Written by By Anne Langman, CNN
A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art highlights the place in the world we now occupy, and helps us understand our place in it.
“Journey to a Center of the Earth” opens in the museum’s first floor galleries and includes the first American retrospective of Indonesian modernist painter Djuna Norgaard, whose Museum of Modern Art retrospective ended earlier this month. The exhibit runs through June 10.
Art world veteran and museum trustee Allan Stone curated the show, calling it a “holistic exploration of the artistic and scientific techniques in contemporary Indonesian culture.”
Pilgrimage of the Japanese
Joanna Bowens/Photographs Phil Greenfield, HKS Bamboo Shop at Sukamati Museum.
The journey begins with the practice of “pilgrimage” in Japan, and movements towards avant-garde abstract expressionism in the United States and Europe.
“You can’t really say what you are seeing in the exhibition, because one moment you are seeing J-Pop, the next you are seeing seminal Abstract Expressionism, and you don’t know where your feet are going to land at any given moment,” explains Art Institute of Chicago creative director Evan Baxter, the show’s chief curator.
The show also highlights Japanese artists of the early 20th century: virtuoso, manga- and anime-style painters like Fujimori Yoshitake, Yoshiko Kishimoto and Minishi Natsuhashi, who wrote a guidebook on spiritual enlightenment known as “The Guide to the Wonders of the Four Directions.”
“The art of the time was heavy and spiritual. It was not a secular art like we are seeing in the modern world. It was about examining the universe, about contemplation, about the scientific discoveries around,” adds Baxter.
Indonesian artist Djuna Norgaard at the press preview of ‘Journey to a Center of the Earth’ on March 28, 2018. Credit: Handout/Cleveland Museum of Art
An American traveler’s journey takes visitors through the pages of some of the most important ethnographic travel guides, including The Orientalist, produced by William David, and the publication that sparked the adventure of Norgaard’s art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) guide to Indonesian art from 1920 to 1930.
The pair also investigated many travel diaries, at the turn of the last century. Norgaard’s journal from 1911 quotes a planeload from New York in a wintry Beijing: “Looking out the window, I saw rows of the same buildings in the same gloomy ways, just as in New York. They are unbelievable, I think, or perhaps it is the transverse paths that give them such air.”
In Javanese villages around the Andaman Island chain, she went on to paint scenes from Japanese boarding school colonization. In the beginning of the 20th century, Manik Singh, the chief architect of the exhibition, surveyed all of the travel-guide documents to help lay out the shows. The collection is unifying not only about the explorers, but also about the cultural norms of their travelers.
That’s why Norgaard — whose work sat atop MoMA’s “Museum’s Abstract Expressionist Treasures” exhibition in 1992 — fit into the exhibition perfectly, despite being a controversial figure.
“The population who chose to identify with her work was deeply marginalized,” recalls Baxter. He and a small team dug through archives of the first part of the century, learning Norgaard’s legacy from the artists who passed through Indonesia in that time. Baxter points to images of Native Americans who applied for citizenship in Indonesia during the colonial period.
“To have people like Norgaard speak to her while they were staying in people’s homes — it created a discourse about cultural, ethnic, religious, political boundaries that is quite surprising,” he adds.
Crossroad in Asia
An explosion of popularity of Indonesians in Japan starting around 1933 (as documented in exhibition docuseries “The Travellers and the Artisans”) led to an even wider artistic and culinary interest in the country.
“Journey to a Center of the Earth” is part of the museum’s broader project to honor the almighty balance between East and West. An additional exhibit based on the exhibition running alongside the exhibition, “The Connection,” looks at work from artists and musicians from Hong Kong. The show runs through May 20.