Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
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200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art

Mar 4, 2016 – May 8, 2016

Gold. It evokes power, wealth, royalty, devotion and, above all, immortality.
It also signifies a 50th anniversary — a milestone the Asian Art Museum reaches in 2016. To celebrate, we’re presenting Hidden Gold, an exploration of gold’s physical and symbolic qualities through a selection of pieces from the museum’s magnificent collection.

Spanning 1,500 years of history and diverse Asian cultures, Hidden Gold investigates the universal regard for this precious metal and the many ways it’s incorporated into art. Gold shimmers as embroidery on a Korean bridal robe, glimmers in wisp-thin leaf on a Thai manuscript and illuminates a Qing dynasty screen with inlayed images of quails and chrysanthemums.

There’s also a local connection to the metal. California’s position on the world stage is inconceivable without the quest for gold. Hidden Gold boasts a large raw nugget, a nod to the Golden State and the legacy of its mining history.

For a modern interpretation of that legacy, the Asian Art Museum will also present Extracted, a contemporary exhibition that builds on Hidden Gold’s themes through an experimental new film medium developed by local artist Ranu Mukherjee.

As we commemorate the museum’s past and look toward the future, join us to reflect on the sparkle and significance of this extraordinary, enduring metal.

Mercury and Gold

Excerpts from the film Light of the Valley provide an overview of the renovation of the Swayambhu stupa in Nepal, which includes a gold mercury gilding process only practiced in the region. A stupa modeled after Swayambhu in Nepal is featured in Hidden Gold.

Video excerpts courtesy of the Guna Foundation.

A Remarkably Versatile Metal

The Asian Art Museum holds a wealth of stunning art worked in gold, from sculptures to textiles to paintings.

Some of these works have never been displayed, while others have been hiding in plain sight in the museum galleries. Some are obviously made of gold, while others incorporate gold in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

Gold appears on so many artworks from across Asia in large part due to its unique physical and symbolic qualities. Physically, gold is the most ductile of metals. Indeed, a single ounce of gold can theoretically be spun into a wire 1,250 miles long without breaking. From an artistic perspective, such spun gold can be drawn out into minute wires perfect for creating Indonesian jewelry, for example, or even finer threads for embroidery on Indian textiles.

Gold is also the most malleable of metals, so much so that a single ounce of gold can be pounded into sheets 0.1 microns thick; a thousand such sheets would be about as thick as a standard sheet of paper. From an artistic perspective, fine sheets of thin, cut gold can be used to create luminous figures in Japanese paintings, for example. Gold leaf also has important ritual functions, especially for the renewal of sacred imagery.

Finally, gold is among the least reactive of metals, which means it will not react chemically even with oxygen; this is why gold does not tarnish or rust. For the artist, gold’s low level of chemical reactivity means that an object worked in gold has an excellent chance of lasting a long time. Taken together, these three physical qualities make it possible for a little gold to go a long way.


Home and Family

Since marriages should ideally last for eternity, they are perfectly symbolized by gold’s resistance to tarnishing.

Accordingly, many objects worked with gold were created specifically as wedding gifts, such as Southeast Asian wedding textiles and Korean wedding robes. In such contexts, gold often symbolizes the eternal nature of love.

Gold-worked objects are also markers of social status within a community; they articulate a hierarchy both inside the home and outside the family. Japanese screens decorated with gold leaf performed just such a function, for only the wealthy could afford them. Adorned with gold and other emblems of immortality, these screens not only reflected light into a living space but also suggested that the family to whom they belonged possessed the resources to sustain themselves over time.

Palace and Power

Since gold does not tarnish, it is a natural symbol for that which does not die: the immortal and the divine.

Accordingly, political leaders throughout history have used gold and golden artwork to suggest that they too possess divine qualities.

For example, the form of gold nimbuses around the heads of Indian monarchs suggests the radiance of the undying sun; similar imagery appears on gold coinage issued by many Indian dynasties, as well as religious figures from Judeo-Christian traditions. Indonesian crowns on display in the exhibition take the development even further, for they do not merely depict a ruler with a nimbus, but actually provide him with one. A stunning royal Chinese robe employs gold thread to weave imagery that places its wearer at the very center of the cosmos, in the process fusing temporal power and eternal glory.

Sacred Symbolism

Even religious artworks designed to represent the eternal will fall victim to time. But gold can transform an otherwise time-bound object into one that symbolically creates eternal effects.

As such, gold often appears on paintings and sculptures intended for the temple, monastery or even private devotions — in other words, those places where time meets eternity.

In many Buddhist cultures, aging artworks may be revitalized through the ritual application of gold. The Svayambhu Stupa on display in this exhibition is a model of an actual monument in Nepal that is ritually renovated by the application of gold at regular intervals. Similarly, a large Mongolian Maitreya sculpture reveals how gold was used to ritually enliven this image of the Buddha of the Future. A smaller lapis Buddha from China bears traces of gold leaf. In all of these cases, the application of gold infuses the artwork with the symbolism of gold: luminosity and eternity.


Gold As Currency

Gold coinage has historically been a cornerstone of economies across the world.

Its unique qualities make it well suited to use in currency. Since it is very dense (a cube of 14 inches per side would weigh a ton), gold has a high value-to-weight ratio, making it efficient to transport and exchange. This same density makes gold heavy in comparison to other metals, and thus difficult to counterfeit. As a result, gold coinage has played a very important role in economic, political and religious history in many places around the world.

Unlike texts written on paper or palm leaf, gold coinage does not decay in the typically wet, humid climate of South Asia. Accordingly, scholars have often turned to coins to reconstruct the political and religious history of India. Indeed, coins not only provide clues as to the date they were minted, but they also, in some cases, bear images of identifiable rulers. Based on this information, it becomes possible to date the history of royal families and trace patterns of dynastic succession. In Hidden Gold, you can see the progression of South Asian coinage, from a coin of King Kanishka II (225–245) to a 1903 coin of autonomous Nepal.

The California Connection

Gold has played a key role in California’s history, with particular influence in the Bay Area. In homage to the state’s mining legacy, on display in this exhibition are two California-sourced objects that showcase gold as it occurs naturally: a quartz matrix and a placer nugget.

Quartz Matrix
Hot, salty water deep within the earth’s crust contains dissolved gold ions. Under pressure, this gold-bearing liquid oozes upwards through any available fractures in the surrounding rock. As the gold-infused water rises toward the earth’s surface, the heat and pressure lessen. Under these conditions, the gold is no longer soluble, and it begins to crystallize out, typically surrounded by large masses of white quartz. When tectonic forces then bring gold-bearing quartz veins to the surface, weathering breaks down the matrix. Tougher gold particles are washed downstream, where their weight makes them fall out of suspension, sometimes accumulating into large nuggets called “placers.”

Placer Nugget
When mineral veins containing gold erode, some of the metal is washed into watercourses, where its weight makes it sink. If there is sufficient accumulation of gold in a specific location, a gold nugget like the one on display in the exhibition is formed. Such nuggets are technically known as “placer nuggets,” a term that derives from the Spanish term placer (alluvial sand), in reference to the deposits in which such nuggets are typically found. Placer mining involves the famous technique of panning for gold in mountain streams, the main method used in the early years of the California gold rush.

Immigrant Miners
The promise of gold has exerted an almost magnetic pull not merely across North America, but also across the Pacific to Asia and especially China. Indeed, Chinese immigrants to Gold Rush-era San Francisco called the city “Gold Mountain.” You can explore the role of Chinese immigrants in the Gold Rush in the exhibition Extracted, an installation of contemporary artwork by Ranu Mukherjee, which includes an innovative hybrid film along with pieces from the museum’s collection, in Gallery 18 on the second floor.

Main image: Birds, flowers, and landscapes (detail), approx. 1920–1930. China. Jade, gold, and wood. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J978. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Organizers & Sponsors

Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art is organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Bonhams, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, and Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation.