April 2, 2023, San Francisco — This summer at the Asian Art Museum, descend into the absurd, lurid, and grotesque geographies of the afterworld as conceived by the ancient religions of Asia. Gathering nearly 50 iconic artworks from Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions spanning the 12th to the 20th centuries, Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds surveys hell as a universal human concept: a place of penance and ritual cleansing for our behavior in this lifetime. What similarities — and what differences — emerge when exploring how different cultures depict the progress of the soul through suffering?
“The road to enlightenment’s not always pretty… but it can be beautiful! Come meet fascinating figures, face challenging phantoms, and discover how the karmic connection between action and experience can go all wrong,” says Jeff Durham, exhibition organizer and Asian Art Museum associate curator of Himalayan art. “As our visitors experience world-class historic and contemporary art, they might wonder: is hell for real, or are our hells taking us for a ride? I hope they’ll jump on the roller coaster into and out of the darker parts of our spiritual imagination — one also filled with light, humor, and maybe even a little healing.”
Currently a hit with audiences at the Asia Society in New York City, Hell opens at the Asian Art Museum June 16 and will be on view through September 23, 2023. The exhibition features traditional imagery from Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines, as well as contemporary visions by artists of Asian descent.
This hellscape is filled with gory shadow puppets, theatrically penitent monks, divinely disturbing dances of death, kings of shocking realms, and Water Moon goddesses beckoning you to salvation — it’s an invitation to look into the abyss and discover an alternative to traditional fire and brimstone. For instance, Yoshifuji Utagawa’s Meiji-era woodblock Print, Newly Published Comic Picture of Cats, undermines the putative seriousness of the hell-realm by populating it with felines (which may not seem so farfetched to visitors who suffer from allergies).
As the Wall Street Journal said in their review of Hell’s Asia Society incarnation: “the visualizations here portray the netherworld’s gruesome horrors so gorgeously, peacefully — like meditative dreamscapes bathed in serene light — that you cannot help but bask in the idyllic beauty of their visionary brutality.”
About the Asian Art Museum
Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian and Asian American art, with more than 20,000 awe-inspiring works ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.