Flowers Never Go Out of Style

The Asian Art Museum celebrates the Summer of Love with symbols that go back 2,500 years.

Detail from a Thai Buddhist scroll (Asian Art Museum)

The “Flower Power: show at the Asian Art Museum starts with two images. One, a reproduction of an iconic photograph, shows a young man putting flowers into the barrel of a policeman’s gun at a Vietnam War protest. Behind it hangs a Thai scroll, The Buddha overcomes the demon Mara and his forces, and the Earth Goddess creates a flood, which shows the weapons of an invading army turned into lotuses. In these expressions of Flower Power from 50 and 2,500 years ago, we see symbols of war replaced with symbols of peace.

The Asian, along with seemingly every other cultural institution in town, has opted to mark the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and it has chosen flowers as its method. There will be special events, too: For Lotus Live on July 15, the museum will organize thousands of people into the largest “human flower” for a Guinness World Record title, and during the exhibition, the museum will remain open till 9 p.m. Friday night (along with its regular later hours on Thursday), so people can get that much more floral-inspired joy in their lives.

teamLAB’s “Cold Life” (Asian Art Museum)

Flowers as representatives of love and peace in the ’60s were nothing new — they’ve had that significance in many Asian cultures for centuries. This show focuses on six blossoms: the lotus (which represents transcendence, the rose and the tulip (sophistication), the chrysanthemum (reflection), and plum and cherry blossoms, which signify transience. Many of the floral artworks in the show — the kimono with auspicious plum blossoms, the Chinese vase with a motif of 100 flowers, the Mughal prince holding a rose, and the incense container with a chrysanthemum design — come from the Asian’s collection. Curator Dany Chan was so committed to Flower Power that her wardrobe included something floral every day for a year. (She’s looking forward to wearing stripes again.)

But since flowers remain potent symbols in the present, the show also includes contemporary works. At a preview, Ayomi Yoshida was installing her Yedoensis,  80,000 hand-printed cherry blossoms on two-dimensional branches. Through a translator she said that in Japan, it’s not the blossoming but the scattering of the flowers that excites people. She asked people to reflect on not just the beauty of the flowers, but their ephemeral nature.

Mission district muralist Megan Wilson — whose brightly painted flowers are on the floors and walls outside the exhibit, providing a painted floral path — says she likes using flowers as a way to soften the message of her social justice work. The best example is a piece of hers on Clarion Alley that festooned the message “Tax the Rich” with blossoms.

The last room of the exhibit has two silkscreened prints by Takashi Murakami, whose smiling flowers show happiness, cheerfulness, and cuteness. But the artist, who has a Ph.D. in Japanese art history, also uses a flattened style that brings to mind Manga as well as Andy Warhol, blurring the line between branding and art.

Next door is Cold Life, a slow, dreamy, 7-minute video from the digital collective teamLAB that shows branches with plum and cherry blossoms slowing shifting with a full moon in the background.

Outside is Lee Mingwei’s large granite sculpture, The Moving Garden. Rather than representations of flowers, this has yellow and red gerbera daisies from the Central Valley in the channel cut into the sculpture. The artist asks visitors to take a flower and pass it on to a stranger, reflecting on what it means to give a gift. Flowers are bright, beautiful, and lively, she said — and a good medium for showing kindness and compassion.

“Let’s continue the ideals of the Summer of Love,” she said.

Flower Power, through Oct. 1, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., $10-$15, asianart.org

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