“Lord It’s the Samurai”

 

"Lords of the Samurai" poster. Source: kgoradio.com
"Lords of the Samurai" poster. Source: kgoradio.com

 

When I first saw the ad around town for the Asian Art Museum’s “Lords of the Samurai” exhibition, my heart sank a little. (Really.) The ad seemed to pander to the romantic Western notion of samurai as mysterious, nearly invincible swordsmen. If the AAM was using the samurai as the centerpiece of an exhibit, and accompanying marketing campaign, their ad might have avoided calling up stereotypes. However, this didn’t seem to be the case.

In the ad, a shadowy suit of armor seems to glow against a red background; it’s a menacing image. Unlike other AAM exhibition titles, which are long and descriptive, “Lords of the Samurai” is short and evocative, the punchy words suggesting prestige and power. The word “samurai” is far bigger than any other and stands out in white, suggesting its importance; without further explanation, the viewer can easily project ill-informed associations onto the ad. Altogether, it seems to say, “Come see an exhibit about scary, badass samurai.” Didn’t bode well for the exhibition.

It’s tough to give museums the benefit of the doubt. Most, including the AAM, don’t provide enough historical or cultural context for the public to fully appreciate their permanent collections. And many traveling exhibits staged around hackneyed topics [King Tut, Egypt (Treasures of the British Museum), pretty Monet flowers] seem to take intellectual shortcuts for the sake of indulging patrons’ fantasies.

 

Better?
Better?

 

So how else was the museum marketing “Lords of the Samurai” ? The rather thin exhibition website immediately acknowledges the West’s fascination with the samurai. It then suggests that the exhibition would broaden the patron’s concept of these warriors; “Japanese samurai of the highest rank were also visionaries who strove to master artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits.” This wasn’t at all what the ads implied. Perhaps the samurai armor should have been holding a teacup?

Read more…

Advertisements

The Art of War

Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN
Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN

The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned some seemingly improbable headlines, like “U.S. establishes base on Babylon” and “U.S. hands back Ur”. Upon reading such titles, I envisioned the army traveling back in time to attack the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar at his Hanging Gardens or helping God himself topple the Tower of Babel.

Though Babylon and Ur have been abandoned for millenia, and long ago fell into ruin, Western culture still reveres the biblical-era myths and stories set in these cities.

Of course, Babylon and Ur aren’t just notable for their antiquity or their place in Western mythology. These sites are located in the alluvial plains of Iraq, in the path of modern human migration out of Africa – this area has seen untold centuries of human movement and occupation. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), they are the likely birthplace of many human “firsts,” including agriculture, writing, and the wheel. Sites and artifacts in this region don’t just represent one culture, they represent major achievements of our species.

It seemed almost sacrilegious for the military to invade Babylon and Ur. Moreover, it seemed too dangerous for them to occupy and risk damaging these fragile places, which are still being excavated.

When U.S. military contractor KBR built a base on Babylon in 2003, they did indeed damage the site. Workers bulldozed tells, dug ditches, built embankments, and carved out roads; in doing so they hopelessly confused the archaeological context and damaged structural remnants and artifacts, which at Babylon are buried relatively close to the surface. Vibrations from helicopters caused the collapse of a temple, and heavy machinery cracked a 2,600 year-old brick road. Ur fared little better.

To Westerners, Babylon and Ur are perhaps the best-known of Iraq’s ancient cities, and the U.S. military’s heedless destruction there communicated an awful message: even here, nothing here is sacred. One imagines it communicated the same to Iraqis.

Read more…