In PORTRAITS I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face… When I find the right person or subject, I may come back once or twice, or half a dozen times, always waiting for that right moment. Unlike the writer, once I pack my bags, there is no chance for another draft – either I have the shot or I don’t. This is what drives and haunts the professional photographer, the gnawing sense that ‘this is it’.
For me, the portraits in this book speak a desire for human connection; a desire so strong that people who know they will never see me again open themselves to the camera, all in the hope that at the other end someone else will be watching – someone who will laugh or suffer with them.
A couple on months back I’d written about the exhibitions at the Asian Civilisations Museum (incidentally, my favourite museum in Singapore). I’ve seen their permanent collection on display a few times since I ALWAYS make it a point to visit the museum every year (sort of like an annual pilgrimage). More recently though, I went there with the express purpose of viewing the current exhibitions, namely Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia and “A Way of Life” Photographs from the Leica Collection. Being a history affectionado as well as a photography enthusiast I was practically salivating at the thought of viewing the works on display.
First up, here’s a look at the Asian Civilisations Museum facade with a bit of history on the museum itself-
The Asian Civilisations Museum is located at the newly restored Empress Place Building situated along the Singapore River just opposite the banks from the Fullerton. For much of its history, the building functioned as a government office – functioning as the Immigration Department and Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in its time. It was re-named the Empress Place Building at the beginning of the 20th century, in honor of Queen Victoria while we were still under colonial rule.
It is a really beautiful example of neo-Palladian architectural style on the outside, and on the inside houses over 1,300 artefacts from civilisations of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia from the Museum’s permanent collection in its 11 galleries since it was renovated and opened to public in 2003. From time to time, the museum also features temporary or special exhibits in its temporary galleries. I for one have been in love with this museum since I first recall stepping into its gorgeous lobby, and have stayed in love ever since.
When I visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon (waaay back in December), I the first thing I noticed was the lack of visitors there. It was a Saturday afternoon and apart from myself and two other visitors, the lobby was empty (save for the museum receptionists of course!). It was a marked contrast to the almost suffocating crowd at the Art Science Museum I’d visited back in October. So basically, I had the run of the museum with no queue and no jostling to see the exhibits. Which was fine with me (but just a tad disappointing in the lack of interest in this wonderful museum, but I digress). Since the Leica Collection exhibit was on the ground floor, I visited the gallery first.
The exhibition itself was small and the photographs showcased in a modest space. This gave the viewer (myself) the experience of being in an intimate, almost personal gallery with an unimpeded view of the stunning original prints by actual photography legends. The icing on the cake (for me especially) were the 10 Henri-Cartier Bresson original prints that he’d given to Leica Camera, two of which are among my favourite images of his works. As I had the whole room to myself the entire time, I blissfully lost track of the time I spent in that modest room, immersed completely in the works displayed before me. Of course I eventually emerged from my reverie as I still had more to see elsewhere!
So I made my way upstairs to the Permanent Galleries (3rd floor) and made my way to the main exhibition by wandering through the Lacquer Across Asia exhibition first.
I’ve been a fan of lacquer works since I first came across Vietnamese lacquer paintings a few years earlier. So this exhibition was particularly delightful for me as I got the chance to see truly beautiful works from all over Southeast Asia and China. As objects of wealth and prestige, lacquer works have been prized across Asia for centuries.
Though the use of lacquer has been documented in China for a few thousand years, the works in this exhibition span from the 15th century onwards, where their use spread across Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, most prized lacquer works were also donated as offerings to the Buddhist temples in this region. Other works would also feature themes from the Ramayana and Jataka tales which had entered into the Southeast Asian collective consciousness by this time.
I wound my way around the exhibition, which in turn led me to the main exhibition Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia – featuring the new acquisitions of ACM.
Clearly, the folks over at the Asian Civilisations Museum had quite the shopping spree. The exhibition was packed with artifacts from all over Asia, and there were so many of them that I think the curators just gave up trying to have a coherent curatorial approach and so decided on broad themes instead. The overarching curatorial concept was on the subject of trade in terms of religion, ideas and traditions and the artistic results of that. Here’s some of the highlights from each theme –
Here we see artifacts from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara – present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The unique location of this ancient kingdom meant that it was right at the crossroads between the East and West. The artifacts all show a beautiful blending of Buddhism ( the religion of the East) with realistically sculptured artforms such as those in Greece and Rome (the aesthetics of the West).
Cabinet of Wonders
When merchants and other travelers from Europe returned from the exotic East, they brought home objects unique to the regions they visited – to be displayed and admired by those not fortunate enough to have gone on these journeys of course!
The love for all things from the exotic Orient and mystical South Asia by Renaissance Europe meant that trading of objects from these destinations was a highly profitable enterprise.
It is a well-known fact that royal patronage has encouraged many a fine art form. Artists produced their very finest work for the rulers of the realm, who in turn sponsored their creative visions. Some of the exceptional works of art even made their way across land and sea to foreign lands as gifts or tribute – and these fine creations were admired and at times even imitated by the artists in the foreign lands who were inspired by their beauty and skill. Thus we have cultural syncretism of the best kind.
My journey through the museum ended with Beginning of the Becoming: Batak Sculpture From Northern Sumatra. Viewing the works here brought back nostalgia for my childhood. I’d visited Lake Toba way back… hmm… let me think…almost.. two decades ago! Wow! Ok. That was definitely awhile back. I still remember the trip quite vividly, since that was the first time I had sole possession of the family camera. Well.. for a couple of days at least; until my parents realized to their horror that I was taking ‘artistic’ shots of the Batak cemetery and multiple shots of the Batak sculptures. It was a film camera you see, and they felt I was wasting film (and their hard-earned money) on my so-called artistic shots instead of taking photographs of the family with the beautiful scenery. But that really was the moment I actually caught the photography ‘bug’ and it never left me. I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d decided to pursue a career in photography from that point. I’m hoping it’s not too late to begin my photography career now. Ah well… decisions, decisions.
So anyway, back to the exhibition. The Batak people are from the region around Lake Toba, an immense volcanic lake (It is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world) that formed in the volcanic crater after a massive supervolcanic eruption (yes, there is such a thing as a supervolcanic eruption. I know, it’s so cool right?!) tens of thousands of years ago. This eruption was so massive that it had a worldwide impact, changing the global climate and affecting the human population. The flora and fauna in this area is practically endemic and the Batak people are unique in their traditions. Their beliefs are largely influenced by the various Tamil, Arab and Javanese traders as well as the Christian missionaries who settled there – so it’s a whole religious mish-mesh going on in this region, which produces delightful religious sculpture and art such as those exhibited in this gallery.
It was really quite uncanny the sheer volume of memories it dredged up in me when I saw the sculptures – and the precise details I recalled. I’m glad that this was the last gallery I saw before leaving the museum as it left me with a feeling of nostalgia and reflection.
How to get there:
Nearest MRT station – Raffles Place
Exit at Battery Road and walk across the Cavenagh Bridge to the opposite side of the Singapore River.
Daily: 10am – 7pm
Fridays: 10am – 9pm*
Free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents (you’ll have to produce your identity card at the reception counter to enjoy this privilege)
Regular ticket prices are $8 for adults and $4 for students.* On Fridays, tickets are half-price after 7pm
There are also joint tickets for the ACM and the Peranakan Museum which you can enquire about at the reception counter.
A visit to the permanent galleries are a must. Seriously guys, the museum has an AMAZING collection of artifacts from across Asia
There are currently 2 special exhibitions that I’d highly recommend
The ACM is a family-friendly museum, so go ahead and bring your kids. They do offer a number of educational guides and activities to keep the little ones interested. There are also special museum activities during museum open-house days that fall during the public holidays – you get free entries + fun activities which is great!
On 11 November 1918″At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, the cessation of hostilities for World War I was recorded and signed in the Armistice. The Armistice, or Armistice of Compiègne as it is also referred to was signed between the Allied forces and Germany at Compiègne, France. It marked the agreement to end the fighting at the Western Front of the War. The Armistice was actually signed at 5.10am on 11 November, but to allow for the news to reach the Western Front, they timed the ceasefire to start at 11am. World War I would officially end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 in the Palace of Versailles, but Armistice Day is the day that is generally regarded as the day that the Great War ended and it is the day that is commemorated all over the world. Armistice Day is also referred to as Remembrance Day (by the Commonwealth countries) and Veterans Day (by the United States) and it has come to represent the memorial day for all members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty since World War I. In some countries such as the United States, Poland, France, Belgium and several other countries it is a national holiday.
You may have observed some people wearing a poppy brooch on or around Remembrance Day. This is because the poppy has come to symbolise this day since 1920, inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, a World War I poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The first two stanzas of the poem go thus –
In Flanders fields the poppies grow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
And so, the red poppy became the symbol for all soldiers who have died in conflict.
In Singapore, a memorial ceremony is held on the Sunday before Remembrance Day in the Kranji War Memorial. A two minute silence is observed and poppy wreaths both official and private are laid upon the Memorial itself. This year, Remembrance Sunday fell on 10 November.
I was hoping to be able to actually witness the ceremony, but ended up sleeping through the alarm (yea I know, I should be ashamed). So when I finally got there, the ceremony had ended. 😦
Nevertheless, since this was the first time I’d come here since I was a teenager (the only other time I’d been here as a Secondary 1 student for a school trip on Singapore history) I decided to stay and take a look around. I still recall vividly my first trip here, and the profound sadness that gripped me as I walked around the cemetery, seeing the graves of so many (and so young). And as I wandered around the place on Sunday, that same sadness washed over me; but this time there was also admiration and overwhelming gratitude for the brave and selfless soldiers who had died doing their duty.
The Kranji Cemetery is also the resting place of 250 troops killed in action in British Malaya; a Cremation Memorial for the soldiers of the Indian Army who died and were cremated in accordance to Hindu rites for the dead; Singapore Civil General Hospital Grave Memorial for the British and Commonwealth servicemen and civilian families who died whilst in captivity; and a Memorial for the 69 Chinese members of the British Commonwealth Forces who perished in captivity in February 1942, when Singapore fell to the Japanese army.
Walking through the grounds of the cemetery and reading the inscriptions on the Memorial walls and the names carved on the hundreds of tombstones took me the better part of two hours. I had previously planned on visiting this Memorial with a friend, but ended up alone as she was unable to come at the last minute. In a way, I am almost glad that she couldn’t accompany me because this place begs for solitude and introspection. Or perhaps that’s just me, because I saw a few families and quite a number of couples walking hand-in-hand around the grounds, pausing here and there to read the inscriptions more carefully. Even then, there was hardly any conversation; people were lost in their own thoughts and respectful of the place and what it stood for. It was a beautifully lit day, and the place looked especially lovely as we made our way through the meticulously kept grounds, content to reflect in the poignancy of our surroundings.
If like me, you love anything to do with history then I’d highly recommend this place. It is quite a distance from town; but in Singapore everything is conveniently located near an MRT station anyway, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting there.
If you want to attend the next Remembrance Ceremony, it will be on Sunday, 9 November 2014. The ceremony begins at 7.30am, and if you stick around after the ceremony, there will be a guided tour by the staff of the Changi Museum.
How to get there:
Nearest MRT station – Kranji MRT station (on the North-South line)
Take any bus service (160, 170, 178, 960, 961) from the Kranji interchange (which is at the Kranji MRT station) and get down 2 bus stops later (bus stop number #45119) along Woodlands Road
Then walk in the lane from Woodlands Road (there is a signboard that points the way in). It takes about 10 minutes to walk in.
Or, you can just walk along Woodlands Road since it’s quite near the Kranji MRT station – it’s about a 20 minute walk.
Singapore is a tropical country and there’s hardly any shade in the Memorial, so I’d suggest you invest in some sunscreen for the Sun/heat and take an umbrella because there’s bound to be a sudden downpour at any time of the day (our weather is bipolar like that).
Pets are NOT ALLOWED in the Kranji War Memorial and Cemetery, so please don’t bring any.
This Sunday I decided that instead of lazing around at home, I shall embark on an intellectual pursuit. And since it was the final day of the 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic exhibition in the ArtScience Museum I knew that’s where I needed to be. So I happily made my way to the Marina Bay Sands (‘coz that’s where the museum is) in the afternoon where I was greeted with this –
Yea, that was smart of me – to wait until the very last day of the exhibition to check it out. That queue stretched through the entire interior of the reception area and it took me 30 minutes to finally get to the counter.
In all fairness though, the queue there was not just for the National Geographic exhibition. The exhibition on Mummies from the British Museum collection was in its final week so visitors wanted to catch that as well ( I was one of them)
Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb is a behind-the-scenes look at the ancient Egyptian mummification process and rituals associated with death. There are over 100 artifacts on loan from the British Museum, including some actual mummies and their sarcophagi. For a history nerd like me, this was absolute heaven!
Since entry into the exhibit required visitors to sit through a 21-minute introductory 3D video played at every 30-minute interval, that’s where I went to first. The video (narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart himself you guys!) was pretty informative and (for me at least) seemed like it should belong on a Bones episode. Seriously. It was a full virtual forensic analysis of a 3,000 year old remains of an ancient Egyptian temple priest Nesperennub – without unwrapping the mummy. We were taken through the full process of identification of the occupant, and the ritual behind the mummification process – in 3D!! We even got to keep the 3D glasses as souvenirs 🙂
Inside the exhibition, we were taken through the mythology behind the rituals of life and death in ancient Egyptian society, with even a chamber dedicated to the embalming and mummification ritual – it was educational and not at all creepy. Really. The kids were having a good time running around, trying to identify the various ingredients and implements used during the process.
The only part of the exhibition that made me just a little uncomfortable was looking at the actual mummies. Don’t get me wrong – i wasn’t creeped out or anything – I just had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling from knowing that these were actual living, breathing people who are now being used as exhibits. I felt especially so when knowing about the tremendous energy and time taken to embalm and preserve these bodies, and the fact that this process was done to provide the soul of the person a vessel to return to after judgement in the underworld. It felt intrusive and just a little rude.
Perhaps that was why I felt more than a little upset when I saw a couple of disobedient visitors taking photographs of the dead and the various artifacts with FLASH! (and this was after all of us were told specifically to take no photographs in the exhibition!) I usually try to ignore them, but this time I made my disapproval more vocal; in fact several of us did, since it was more than just a violation of museum protocol.
Sigh.. douchebags. They are EVERYWHERE!
Ok moving on.
Next up – 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.
As a photography enthusiast, I am pretty much obsessed with the National Geographic. They do have the most amazing photographs in their issues; photographs taken by some of the best photographers on this planet. So when I got to know about this exhibition, you can just imagine the sort of excitement and level of anticipation I felt even before I went there. To see those groundbreaking, timeless and awe-inspiring images up close (and waaay bigger than the size of the magazine covers) is really something else. What made it better were the accompanying write-ups about the photographs and the pains, the planning and the sheer inspiration behind those images in the words of the photographers themselves.
It was amazing!
We all know that it takes much more than luck and skill to produce those images. But the amount of thought and work that went into creating those photographs, not to mention the research that went into the planning was quite staggering. Some photographs took months of planning, some even years, and yet others were due to sheer luck (plus the extraordinary skill of the artist).
The exhibition itself was grouped in sections for us to view the principle reasoning behind the photographs. There were also sub-sections which were sort-of educational hubs that explained the different aspects of photography such as light, colour, composition, the darkroom and digital darkroom etc. So even for amateurs like myself, and for complete beginners the sections helped us to enjoy the exhibition on yet another level. At each section as well, there were video interviews with the photographers behind some of the images, describing in greater detail about their assignments that led to the results we see in the magazine.
Unlike the earlier exhibition, visitors here were allowed to take photographs. So there were a few who took the opportunity to take pictorial mementos of their favourite images in the gallery. Mostly though, we were quietly engrossed in the exhibits themselves. Visitors in this exhibition were somehow far more well-behaved than those in the Mummy exhibition, which I found to be interesting since there were far more visitors here (owing to the fact that this was the final day to catch it). Everyone was mindful of personal space and respectful of the other visitors interested in the same exhibit. Perhaps it was because study of the photographs needed a far more contemplative mood? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly not complaining 🙂
As we progressed further, the sections changed and images gradually moved into bleaker subjects – of war, famine, pollution, death and disaster (both natural and man-made). I became more profoundly affected by them than I’d expected, especially by those in which nature was threatened by us. By the time I’d reached (almost) the end of my journey, I was ready to weep at the image of hell captured by Steve McCurry – when Saddam Hussein’s soldiers set fire to the oil fields in Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991. It was the penultimate photograph of the exhibition, and a particularly devastating one. Thankfully for us, the curators of this amazing exhibition decided to leave us with a message of hope in the final image of Jou Jou the chimpanzee reaching out to touch Jane Goodall’s hair taken by Michael Nichols. It was the perfect way to end our journey through the vaults of National Geographic’s 125 year history of amazing images and stories.
I knew I’d love the exhibition; what I did not expect was to be profoundly moved by it.
By this time, it was almost closing time for the museum. I had just enough time to check out the gallery featuring Naoko Tosa’s Sound of Ikebana: Four Seasons. I had no clue what this was about but since it was included in the price of my ticket I thought I’d check it out anyway.
The exhibition features 4 video artworks ‘created by vibrating sound beneath paint’. I’m still not entirely sure what it was I was listening to, but the images of the splashing multi-coloured paint onscreen were strangely mesmerizing to watch. So I sat in the darkened theatre and watched the video for the next 10 minutes until the music got on my nerves enough to make me leave – it was quite jarring to the senses.
So.. that’s the end! Well, except for the part where some random cute guy decided to flirt with me while I was trying to take a photograph of the gallery entrance. That was fun 😉
You can buy tickets online here or get them directly at the counter. It is more convenient to buy tickets online as the ticket collection for online bookings is at a much shorter queue.
Point to note : Singaporean citizens get a discount for the ticket price, but this is ONLY applicable when you buy the tickets directly at the counter as you need to display your Identity Card.
Queues are MUCH longer in the afternoons, thus if you want to beat the crowd, get there before noon. (Museum opening hours are from 10am – 7pm daily)
Point to note: Tickets can only be used for single entry. Once you’ve entered the museum and any of its paid-for galleries, you CANNOT RE-ENTER the galleries. So if you need to exit the museum for any reason, it’s really too bad but you’ll need to purchase another ticket to re-enter.
There is only one refreshment stand in the museum, so if you are in desperate need of eats, I suggest you have your meal BEFORE you enter the museum, since you can’t just leave for a bite and return to the museum (see point above).
Unlike the other museums under the National Heritage Board , the ArtScience Museum is a separate entity. Therefore, your NHB museum pass is not applicable here.
Tickets are pretty expensive for the ArtScience Museum exhibitions, so it’s more value-for-money if you buy combination tickets to 2 or more exhibitions since the price is reduced for combinations. At the moment, the National Geographic exhibition is over, so the two ongoing exhibitions are Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb (until 4 November 2013) and Essential Eames: A Herman Miller exhibition (until 5 January 2014).
The ArtScience Museum is very kid friendly so it’s a great place to bring your children. The exhibitions, such as Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb usually have educational and fun activities as well as interactive exhibits just for children so your little munchkins will not be bored.
Last but not least, this is a museum so DO NOT take flash photography in the galleries. It is highly disruptive to the other patrons, and if the exhibits are of precious artifacts such as those from the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition, the flash will likely cause some damage. Be a responsible patron and try not to ruin the experience for others.