SAM’s Porcelain Room

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A section of the porcelain collection. Most of the pieces in this view are from England  though the plate at bottom center is from Germany. All of the pieces date to the mid 18th century.

A section of the porcelain collection. Most of the pieces in this view are from England though the plate at bottom center is from Germany. All of the pieces date to the mid 18th century.

Deep in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is a windowless room filled with floor to ceiling cases displaying several thousand years of porcelain. Porcelain was first developed in China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (196-220 CE) and was refined during the following Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Porcelain is extremely strong because the clay and stone dust used to create porcelain has a high content of quartz and mica. This allows for the thin ceramics and transparency associated with fine china wares.

Following the Tang dynasty, porcelains became a major export and were highly prized in Europe. European aristocrats and wealthy merchants collected porcelain and displayed their collections in rooms, which inspired SAM’s porcelain room. The porcelain room fashion reached its height under Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, who built an entire palace to house his 20,000 piece porcelain collection.

Today porcelain is used in a wide range of applications. Toilets are the most common example, but porcelain’s strength lends it to many industrial and commercial applications as well. Porcelain insulators are used on high voltage power lines, and porcelain tiling is used extensively in the building industry.

This ten sided dish is from 18th century Japan and was originally a piece in Augustus the Strong's porcelain palace. The scene on the dish shows a cat crouching next to some bonsai and bamboo.

This ten sided dish is from 18th century Japan and was originally a piece in Augustus the Strong’s porcelain palace. The scene on the dish shows a cat crouching next to some bonsai and bamboo.

Want to learn more about the SAM’s porcelain collection? Visit here

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View down the SAM upper lobby towards the north entrance. Inopportune: Stage One launches over the heads of visitors in a flash of lights.

Do you remember the highway chase scene from The Matrix Reloaded. Gas trucks exploded, cars do triple summersaults and the heroes escape unscathed. It is over the top, unrealistic and just about the point you probably stopped paying attention. At the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the lobby transforms this type of Hollywood violence into a reflective art form.

SAM’s lobby extends across a city block. A series of terraces take us from the new upper lobby, added in 2007, to the old lower lobby. These terraces house the museum store, SAM Cafe, public art galleries and lecture halls. The most dramatic element of this space is a sculpture composed of nine ford sedans. Seven of these cars are suspended from the ceiling as if they have been thrown over the lobby by a massive explosion. Two cars at either end of the space anchor the piece to the floor.

This sculpture is Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004). Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artists best known for his spectacular firework art. However, he has also built a wide range of sculptural work as well. Inopportune: Stage One was originally created for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece removes the dramatization of violence presented by Hollywood and asks us to consider the deeper nature of violence, our relationship to it and how we respond.

Even if you are not in a reflective mood, Inopportune: Stage One is a perfect introduction to the SAM. If you are short on time and/or do not want to pay the $25 to enter the museum, I suggest following the upper lobby past the escalators to the public gallery space. There is usually a piece from SAM’s collection on display. In addition, the hallway past this space features a wonderful wall of glass art and a series of murals by local artists.

View from the SAM Cafe terrace. A ford hangs over the lower lobby as a patron walks through the public gallery.

Want to learn more about SAM and its collection? Visit here.

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