Slip off your shoes and step out of the summer heat and into a far away world of East Asian culture to explore the newest exhibit at The Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture. After its annual close for the month of August, The Clark Center opened Tuesday with it's fall exhibit that will remain on display through Nov. 15. The exhibit, "They Swim, Fly, Wiggle, Walk, or Slither: The Hidden Code of Animals in Japanese Art," features animals and their meanings in the Japanese culture.

The exhibition presents animals in four groups, starting with examples from the Zodiac. Aquatic animals like the carp and flying animals domestic to Japan make up the next two groups. The exhibition concludes with illustrations of foreign animals like giraffes that found their way into Japanese art.

The Japanese fauna is rich with animals like the carp and the rooster that carry symbolic significance. From turtles over peacocks to tigers and fireflies, the fall exhibition at the Clark Center introduces seventeen different animals and their meanings — meanings that are generally not transparent to Westerners as they derive from a distinctive but unfamiliar cultural context.

Andreas Marks, director and chief curator at The Clark Center, said that the Zodiac is different than the Western calendar in that it is distinctive by year, rather than by month. In East-Asia, a specific animal is assigned to each one of the twelve years of the lunisolar cycle of the Zodiac. These zodiac animals are used for astrological purposes, all having different personalities and characteristics that are passed on to those born in that year.

The rooster, for example, stands for vigilance and martial spirit, based on the old tradition of cock-fighting and is also associated with fire and sun. People born in this year are therefore believed to be very courageous, brave and wise. The Zodiac animals are more fully described in a catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

Marks encouraged community members to attend The Clark Center to view the exhibition, which is part of the center's collection.

"People should come to see animals with different eyes," Marks said. "It's not always the Hanford cows."

Because of local familiarity, Marks deliberately left out cows from the art he chose to feature, as well as bulls. With 2009 being the Year of the Bull, The Clark Center may devote an exhibition entirely to bulls next year, Marks said. He added that though animal meanings may be unfamiliar to those in the Western world, animals aren't unfamiliar, which might make this part of Japanese culture easier to understand.

In the exhibition's fourth group of artwork, a hanging scroll features a giraffe, which is not indigenous to Japan. The painting's box is dated 50 years prior to the first known time that giraffe's were introduced to Japan, Marks said. In 1907, a pair of giraffes arrived at Yokohama port, sent by a German zoo for the new Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo. And zoo attendance skyrocketed, Marks said.

"It was a different kind of entertainment then," Marks said. "Now zoos have trouble finding visitors.

The Japanese name for giraffe, kirin, is originally the name for a mythical, supenatural creature that appeared in China in the fifth century B.C. It stands for serenity and prosperity and can be compared with a unicorn in the Western tradition.

Featured works in the exhibition date as far back as the 1500's, though one incense box is as new as 1998.

Japanese art work is often done on scrolls or screens, using paper or silk as a canvas. And every scroll comes in a box that often provides more information about the work's origin.

The Clark Center was founded in 1995 by Willard G. Clrk, a fifth-generation rancher with a lifelong passion for Japan, and his wife, Elizabeth. The center's collection includes about 1,250 paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramics and bamboo works spanning 1,200 years of Japanese artistic history.

The Clark Center is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Also at The Clark Center is the third largest bonsai tree collection in California — with more than 100 sculpted trees — as well as the center's gift shop. Admission is $5, $3 for students and free to center members.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2424.

(Sept. 5, 2008)

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