China Institute | A Girl Army Marches on Manhattan

Prune Nourry’s girl army, The Terracotta Daughters, has arrived in New York City. This army highlights the impact of gender selection, standing in for all the girls erased by the legacy of China’s stringent one-child policy.


Here are some fast facts on the project:

1) The Terracotta Daughters are a riff on the famous Terracotta Warriors. The nearly 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers dating from 209 BCE were discovered in Xi’an, China, in 1974 by farmers. The Terracotta Warriors project is a remarkable work of art, and is considered a national treasure by the Chinese.


2) Nourry’s work addresses how humans – people – are selected and defined. Terracotta Daughters is a follow on to her Holy Daughters project in India. Together China and India represent 1/3 of the world’s population, yet in both places women are woefully under-represented in favor of men.


3)  The girl army was crafted by hand in Xi’an, in a factory that fabricates modern reproductions of the Terracotta Warriors. The same clay and construction techniques were used to create the Terracotta Daughters. Wen Xian Feng, the lead craftsman, was skeptical of the project at first, saying, “in the Army it is impossible to see girls.”


4)   The Terracotta Daughters are based on 8 Chinese orphan girls who Nourry met in 2012 through The Children of Madaifu organization. The first 8 clay Terracotta Daughters, representing these girls, were sold to raise funds for their education and completion of the larger project.


5)  Like the Terracotta Warriors, no two Terracotta Daughters are alike. Each of the 108 life-sized figures is individually crafted and is unique. Among the variations I noticed were face, hairstyle, hair ornaments, collar, hand placement, sleeve detail, and footwear. As Wen Xian Feng sculpted each girl, working from Nourry’s original 8, he “gradually, bit by bit, came to like the project.”

6) The closer you are to the Daughters, the more real they feel. The more individualized detail you take in, the spookier their presences become.

7) After a stop in Mexico at the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, the army will be buried in Xi’an in 2015. It is projected that Chinese men will have hardest time finding wives in 2030, the year the impact of the gender imbalance in China’s population will peak. That same year the Terracotta Daughters will be excavated, a ghostly reminder of the Chinese girls and women missing from our world.


8) Nourry has created 8 miniature (tabletop size) Terracotta Daughters. Available for purchase individually or as a set, the proceeds fund this continuing project.

Don’t delay – the Terracotta Daughters are only on view until October 4, 2014. See them at the China Institute’s new downtown location, 104 Washington Street, in New York City.

Credit:  all photos by me.

Miscellany | Favorites No. 3

“Why does everything you wear look like it’s bearing a grudge, darling?”

– Eddy to Saffy, AbFab


Fashion Week is underway in New York City. Curious about how Vogue’s giant September issue comes together? Watch and learn – while The September Issue documentary debuted in 2009, the same cast of characters is running the show today.

Speaking of which, watch Anna Wintour and her bob take the A.L.S. Ice Bucket Challenge here.

Can Fashion Week exist without make-up? Certainly not. Here’s a fascinating read on cosmetics pioneer Max Factor, who was personal cosmetician (& hostage) to the Czar’s court before escaping to America.


Maiyet is a luxury fashion brand that is designed in New York and fabricated by specialized craftspeople around the world. This socially conscious label creates customized training programs to promote fine craft skills in local communities, ensuring a production consistency in the Maiyet clothing line while promoting economic growth and stability for its artisan partners. Learn more about the philosophy driving this company forward in The Luxurious Goodness of Maiyet.

Faber-Castell-Color-Pencil-Polychromos-wood-case-of-120You might be surprised to know that pencils are going strong in this digital age. Fashion studios are one place where I suspect they remain ubiquitous. Faber-Castell, the oldest and largest pencil manufacturer worldwide, has it covered: Hands-On Bavarian Count Presides Over a Pencil-Making Empire.


I can’t imagine New York without seeing Bill Cunningham, whose style photos appear each week in the New York Times, out and about on his Schwinn bicycle snapping pictures of city scenes. In the 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, he shares the story of how his career developed and his many adventures along the way.


Finally, we’re all aware of the high costs of disposable fashion, but have we lost the skills needed to maintain quality clothing over time and through trends? Make Do & Mend can help: The rise of mending: how Britain learned to repair clothes again.


Guggenheim Museum | Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today


Gabriel Orozco, Piñanona 1, 2013

I was surprised to learn the first Latin American Art Departments in US museums were not established until 1988 and 1992, by the Huntington Art Gallery* and the Phoenix Art Museum, respectively. This relatively recent appearance speaks not only to the history of collecting in the United States, but also to the changing demographics of the country. Today, in all but seven states, Spanish is the most spoken language after English.

And here are the most spoken languages after English and Spanish. (Click here to see the most commonly spoken Scandinavian, Indo-Aryan, African, and Native American languages too.)


The point is that Americans all come from somewhere else, though it may be many generations ago that our families first arrived in the United States. Further, the modern world is global: today we regularly interact across oceans and continents in our professional and personal lives. So of course museums should mount exhibitions that represent domestic populations as well as open a window into regions and cultures less familiar – but not unknown – to us.


Amalia Pica, AnBnC, 2013. During Pica’s childhood in 1970’s Argentina the “military junta forbade Venn diagrams and the related concept of intersection from being taught in elementary schools, viewing it as potentially subversive.”

This past spring Latin American art was a hot topic in Manhattan– there were numerous exhibitions around the city as well as a symposium, and the theme tied in nicely with the World Cup, played locally in Brazil but viewed worldwide. Thanks to the spotlight on this topic, I now know that there is a feeling in art and academic circles that Latin American art has been shortchanged in this country.


Alfred Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987. This work “challenges the ethnocentrism of the United States, which habitually claims the identity of the entire American continent as its own.”

The concern is that the entire region has been lumped together under one name and identity, and that the artistic and cultural nuances of this extremely diverse part of the world have not been adequately examined and represented in cultural institutions. Scholars and collectors alike support more regional definition, and are starting to achieve this through exhibitions and endowed curatorial chairs with a Latin American focus. Private foundations like Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and online study resources also promote a more diverse view of the region. This would all seem to argue for exhibitions that focus more specifically on individual countries, and distinct art historical periods (for example, modernism in Argentina) rather than the surveys we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

Given this, I’m not sure how well the Guggenheim Museum’s current show, Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, addresses the issue as it is a survey show of contemporary Latin American art drawn from 15 countries. But what it does succeed at is giving a sense of not only the diversity within the region despite a shared history of colonial occupations and military dictatorships, but also a collective frustration that Latin America is still more defined by its past than its present, hindering its engagement with the larger world. The artists in this show never stray far from the relationship between perception and reality in their works.


Wilson Diaz, Movement of the Liberation of the Cocoa Plant, 2012. This work “represents the search for an alternative to the violent nexus of narcotraffic and insurgency that has shaped life in contemporary Colombia.”

The show is divided into five themes: “Conceptualism and its Legacies,” “Tropicologies,” “Political Activism,” “Modernism and its Failures,” and “Participation/Emancipation.”


Luis Camnitzer, Art History Lesson no. 6, 2000. The empty projectors “point to the fact that art history is written by those in power, and tends to exclude certain accounts (including Latin America’s) from the canon around which the discipline organizes itself.”

It will be exciting to see how the presentation of Latin American art changes over the next few years; I’ll be keeping watch. Between this show, the contemporary Arab art show Here and Elsewhere now at the New Museum, last year’s Iran Modern and Ink Art shows, and the upcoming After Midnight show on Indian Modernism at the Queen’s Museum, I think I may finally be developing a real interest in contemporary art thanks to its role as a reflection of contemporary histories and cultures worldwide. Stay tuned.


Rivane Neuenschwander, Mapa-Múndi/BR (Postal), 2007. One of a series of images that “document the artist’s travels throughout Brazil while reflecting the desire of local communities to identify with an increasingly globalized culture.”

Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through October 1, 2014.


* Now the Blanton Museum of Art at University of Texas, Austin.
Credits: all photos and caption quotes are from the Guggenheim Museum website.

Market | A. M. Ideas & the Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

I’m always interested in products made using traditional craft skills, and recently learned about a small line of handwoven rush grass accessories through my friend Kathy’s blog, Tricky Taipei. The women who weave these products are in their 60’s; I wonder if their children or grandchildren have also acquired these skills or will this be a craft tradition that fades away with the “Grandma” generation?

Fortunately for us, the design firm A.M. Ideas is showing how traditional craft can be paired with products designed for the modern world. Thanks to Kathy Cheng for allowing me to share her original post below.


The Taiwanese Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

My friends Helen Chen and Wanshan Lin run a Taipei-based design studio, A.M. Ideas. In addition to taking freelance product design projects for local clients, they produce a small line of lifestyle products that incorporate the traditional craft of rush grass weaving.

Being an ignoramus, I didn’t know about rush grass weaving until I learned about it from them. It’s an interesting part of Taiwanese craft culture that’s in danger of extinction, so it’s admirable that Helen and Wanshan are shining the spotlight on rush grass weaving through their products. Let’s learn about rush grass weaving, shall we…


What’s rush grass weaving?

The artisanal craft of rush grass weaving was first recorded in Taiwan 300 years ago. It experienced its heyday in the 1930s, during which rush grass products were the third most exported item (after rice and sugar). Most rush grass products were exported to Japan.

Who’s still doing it today?

The lovely little town of Yuan Li (苑里), in the middle of Taiwan, is where the grass is grown and woven. This cultural heritage has been passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations.

Currently there are no machines capable of replicating the sophisticated gestures of a skilled artisan. Today it is processed and woven purely by hand using simple tools — by highly skilled grandmothers — just as it’s always been for 300 years.


What products can be made from rush grass?

Helen and Wanshan’s products use rush grass in clean, modern applications — bringing this old craft into the modern era and introducing it to a new generation. Their line focuses on lifestyle and fashion accessories, plus homewares. You can visit their online store here.


Photo Credit: A.M. Ideas

Visit | The Philip Johnson Glass House

The Glass House property is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The house is famous for its architectural innovations, but the most striking aspect of the site is its role as canvas for Philip Johnson’s ever-evolving design explorations. Built by Johnson in 1944, the Glass House and its 47 acres of land functioned as a country getaway-cum-experimental lab for his architectural practice over six decades.

Johnson was in his late thirties when the house was built, having just begun his architectural practice. It’s probably safe to assume that fledgling architects were paid no better in the 1940’s than they are today. So how could he afford to buy land and build a house? Luck. Johnson’s father made gifts to each of his three children: the two Johnson daughters received land and Philip, his only son, received stock in a promising young company called Alcoa*. Johnson graduated from college a millionaire. With no immediate need to earn a salary, he pursued his interests in art and design and took on significant projects such as founding the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932.

Throughout this time the Glass House was taking shape. Johnson designed 24 versions of the house before discovering the land in New Canaan, CT. The site was ideal: down a slope, on a promontory, with vistas in every direction over acreage dotted with classic New England stone walls. This small, historic town might not seem an obvious choice for such a radical architectural experiment, but in fact it quickly became a showcase for modern architecture at mid-century, and today 90 modernist homes in New Canaan have been documented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The House
The Glass House was an architectural marvel when built, its construction only possible due to technology advancements that allowed for production of such large sheets of glass. The steel beams framing the house and the formica cladding the freestanding kitchen countertops are early examples of these materials being used in a residential setting. What’s surprising about the house is its livability: once inside, it’s easy to envision how comfortable it would be for one person alone and also how perfectly it would accommodate a large party.

There were a lot of parties in Johnson’s day, and one of the looming conservation conundrums when the ceiling is restored is whether or not to replicate the smoke stains from Johnson’s years of entertaining that are visible today.

The Painting & Sculpture Galleries
One vexing problem that comes with a house of glass is where to display art. Johnson built separate painting and sculpture galleries on the property that not only showcased his collections, but allowed him to experiment with architectural styles and innovative display mechanisms. His appreciation for the role of nature in design can be seen in the shadows cast by the ceiling in the Sculpture Gallery, and his experimental rotating gallery walls dominate the earth-berm style Painting Gallery.

The Landscape
The grounds and vistas were carefully shaped by Johnson as well. A Donald Judd sculpture, the artist’s first outdoor commission, marks the driveway’s turn towards the house. The circular form contrasts with the rectangles of the Glass and Guest houses, and echoes the martini glass-shaped pool in the distance. In this case a conservation decision was made to restore the sculpture to its original installed state, which was not the same as Judd’s original intent for the piece. Judd planned to produce the sculpture from one pour of concrete, which would set with a smooth, unbroken surface. In fact, the installation required two pours and the different setting times per pour resulted in the broken surface that we see today.

The lake, visible from the back of the house, includes a pavilion that Johnson built at two-thirds scale to appear more distant on the horizon. It is thought that the pavilion influenced Johnson’s design for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center which opened two years later. The Kirstein Tower is also visible in the distance.

Additional stops on the grounds include the Library and the Ghost House (above) as well as Da Monsta (below), which Johnson built in 1995 (at age 89), anticipating the need for The National Trust for Historic Preservation to operate a visitor’s center once the site was opened to the public after his death. As it turned out, the town of New Canaan vetoed the building’s use as a visitor center due to traffic concerns, and today it is used to screen a short video at the end of tours.

The Visitor Experience

Accessibility: Thanks to the town’s traffic concerns the Visitor Center is a just few minutes away, directly across from the train station. This makes visiting the site incredibly easy and accessible, even without a car.

Tour/content: All visitors must sign up for a tour in advance. I took the 2-hour guided tour and it was well worth it. A media wall at the Visitor Center displays in-depth background on Johnson and the property, and there are plenty of books and objets to browse. Small tour groups are bused to the site for a guided walking tour. My guide was a font of information about the history of the house, Johnson himself, and the overall development of the site.

Website: The website goes well beyond visitor information, sharing much of the content available on the media wall at the Visitor Center as well as updates on preservation projects and extensive public programs.

Visiting Notes: The property is only open from May 1- November 30; tours fill up fast so I recommend purchasing your tickets well in advance. Also note that the Sculpture Gallery is due for restoration so may be closed temporarily.

Based on his well-known work on projects such as the Seagram Building and the AT&T Tower, it’s easy to believe that Johnson had a very rigid design aesthetic, and certainly many well-known architects have settled comfortably into careers based on a signature look. A visit to the Glass House belies this notion, showing us instead how Johnson stayed actively curious and engaged with the evolving language of design throughout his life.


*A recent Forbes article about the Mellon family fortune gives this background on Alcoa’s origins: “Andrew, the family’s true empire builder, forged his own path: He became a turn-of-the-century venture capitalist. In 1889 Andrew made a $25,000 loan to the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., an aluminum manufacturer, and subsequently purchased equity in the company. Profits rose from $87,000 in 1898 to $322,000 in 1900–then quickly crested the million-dollar mark. The company today is known as Alcoa.”

Credits: all photos my own
First photo: Veil by Fujiko Nakaya is a temporary, site-specific work commissioned in honor of The Glass House’s 65th anniversary. Read a Q & A with the artist here.