Colouring Edo and a monochromatic take on a colourful side of Kyoto

8 05 2021

Japan and the rather unique experiences it has to offer, has captured the imagination of many image makers over the history of image-making. How this has evolved over time is wonderfully presented in an exhibition Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, which opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum on 16 April 2021. Running until 19 September 2021, the exhibition provides a wonderful walk-through of the various aspects of Japanese art of woodblock print making — a popular medium of expression during the Edo period. The art form is also placed in contrast with the modern art of photography, seen through the skilfully and very patiently captured work of renowned Singaporean photographer Russel Wong in the forbidden world of Kyoto’s Gokagai (five kagai).

The exhibition starts with a study of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e or woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e, which translates into “pictures of the transient world”, or as the Britannica has it, “pictures of the floating world”, came to the fore during a period of cultural and social renaissance in 18th and 19th century Edo, with the term “transient world” or “floating world” being a euphemism for Edo’s popular entertainment quarters. Produced for the mass market, ukiyo-e, with its depictions of popular theatre artistes, courtesans, and maybe the seedier aspects of life in the pleasure quarters, could be thought of as a platform for the social influencers of the day — much like what social media and the likes of Instagram is, in the world of today.

Different class of travel in the age of the ukiyo-e.

Comparing ukiyo-e to Instagram may devalue the craft and effort that goes into the production of ukiyo-e. The value of its craft is thankfully not lost in the journey that the exhibition takes visitors through with 157 expertly made prints on show that provide a glimpse of life during the Tokugawa shogunate, themed according to the subjects of travel, beauty, food, entertainment and even the keeping of pets. The production of ukiyo-e would have involved a publisher; artists to draw the design, carve the woodblocks, and to ink, align and press the various blocks individually to add each of the various colours to the prints. The display of a complete set of mid-20th century woodblocks made by the Kyoto Hanga Institute to reprint Hokusai’s “South Wind, Clear Sky” — popularly known as “Red Fuji”, provides visitors with a better understanding of the skill and labour involved in the craft. Overtaken by machine printing and photography, interest in the tedious method of printing would decline in the late 1800s. It is only through the efforts of artisans and institutes such as the Hanga, that the craft has been preserved.

It is probably apt the the transition from the traditional to the modern in the exhibition takes place through the crossing of a bridge and a journey from Edo to Kyoto. The starting point in this journey is the display of Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – at the beginning of the coastal Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto and the first of 53 halting or rest stations (which included the start and end points) Hiroshige depicted in his print series “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido”. This will be replaced (as will the other woodblock prints on display due to their sensitivity to light) in the second half of the exhibition period with a print of the last station, the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto, which is also depicted at the point where the journey into Russel Wong’s Kyoto begins. Hiroshige’s series provided the inspiration for some of Wong’s work in Japan and Wong’s photograph of the Sanjo Bridge that is on display, was taken with very much the same craft and care that went into Hiroshige’s efforts.

Wong’s captures of the secluded world of the tea houses of the Gokagai, is for the photographer in me, the draw of the exhibition. The story that is seen in his masterfully taken photographs of the Geiko (how Geishas in Kyoto are referred to) and the apprentice Maiko, is as much about the unseen aspects of life in the tea houses, as it is about Wong’s craft and patience. An effort some 13 years in the making, it involved establishing the right connections and a wait of five years before he was even able to step into a tea house. This incredible journey, is supplemented by his efforts to capture the colours of the Kyoto that most of us will only get to see, but in a way few would have the patience for. Seen in his work in colour of Kyoto through the four seasons in the public space where the journey into Edo and Kyoto begins, it is also seen in the monochromatic display of the crowd-free Kinkaku-ji in winter taken through falling snow just as the alarm levels on Covid-19 were being raised and just before travel restrictions were put in place in early 2020.

The Kinkaku-ji in winter as captured by Russel Wong

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs until 19 September 2021 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Tickets are priced at $12 for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents and $20 for Foreign Residents and Tourists. For more information, visit https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/whats-on/exhibitions/life-in-edo-russel-wong-in-kyoto.


A ukiyo-e depiction of a brothel room with hidden messages.
Beauty techniques – offered by the “influencers” of the day on ukiyo-e.
Interactions with pets was a popular ukiyo-e subject.
Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – the first of “The 53 stations of the Tokaido”
Russel Wong on using black and white and more …


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