Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art

January 20, 2021February 13, 2022

Ceramic vase with swirling paint pattern

This year-long installation explores the diverse forms and functions of clouds in the arts of Asia, juxtaposing works of art in different media and from different time periods spanning the Bronze Age to the present.

Clouds have long held a significant place in human imagination and thought. Clouds elude straightforward perceptual and symbolic identification. The diversity of forms of clouds in Asian arts can therefore raise questions about “clouding,” asking viewers to consider the significance of the invisible, the indeterminate, and the in-between.

Clouds are present as decorative and symbolic motifs, framing devices, compositional strategies in landscape painting, and as color. Ceramic surfaces can derive from the fire-driven cloud of ash and carbon in the kiln and even calligraphy, ink painting’s conceptual twin, can invoke the metaphor and analogy of clouds.  These themes are explored with some forty works from the Ackland’s distinguished collection of Asian art, including screens, scrolls, ceramics, lacquer, and metalwork. The selection of light-sensitive works will change every three months, opening on April 28, August 4, and November 3, 2021.

A final section of the installation will present a collaborative contemporary work: an abstract ink painting by Ming Ren (American, b. 1956) installed opposite an interactive projection responding in real time to the viewers of the painting, designed by computer scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer Hansong Zhang (Chinese, b. 1969), who received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1998.

Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art has been organized by Ellen Huang, former curator for Asian art, with Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs. It has been made possible in part by the Ackland’s Ruth and Sherman Lee Fund for Asian Art, Linda and Philip Carl, Smith Freeman and Austin Scarlett, and Mina Levin and Ronald Schwarz.


Image credit:

Unidentified artist, Chinese, Han Dynasty (206 BCE—220 CE), Cocoon-shaped Storage Vessel, Gray stoneware with painted red and white decoration, 10 3/8 x 11 7/8 x 8 ¼ in. (26.4 x 30.2 x 21 cm). Gift of Smith Freeman and Austin Scarlett, 2009.26.7.