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Arts & Culture: Out Of This World

by Anh-Minh Le

His Stanford studio is one of several places where artist Ala Ebtekar worked on the handmade clay tiles for Luminous Ground.

Ala Ebtekar’s installation at the Asian Art Museum offers a look at the universe, with layers of meaning.

Ala Ebtekar is well aware that some museumgoers will seek out his latest work, Luminous Ground, intent on snapping a selfie. After all, composed of 1,800 handmade tiles that capture the cosmos and line a 55-foot-long wall of the new rooftop terrace at the Asian Art Museum, the artwork makes for a striking backdrop. But the Berkeley-born artist is optimistic that when the installation opens to the public later this fall, visitors will come away with much more than social media fodder.

“One of the major things for me is creating these contemplative experiences and creating work that speaks in different ways,” says Ebtekar. “It doesn’t mean that every person is going to get all of those things. There’s enough richness in just one facet, but you do have these multiple facets. … And if some people just want to take a selfie with it, that’s cool, too.”

Ebtekar has long been enamored with the exquisitely tiled edifices of his parents’ native Iran, among them the 16th-century Ali Qapu palace in Isfahan, with its vaulted ceiling depicting heaven. Initially trained as a painter — he earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Stanford University, where he is a lecturer in the department of art and art history — Ebtekar’s own foray into tilework dates back several years. For a 2018 exhibition at Napa’s di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, he fabricated 1,000 cyanotype tiles, relying on a photographic printing method invented in the 1840s. The tiles referenced an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and covered a 10-by-22-foot area of the gallery floor, mirroring the dimensions of the skylight overhead.

The words of 11th-century Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam served as inspiration: “Drink wine and look up at the moon and think of all the civilizations the moon has seen passing by.” Says Ebtekar: “We often romantically look up at the moon, but think about how long the moon has gazed at us.”

Since Ebtekar had participated in various Asian Art Museum exhibitions and programs, Karin Oen, then an associate curator for contemporary art at the museum, was already familiar with his practice when she heard about the site-specific installation in Napa. Even so, it made an impression. “I was intrigued by how layered it was,” she recalls. “The overlay of a cyanotype-like process on handmade California clay tiles, the amalgamation of space-age imagery from the Hubble telescope with a longstanding human interest in both astronomy and astrology, an engagement with the architecture of sacred spaces and Medieval Persian poetry.”

“One of the major things for me is creating these contemplative experiences and creating work that speaks in different ways.” — Ala Ebtekar

Oen reached out to Ebtekar about a commission for the Asian Art Museum’s East West Bank Art Terrace, designed by Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architecture. Ebtekar once again employed a Hubble image — in this case, representing 12 billion years of cosmic history — and the cyanotype technique. The two-and-a-half-year undertaking started with mining soil in California and mixing it to create a white-bodied clay. The clay was pounded, rolled and cut into 5-by-5-inch tiles, which were then fired.

Working in the Central Valley — his head ceramicist, Ritsuko Miyazaki, along with assistants Hannah Desch and Racquelle Justo, are based in Fresno — Ebtekar was struck by the region’s history, particularly as it relates to labor and immigration. Amador County, for example, has a rich mining past and was home to Fiddletown Chinatown. Ebtekar’s use of soil kindles a connection to the Central Valley’s agriculture industry and its immigrant workforce. “There’s a lot there in terms of the history of California and America in general,” he observes.

From Fresno, the tiles were transported to the Peninsula, where Ebtekar maintains a studio. In a darkroom, he brushed an altered cyanotype solution over the tiles, which were subsequently divided into sets of 25. “I’ve taken this image and basically broken it into 72 negatives,” Ebtekar elaborates. “Each negative is around 27 by 27 inches and provides coverage for about 25 tiles.”

With the negative on top of the tiles, clamped between sheets of glass and wood, he exposed them to the sun. Back in a dark environment, the tiles were washed with water. Once they were thoroughly dry, the final step entailed four coatings of what Ebtekar describes as a homemade glaze that weatherproofs the tiles and prevents further sun exposure. “There’s so many variations in this mosaic,” he says of the end result, noting that in addition to being “birthed by light,” the four elements — fire, water, earth and air — coalesce in the tiles.

Joining Luminous Ground on the museum terrace are Ai Weiwei’s Fountain of Light, an illuminated twisting sculpture comprised of thousands of strung glass beads; Pinaree Sanpitak’s stainless steel Breast Stupa Topiary series, whose forms draw on the female breast as well as the stupa, a hemispherical Buddhist shrine; and Don’t Mess With Me (aka The Pink Lady), street artist Jas Charanjiva’s response to the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012.

According to Oen, the works “are all connected by the theme of ‘past, present and future’ — an appropriate jumping-off point for the first installation of a space following a major transformation of a historical museum.” The 7,500-square-foot outdoor platform and 8,500-square-foot Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion that it sits atop are part of the Asian Art Museum’s multimillion-dollar expansion project, which was initiated in 2017.

Reflecting on the multivalent Luminous Ground and the myriad individuals who played a role in its creation — from the NASA/ESA team to tile glazer Miguel Suarez — Ebtekar likens his largest endeavor to date to “a movie, when you see the cast come up,” he says. “There’s a lot of hands involved in this. They don’t necessarily know each other, but then it all comes together. It’s a collective of voices in that way.”

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