The Asia Society
February 2 – May 2, 2010

It’s an occasion to celebrate, even in New York, when heavy, fragile cultural treasures arrive from the other side of the world—especially from a culture with which we have little exchange. Current case in point: the multi-millennial cultural and religious artwork from Viet Nam at the Asia Society. Although small in scale, this exhibition, said by the Asia Society to be the first “to address the historical, geographic and cultural contexts of pre-colonial Vietnamese art,” is large in significance.

“Pangolin,” Sa Huynh culture, 3rd century BCE–2nd century CE, Bronze. Courtesy of Asia Society.
“Pangolin,” Sa Huynh culture, 3rd century BCE–2nd century CE, Bronze. Courtesy of Asia Society.

The work—in stone, ceramics, metal, and gemstones—provides an enlightening window into Viet Nam beginning in an era correlating to the flowering of Greek and Roman civilizations. Organized into four periods spanning from about 500 BCE to the late 1600s, Arts of Ancient Viet Nam  features items found in daily life, weighty temple sculptures, and more recent ceramics recovered from a late pre-Renaissance shipwreck. The show is organized chronologically, beginning with Dong Son (first millennium BCE - second century CE) basins, bells, grave goods and burial urns, including a spectacularly symmetrical bell in bronze, and a talismanic pangolin (nocturnal, scaly anteater) from the second century CE. 

Three elephants stamped in gold sheet, about three centimeters square each, exemplify the Fu Nan culture, which began in the first century CE. Other works from this era include a cast gold ring crowned by Shiva's mount, the bull Nandi, a precious piece of golden jewelry; amethyst and crystal, as discussed by Pliny; and lingas, minuscule in rock crystal and monumental—a two meter Ekamukhalinga (one-faced linga), symbolically installed in its temple’s womb comprising three sections: the square base for Brahma, the creator; the octagonal shaft, for Vishnu; the preserver; and the head, for Shiva, the complex Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), who cyclically dances the world into existence and destruction.

“Bell,” Dong Son period, 5th century BCE–2nd century CE, Bronze. Courtesy of Asia Society.
“Bell,” Dong Son period, 5th century BCE–2nd century CE, Bronze. Courtesy of Asia Society.

The third group of artifacts is from the coastal kingdoms of Champa, early fifth to 19th century CE. These stone architectural elements from Hindu or Buddhist structures include such hybrid animals as a shrine guardian Gajasimha (elephant lion), a Kinnara (half man and half bird, “everlasting lover and beloved”), and an exuberant if fearsome acrobatic lion, one of a set thought to ring a building’s base.

The show closes in a room full of ceramics, some from a late 16th to early 17th-century shipwreck. These typify the depth, delicacy of color, and patina we associate with Asian glazes. A pair of fantastic Nghe, part lion and part dog, with a difficult-to-achieve cracked gray glaze and “spiky eyebrows, flaming manes, whorls of fur on their legs, and flamboyant tails” greet the visitor. A 15th century lime pot—“essential for betel leaf chewing”; a cobalt blue speckled white water dropper frog; and a delicate stem cup with rust-brown oxide glaze round out this stunning show.

Arts of Ancient Viet Nam runs through May 2, 2010 at the Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue at 70th.


David St.-Lascaux

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of L'Oubliette, or Plan A, and e*sequiturs, multimedia e-books. Website:


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