December 5, 2023

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What you need to know about Asian Art Museum’s East West Bank Art Terrace

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Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, poses for a portrait on the East West Bank Art Terrace with “Breast Stupa Topiary” by Pinaree Sanpitak.

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

One of the requirements for the Asian Art Museum’s new East West Bank Art Terrace was that it be a flexible venue. The 7,500-square-foot space would need to not only host outdoor art but everything from performances and lectures to school group lunches and major fundraising galas. 

Like the Wilbur Gallery below it, whose large windows make its art visible on Hyde Street, it also needed to beckon visitors with a hint of what’s inside.

“We want to turn the museum inside out,” explained Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu while giving the Chronicle a private tour of the terrace over the summer. “We need to transcend our walls and tell our neighbors, ‘This is your museum. There’s art you can enjoy without even setting foot inside the walls.’ 

“But, of course, we hope this art will inspire you to discover more inside.”

As such, it’s fitting that Chinese multimedia artist Kongkee’s 2022 neon installation “Taotie,” which was originally commissioned for the 2022 exhibition “Kongkee Warring States Cyberpunk,” occupies a prominent space on the northeast corner of the terrace. 

More Information

East West Bank Art Terrace: Sculpture, mixed media. 1-8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Monday. $20. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.

When approaching the museum from Hyde Street, the piece’s neon pink glow sparks curiosity from the sidewalk. With a nod to Chinatown nightclub signs as well as an homage to ancient motifs with its depiction of the title Chinese mythological monster, it catches the eye of passersby. Against daylight fog or the night sky, there’s also a decidedly film noir effect that feels uniquely San Francisco.

“At one point we thought about doing it in LED to save on cost,” said Abby Chen, the museum’s head of contemporary art. “Kongkee said no right away, ‘It wouldn’t be the same.’ I’m glad he insisted.” 

The neon work “Taotie” by Kongkee on the East West Bank Art Terrace at the Asian Art Museum.

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Funded by a $5 million gift from East West Bank, the Art Terrace’s ribbon-cutting ceremony was at 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, with a public party at 5 p.m. to coincide with the bank’s 50th anniversary. 

“From the start, we fully appreciated the value the new terrace would bring to the museum and wanted to be a part of it,” said Dominic Ng, chairman and CEO of East West Bank. “The terrace shows the importance of connection — through art, through encountering new people and cultures, through learning about Asia’s place in the wider world.”

The East West Bank Art Terrace has been quietly open to the public since Aug. 25, and it  hosted a gala honoring Takashi Murakami on Sept. 13 as part of the reveal of his latest exhibition, “Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego.” But its official public opening has been one of the most anticipated events in the community, partly due to the challenges it faced to materialize. 

As part of the museum’s $38 million expansion project that broke ground in 2018, the Art Terrace was built atop the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion. Originally slated to open in 2020 at the same time as the Pavilion, the three-year delay for the terrace is now the root of a cross-complaint lawsuit by the Asian Art Museum Foundation against the international firm WHY Architecture Workshop Inc. and Swinerton Builders. The museum alleges issues ranging from leaks and inadequate interiors in the Pavilion to the Art Terrace being “unusable.” 

The Art Terrace features large-scale contemporary sculptures and installations including “Breast Stupa Topiary” by Pinaree Sanpitak as well as offering unique views of the Civic Center neighborhood.

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The Pavilion and Art Terrace were designed by architect Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architecture Workshop Inc., although Xu clarified that the terrace’s final paver flooring system was completed by a different firm. The museum declined to name the firm. 

In addition to “Taotie,” the first cycle of works on view at the terrace include the sculpture “Breast Stupa Topiary” (2013-2019) by Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak, and the mosaic installation “Luminous Ground” (2018-2020) by Berkeley-born artist Ala Ebtekar. While offering ample room for the works, the views from the terrace provide a compelling architectural melange of the neighboring Civic Center buildings.

The neon work “Taotie” by Kongkee standing watch over the Asian Art Museum on its new East West Bank Art Terrace. 

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle


Forged by Oakland-based Neon Works, “Taotie” depicts one of the four evil creatures of the world in Chinese mythology. The piece references both ancient Chinese art in the Asian Art Museum’s collection as well as contemporary culture, with the artist’s signature futurist style. “Taotie ate people. He was always hungry until one day, his face got chopped off and he stopped eating humans,” explained Chen, noting that he is frequently depicted on bronze vessels to remind people that when they eat and drink they should not allow themselves to be as gluttonous as Taotie. 

Indeed, when creating the work, Kongkee said he turned his attention toward present-day appetites.

“We’re so hungry for attention, that’s why the social media iconography is there,” said Chen, referring to the phrases “Love me” and “Like me” featured in the work that speak to our hunger for approval on a variety of apps. 

“But so quickly the Twitter logo has already been called into antiquity,” Chen added about the social media networking service that now goes by X. 

The former bird logo of Twitter remains on the artwork — alongside Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook — as a reminder of how quickly things change in the cyberworld.

And the placement of “Taotie” on the Art Terrace is no coincidence. “It’s here on the top of the building to protect the city and our museum,” Chen said.

“Breast Stupa Topiary” by Pinaree Sanpitak on the Asian Art Museum’s new East West Bank Art Terrace.

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

‘Breast Stupa Topiary’

Sanpitak began working on “Breast Stupa Topiary” after giving birth to her son. Inspired by traditional Buddhist monuments, it’s her feminist re-imagining, with three stainless steel structures reminiscent of mammaries with nipple-like peaks. Although elegantly minimal in their aesthetic, the different heights and dimensions of the three forms give the work a visual diversity like that of the human body. 

“She’s really looking at the female form as a symbol of place and belonging,” Chen said of the artist’s works. 

Naz Cuguoglu, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art and programs, noted that the sculptures were meant to explore the Thai concept of rang-gai, which involves seeing the body as a vessel where the physical world and spiritual realm intersect. 

But at first glance, they call to mind birdcages, with stainless steel bars placed far apart enough that some visitors can slip between them to explore the work from the inside, which Chen and Cuguoglu believe will be popular with the younger crowd.

“Luminous Ground” by Ala Ebtekar, a permanent installation on view at the Asian Art Museum’s new East West Bank Art Terrace. 

Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

‘Luminous Ground’

Commissioned by the museum for the terrace, “Luminous Ground” was created from 1,000 ceramic tiles crafted from clay sourced from California’s Central Valley. The tiles were made by Ritsuko Miyazaki of Clay Mix in Fresno and show sunlight-exposed cyanotype blueprint images of galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope. The images are reminiscent of celestial blue Persian ceramic glaze pottery in the museum’s collection.

“It’s a look at space and time,” said Cuguoglu. “What I’m excited about with this work is that it does not have the usual fetishization of pain that is given to Middle Eastern artists from a Western perspective, and it also questions the position of human-centric thinking.” 

Xu said that the combination of ancient aesthetics and modern technology were appropriate given San Francisco’s role in the tech world and Asia’s history of inventions, including early uses of cobalt in decorative arts in Persia and China.

The permanent, wall-mounted work will continue to change shades of blue as the tiles are exposed to sunlight on the terrace. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote about the Thai concept of rang-gai explored in Pinaree Sanpitak’s “Breast Stupa Topiary.” It was described by Naz Cuguoglu, the Asian Art Museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art and programs.

Reach Tony Bravo: [email protected]

  • Tony Bravo

    Tony Bravo is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Arts and Culture writer. Bravo joined The Chronicle staff in 2015 as a reporter for the former Style section, where he covered New York Fashion Week for the Hearst newspapers and served as the section’s editorial stylist, in addition to writing the relationship column “Connectivity.” He primarily covers visual arts and the LGBTQ community as well as specializing in stories about the intersections between arts, culture and lifestyle. His column appears in print every Monday in Datebook. Bravo is also an adjunct instructor at the City College of San Francisco Fashion Department and is the fourth generation of his family born in San Francisco, where he lives with his husband.


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