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Travel to Japan with the Asian Civilisations Museum!

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Backdrop of Kinkakuji in the snow. Photo taken by Singapore photographer Russel Wong

Today, Plural pals, I’d like to present you with a  kaiseki guide to the Asian Civilisations Museum’s (ACM) latest show. For those who don’t know me, I’m a life-long Japanophile and print and photography enthusiast, and I live on  Instagram at the handle @littleartgenie.

(For those who know their kaiseki, or traditional Japanese banquet cuisine, you know there are more courses and variations but I picked these for editorial and educational reasons. Enjoy!)

1. 前菜 Zensai – dainty amuse bouche appetisers

Missing this year’s spring

Stolen by the pandemic

Where can we find it?

I was moping at home in my Muji pajamas and mourning the loss of another sakura season when Plural Art Mag called. Would I like to attend the media preview of the ACM’s new Japan show, Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto?

You bet I would!

A treasure hunt through my closet and an expensive Grab ride later, and I’m standing with a crowd of reporters wearing that wiser-than-thou journo look but reassuringly, also some kitschy Japan-themed items of clothing. I tell myself that my chrysanthemum print maternity dress is fashion on point.

You can tell it’s been too long since you’ve gone out when the only makeup you put on is lipstick. I mention this sheepishly to one of the chic public relations mavens on-site and she laughs, “look in your media bag, we took care of that for you.”

Author A E Yeo with Plural's Usha in Russel Wong’s geisha lip face mask
Twinning with Plural’s Usha in Russel Wong’s geisha lip face mask

We gathered in the ACM’s spacious second-floor foyer, up the stairs from the ticketing counter, where a bunch of interactive booths are set up to appeal to kids and the young at heart. The highlight for me at that spot, was an Instagram-worthy slew of backdrops featuring Japanese scenery, as shot by Singapore celebrity photographer Russel Wong.

Seriously though, these provide a great introduction and teaser for the exhibition, and are totally free to experience. The exhibition itself costs $12 for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (and $20 for foreigners). Having whet my appetite for more, I set forth into the show proper.

ACM Director Kennie Ting welcoming visitors
Irrasshaimase! ACM Director Kennie Ting welcoming visitors happi-ly. (Although his coat is actually made of batik)

2. 吸物 Suimono – light clear soup whose delicate flavour signals the chef’s skill

First impressions once you’ve paid your $12: the special exhibition gallery deep inside the ACM space is a dark, hushed environment with beautiful warm spotlights on the prints and photographs.

ACM Director Kennie Ting (a very hip and happening figure as you can see from the above photo) told us that he wants to make the visitor gasp in wonder with gorgeous sightlines. He makes it a point to avoid linear shows where the visitor follows a set path through the exhibition. So, one can enter from either the ukiyo-e side – the traditional right hand side entrance – or the Russel Wong side, on the left. Try the latter to see this gorgeous vista:

Russell Wong in Kyoto Exhibit

3. 八寸 Hassun – platter of sushi and other little tapas that conjure up the season

Verdict: having stalked Japanese art exhibitions for 20 years from Tokyo to Paris, and New York to Chicago, I thought the ACM’s effort was not bad at all. I even made it a point to hunt down the curator Clement Onn after the media briefing and tell him what a good job he did.

For one, this show was layperson friendly and assumed an intelligent viewer without the full historical and cultural background of ukiyo-e. It also explained the world of the geisha, although this needed less of an introduction thanks to the pop culture hit book and movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which also brought Russel to this compelling subject matter.

Ukiyo-e, literally pictures from the floating world, were the social media of the day in 17th to 19th  century Japan. As a form of popular graphic art, they served as tourist guidebooks, theatrical posters and promotional material – some were even made to fit on fans, much like today’s idol concert merchandise. Images that we might think of today as being archaic or traditional, were in fact ‘pop culture’ symbols of the day, hundreds of years ago. In terms of relative pricing, they would have roughly cost the same back then, as a bowl of noodles! Now, iconic pieces like Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa also known as The Great Wave, (which has its own emoji ) are potentially worth millions depending on their condition.

So… are all these ukiyo-e from the ACM’s collection? The simple answer is no, these works are from a personal collection of almost ten thousand prints by Kobe-based collector Nakau Ei who has published books on weird and wacky themes like ghosts and samurai.

The ACM lucked out with this lobang because they would otherwise not have been able to stage an ukiyo-e show: most partner museums only allow their ukiyo-e out for two months because of the fragility of such ancient pieces of paper. Mr Nakau generously allowed a five-month loan, on the condition that the ACM switched out the pieces halfway to preserve them. Even so, COVID-19 almost derailed the show, which was supposed to be put up last year.

To be completely honest, these pieces were not the best I’ve ever seen. There are prints out there which are in amazing mint condition, and prints with iconic and unusual designs that even Van Gogh copied in his paintings. Now, iconic pieces like Hokusai’s The Great Wave can potentially sell for almost a million dollars if in really great condition. The pieces in this exhibition, coming from a personal collection, are very good indeed, but in my view, probably not in the million-dollar price range.

Notwithstanding this, most of them are good and interesting enough for the expert eye to linger. There’s the famous one of a cat staring out of a courtesan’s window, which has been printed on what feels like a zillion postcards:

The famous cat print, also known as Asakusa ricefields and Torinomachi Festival by Utagawa Hiroshige
The famous cat print, also known as Asakusa ricefields and Torinomachi Festival by Utagawa Hiroshige. It is explained that this is the view from a brothel, and suggested that the cat is probably a pet kept by a courtesan.

My personal favourites are the works which are not so iconic but which showcase technical aspects of the woodblock printer’s art: the subtle colours created by the woodblock process, and the muted gradation of the ink wash that is termed bokashi. It’s an effect that’s extremely hard to achieve (see here for more on why that’s the case).

Here are some other prints that I personally enjoyed:

The Tenth Month: Streetwalkers in the First Snowfall,by Utagawa Kunisada
This print by Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III is entitled The Tenth Month: Streetwalkers in the First Snowfall. It is likely to have been produced around 1815-18 and the Japanese title of the work plays on the word yotaka which means ‘nighthawk’ and is a term used for streetwalkers in the Kansai region.

 

Nihonbashi: Morning scene (1833) by Utagawa Hiroshige
This print by Utagawa Hiroshige is called Nihonbashi: Morning scene and was made around 1833. It’s part of the series of prints known as Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. Nihonbashi was the starting point of the approximately 483km – long journey from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto on the Tokaido Road. The bold composition of the delicate dawn sky creates a dramatic atmosphere for the start of a long journey.

4. お造り Otsukuri – artfully constructed slices of sashimi

Although woodblock prints were produced in their time as popular media, they have become celebrated by art historians because of their intrinsically laborious artistic process and the fact that they inspired the Impressionist movement in Europe.

One of the highlights of this exhibition is the set of actual woodblocks that was used to make a famous print:

Behind the scenes: set of actual woodblocks used for making a famous print

It gives you a great behind-the-scenes idea of how the process works, and the final resultant print from the blocks, is also displayed to round out the educational experience:

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Gaifu kaisei (Fine Wind, Clear Weather) [‘Red Fuji’]

If you’d like to find out more about the printmaking process and collection of these works, this article provides a good primer.

5. 焼物 Yakimono – the piece de resistance, hot from the grill

The second half of the show features the work of Singapore’s own contemporary master, celebrity photographer Russel Wong. His work on geisha and maiko offers a peek into a rarefied world which is valued for its exclusivity. I told Russel that it was interesting that it took a Singaporean photographer to gain exclusive entrée to this world and introduce it to the public. We speculated that maybe it was because no Japanese photographer dared to do it because of the social and cultural hurdles, and taboos they would have to cross. And perhaps no Western photographer had the interest or relevant connections.

For Russel, this project was a labour of love that began when he was commissioned to shoot publicity photos for the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Even with help from celebrities like Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh, it was a good ten years before he started getting anywhere in the closely-guarded Kyoto scene. Russel lucked out when a geisha came to hear about the lone Singaporean photographer who kept asking to be allowed to shoot pictures, and invited him to a ceremony.

Now that Russel has the necessary Kyoto contacts, he often travels there at short notice with a cinematographer in tow. Right before the pandemic in February 2021, he fulfilled a long-held desire to catch the snow falling on the famous Kinkakuji golden pagoda. He was told by his Japanese friends on a Wednesday that the weekend weather forecast predicted heavy snow (which is rare in Kyoto). He then booked his plane ticket on the Thursday, and flew there on the Friday night just to shoot that one ephemeral moment on a Saturday morning before COVID-19 stopped all international travel. The gorgeous images that came out of that trip are presented in full colour and in video, in the free-of-charge foyer exhibition.

backdrop of Kinkakuji in the snow. Photo taken by Singapore photographer Russel Wong
Me, taking in the backdrop of Kinkakuji in the snow

6. 炊合せ Takiawase – expertly blended flavours in a simmered vegetable dish

Russel shot these photographs digitally rather than on film but he strove for a fine art effect with no manipulation (i.e. cropping or photoshopping of flaws), unlike in his fashion shoots. True to the notion of photography – drawing with light – he was interested in exploring the contrasts, shadows, and lines of his subject material.

Interestingly, he chose to print them in black and a creamy white, instead of colour. When asked why he decided to forsake the gorgeous hues inherent in the subject matter, he explained that the monochrome tones provided his subjects with a more timeless look. He had tried printing them in colour, and they ended up looking like tourist photos.

geisha at work. Photo taken by photographer Russel Wong
Image of a geisha at work. I think Russel was right to shoot them this way – the images felt like stills from 1950s Japanese films by masters like Yasujiro Ozu, rather than modern-day women in period garb.

7. ご飯・香の物・止め椀 Gohan/Ko-no-mono/Tome-wan – elevated version of the rice, pickles and miso soup that accompany every Japanese meal

So, I’m going to drop in a shameless plug here and let you know that if you enjoyed the exhibition or would like an artwork with a Japanese aesthetic for your own walls, come look for me on Instagram at @littleartgenie. I’m always happy to show my own pieces and share my own collecting stories!

8. 水菓子Mizugashi – there’s always space for dessert

At the end of the ACM show, don’t forget to pop by the gift shop which is stuffed with all sorts of delightful art merchandise, including exclusive pieces inspired by this show!

omiyage, souvenirs from the Russel Wong travel to Japan Exhibit
My omiyage, or souvenirs from the show!

Go with your kids, parents, or regular travel kakis to recreate that holiday feel.

Dress up in your Japan-themed gear; break out the wave patterns, sakura and chrysanthemums and parade that OTT kimono fabric.

And in true Singapore style, make sure you plan ahead for some great Japanese food to eat before or after the visit, to complete your special trip into Japanese culture.

Let’s tuck in – itadakimasu!

__________________________________

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs at the ACM from 16 April 2021 to19 September 2021. The show has two rotations as set out below: 

‣ First rotation: 16 April – 11 July 2021

‣ Second rotation: 12 July – 19 September 2021

While the museum remains open at the time of publishing, please do check its website for updates on the safe management measures surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore. 

An earlier version of this article stated that a single ticket stub allows for a free second visit when the museum  rotates its artworks in the latter half of the show. We have been informed that this offer is now fully subscribed and is no longer available. 

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