday, July 19, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free. Fusion cuisine, specialty cocktails, and global music to celebrate “Encounters” and “Root & Branch.”
‘The Social Network,’ Brown/Dod Quad, Princeton University campus. Thursday, August 2, 8:30 p.m. Free. Outdoor film screening in conjunction with “Encounters” exhibit. For campus map visit etcweb.princeton.edu/pumap. artmuseum.princeton.edu or 609-258-3788.