Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘美術館’ Category

The Royal Ontario Museum

Visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto the other day. It’s an incredible museum, spanning not only history and art, but also natural history, and covering a considerable number of cultures. As with the British Museum, I really appreciated that the focus wasn’t exclusively on art as it is at so many US museums – on highlighting style, creativity, and beauty – but rather incorporated some treatment of the fuller cultures and histories of different peoples or different parts of the world. A special exhibit on ancestor worship and Chinese New Year absolutely featured beautiful objects, and some great videos and displays of how woodblock printing is done; indeed, I think I learned more about Chinese woodblock printing from this exhibit than I ever did in all my art history courses. It also included sketchbooks and other materials for how artists produced ancestor portraits – helping us to understand a bit more concretely or tangibly that artists produced portraits of clothed bodies in a relatively undifferentiated, non-personalized fashion, and then merely added in the more individualized depiction of the clients’ late loved one. But this exhibit was not strictly, or even primarily, about “art”; it was about ancestors and gods, about practices and customs, about traditions and beliefs, and I really learned something.

Going back downstairs to the regular permanent exhibition galleries, I found a China section that was particularly impressive. It begins with massive architectural elements and sculptures from a late Ming / early Qing dynasty tomb such as I have never seen at any other museum, and would not expect to see anywhere else outside of actually visiting China. This was wonderful – I am always on the lookout for the biases of what we think we know about a culture or a place, or how we envision it, based on the skewed body of materials available to us, as a result of the vagaries of what our museums have and have not collected and displayed (alongside myriad other aspects of media and popular culture, etc.). When all you know of China is paintings, pottery, lacquerwares, and not so much the architecture, because architecture is so big and so difficult to have brought over (or reproduced, replicated) here, you get a different perspective. So, in short, to see these tomb elements was just incredible. I understand that the question of who brought them over and when and how and why, and hoping it was done legally and ethically and so forth is a whole other matter…….. but, as a museum visitor, it was impactful.

A stone gate and altar table from the tomb of Zu Dashou (d. 1656), a Ming general who fought in the defense of the northern frontiers of the realm against Manchu invasions in the 1630s to early 1640s.

This focus on a broader approach to culture and history, and not only to “art” also meant that I got to see a few oracle bones, more so than I think I’ve ever seen before unless I’m misremembering, prominently displayed and with the inscriptions on them clearly visible. A small set of displays also featured “Chinese inventions,” providing visitors a very brief introduction to Chinese compasses and sundials, gunpowder weapons, and printing technology, things that an art museum like LACMA or the Metropolitan would likely generally skip over, except where it would fit into a fairly standard, mainstream, art historical narrative.

Two more things struck me about the ROM’s China galleries. One, they are filled primarily with tomb goods from the Han and Tang dynasties (among others), aweing in their sheer numbers and diversity. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, but there was something about the way they were displayed that made them seem quite vibrant and interesting, not like the dry, old, feeling one can sometimes get about ancient archaeological finds. The richness and dynamism of these ancient periods came through, very much so.

Secondly, even if only in this and that corner of the exhibit, the ROM highlighted the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of premodern China in a way few other museums do. The many cases of Tang dynasty ceramics of course gave this sense, with their ceramic figurines of bearded Central Asian merchants and travelers on camelback and so forth, and accompanying labels discussing the Silk Road and the multi-ethnic character of the Tang period. Another case, situated amidst the Song dynasty section, also displayed a number of Liao (Khitan) objects, and took explicit time and space to introduce visitors to the Khitan people (Liao dynasty) who ruled over part of “China” for a time, and their culture.

Above: a 17th c. Torah case from the Kaifeng synagogue in lacquered wood.

Perhaps most striking and incredible to see was a section dedicated to (a small portion of) the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in China. I do wish they might have spent a bit more time on the Hui, Uyghurs, and/or other groups within China. The way it was presented here – including also the display of a number of Tang dynasty figures of “foreigners” – seemed to be like a narrative in which “Muslims” are a single type of outside foreign person, who came to China like immigrants or expats. And while that may have been true in certain senses, e.g. the Muslim Indian Ocean merchants and Silk Road merchants who set up mosques in places like Xian and Guangzhou, there are also these vast regions of what is now included within the western portions of PRC territory, where distinct peoples such as the Uyghurs have always lived and have always practiced their own particular culture… It’s a rather different thing from the case of the Kaifeng Jews. It’s one thing to say that historically there were some mosques and churches here and there, and even a synagogue, and it’s quite another to acknowledge that there are entire Muslim peoples, entire regions, that were absorbed by China, and that could (and should!) constitute an entire exhibition unto themselves.

But, even so, to see this many artifacts and images relating to the history of Jews in Kaifeng is something I have positively never seen at any other museum, especially not within the context of a regular permanent exhibit on China. I did see a beautiful Torah scroll from Kaifeng once, on silk, on display at the British Library, but this was part of a special exhibit on Bibles and Qurans from around the world, and not one on cultural diversity in China. The ROM’s exhibit includes not only a text page in Hebrew, but also a cylindrical wooden Torah case such as is typical among Mizrahi/Sephardic communities, a stone drain mouth from the Kaifeng synagogue (est. c. 1163, destroyed c. 1850), and a rubbing from a stele which used to stand at the synagogue, along with a number of objects relating to Islam in Xi’an and elsewhere, and to Nestorian Christianity.

Joseon dynasty helmets, one from the Imjin War of the 1590s, and two from the 19th century.

The Korea section of the galleries was likewise larger than I might have expected, and included a somewhat broader range of objects than I have seen elsewhere. While both the Korea and Japan sections included only a disappointingly small number of works of painting, they did include a set of images of Joseon dynasty royal processions (something I have only previously seen at the San Francisco Art Museum, and at museums in Seoul) and a small section on the history of Korean printing, something I have not seen emphasized or highlighted elsewhere at all.

Finally, while I have certainly seen many art history museums and art history textbooks & courses make mention of the Imjin Wars (Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s) for their significance for the history of Japanese ceramics, I don’t believe I have ever seen any museum outside of Korea feature helmets, weapons, or armor actually used in those battles. Actually, I’m trying to remember now if I’ve ever seen Korean arms or armor on display at the Met at all. So this, too, was really something enjoyable to see.

“A Mohawk Family Group” diorama, revised from old (orientalist) museum practices to better represent First Nations people as contemporary, modern, human beings – members of society – and not objects of anthropological study or curiosity.

Of course, I was not surprised at all that the First Nations galleries at the ROM would be rather well-done. They’ve brought in Native curators and consultants to help ensure that First Nations cultures and history are portrayed in a way which First Nations people would want them to be shown, and they incorporate not only aspects of traditional culture but also contemporary arts and culture. They show clearly and boldly that First Nations people and their culture do not only belong to the past, but that they are also fully modern, just as much a part of the modern world as anyone else.

I very much enjoyed seeing this, and wish I’d had the time to view the entirety of the First Nations gallery – we saw it only at the end, before we had to end up leaving to head out. But I also enjoyed, as we saw in the China and Korea galleries as well, that the ROM focused not only on Native American / First Nations arts, craft, and “culture,” but also on these peoples as fully enmeshed as actors in history. We saw extensive displays on the role of First Nations peoples in the War of 1812 and in treaties, alliances, and other relations with European settlers across the 17th-19th centuries, in addition to displays of canoes, clothing, weapons, and other items, and displays of contemporary artworks relating to issues of suffering, settler colonialism, forced assimilation, and so forth.

And all of these exhibits, from the East Asia galleries to the First Nations ones, all look (at least at first glance) quite contemporary, quite newly done or newly redone. While I can’t necessarily speak in a more intricate way as to precisely how they were or were not following the latest newest innovative or best practices of Museum Studies, they certainly did not feel old, outdated, in need of renovation, at all. One critique my father pointed out in the vein of exhibit design, however, was that the gallery labels in the First Nations gallery in particular very often had far too much text, often in too-small font, and occasionally the labels themselves were located far back in the displays, making them especially difficult to read. My father simply flat-out could not read many of these labels, even with his reading glasses, and I had some difficulty as well.

That one critique aside, what a wonderful museum. I hope I get to come back and see it again sometime.

Read Full Post »

I was very glad for the coincidental good timing that I got to be in London to see the Oceania exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts. I had read online about this being the largest Oceanic Art exhibit ever held in the UK, so I was quite excited. And it was, indeed, an excellent exhibit, though not quite as large in the end as I might have expected. If this was the largest ever held, that’s not really saying much for all the previous ones.

Still, I think it was really a privilege to get to see it. The show opened with a video by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a spoken word and performance artist from the Marshall Islands, whose performance put me on the verge of tears right from the very beginning. I wonder how most other visitors received this, how it made them feel. Because I now have so much more background in this, I know a little more deeply what she’s talking about, and sympathize and resonate with it, at least a little more. In the video, she speaks of buying gifts for friends, of earrings and baskets, and telling her friends, when other people ask you about those items, tell them you got them from the Marshall Islands.

Tell them about our culture and our history.
Tell them about how the oceans are rising and our islands are flooding.
Tell them how we don’t want to leave.
Tell them we are nothing without our islands.

This set the tone for me, as if it were an exhibit of a vanishing race, so to speak. Even as I know better, that Pacific Island peoples are (for now) very much alive, that their traditions and culture and contemporary identity are very much alive and current, not belonging only to the past, even so, this set a certain tone, making me think of as if, what if the oceans do keep rising and the islands do disappear, and what if someday not so long from now, these treasures become emblematic representative examples of a much diminished greatness that once was? Some of the only things to survive from a myriad of cultures spanning a vast ocean, which have disappeared into that ocean?

While contemporary artworks were mixed in throughout, the core of the exhibit to my mind was the great many artifacts borrowed from across the UK, Europe, and beyond, representing cultures all across the Pacific and including many objects I might never otherwise see unless I visited Berlin, Vienna, and a half dozen other cities. Many were famous objects I’d seen in books or catalogs before, or objects of some great historical significance otherwise – such as the oldest extant pictorial depiction of a Christian house of worship by a Pacific artist; or sketches drawn by Tupaia, one of the very first Pacific Islanders to ever travel to (be brought to) Europe.

To see the Kūkaʻilimoku statue belonging to the British Museum, one of only three such large-scale Hawaiian kiʻi (tikis) extant in the world, was breathtaking. I had seen it before, at the Bishop Museum, elevated high up on a pedestal alongside its two brothers, in a most historic and powerful reunion of the three, returning two of them to the islands (from Salem MA and London) for the first time since the 18th or very early 19th century. But to see it more close-up, closer to ground level, now, was a real privilege. And I imagine that if I knew the backstories behind more of these objects I would feel similarly about more of them as well.

The exhibit was organized in part by Nicholas Thomas, unquestionably one of the leading Pacific scholars in the world, and had the involvement of Noelle Kahanu and Ty Kawika Tengan (two of the most prominent Native Hawaiian scholars active today), as well as Maia Nuku (Pacific Art curator of the Metropolitan Museum), and some other Māori scholars as well. And it was obvious from the labels and from the audio guide that the emphasis was being placed on Native cultures and Native perspectives, not on the history of “discoverers” or “discoveries.” I am sorry to say that no matter how you dress it up, I could only muster so much interest for fishhooks and spears and the like. But, even so, the fact that they were there, representing so many different Pacific cultures – not just the Sepik Valley over and over again as in the Met’s permanent collection galleries – were being described as to their treasured value within their cultures, and included some of the greatest such treasures of European collections, made them appeal nevertheless.

One highlight of the exhibit was the installation of Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” a video art piece installed all along one very long wall of an entire room. Emulating a particular famous painting of European explorers viewing the planet Venus from Tahiti, the video is brilliantly designed to resemble a painting, but animated, with the figures within acting out numerous individualized scenes of European and Islander activities and interactions. Some more friendly and peaceful than others. These scenes are isolated, but interconnected. Here, a small group of islanders perform a hula or other sort of dance. Nearby, some sailors sing a sea shanty. Explorers take off layers of clothing and fan themselves as they look around at the scenery. Islanders pray, or gather for food. An explorer suddenly gets scared, and grabs his gun, pointing it in this direction and that. A native prepares and fires a sling. The gun goes off. A Native is killed. The sailor is all the more wary now, scared of what he’s done, and scared there might be more Natives around, coming for him. The video continues to slowly scroll, continually, such that each of these scenes, as they repeat or develop, gradually moves to the left and eventually off-screen, replaced by others. The music and sounds change depending on what is visible on-screen, from happy and sunny Native songs, bird tweets, and the sounds of the ocean to ominous, deep dramatic music, as skirmishes break out and people are killed. I had read about or seen stills or segments of this in the past, but had never seen the whole thing before. A wonderful precious opportunity.

A section of “Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals)” by John Pule, an artist from Niue. Look closer and you can see specific episodes from past and present.

The show closes with a last room featuring a few more traditional and contemporary pieces. One in blue and black and white, resembling at first glance the sketches of Tupaia, caught my eye. On closer examination, one sees the events of 9/11, and the ensuing mobilization of warplanes and tanks, dropping bombs on cities. One sees missiles, nuclear or otherwise, being preppred for launch. One sees people carrying away moai and other Pacific treasures. A beautiful and powerful piece.

In total, I suppose the exhibit covered X rooms (galleries), and felt to me like maybe about the same size as a Metropolitan special exhibit. Sizable, but not so incredible. I wonder, if we were to actually compare the number of objects or the number of galleries to, for example, the Silla exhibit at the Met, the Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit I saw at LACMA, or the much larger(-feeling) Pre-Columbian exhibit I saw at the Getty, how this would compare.
I did buy the catalog, though. While entrance to the exhibit itself was definitely overpriced at £15, especially compared to the British Museum being free, the catalog was very reasonably priced at £13. So I took advantage of that opportunity to buy a nice, big, full-color book.

Read Full Post »

Having finally finished with my posts on last summer’s stay in Turkey, I can move on to some of the other travels I was privileged to engage in this past year. In late November, I traveled to London to present at a conference, and jotted down the following notes/thoughts.

11/29/18

These last few days in London have been just wonderful. I guess maybe I don’t quite remember my last few trips to London too clearly (though I could just look them up in the blog), but somehow I think that maybe this time I’ve really felt that feeling of being able to come back, and wanting to come back.

Scones and tea at Gail’s Bakery in Exmouth Market. Sometimes the simplest things are the greatest highlights of a trip.

I think getting my SOAS Alumni card made a big difference. I don’t know why I never tried to look into that possibility earlier. Having a card and being able to go in and out of the campus as I wished, and to use the library, as well as meeting up with one of my SOAS professors from many years ago not in an intimidating student-teacher sort of way but in a laidback, friendly, collegial sort of way, really helped I think. It made me feel welcome and to feel like I have a place here (that is, on previous trips perhaps I felt like SOAS was no longer a place for me, no longer a place where I belonged). Meeting up with (just a very few) friends and professors, even though I didn’t really get out into the city all that much, and certainly didn’t really do any super extensive touristy exploring or anything, I dunno, somehow I just really felt like I was on top of things, knew what I was doing for a change. By which I mean to say, yes, I did have a ton of false starts, wasted a lot of time going to the British Library only to find I couldn’t get anything done there, walking around looking for a cafe or restaurant that suited what I was in the mood for at that time, only to end up at a Cafe Nero, but, still, overall, I feel like I settled in, however briefly, to a routine, to a life, as if I were to be staying here longer. I visited a few museums, went out to a few restaurants, but also spent some considerable time just walking around or sitting in UofL student spaces, having a drink or a sandwich and getting a little work done, not feeling too out of place.

The Junior Common Room (JCR) at SOAS.

SOAS is an interesting place. Many of the students – or, at least the ones who most make themselves heard – are super activist liberal, to an extent that often rubs me the wrong way. Crazy ideological, without the nuance and complexity that comes with further age and experience.

But at the same time, it is so inspiring and interesting to be in a place where everyone around you is a non-Western specialist. Where people are actively and passionately engaged in studying everything from Kurdish language to Senegalese music to Burmese politics to Tongan economics. Where the entire library and not just some corner of it, is organized into Africa, Asia, Pacific, etc. And where most of the signs and flyers on the walls, and the books in the bookstore, are non-western, decolonial, culturally oriented, with true serious diversity unlike you ever see in a US institution’s library. Incidentally, SOAS Library is currently being threatened by terrible budget cuts. See here for information on the latest developments, and on what you can do to help.

Opening slide for a wonderful presentation by Gaylen Vankan, on a 1526 series of depictions of Turkish (Ottoman) warriors on horseback.

The Perceiving Processions symposium I was in London to attend was wonderful. I suppose that in the end I am afraid I must admit that, as almost always is the case, I sadly did not actually come away with any new insights, new methodologies, that might truly inform my research/writing going forward. I had hoped for some new insights into how we talk about processions as performative acts, as acts that actually function in some fashion to make meaning through the unique qualities of processions as a particular form of display and action. But, nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and got some surprisingly interested excited reactions. I half expected that as the only East Asianist on the docket, people would largely just ignore me, taking my work as a curiosity but as something outside of the much deeper, more involved and engaged conversations they would want to have with one another, with their fellow Europeanists. But during the first coffee break after my talk, and to a certain extent throughout the entire rest of the day, multiple people kept wanting to talk to me, which was really something. Many of the other presentations were also really interesting, working on really interesting topics, with beautiful or otherwise really engaging sources.

One on a series of tapestries depicting Congolese royalty as Brazilian kings, in a sort of pastiche of Dutch Brazilian tropical Empire – I had no idea that there was a Dutch Brazil, or that Congolese courts or polities sent any kind of formal embassies. Not to mention the fact that the only place where this set of tapestries is still displayed in full, in order, is at the Knights of Malta Council Chamber, on Malta. The incredible degree of internationality of these topics is stunning.

Matthew Gin presented on rituals in which a Spanish princess was sent over to France to marry a French prince – a tiny island in a river between Spain and France still remains today shared between the two countries. And at that time, temporary ceremonial buildings were erected, to receive the Spanish princess and to convey her into her new life in France in a manner which ceremonially treated both countries as equals. Neither the Spanish nor the French side of the building was larger than the other, or raised up higher, or anything like that – in order to help ensure ritual equality between the two sides. As an architectural historian, he found records of these temporary buildings and reconstructed some notion of the effects or implications of that design, as well as considering the ceremony itself, though he has no pictorial representations at all of those ceremonies or their associated processions. Interesting too, that he noted that even as these Spanish princesses went and took on roles/positions within the French court, they were always considered foreigners, “of Spain,” and thus took on an identity much like the island itself – ambiguous and in-between, not fully belonging to either country.

Visit of Albrecht Dürer in Antwerp in 1520, Jan August Hendrik Leys, 1855, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 2198. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Another presenter, Gaylen Vankan of the University of Liege, spoke of Dutch depictions of Ottoman riders, specifically Suleiman the Magnificent and several other figures on horseback accompanying him. Though often grouped together as a procession, these can also be taken to be five separate images of separate classes of Ottoman riders. The key point he made, which I thought was interesting, is that even as one would expect in the late 15th and 16th centuries that Europeans would see the Ottomans as a horrible, barbaric, non-Christian horde, a serious threat to Christendom (and that’s putting it mildly, even, considering the fall of Constantinople and the fall of so much of the Balkans to the Ottomans, all the way to the gates of Vienna) – and they are indeed depicted in that fashion in a great many works. And yet, in these works as well as in many others, the Ottomans are depicted with some considerable nobility – the artist obviously admires or respects them or at the very least finds something appealing about the aesthetics and style of their clothing and accoutrements.

Nicholas Crummey (Central European University) talked about a wonderful diary he had found in the British Library, by a member of a late 17th century British embassy to Ottoman lands. Though re-published several times and oft-cited, it would seem the original copy of this diary – complete with wonderful illustrations – is very rarely consulted. He showed us some great maps and illustrations that this figure, John Covel, drew, relating various aspects of his journey.

Inside at Gail’s in Exmouth Market.

But what I think I’ve really enjoyed the most these last few days has just been the nice little shops I’ve visited, and just the free sort of lifestyle. Even if it was super chain sort of shops like Cafe Nero, or eating out of a supermarket, it has that extra cultural cachet for me because it’s “foreign,” because it’s British or European. For the first two nights, the symposium put me up at a nice hotel just a very short walk from Russell Square station, pretty close to SOAS and to the areas I was familiar with but just different enough that I could feel I was exploring/experiencing something new. I missed breakfast in the hotel both mornings, which was a shame, because I was so jetlagged and basically just overslept both times. Well, on the day of the conference I didn’t oversleep, I just took too long to prepare and didn’t have time for a proper breakfast. So I just grabbed something at the Simit Sarayi across the street. This is (one piece of) what I’m talking about. Here’s a Turkish chain store, selling Turkish pastries and stuff – I’m not sure we have any Simit Sarayi in New York or LA, and if we have anywhere at all selling this stuff you really have to sort of search it out, whereas here in London, because Britain and Turkey are both in or on the peripheries of Europe, you can see this sort of intermingling of the stores. Anyway, sadly the food was not nearly as good as at even the Simit Sarayi in Istanbul, let alone the proper local places. But even so, it existed. The second morning, after the conference was over and I was free to be on my own time, I did sleep in, until like 10:30 or so – never got over jet lag the entire trip, so I’ve been sleeping from like 11pm or 12am until 2 or 3, and then being up until 5 or 5:30, and then sleeping until 10:30 or so…. But, on my way to SOAS or the British Museum or wherever it was, I found a wonderful little bakery called Gail’s. Which I’ve now learned also has multiple locations, but it doesn’t feel like a chain at all, feels like a nice cozy cafe like I might also expect to find in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo, or in all sorts of other places (except, this one is more authentically British). I had a wonderful little breakfast, a real highlight of trip, haha, as I could imagine going back there or places quite like it regularly, if I were to be living here. I got a scone with jam and clotted cream, and a pot of English Breakfast, and honestly I could have just relaxed and stayed there all day, enjoying tea and pastries, the bright, airy, and relaxed background-conversations sort of atmosphere, putting me in a good relaxed mood to be productive on my computer.

I’m sure these kinds of places must exist somewhere in LA, but I would have to really seek them out, and drive to them. Unless you live in Santa Monica or certain other neighborhoods, in my very limited experience, I feel like there’s really nothing properly walkable in LA. No sense of a local neighborhood. If I were to live in Islington/Bloomsbury area, I could definitely imagine myself having breakfast at Gail’s and just settling in to work there on many days. Or even at Café Nero. Or at one of the UofL cafes. Any/all of these feel different than just going to a local Starbucks or whatever here in LA…

The Rocket. A pub near the British Library. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside, but certainly a familiar sight.

I once again made a trip to London during which I barely got out of the Islington/Bloomsbury sort of area, but, this time I’m not feeling down about it at all. When I first relocated from the hotel to the AirBnB, I was feeling a little bummed out, kicking myself for booking a place here in this same neighborhood rather than getting out to explore the rest of the city at all. And, sure, who knows what kind of experience I might have had if I did stay in an entirely different, new, neighborhood. But, it really worked out just fine. I did not allow myself to get stuck going up and down the same streets or areas that I already know have been a bust in the past, and actually by walking just a little bit off my own personal well-beaten track, walking south to Exmouth Market and then west towards the British Museum rather than going straight back to King’s Cross and Euston and Gray’s Inn Road and whatever else I’m already too familiar with, I made it a new experience.

I just love these little market streets, lined with cute little shops. I loved Gail’s, and I can easily imagine if I were living here to either go back there regularly or to explore other shops up and down and in neighboring streets and so forth. I also happened upon Judd Books again, a small but really good little used book store right near SOAS and UCL; the SOAS on-campus bookstore also, though extremely small, has a good selection of things, obviously, since it’s all the books that SOAS professors are assigning for their classes. And some “random” stuff that I wouldn’t expect to be able to find anywhere else, like CDs of the London Uyghur Ensemble for one quid.

And though I pretty much only got out of this neighborhood to meet up with a friend for pizza near All Soul’s Church (near Oxford Circus), to go to the Royal Academy of Arts (near Picadilly Circus), and to have dinner and drinks with a professor out near Borough Station (near London Bridge), and didn’t really see or explore the city at all, somehow that just really felt like enough. I think having a SOAS alumni card and being able to get into the campus, not feeling like I had nowhere to be allowed to belong, made all the difference. I didn’t need the card at all to get into the Institute of Education pub, or for that matter the Brunei Building, or half the times I tried the Senate House, but, still, I dunno, for whatever reason, sitting around on or near campus and pretending like I was actually based at SOAS for the week, it just really worked. Go to the campus bar, sit and pull out your computer and get some work done. Go to the library. Use the old shortcuts you remember to go through Senate House to the side entrance of the British Museum rather than going all the way around. Visit Judd Books.

SOAS Main Building, with its statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.

I think meeting up with one of my SOAS profs, and with another scholar who he had put in touch with me, really helped too. Maybe my experiences in Japan these last few years, and at UCLA too, have helped me too, to develop a much greater familiarity with the identity of being an outsider who’s come to use the library, or to have a meeting, or whatever. Even though most Japanese universities do have security gates for their libraries – turnstiles or gates that won’t even let you into the building at all without a library card or whatever – number one, if you just ask and explain that you’re a visitor and fill out a tiny bit of paperwork, they’ll typically let you in, and two, I think every other campus I’ve ever been to has let me walk in and walk around campus without anyone checking or asking. Okinawa University of the Arts in particular comes to mind – I’ve been there quite a few times now, either to use the library or to visit with a professor there. And no one asks me questions, no one looks at me funny. The first time I went, I asked at the desk before trying to get through the gate, explained that I’m a visitor, and they just said sure, go right ahead, without any need for any paperwork or guest visitor badge or anything. And so I used the library database on my own computer, found the books I wanted on the shelves, asked when I needed help, did my own photocopying… and left, and came back another day. Anyway, the point being that I’ve grown used to feeling like that person. I’m no longer the awkward alumnus or total outsider who is worried what am I even doing here, what am I trying to get out of this, what kind of nostalgia am I trying to claim; I no longer feel like an invader in other students’ space. Maybe that just comes with age as well. Because instead of feeling like some kind of intruder or impostor compared to these real (current) SOAS students, who have some kind of more real claim to the space than me, I feel like an alumnus, who has already been affiliated and associated with the place, however loosely, to be honest since most of the current students were still in primary or middle school, and I feel like a scholar – I wouldn’t call myself “experienced” or “established,” but still, a stage or two beyond these undergrads and study abroad and Master’s students. I don’t feel threatened by them.

At the SOAS Student Union Bar.

Much of campus is much how it always has been, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t remember it all that clearly, to know whether or not the hallways or the library has changed at all. Though I can imagine that at the very least the technology of the library probably has changed. And I know the pub was redone since I’ve left. Though, SOAS has also expanded into Senate House, so they have this whole new “Paul Webley Wing,” which I imagine has a lot of classrooms, offices, etc. Super high-tech-looking meeting rooms or study rooms which I suppose you can reserve, and the touch-screens outside each room show a clock in green or red which I guess means it’s either available or not, or that your time has come up or not? From what little I was able to access, I mostly just saw a big very new-looking, very clean and bright and nice-looking atrium. Beautiful gathering / studying spaces. And, of course, having a SOAS Alumni card now was a crazy breath of fresh air, as I said, since I was able to get into these spaces, and to not feel like I was unwelcome or denied or un-belonging. Though, frankly, I’m really not sure what I think about limiting these spaces to SOAS students. I mean, I suppose I understand that with so many other colleges in the area, if it were left totally free and open it would be too easy for the place to become overrun with students from UCL and elsewhere, and it would be much harder for any of the spaces to develop or maintain a distinctly SOAS character – and thus, for the School as a whole to build or maintain quite as much of a strong sense of community. So, that’s all important and valid; I can very much see the strengths of that. But, at the same time, I really appreciated when I was at SOAS getting to go to the Institute of Education cafeteria next door, the Senate House cafe, and the pub down the street (is that part of Birkbeck? I was never sure). Even if not to actually mix with students from other Schools, to have more additional different spaces to choose from, and perhaps most importantly just to not feel shut-out. I’m not saying that any of these schools have such great, amazing, fancy cafeterias or pubs or whatever, that we are (or would be) being denied access to the “nice” pub or whatever. But, just for the sake of variety. Of course I don’t want to see the SOAS pub overrun with anyone and everyone, but I also hate the idea that I wouldn’t be able to go and experience that, intermingle even a little bit, if I were a student at one of the neighboring colleges. I wonder, I don’t actually remember if it came up while I was there, if SOAS students wanted to bring their UCL or LSE friends in to have a drink together, if the guards would block them. Because that would really suck. Anyway, maybe it’s me personally, I don’t know, but I really do have a thing about access and about belonging. I hate being treated like I’m not allowed in somewhere. Even in visiting the SOAS library’s Special Collections earlier today, I tried to ask about how the process worked, whether I could just request items or whether there was a long and complicated approval process, and the librarian said “can you identify yourself? I mean, who are you, where are you coming from?” I sense that maybe English isn’t her first language, and more to the point maybe she just wasn’t choosing her words very carefully in that moment – I certainly don’t always say exactly what I mean, in exactly the best way, and so I give her the benefit of the doubt. But, still, I’m a SOAS alumnus, and even if I wasn’t, I’m a University of California graduate student, and even if I wasn’t, I’m someone coming in to try to use your Special Collections. I suppose I can understand that if I truly were just some person from off the street, some random person, then, *maybe* there’s some call to say who is this person. But I should like to think that many (if not most) librarians at many (if not most) other institutions would simply assume that the person asking is probably some kind of legit academic. I just really hate gatekeeping. Don’t ask me to “identify myself” as if I’m already an intruder until I prove otherwise. Don’t treat me like I’m not welcome, like I don’t belong. Give me the benefit of the doubt, assume that I am a legitimate researcher, assume that your own job is to help provide access for researchers rather than to block it. Rather than the first step being to challenge a person coming in, under the assumption that they can’t be granted access, assume they can, and make your very first step starting to help them with the right paperwork or whatever. “May I see your SOAS ID, or your ID from your institution?” “Oh, I see you’re a SOAS alum. Okay, you have X and Y privileges but I’m afraid if you want to do Z, that’s restricted (or, then you’ll have to fill out this additional form).” or “Oh, I see you’re from the States. Okay, well for visiting researchers from outside of the U of L, we have these forms that you have to fill out.” Something like that. And then you welcome them. Just like being granted a Reader Card at the British Library. Just like when UCLA granted me a library card so I could borrow books (but not have certain other privileges) even though I’m a UCSB student. Just like when prefectural and national and local archives and libraries as well as university libraries all across Japan let me in as a guest, and allowed me X but not Y level of access, or whatever it may be.

Anyway, sorry for that rant.

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), one of the many iconic objects in the British Museum. A moai ancestor figure from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The British Museum

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the British Museum that I haven’t said before. I love how they use objects to tell a fuller story about culture and history, and not just artistic style or aesthetic form, and that they do include things that are historically significant (and often quite beautiful), and not only things that fall into a more mainstream “art” sort of category. I don’t even mean historical artifacts without much artistic value (whatever that even means); I mean genuinely beautiful, skillfully-made, art objects that happen to also allow one to speak of their content, of what they depict or how they were used… And, I love that the museum is so extensive!! I mean, I was a little surprised to learn that they don’t actually have a gallery for Musical Instruments, or for Arms & Armor, as the Met does. There are certainly categories for which they don’t have much on display, I suppose. (And, actually, Chinese painting in particular, is oddly sparse, given that they have a huge permanent exhibit of Chinese history from ancient through modern, featuring mostly ceramics, sculptures, I’m not sure exactly what else off the top of my head, but then only a very few paintings?) But, they do have a whole gallery of clocks, and a whole gallery of the history of coinage from around the world, not to mention the Enlightenment Gallery which is just really wonderful.

I was a little bit hoping I might happen upon a protest by Rapa Nui people demanding their ancestor moai back. One of the most iconic, famous objects in the Museum’s collection – its fame aided by the fact that it’s right there in front of you when you walk into the Wellcome Gallery right off the main atrium – the statue is a sacred object for the people of Rapa Nui, an embodiment of a specific individual ancestor, and as some articles I read put it, how would you like it if people busted into your home and took your grandfather and put him on display in a museum?

Well, in any case, I had heard that there were supposed to be some kind of in-person protests. Whether that would (or could) take place right there in the gallery, or when they would take place, the articles I read didn’t say. But if it did happen, it would have been good timing, a nice opportunity to catch the experience – and photos – of something I would otherwise only read about.
That didn’t happen. But, whatever.

I think one highlight of the BM during this visit was the new Islamic galleries. I really appreciated and enjoyed the way they incorporated all different parts of the Islamic world, with individual displays on the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Islamic North Africa, etc., covering the history of each different period and region. One thing I was a bit disappointed about, though, was the absence of discussion or representation of other peoples – yes, these are the “Islamic” galleries, but if you’re not going to include Sephardic, Mizrahi, Kurdish, Armenian, Coptic, etc cultures in these “Middle East” galleries, then where will you? Nowhere, it would seem. Maybe mixed in with Europe or Africa, but certainly not where you’d expect to find them, i.e. right here in the Middle East (“Islamic World”) galleries.

What’s really kind of funny also is that I even had moments this weekend when I thought I was kind of over London, or that London feels a bit too familiar already, now that I’ve lived in Istanbul. I certainly won’t say that I remember or ever really properly learned or adopted British ways of doing things. I’m still probably pretty blatantly visibly American in terms of the way I walk, the way I order at cafes and restaurants, all kinds of things. I’m still awkward at asking for “some tea” or “a tea,” not knowing whether I should be asking for “a pot of tea” or how people ask for it. Still fumbling with coins. Still sometimes not looking the correct direction or not knowing properly when I can and can’t cross. Nearly got hit by a car the other day, as he turned onto the small side street that I was crossing just not thinking not realizing that anyone might be turning into it. While it’s pretty cool that they have those yellow-lighted crosswalks where cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians even without any change of red/green, when it comes to crossing anywhere else, they really don’t stop for you. American drivers will get annoyed at you, often, or they just won’t even expect you or won’t see you, but generally speaking they know that once a pedestrian is in the road, whether they’re jaywalking or whatever, you have to stop for them. They have the right of way, actually, especially if they’re in a crosswalk. Doesn’t seem to be the same here.

But, all of that said, even so, even despite all the little cultural quirks that so frustrated and depressed me my first time in London, and even despite difficulties with language, the fact that my accent is noticeably decidedly different, and terminology is often different, and I don’t always actually know what others are saying (or they, me), even so, the fact that people speak English here as the truly primary language, as compared to negotiating with my minimal Turkish and other people’s varying range of English, or just regardless of other people, navigating myself with signs and posters in a foreign language, … I dunno, I just really enjoyed Istanbul. I don’t know how well I would have managed on my own; having Simone was extremely helpful. And I’m not saying I’m looking to just run off to anywhere, but, having now gained a certain degree of familiarity with Istanbul, having learned some very minimal level of Turkish, I dunno, London doesn’t feel adventurous enough anymore. Which is a terrible shame. Because I don’t want it to lose its appeal, or its magic. I don’t want to grow bored or uninspired by London. Even worse, I wouldn’t want to grow to dislike it, to have all the utterly mundane practical things start to ruin my feeling of the city.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the Royal Academy of the Arts.

For now, London still feels like an adventure. And I want it to still feel like that. Even the most basic things like Tesco sandwiches are for me cultural capital, they’re a feeling of knowing something, experiencing something, becoming familiar with something that I never had before. It’s being able to go back home and talk to people about … whatever it may be about London that reveals some (shared) familiarity, … Or, I don’t know, just to feel like I’m being or becoming my best self, like I’m living my best life. I’m not saying I necessarily want to live in the UK or Japan or anywhere else permanently, that’s too big a decision to make, just far too much too deep a matter in terms of both practical and other sort of considerations. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that just can’t help but feel like traveling less is somehow a failure, a failure to launch, as it were. When I did study abroad in Japan for the first time and felt like it might prove to be my one and only big trip in my life, and at that time I couldn’t have imagined that I’d end up living in Hawaii or California, or that I’d ever do half (or, any) of the traveling that I have since, … that feeling of coming back from Japan and not knowing if I ever would go back, and indeed I didn’t go back for a good four years, which felt like a pretty long time at the time … there’s a part of me that just really feels that even if I did settle in an exciting big world city like New York, that’s still going home, that’s still seeing an end – a failure – to all the traveling that I had done.

Anyway, London has its faults, to be sure, and I am sure that if I ever were to get a job in the UK and really spend a real amount of time here, I would come to feel all those flaws, and perhaps all the more so in a smaller city like Durham or Leeds or wherever. But, at least for now, it’s still an adventure. It’s market streets and Gail’s Bakery. It’s the Flat Iron Square / Food Arch area, with all these great little food stalls, some of them serving things like Turkish mantı which I’ve just never seen (or never known to look out for) in the States.

(4 May 2019)
I did, in fact, apply to quite a few jobs / fellowships in England this year. Didn’t get selected for any of them in the end, unfortunately. Strangely didn’t see a single job posting/advertisement for anywhere in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, though I would have jumped at that chance just as much. I don’t know why, maybe it had something to do with this London trip, but even all these weeks later I’m still really feeling that I would have so loved to live in Britain for a time. Who knows what’s going to happen with Brexit, of course, but that aside, as much as I **love** Japan, and much as I would have been up for whatever adventure the job market may have brought me – staying in LA, moving back to the East Coast, getting a teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest – I would have been up for that. But somehow, for whatever reason, I just find myself in a place right now where I just so wished I might have gotten a chance to move to England. Maybe sometime in the future…

Read Full Post »


Falling farther and farther behind on blog posts. Still only up to events of July, and so much has happened since then! But bear with me, please.

I know it’s a little crazy, but I actually went straight from Fukuoka all the way back to Tokyo, in order to catch a few meetings, and then head back the other direction (west). Ultimately, I skipped Hiroshima and Okayama, as I wasn’t sure what conditions were like given the then-recent flooding disaster. But, as I’ll touch upon in future posts, I managed a crazy whirlwind set of visits to Kobe, Himeji, Ise, and Futagawa (Toyohashi) before settling in Kyoto for my last week. We’ll get to that. But in the meantime, while I’ve already posted about my feelings on going back to Tokyo, here’s a separate post on the exhibit “The Ryukyu Kingdom: A Treasure Chest of Beauty” (琉球:美の宝庫) held at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo this summer.

It was truly wonderful to see such an extensive Ryukyu exhibit. Not just “decorative arts” – textiles and lacquerwares – but paintings as well. With label text highlighting “the superb artistic and technical mastery of the kingdom’s painters,” the fact that so much was lost in the war so we can’t know the full extent or “a full portrait of Ryukyuan achievements.” And, further, highlighting that the royal court had “a particularly deep connection with the Fuzhou art world,” and an extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese works. We can only imagine, if the war hadn’t happened, if none of this had been destroyed, how much more brilliant, more cultured, more “deep” for lack of a better word, Ryukyu would seem.

And I do love that they’ve brought some of the greatest treasures of Ryukyuan painting here. A cat by Yamaguchi Sōki; pheasants in the snow by Zamami Yōshō. Paintings of officials from the TNM, and of Gi Gakugen and Tei Junsoku from the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The Naha Port screens from Kyoto and Shiga Universities. Good thing I didn’t try to see any of these works at their home insititutions – they were on loan, here in Tokyo.

But, as wonderful as it is to see these treasures, I’m perhaps even more pleased to see additional works, like a painting of Li Bai viewing a waterfall, attributed to Gusukuma Seihô. Most of what once existed has been lost, but what survives goes beyond just a few famous paintings of cats, pheasants, and mythical beasts. Ryukyuan painting, like Chinese or Japanese, has a whole range, and that’s what we’re getting a tiny taste of here.

I’m excited to be learning the names of a few additional Ryukyuan painters. It’s not all Zamami Yôshô, Gusukuma Seihô, and Yamaguchi Sôki. There’s a very nice trees in snow landscape by Yakena Seiga which reminds me a bit of Sesshû or the like. Several pieces by Izumikawa Kan’ei 泉川寛英(Shin Shikyū 慎思丸)1767-1844, a painter for the Keezui bujôju, whose son Izumikawa Kandō 泉川寛道(慎克熈 Shin Kokki)b. 1800, painted the famous painting of a young official and his consort which graces the cover of the Ryukyu Kaiga catalog.

「琉球進貢船図屏風」(Ryukyu Tribute Ship Folding Screen), Kyoto University Museum.

It was exciting, too, to see the two most famous folding screen paintings of Naha Port, which I had previously only seen digitally, or in catalogs. One is held by the Kyoto University Museum, and the other by Shiga University in Hikone. Being so scattered, I had never had the chance to see them in person before. As a result, I don’t know that I had ever realized, but the Shiga screen is much larger and brighter than the Kyoto one. Both are great, but the Shiga one feels more iconic to me. Seeing them in person now, I realized it’s the one I remember much better, making the Kyoto one feel off, like a bad imitation, though of course it is not – it’s a fantastic original artwork unto itself. The Shiga screen stands tall, like it was meant to be put on the floor, while the Kyoto screen seems to be the height for being put up on a platform, like in a tokonoma perhaps. Interestingly, the composition is quite similar in both – how the returning tribute ship is placed relative to the haarisen (dragon boats), for example, and how the bay and other parts of town are arranged.

Another work on display that’s very cool to see is the Chinese basis for the famous pheasant painting by Okinawan painter Zamami Yôshô. I hadn’t realized there were these two, but I guess it makes sense. It’s great that the Churashima Foundation (which operates Shuri castle) owns this Chinese painting, so that it can be displayed comparatively with the Ryukyuan version.

A handscroll by Sun Yi 孫億 of birds and flowers was just gorgeous. A brightly colored piece in reds and blues and greens against an oddly bright yet not actually gold-foiled silk ground…

琉球来聘使登営図 (detail). Handscroll by Bun’yû, Tokyo National Museum. 1843.

And how about that, just my luck, the TNM procession scroll I wanted to see was here too. Now if only they had allowed photos, I could have gotten what I didn’t (couldn’t) get from making an appointment at TNM. Well, for part of the painting anyway. In any case – the scroll is beautiful, very well done with bright colors and careful details. But since we know it’s by Bun’yû 文囿、a student of Tani Bunchô, and not by any official Shogunate painter, I wonder if we can explain away the oddities as simply incorrect. The section of the scroll opened and visible begins with the two placard holders, then six muchi bearers (instead of just two; these were red-lacquered staffs used to part the crowds to make way for the procession). After one mounted figure in Ming style costume, we see one chingu 金鼓 banner and one tiger banner paired up with one another, then a few musicians, then the Prince’s sedan chair, followed rather than preceded by the royal parasol (ryansan). I do wish I could look at the whole thing.

A procession scroll from the Kyushu National Museum (Kyûhaku) was on display too, making me feel better about not trying to request objects there – this one would not have been available anyway. We see Prince Tomigusuku, head of the 1832 mission, surrounded by figures identified as 中小姓 (“middle[-ranking] page”), and by other names and titles. This may be the only scroll depicting the 1832 mission. They also had Kyûhaku’s copy of Sugitani Yukinao’s Zagaku scroll. This is a gorgeous, full-color, scroll painted by Kumamoto domain court painter Sugitani Yukinao depicting Ryukyuan Chinese-style musical performances at the Satsuma mansion in Edo in 1832. One version is now held by the Eisei Bunko, the collection of the Hosokawa family (descendants of the lords of Kumamoto), one of the more difficult samurai family collections to get into. But, apparently, Kyûhaku and Shuri castle own copies of it, each of which are slightly different. This one has gold leaf, but the colors are much more muted, thinner. How many copies of this painting are there?


“Evening Glow at Jungai,” by Hokusai, 1832, and the image he based it on, from an 1831 Japanese reprinting of the 1757 Chinese book Liuqiu guo zhilue.

And, finally, they had on display half of the eight prints of Hokusai’s “Eight Views of Ryukyu,” displayed alongside copies of the Ryûkyû koku shiryaku (C: Liuqiu guo zhilue) on which he based the images. Very nice. I know that so many of these names and references to particular works won’t mean much to the majority of readers, and for that I apologize. I am so far behind on blog posts, I’m afraid I’m just not taking the bother to really properly rewrite these personal notes on the exhibit into a more proper (audience-friendly) blog post. But, suffice it to say, I suppose, that just about every one of the most famous works related to Ryukyuan art were on display in this exhibition. A real marvel to see, and something I would dream of replicating if/when I might ever have the kind of curatorial position that might allow me to propose such a thing.

Moving down to the next level, they had more of the most famous treasures on display, including a pink bingata robe with dragons (National Treasure) that I saw a replica of at Shuri castle just the week before, and a white one with pink, blue, purple streaks, also very famous. A set of incredible royal serving dishes which I’ve seen many times before in catalogs but which is all the more impressive in person, for it’s size and bright red and gold colors, with the royal mitsudomoe crest.

A replica of the royal crown – they later showed the real one for a few weeks in August – similarly shines. Somehow I never thought of it as being quite so bright and colorful. But I suppose when it’s lit up properly – unlike the dim lighting at Shuri castle – that gives it the opportunity to do so. How impressive this must have looked on the king’s head, with the Okinawan sun reflecting off of the gold and jewels.

Next, a somewhat restrained lacquer dish that I think I like especially. No gold, no mother-of-pearl, just matte red and black, with a simple design of the mitsudomoe in the center. Apparently this was used in the ūchibaru (the women’s quarters of Shuri palace), for less ceremonial, more regular occasions. I wonder if the rest of the palace used similar designs, or if those for the women were especially restrained.

A 2014 recreation of the ogoe of King Shô Iku is a great inclusion. All of the official royal portraits were lost in 1945, though we are fortunate to at least have b&w photos. It’s hard to say just how accurate this painting might be to the brightness or boldness or coloration of the originals, but if all you can do is a replica, I like this better than nothing, for showing the brilliance and power and so forth of Ryukyu. And that it’s not all decorative arts and folk culture, but that it was a full culture, a full kingdom, just like Japan or Korea or anywhere else. Can you imagine if Western bookstores put all the Japan stuff under “folk culture” instead of under History and Art? I’m pretty sure they used to. If China and Korea aren’t under such categories, whether in the bookstores or in how they’re displayed in museums, why should Okinawa (or Hawaii, or anywhere else) be?

The next X number of objects were all lacquerwares of course, because what’s a Ryukyu exhibit that isn’t disproportionately filled with lacquerwares and textiles. But here was something new and interesting – an Okinawan lacquerware box (I guess I trust the experts that somehow we know from style, or otherwise, that this is indeed of Ryukyuan manufacture) decorated with the Tokugawa crest. And yet the labels say it’s not typical of the kinds of things given as formal gifts, but rather that it was likely to be shown, or seen, in the hand 手元で鑑賞するふさわしい逸品である, whatever that means. Having written these notes before buying the exhibit catalog, and not having that catalog on hand right now as I type this up, I’ll have to go back and look at it sometime, try to figure this out.

The exhibit ended with photographs and notebooks by Kamakura Yoshitarô, a prewar scholar whose mingei (“folk art”) ideas about Okinawa were, I suppose, rather problematic in ways, patronizing and orientalizing. But at the same time, he was instrumental in having Shuri castle saved from destruction, and in saving or at least photographing or copying down countless examples of Okinawan arts, crafts, architecture, and documents. His notebooks have very recently been digitized and also published in modern type transcription by the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, and are just invaluable for anyone studying certain aspects of early modern Okinawan history. So many royal government documents – not just about arts or whatever, but about policies and events too – survive today only in those notebooks. I’ve been reading a lot from these modern publications, but to see the originals was really something. His sketches are just incredible. I’m glad they’ve been designated Important Cultural Properties. They deserve it. I would love to see more of them in person. If possible, it’d be amazing to do just an exhibition organized around them.

Gradually working my way through my time in Japan this summer. Next, some brief thoughts on some various other places I visited, and then finally, Kyoto.

Read Full Post »


After Kagoshima, I activated my Japan Rail Pass, and took the (relatively) newly opened Kyushu Shinkansen up to Fukuoka. The main purpose of stopping over in Fukuoka was to see a procession scroll held by the Fukuoka City Museum. I do wish that I had planned a bit better, gone over to visit Kyushu University, checked out their library, maybe met up with a friend/colleague or two. But, everything was just so up in the air. I focused on getting permission and arranging an appointment to see this one scroll, and then just figured I would take the opportunity to see the rest of the City Museum, the Kyushu National Museum, and whatever else I might happen upon.

The only other time I’d been to Fukuoka (visiting a friend for a weekend in 2008), I made the mistake of trying to visit the Kyushu National Museum on a Monday. I had forgotten that National Museums (and a lot of other places) are closed on Mondays. And I had heard such amazing things about this then very newly opened national museum, which supposedly had such new and innovative approaches to the way its displays were organized. So, I was glad to get to finally go and check it out.

The Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the Kyushu National Museum turned out to be quite the disappointment. Firstly, because unlike the Tokyo National Museum they don’t allow photography, meaning I couldn’t capture anything of the really incredible artifacts on display, which can’t be seen anywhere else.

These included a 1591 letter from Nguyen Hoang to the “Ruler of Japan” (i.e. Toyotomi Hideyoshi), which I actually blogged about a short while back. The earliest extant communication between Vietnamese and Japanese rulers, ten years older than what was until very recently believed to have marked the earliest such exchange, this letter was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2018. I researched and wrote about late 16th – early 17th century Japan-SE Asia relations in my first MA thesis, and for more than ten years now have been excited to eventually get to see some of these letters. But now that I finally have, I wasn’t permitted to take photos for my personal enjoyment, or to post here. I guess the best I can hope for is either that Kyûhaku will eventually change their policies, or that the object will eventually go on exhibit somewhere else, that does allow photographs.

A series of seals from Korea were also of great interest. Coming from the collection of the Sô clan, samurai lords of Tsushima, these seals have a rather special historical pedigree. By which I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of Korean seals out there created for all different purposes and which made their way around the world for all kinds of reasons. But these are some of the very seals which the Sô clan lords were given directly by the Korean court to use as authorization to trade. These are not simply examples of something sort of similar, these are the very objects I have read so much about, in discussions of Tsushima’s special position in the history of Japan-Korea trade relationships. The Korean court granted seals or tallies to certain groups and individuals, which they could then use to identify themselves as authorized merchants. The Ming court gave tallies to various samurai warlords for similar purposes, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shoguns later gave “red seal letters” (shuinjo) to authorized merchants in a similar fashion. In fact, the 1601 letter which I mentioned above, exchanged between Nguyen Hoang and Tokugawa Ieyasu, discusses just such trade concerns and red seal authorization papers. Of course, any such system is going to lead to the creation of forgeries – fake authorization documents (or seals). Such forgeries appear prominently in discussions of Korea-Tsushima interactions, and so to see them on display as well was fantastic. No photos, though. Boo.

One more I’ll mention is a scroll painting by Sesshû, one of the most celebrated Japanese ink painters of all time, depicting “peoples of various countries” 国々人物図巻 and including beautiful and detailed depictions of Qing/Chinese individuals of a great many ranks or social positions, from King to monk to peasant.

Entrance to the “Cultural Exchange” permanent exhibits gallery at the Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the organization and design of the exhibition overall was quite the disappointment as well. I had heard wonderful things, that it was going to be so innovative. But unfortunately it feels little different from any “international contacts” and “cultural exchange” section of any other museum, just expanded somewhat.

The exhibits are organized only very roughly into any semblance of chronological order or by geographical or cultural logic. There is not much of a coordinated narrative, but rather just a splash of many different examples of exchanged. A few items related to red seal ships and Vietnam, a few related to the Sô/Tsushima and Korea, a model of a Chinese temple in Nagasaki. But no discussion of Korean or Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, or of Dejima or the Nagasaki Chinatown. At least not in as clear and explicit a way as in the British Museum, for example. And no sense of the overall history of interactions between Japan and any one other culture or country. Things aren’t really placed in a context. We get some Ryukyuan ceramics but no discussion of the embassies. Some items related to interactions with Vietnam, but no models or paintings of the red seal trading ships that constituted one of the central forms of interactions in the 16th-17th centuries, and no discussion of Ayutthaya or anywhere else in SE Asia at that particular time.

Overall, the entire thing is very scattered, very bara bara as they say in Japanese. Outside of large numbers 1,2,3,4, on the walls, there’s no real structure guiding you through the galleries – it’s all open plan and you’re left to wander around in no particular order, and thus within no particular structure of narrative order or context.

As cool as it is to have so many SE Asian artifacts on display, it doesn’t feel so revolutionary so much as it just feels like the Asia galleries of the Tokyo National Museum.

In some sections, objects from all over Asia are displayed together, with no context or framing device at all. In one room, they have a Gandhara Buddha, a Buddha head from Afghanistan, Goryeo & Sui Buddhas from Tsushima (very cool examples of very early cultural interaction), and a large bronze Bishamonten that’s apparently the only surviving bronze of its kind by the Ashiya 芦屋 foundry. But no labels saying “Buddhism appears differently around the world,” or “each culture’s Buddhist sculpture was influenced by others, including from as far away as Afghanistan.”. Nor anything about the history of Chinese and Korean Buddhist sculptures entering Japan.

I can see why they didn’t have a catalog of their regular exhibit, but only catalogs of “treasures of the collection”: because there is no real logic, no real narrative.

Portraits of the Kuroda lords and other artworks, at the Fukuoka City Museum.

By contrast, the Fukuoka City Museum was excellent. They allowed photos throughout most of the exhibits, if I’m remembering correctly, had lots of fantastic stuff on display, and followed a clear and structured chronological narrative.

Easily one of the most famous objects in the Fukuoka City Museum collection is a golden seal from the year 57 CE. The oldest object with writing on it ever found in Japan, it was a formal royal seal granted by the Emperor of the Han Dynasty to the ruler of a small kingdom called Na, based at that time somewhere in the general vicinity of what is today the city of Fukuoka. Who knows what happened to the seal for 1700 years, but sometime in the 1700s, a farmer found it (!?!?) on a tiny little island just off in the bay, near the castle-town of Fukuoka. In the museum today, the tiny seal, only about one or two inches square, is dramatically displayed in its own small room. Immediately afterwards are displays including 18th-19th century manuscripts writing about this discovery.

From there, the museum goes on to tell a thorough but not too overly-detailed narrative of the history of the area, in a very well-organized and engaging way, with lots of wonderful objects on display and good thematic divisions, gallery labels, etc.

They allowed photos of much of the exhibits but not everything, and for whatever reason I never really wrote down any notes while I was there. So I have nothing too deep to say, except that it seems a very well-done museum. I really love local history museums like this one, where they have a really grand worthwhile story to tell – the history of one of Japan’s greatest and most intercultural port cities throughout the pre-modern period, the home of a most ancient kingdom, and later of various palaces and castles of great historical significance, including becoming home in the 17th-19th century of the Kuroda clan, one of the great samurai families, who left behind tons of great treasures. We don’t learn nearly enough about any of this in, say, the National Museum of Japanese History or the Tokyo National Museum, let alone in our survey histories (or even our much more in-depth seminars or the like), and so it’s wonderful that here it is, a museum telling this story.

The Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, was another exciting stop. I had never actually heard of this museum before, but as it turned out it was just down the street from the place I was staying at.*

Once I learned that there was an “Asian Art Museum” specializing in modern art from across Asia, I got excited that it might be some Nihonga, Yôga, Guohua, and the equivalents across the region. Maybe it’s just purely because I had an MA advisor who specializes in such things, but I’ve really grown quite interested in that period towards the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when Japan, China, and I presume Okinawa, Korea, and elsewhere as well, began engaging with “modernity” in art, wrestling with whether to make their own traditional modes of art “modern” in some way, either making them into “national arts” or “national traditions,” or ditching them in favor of Western styles and modes of art (which were seen at the time as obviously more “modern”) and adopting that as the new national art. And all at right around the same time as much of Europe was in fact leaving behind such expert masterful realism in favor of various modes of “modernism”, beginning with Impressionism.

In any case, there was not to be found any such discussion or display of issues of modernity or modernism at this museum. Here, “modern” really means “contemporary,” as in contemporary art of the last decade or two or three, meaning a very different set of types or styles of artwork than Nihonga or Yôga. Which isn’t a problem – it was still very cool.

Still from Yamashiro Chikako’s video piece, “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” (2009).

In fact, to my surprise, the very first work in the gallery was by an Okinawan artist. Yamashiro Chikako (b. 1976) is an Okinawan video artist. In her 2009 piece 「あなたの声私の喉を通った」(“Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat”) – I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find the video online – a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa tells of his experience, and his voice is heard even as we watch Yamashiro’s face, mouthing (seemingly speaking) the words. Complete with her tears and facial expressions. At one point, she stops talking and just cries, losing her composure at the thought of these horrors, as the voice continues describing them.

I really appreciated the way that Yamashiro’s work was displayed. I had been in Okinawa just a few days earlier, and I really felt – really got the feeling – that this is pretty much just how it would have been shown in Okinawa too. Catalogs for key recent exhibits of Okinawan contemporary art, including Okinawa Prismed and Okinawa Bunka no Kiseki, were placed for visitors to read, alongside catalogs specifically about Okinawan women artists. Yamashiro’s work was displayed very straightforwardly, without exoticization, I felt.

And the Asian Art Museum allowed photos! Very surprising for a modern art museum, and especially for one in Japan. Truly, a most welcome thing.

Modern art from across Asia is shown, not country by country, but by periods and themes. I was a bit disappointed to not see more Nihonga and Yoga, but the great range of stuff from across Asia is pretty great in a different way.

Still lots to see in Fukuoka, though. I’ve got to go back sometime.


*Incidentally, a nice place worth staying at. Sadly, I didn’t remember to get photos of this place, or to take good notes either. But from what I can remember it was extremely clean – that white, bright, new aesthetic that I just don’t understand why the business hotels with all their brown don’t aim for. I had a small room all to myself – bunk beds, if I remember correctly, but I guess you can book the room rather than only booking by the bed. Small but perfectly clean, good showers/bathrooms down the hall. The whole place had a slightly funny nautical theme, like you’re staying in a modified spaceship or cruise ship or something. I dunno. But in any case, they also had a nice sunny common room on the top floor. I’m not super into socializing with other hostel-stayers; I’m a bit too old for that partying backpackers sort of vibe. Or maybe I’m not too old and it was just never my thing to begin with. But, free wifi, plenty of tables, a nice big kitchen up there. And just a good, bright, clean, aesthetic. Not gloomy or claustrophobic like the business hotels. Plus, WeBase Hakata is pretty conveniently located – only a couple blocks from the subway, the Asian Art Museum, and a major theatre venue.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

It’s been such a summer of adventures, and I can’t believe I’m still only about halfway through blogging about them. (Of course, the summer isn’t over yet, either.)

Our room at Les Terrasses d’Essaouira. I guess it doesn’t look like much in the photo, because of the bad lighting or something, but I promise it was a pretty nice room.

Leaving Essaouira, even though I had already seen more or less all of the historical sights, I still felt as I almost always do in every city I visit, that I wished I had just one more night. I think this is also a function of leaving so late at night – when you’re preparing to leave in the middle of the night to catch a very early morning flight, as you pack up your things and maybe sit on the bed, all you want is to sleep in that bed one more time. And, yeah, maybe more generally, regardless of what time of day you’re leaving, wishing to walk the shopping streets or visit X restaurant or Y shop just one more time…

We got a taxi at 1am to drive us the 2 ½ or 3 hours to Marrakesh airport, to get there by 4am so my gf could check in for her 6am flight, and me for my 7am flight. We split up for the next ten weeks or so, going different places for our research and so forth. I caught a short flight from Marrakesh to Marseilles, and then from Marseilles to London Stansted, where I was supposed to transfer again to a flight from London to New York, to get home. But because of the way the flights were arranged, I couldn’t simply go through “International Transfers” or “Connecting Flights” or whatever they call it. I had to go through Immigration, wait for my bag, then go back around to Departures to then check in and drop my bag like normal, like as if I had just arrived in the airport from staying or living in London. This takes time. So when the flight from Marseilles arrived 20 minutes late, and then the ground crew at Stansted took their sweet time getting the stairway/jetway to the plane, deplaning us 20-30 minutes late, and then the little transit shuttle between parts of the terminal broke down, I lost enough time that I ended up missing my connection.

I took this photo basically just to send to my gf to say, “hey, you’ll never guess where I am,” since my flight was supposed to be out of Stansted. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.

The two staff members at the check-in desks who I talked to – I wish I’d gotten their names – were not only unhelpful, but flatout rude. I suppose they deal with tens of people every day who have missed their flights for various reasons that are their own fault – just not planning ahead well enough or whatever, so I guess to a certain extent I can’t blame the staff for taking that particular perspective. Still, ultimately, this wasn’t my fault. Yes, I scheduled a connection that left only 2 ½ hours to make the connection, and didn’t leave a lot of room for error. But, this was a set of flights that was an authentic one offered to me in my online searches – not something I hodgepodged together myself. And 2 ½ hours really should be enough, if everything goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t go according to plan, well that’s not my fault – it’s Stansted’s fault, really, for whatever happened with the severe delay to the deplaning process, and for the transit shuttle, which anecdotally I get the impression breaks down on an almost daily basis. The staff member at the airport information booth, by contrast, was very kind, even looking up for me any possibilities of any other flights to NY from any London airports that evening, though she suggested I would have to pay out of pocket for those flights, £350 or whatever it may be.

Thankfully, even where the airport and the airline were unwilling to be of any help whatsoever, Kiwi.com (where I’d booked my flights to begin with) was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights for no additional charge. But, keep reading – it’s not all roses and happiness with Kiwi. I called them, and they said they’d look into alternative options, and they would get back to me within 2-4 hours. Reasonable enough, I thought at the time, though in retrospect I feel like every other time this sort of thing has happened to me, someone has searched and figured it out and offered me a new flight almost immediately, in 5-15 minutes or whatever, while I stood there. Still, okay, whatever. So, knowing there were no more flights to New York that evening and that no matter what happened I would need to stay over in London overnight, I got on a bus into the city. In retrospect, I suppose I should have just stayed at the airport. But, then, I couldn’t have known exactly how things were going to play out. It was still relatively early in the day, and while it would be too late to visit museums or anything, I guess I thought there was still plenty of time in the day to put down my stuff at a hostel somewhere and then go out and experience London a little bit, walk the streets, whatever – maybe meet up with a friend for dinner or a pint. As it turned out, that’s not quite what happened. After a very long bus ride into London proper, I schlepped myself around to several hotels asking for a last-minute room, and all of them were inexplicably booked solid. I finally ended up getting a bed at a youth hostel – definitely the most cramped space I would have ever slept in, with four beds crammed into a tiny corner room, plus it was terribly muggy in the room, with no A/C and only one small window which somehow didn’t seem to help enough. Before I settled in at all, though, I then got an email from Kiwi offering an alternative plan – saying that they would book me at a 4-star hotel near Gatwick, and book me tickets on a set of flights the next day to get me home. Great. I clicked to Accept that offer, to set the ball rolling on them actually booking those things for me, and headed out towards Gatwick. Turns out the hotel is not right at the airport, but a good ten-minute drive away, in essentially the middle of nowhere. Cost me £16 just for the 10-minute taxi ride, though I suppose I must have accidentally come across some expensive “car service” instead of a normal taxi. Finally got to this very nice hotel, and mind you it’s been about two hours at least since I clicked “Accept,” and still no confirmation email from Kiwi. I am just so relieved that after all these hours and hours of traveling, I’ll have a nice bed to sleep in, a private room with a shower, and I can really genuinely just relax before my flight the next day. So, imagine my surprise when the hotel tells me that not only do they have no reservation for me, but that they and all the other hotels for ten miles are completely booked solid. I called Kiwi again, and they said essentially that they were still working on it. Still working on it? It’s been hours since I clicked to Accept this offer of a rebooking, and it’s now 11 o’clock at night and all I want to do is shower and sleep. I’ve just spent £16 to get to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and now what, I’m supposed to spend another £16 to get back to the airport and then take my chances with finding somewhere to sleep there, either in an airport hotel or lounge or just on the benches out in the lobbies? How long does it take to make a set of bookings for someone? And don’t they know that they have to move quickly or else it’ll get booked up?

Thankfully, the manager at the hotel was very kind and rather than just saying “no room at the inn, I’m so sorry sir,” and kicking me out, instead he let me sleep on a couch in one of the back rooms, a restaurant or reception room far from any activity. It was really wonderful. I cannot thank him enough. As upset as I was at the time, feeling stranded and lost, and just not even knowing whether or not I would in fact have a flight in the morning, it really was just so great to have somewhere to sleep. I generally don’t need that much in life – a shower would have been great, but a couch is just as good as a bed, much better than a bench or a floor, and I had outlets to charge my phone + computer, and a quiet, dark, room to myself where I could actually get some sleep.

I got up about five or six hours later to find an email saying that Kiwi had in fact booked and confirmed me for this new set of flights. So, now I was to take an early morning flight from Gatwick to Paris, have a seven hour or so layover, and then take an evening flight to New York. Okay. Amidst all of this craziness, and as tired and un-showered and sore (from so much sitting on planes, buses, and trains) as I was, the opportunity to visit Paris for even just a few hours was a real silver lining. I’d never been to France at all before, so this was great. Still, before we get into that, let me just highlight again: I am very glad that Kiwi was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights, and to even offer me a hotel for the night, and reimbursement for my various buses and taxis within London, even after the airport and the airline both said “you’re outta luck.” I’m very glad and grateful that, even though none of this was really Kiwi’s fault to begin with – it was Stansted’s – they would do this for me and spare me £350 or whatever the amount would have been. … And, admittedly, I’m not positive whether or not I will use Kiwi again. I just might, though I guess I’ll try to be more careful about planning long enough layovers to account for any potential problems. But, just to state it out explicitly: it should not take 2-4 hours to find an alternative set of flights, and it should not take an additional however many hours to actually book and confirm that alternative plan. Once they offered me a room at that Gatwick hotel, and especially given the intervening two hours it took me to get to the hotel (during which time they could have been making the calls and making the booking), I should not have ended up at that hotel at 11 o’clock at night with nowhere to stay for the night, and no confirmation (yet) that I would actually have tickets for the flight they offered me, which was departing only 8 or 9 hours later.

Apropos of nothing going on in my story, a US military plane on the tarmac at the Marseilles Airport. Why? What are they doing here? Do we have military bases in France? I didn’t know.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with this sort of situation very many times in my life, but when I have, it’s never been like this. It’s always been the airline either rebooking me immediately, or saying go walk around the airport, get a coffee or whatever, come back to me in 30 minutes, or 45 minutes or an hour, and I’ll see what we can do for you. From what I remember of my first time ever going to Hawaii, that was pretty much what happened. It was either USAirways or United, I forget which, but on their flight from NY to Phoenix, it was way too cold in the cabin, and not only were they charging money for blankets but they were sold out. So I was freezing. And they were also sold out of any vegetarian options for food. So by the time we got to Phoenix I was already in a bad state, having not slept much the night before because it was a very early morning departure. We then transferred to a different plane at Phoenix, which had been sitting on the tarmac in literally 110+ degree weather, and it was absolutely boiling inside. I passed out, and was taken off the plane by paramedics or EMTs or whatever. The airline immediately offered to book me on the next flight, and I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somehow or other I suggested that I didn’t feel well enough to fly yet and they offered to pay for me to have a hotel in Phoenix for the night. So, I got a hotel, and a new flight, easy as that. I don’t remember exactly how long it took for them to schedule it, but it happened. I wasn’t left stranded, left in the dark as to what was going to happen to me or where I was going to stay for the night or when I would ever make it to Hawaii. All in all, relatively easy and efficiently taken care of. Not so with Kiwi. So, buyer beware – be careful with Kiwi. I don’t think this is by any means an isolated incident. I imagine that with just a tiny bit of Googling, one could come up with plenty of other similar stories from people who were not treated so well by Kiwi. And thank god I had the flexibility in my schedule to be able to deal with this. Imagine if I really truly had somewhere to be the next day.

So, that said, I did get to spend a good few hours in Paris. It’s a very weird feeling, to visit such an incredible big-name world-class city, but only for a few hours. To go back to the very first lines of this series of blog posts on my trip to Morocco, to feel that I’m actually in Paris, *the* Paris, the one and only one, and yet, to be seeing so little of it and then just leaving again. It’s a very strange feeling. Can I even really say now that “I have been to France,” that “I have seen Paris,” when really all I’ve seen is the Louvre, a short set of streets on the walk from the Chatelet-Les Halles train station to the Louvre and back, one sandwich shop, and one boulangerie? I’m glad that in addition to the museum I did think to go to a genuine Paris boulangerie and get a baguette sandwich with camembert, experiencing the authentic Paris version of what I’ve had so many times at French-style places in LA, Tokyo, and elsewhere. But, yeah, it’s a funny feeling. Someday I’ll have to go back, see the city so much more. See the Musee Quai Branly and the Eiffel Tower and all the rest. In the meantime, I did that horrible thing that tourists do, that as a proper art historian I’m a bit embarrassed about, but knowing this might very well be my only time in Paris for who knows how many years, I ran around the Louvre just making sure to see, and photograph, every one of the most famous artworks I could. To be totally frank, I don’t actually even know what I got out of that experience.

My photos aren’t nearly as good as what I could pull up in five seconds on Google Images, and it’s not like I stayed in front of any of these artworks long enough to appreciate them further, more deeply, than to just capture a photo, so, what am I really doing? … But, still, I guess there was something to it. I’m glad to be able to say I’ve been to the Louvre, and to have gotten some sense of how it looks and feels and how it’s all laid out. Now, when it happens to come up in conversation, I can have at least something to say about it, yes, I have some sense of how amazingly difficult it is to find your way from one section of the museum to another, constantly going upstairs in order to get downstairs, and going all the way down one end of the building just to be able to cross over to get to another section… And I have some sense of how opulently decorated the building itself is, the walls, the ceilings, even beyond the artworks on the walls and plinths. And some sense of how exceptionally Eurocentric the collection is, which I had not realized. One very new gallery in the basement, opened in the 2000s, dedicated to what they used to call “Primitive Art” – the arts of the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia – while the entire rest of the museum is just Western European art, chiefly Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Dutch. (Oh, yeah, plus a section on Islamic Art). Not a single Chinese ink painting or Japanese woodblock print in the entire building, and that’s a building that’s at least as big as the Metropolitan or the British Museum. But, okay, to each their own. Next time I’ll have to be sure to visit some other museums – the Quai Branly, the Guimet, and the Cernusci. In the meantime, I got to see, if not to really engage with, the Venus de Milo, Victory of Samothrace, Da Vinci’s portrait of St. John the Baptist, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s Medusa, the Grand Odalisque, Jacque-Louis David’s Horatii, the incredible crowd around the Mona Lisa, and so on.

One of Delacroix’s beautiful notebooks.

Actually, one neat unexpected highlight of the Louvre trip was that they had up at the time a special exhibit on Delacroix, which included a handful of his works produced during his trip to Morocco. So, for me, this could not have been more timely. To spend a week and a half in Morocco, and then immediately afterwards see these Orientalist paintings and sketches of what Delacroix saw a century earlier, precisely the paintings that in part inspire our Western conceptions and imaginations of a fantastic Morocco full of bellydancers, harems, and so on and so forth.

Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment. I had been told that since Muslim women were inaccessible to him, hidden within their homes and not visible to a foreign visitor, he had painted Jewish women. That a great many of the Orientalist paintings of “women of North Africa” from that time were in fact of Jews and not of Muslims. But the Louvre webpage for the painting suggests otherwise. Interesting.

And then, after that, I made my way back to CDG Airport, and finally home to New York, no further surprises or hiccups.

This Delacroix exhibit will be up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York Sept 17, 2018 to Jan 6, 2019.

All photos my own. My thanks to the Louvre for allowing photographs, even in the special exhibition.

Read Full Post »

I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »