The Sixteen Pillars of Tadao Ando

Writing from the Ando Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.


By Shin Yu Pai


I began visiting the Tadao Ando Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998. Known as simply “Gallery 109,” the dark room tucked away in a far corner of the Japanese collections escapes the notice of most museum visitors. At the time, my lover had moved to Kyoto to study Japanese tea ceremony, while I finished graduate school. Bereft over our separation, I wandered the Asian art gallery, lingering over the ceramic vessels and painted scrolls, imagining that I was seeing the same kinds of things that my beloved physically handled in a distant time zone. The objects gave me a strange comfort, reaching back perhaps to my earliest memories of visiting museums with my Taiwanese parents. Inevitably, we’d end up closely studying ink paintings of birds and flowers, or mountain landscapes—my father’s favorite subjects. Even before my brother and I were born, my parents traveled long distances to experience Asian culture. As new immigrants living in rural Missouri, my father and my mother drove to visit the Chinese art collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, one of the few places where they could see their language and cultural symbols reflected back to them. 

In Chicago, I hadn’t yet discovered the rich genre of ekphrastic poetry, although, like most college English majors, I’d spent time committing Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to memory. I studied the objects displayed in the Ando gallery with care, noticing the visitors entering and filling the space, and how they interacted with the silence. Out of these observations sprang the first poem. 

A view of the Ando Gallery, Department of Asian Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992. Photograph by Thomas Cinoman. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.


The Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion

Entering a darkened room
to pass between sixteen pillars
of equal height and depth,
ten feet high and one foot square,

I place my hand against the grain
hold my ear to a column
listening for something
like the sound of trees.

Across the room
six folded screens
colored ink and gold on silk

the specks of turquoise in those mountains
glimmering points of light
from a distance
the shine of moss

in memory like the lights
of houses in the hillsides
lanterns in the sea
of winter nights.

Mist erases crags and peaks.

Bearded scholars on blankets
read to one another
calligraphing poems
under shade of bamboo and plum

as servants fill cups
with rice wine
floated downstream
on lotus pads.

My breath clouds the casing
as I think of humidity
and the desire to touch.

The door of the gallery opens.
A father and his daughter
I think we’ve seen this one before, the girl says.
They look for the place where the story begins.
The girl kisses glass.

Where does the story begin? 
Father insists gently.

In the mountains, the girl cries.

Traces of handprints left on glass.

It starts here, she says


Before moving to the Midwest, I’d spent a number of years studying translation at a Buddhist college in Colorado. Back in Boulder, I worked on a short collection of classical Chinese poetry with my father who gave me a crash course in the Chinese poetic tradition. In my background readings, I discovered the Chinese scholars—poets like Li Bai and Tu Fu, men of leisure who drank together and inspired one another’s poems. The images from the painted screen on display in the Ando gallery mirrored literary history. 

During the years that I spent living in Chicago, I returned to the Ando gallery over and over again, with the idea that the experience of the space could be as significant as that of the artifacts. While the art might not rotate for long periods of time, the space of the gallery remained dynamic and ever changing in its continual influx of visitors. Visiting the gallery became a part of my routine. As I began to shape a more artful life, I revisited practices that had been significant to me in the past. 

Tokyo Rose, the purveyor of the Toguri Mercantile on Belmont Avenue. pointed me towards a Japanese tea teacher on the north side. By the time I met her, Nakashima Sensei was already in her seventies, with a lifetime of experiences behind her. I didn’t know until coming across her obituary recently that Sensei had been the second woman ever to receive The Order of the Rising Sun—the highest honor given outside the Imperial family. But what really added to Sensei’s lore was her connection to a Tibetan lama who’d paid her a visit in the hopes of persuading her to move to his mountain town to teach at the experimental college where I would eventually become a student.


Issue 1
Publication Date: May 17


Shin Yu Pai

a 2014 Stranger Genius Award nominee, is the author of eight books of poetry. Her work has appeared in publications throughout the U.S., Japan, China, Taiwan, The United Kingdom, and Canada. 

Nakabayashi Chikkei, Poetry Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, between 1816 and 1867. Ink, color and gofun on silk.



columns you pass between
        tower high as bamboo stalks
                grouped in a grove

a white-haired guide
        prompts school students,
                to exit in silence

this rawness in the back of the throat
        heart leaping forward

while the mind turns back

to the cool darkness of
        a tea teacher’s home
                on West Carmen Street

        Monday nights
gakusei wore woolen
        sweaters, stockings
                under ankle-length
                skirts gathered neatly
        under knees

        we knelt in practice
hot water, matcha warming a bowl

the chill of the gallery dissipating


My visits to the gallery ended when I relocated to Texas in 2000. But Ando’s space remained in my imagination. I wondered what it might be like to install a video camera in the corners of the gallery and document the visitors coming in and out of the space. Could the visitors reflect something of the changing seasons, in the way that the curated displays of paintings revealed something about time? In spring, I’d seen an uptick of school groups and during the summers, I’d noticed more families. I watched people’s behaviors, listened to their conversations.

It seemed to me that the tracking of activity in Ando’s gallery could mimic a quality of Japanese poetics—an attention to the passage of seasons and the feel of a specific place and time. I decided then that every time I returned to Chicago, I’d revisit the Ando gallery and write a poem—new iterations of “The Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion.”

It was several years before I would return. Much and nothing had changed. The ancient jomon jars placed along the perimeter of the room remained where they had always been. In an effort to embrace technology, the museum had installed a flat-screen television and earphones that ran on a continual loop.


Site Specific

a crop of new students
fresh-faced from St. Bridget’s
Catholic converge upon
the gallery, names emblazoned

across the backs of royal blue
fleece sweatshirts: Aguilar, 
Pacheco, & Guernsey

girls in maroon polos & 
dark skirts, shade of “old
Bordeaux” the rusted
patina of urban overpass

a boy named Isabella
races to claim the headset
first, a flatscreen station
now animating the room

loops footage from a ritual
concert: kuniburi no utamai – 
narrative tunes reaching back
to the 10th century

facing the wall, he turns
his back to hand-crafted
bamboo pipes while another
youth snaps a photo of

the stringed zither inlaid
with ceramic hand picks; 
this kid sealed off by earbuds
no different than I, the poet 

nose stuck deep inside
a notebook, attuned to
the private experience of
encountering the music within

giant stoneware pots
that never rotate off display
sing quietly of wind
dancing against the rim


Yamamoto Jakurin, Meandering Stream at Lan-ting, 1790. Color on silk.


Ten years later, the glass doors that sealed off the room from the rest of the Japanese collections were permanently removed. The Art Institute went high tech, projecting video and light upon the walls. Instead of antiquities filling the cases, modern Japanese fashion design dominated the displays. The quiet contemplative nature of the room shifted towards a different kind of engagement.  To activate the gallery, the museum commissioned an artist to create new work responding to the space.



jomon jars replaced by plastic
mannequins, desiring definition
vacant body forms, scaffolding

to bear the float of haute
couture, Japanese fashion
Rei Kawakubo’s slip: 

“lumps & bumps” — a garment
of transposable parts, butt pads
shift to chest or hips

bee-stung knees, or a weight-
lifter’s sinewy back; shoulders
like Tilda Swinton

the site-specific video install
lights up Ando’s beams like
a fashion expo, visitors 

careen down a catwalk
of columns, the space between
pillars, a stage for selfies 

in silhouette, geometric slants
echo frames of denuded
posts, a scroll of light

unfurled against a wall
the artist’s projection
measured patterns

of movable parts


I returned to the Ando gallery in 2016, nearly twenty years after my first visit. 

The same decorative folding screen that was on view in 1998, when I first began writing about the Ando gallery, had come back on display. 

I read the object’s label closely this time. The screen had a painting on its back side, one that I had never seen. One that remained inaccessible to the eye. Curated alongside the image of literati stood a separate set of panels highlighting historical poets. As I scanned the portraits for names and faces that I might recognize, I realized how little had changed throughout the ages. The poems that I’d written back then and now had been my way of interrupting silence, of making a space distinct from what had been visibly institutionalized.



in the painted screen a woman
confined to a wheelchair sees
turquoise rocks pure as seastacks
straight from the Pacific Northwest

fanned out at eye level, the image
on the reverse side pictures
“Geese Among Reeds” – a painting
I gaze upon in my mind’s eye

recalling eighteen years ago
a first encounter with this partition –
the depiction of men at leisure,
overlooking somehow

a spring purification rite made
more real this day by the occasion
of my return to the windy city
for a friend’s second marriage

I visit artworks in museums
like favorite family members
finding comfort in the fact
that nothing’s changed after

major expansion, the gallery
restored to a simple display –
same panel, the unevolved language
I lifted for a poem; in the wings,

a six-panel screen beneath
dimmed lights, lights up twelve
immortals with their poems,
five women in multi-hued kimono

portrayed alongside seven male
counterparts, the curatorial text
indicates no names, scribbled waka
verse hovering above each picture,

in one portrait, a poet’s kimono
pools around her floating body;
in another, a woman’s features
concealed by a dark curtain

of hair; in the third sketch
a female figure faces away from
the artist’s gaze, I guess
at who they are – Izumi Shikibu

Sei Shonagon, Ono no Komachi
the only names I know, scan
across the screen to notice
each male bard meeting the eye

of his onlooker, angled at 45 degrees,
the faceless immortal the viewer
projects traits upon, a name
to claim a lasting place

gilded and burnished in gold
this screen made for “women’s quarters”
dominated by virile likenesses,
I reach towards my own life,

in lieu of the art historical,
the imagination recomposes
the scene, I enter the divider,
to embody the faceless courtesan,

& in the final intervention
I displace the patriarchal form
enshrouded in mondokoro
to even up the numbers,

take my seat with symbols
of my own making: sixteen
stanzas for sixteen pillars
in this gathering place

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