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Two museum exhibitions explore vastly different concepts of art and beauty

New exibitions at the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Singapore Art Museum call into question beauty standards.

On the one hand, there’s Asian Civilisations Museum, whose new Life In Edo | Russel Wong In Kyoto double exhibition looks at enduring concepts of beauty in Japan. On display are centuries-old prints depicting attractive people and landscapes, as well as recent photographs of perfectly-painted geishas taken by celebrity lensman Russel Wong.

On the other hand, there’s Singapore Art Museum, whose new Wikicliki show looks at contemporary art heavily influenced by technology, the Internet and contemporary aesthetics. The definitions of “art” and “beauty”, in this case, are constantly shifting. Can the deployment of an actress to walk around the gallery and read aloud Wikipedia entries linked to one another – a metaphor of our information rabbit holes – be considered “beautiful”?

At first blush, the first exhibition seems easier to appreciate. Currently on display are over 70 fully-coloured woodblock prints and paintings (also known as ukiyo-e) depicting male and female beauty, fashion, food, festivals and other aspects of life in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The artists include the who’s who of the ukiyo-e genre, such as Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro and Kuniyoshi.

These well-preserved paper works, some dating back to the 17th century, feature uniquely flattened perspectives, innovative compositions and bright colours – a set of aesthetics that has had a profound influence on many famous artists including Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

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And while the ukiyo-e depictions of Japanese landscapes and homes look very different from the dense Japanese cities of today, the image of feminine beauty as exemplified by courtesans and geisha then has largely remained the same.

Heavily made-up women with fine facial features, long necks and tight chignons continue to be regarded as the gold standard of feminine appeal. Their mystique carries through to the stunning black-and-white contemporary photographs of famous shutterbug Russel Wong, who spent 13 years visiting Kyoto to photograph its geisha – or geiko, as they’re called in the former capital of Japan.

Wong says: “Everything about the geiko culture is so well-crafted and timeless in their designs, from the kimonos to the hairdos . . . We live in such a disposable society where you’re lucky if something lasts for even three months. But I think that where there is good artistry, craftsmanship and provenance, something will stand the test of time.”

  • Museum Exhibitions Singapore

    (Left) Russel Wong’s photo titled Geiko Fukune with her tea bowl from the Waraku kiln. Photographed in Kyoto’s Nashinoki Shrine in 2020. (Right) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print titled Looks delicious: Appearance of a courtesan in the Kaei period from the series Thirty-Two Aspects of Women from 1888.

Meanwhile at the Singapore Art Museum exhibition (currently housed in National Gallery Singapore while SAM undergoes renovations), six curators worked with six artists to explore how art is being created, presented and collected today.

The show takes its title, Wikicliki: Collecting Habits On An Earth Filled With Smartphones, from one of its artists, Debbie Ding, who owns and operates the website Wikicliki (http://dbbd.sg/wiki/) exploring linguistics, aesthetics, culture and technology.

Ding’s practice is emblematic of cutting-edge art practices today. Her curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa says: “Ding isn’t just an artist; she also defines herself as a ‘technologist’. Many of her works have entered the digital realm . . . so much so that she often challenges the curator with this question: ‘Why would you even invite me to present my works when I don’t even need the architectural space of the museum anymore?’ “

Why, indeed. On one wall are large print-outs of her Rules For The Expression Of Architectural Desires, in which she posits new rules for living. They include a requirement for parents to walk their children three times a day, a stipulation that tour guides must be allowed to spin speculative stories, a ban on noisy footwear in historical sites, and other rules – all of which envision a radically different and possibly better world than the one we have.

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New art forms present huge challenges

The twist is this: Ding has put up all the rules online for all to see. Should anyone thus bother going to the museum to see the work? How can art survive in an era where we are bombarded with interesting information and beautiful images?

Like Ding, the other artists attempt to answer these in their own way: Heman Chong hires an actress to read aloud Wikipedia entries and their hyperlinked content – a personification of information overload. bani haykal puts spells and incantations through a computer’s algorithm to generate new ones. Amanda Heng invites visitors to take pictures of their posteriors in a private room, which then join hundreds of other posterior shots in a computer-animated dance.

For museums as well as collectors, these new art forms present huge challenges. They’re not paintings to be hung on walls – they’re complex, dematerialised, multi-faceted works requesting an overhaul of the viewer’s tastes, beliefs and expectations. To borrow the language of the tech world, it’s art disrupting itself before someone else does.

ACM’s show is easy on the eye, but SAM’s show is food for the brain.

Life In Edo | Russel Wong In Kyoto runs at the Asian Civilisations Museum from now till Sept 19, 2021. Wikicliki: Collecting Habits on an Earth Filled with Smartphones runs at the National Gallery Singapore from now till July 11, 2021.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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