Autumn is the season of anniversaries, and I’ve got a trio of them stacked up – well, technically, a quartet…
Yes, I haven’t written anything here in six months. I’ve been busy – with a new book, a burgeoning relationship, and coping with work as things loosen up and tighten again, and loosen up and tighten again.
It just seemed impossible to write. I haven’t felt like it.
The last time I penned off, it was as my alter-ego, Shabu2ko, yearning to shrug off shamisen and kimono, so to speak, even as I partook of the vicissitudes of urban farming.
Not much has changed. At least, I don’t think it has.
I’m not sure I’ve gone anywhere – existentially, as well as literally. The pandemic rages on, travel is uncertain, and it’s been two years since I’ve been in one place… moving but not quite advancing.
My situation recalls that of the proverbial J. Alfred Prufrock, meandering about in the interstices of time and space, pondering immensity and what it portends.
“Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table”
I was once that patient, you see… And as I (continue to) lay prostrate on the proverbial table, obsessively I wonder:
“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”
ANNIVERSARY I – HEART & HEARTH
OK, alright. This is actually two anniversaries, bundled as one.
A year ago this month, two very important movements took place in my own private universe.
I moved, in very adult fashion, into the first real home that I’d actually bought with my own money (and a bit of help from mom). At the same time, I had a piece of sheer sci-fi, constructed of intricately interlacing skeins of steel, moved into the left anterior descending artery (or LAD, for short) of my heart, where it remains today.
The two movements occurred within 5 days of each other – the 5th and the 9th of November respectively – so they really ought to be taken in the same breath; though of course, they provoked wildly contradictory reactions at the time.
The former elicited joy and a sense of comfort and warmth – home is where the hearth is, as it were. The latter provoked grief, despair and intimations of death – nothing breaks like a heart, after all.
Funny how a single letter “h” stood between a gulf of emotion.
Life, as I had known it before, ended in November 2020. And much of 2021 has been metal-hearted-me attempting to establish the foundations of a new cyborg life.
A year on, the prognosis remains… well, inconclusive.
I know I’m meant to be taking better care of myself – and I have been cultivating new leisurely pursuits [see images appended] – but it’s been very hard.
As restrictions loosen up, the responsibilities pile on, and I find myself out and about again, donning kimono and bracing shamisen against self as I entertain, negotiate, and fight battles for our very existence…
“There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…”
I’m very thankful, of course, for a JOB.
These are challenging times, and I have friends and colleagues elsewhere in the arts who aren’t doing quite as well. So I’m deeply thankful that I’m still able to work, and work very hard.
But I’m so tired.
My body can’t take the heat – I’m no longer the same Kennie I was before. The metal in my heart protests whenever I push myself to the limit. And I gather I’ve been pushing myself to the limit, since my limits have been significantly circumscribed.
These last couple of months, I have struggled to get out of bed in the mornings, no matter how early I get to bed. And whenever I have a moment, I collapse onto the warm, parquet floor of my guest bedroom, to nap.
It seems all I do in my free time these days, is nap.
The rest of the time, I’m drinking way too much again, and snacking in a manner that is certainly not advisable for the metal-hearted. I’ve cast all caution to the winds in terms of my diet, in general – I am extremely partial to fried chicken wings, particularly when I’m streesed – and I haven’t been able to exercise as much as I want to.
I’ve been working so hard just to keep still. And the drink and the food have been my way of coping.
BUT, you know…
I’m not one to dwell on negative energies… I’m a cup half full sort of person. And being negative is just so boring.
So let’s just say these reactive behaviours of mine are certainly NOT ADVISABLE. And even as I need to cultivate greater compassion for myself, I need to find my way out of all this STRESS, and to focus on doing more of what I LOVE.
In the meantime…
“… the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! / Smoothed by long fingers, / Asleep… tired… or it malingers, / Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.”
Those moments on the floor of my guest bedroom, alone or accompanied (by the farmer) 😍, happen to be the most delicious moments of all I’ve had these last few months.
I wish I could lie on the floor all day. I wish I could lie on the floor all month. Gosh, I wish I had a year of just lying about.
Two things bring me comfort.
The first is my new book, tentatively titled, THE GREAT PORT CITIES OF ASIA AND THE INDIAN OCEAN, and featuring some 50-odd historic and contemporary-day port cities around the Indian Ocean rim.
I won’t go into details here. Suffice to say I’ve managed, since May, to write a full Introduction and 13 out of 39 chapters – that’s the first third of the book.
It has been such a joy researching and reading tomes of books on ports as far afield as Mombasa on the Swahili Coast, Aden in the Yemen, and Yangzhou on the Yangtze River.
It’s also been a bit of a slog writing a book while running the museum, I must confess. But I love the writing so much that I steal time to do it. And I’ve been very pleased with the outcome. I would have started writing the second third of the book already, if not for the fact that I’ve been so tired, and I had to tell myself to take a break.
The other source of comfort for me has naturally been the farm and farmer.
Though I have to also confess that for a moment, farm was a bit of burden as, between the summer months of August and October, the farmer had to travel for work, and for almost ten weeks, I was left to tend to farm and flock almost entirely on my own.
There were, naturally, a slew of untimely deaths – which was heart-breaking.
But there was also, finally, a birth – a wee little baby born to a pair of feral pied pigeons we had adopted, and whom we called the “gangsta dalmatians”. The baby, we variously christened Peepoo, because s/he likes to pee and poop on me when I hold him/her.
I’ve concluded that in the practice of urban peasantry, I am decidedly of greater utility as ornament rather than as farmhand. 😂
Thank goodness the farmer is back on the premises, I say.
ANNIVERSARY II – WORK
September marked five years of my being at the helm of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore – this is the second, well… third, big anniversary.
Just last week, at our Museum’s final Board of Director’s Meeting for 2021, I reported back on the sum of my achievements these past five years.
The data spoke for itself: on all fronts, I appear to have done well.
I won’t bore you with the details.
To summarise: I’ve succeeded in bringing in more and younger visitors to the museum. Our physical footfall was on track to hit a new record, if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Digital viewership quadrupled in this period… well, actually, increased by some 2000% – yes there are 3 zeros and this is a percentage – if we include the virtual reach of the international digital collaborations we had.
Our international presence has only strengthened, even as we’ve made it a point to partner strongly with local academia, as well as local communities. In my time, my colleagues and I have quite possibly either been invited to speak at, or organised more high-level international symposiums, panels and speaking engagements, than ever before. And I constantly decline requests to travel our exhibitions abroad because I don’t have enough staff to accommodate these requests.
We have not shied away from taking creative risks in the exhibitions we’ve put on, even as all of the exhibitions I’ve helmed (from conception to fruition) have brought in more ticketing revenues than ever before.
Our most recent exhibition, LIFE IN EDO x RUSSEL WONG IN KYOTO also surpassed ticketing revenue expectations, even in the thick of the pandemic, demonstrating that Singaporean audiences will pay for quality and unique museum experiences.
In the last 5 years, I’ve managed as Director – with the strong support of my colleagues and our Board – to raise some $30 million in revenues, donations, in-kind sponsorships and special government grants to refresh existing or introduce new permanent galleries, to organise exceptional special exhibitions and programmes, and to generally achieve my vision for the museum.
The funds raised have ensured we were able to follow-through with our exhibitions, programming and gallery renewal plans from 2017 till today, and they will also allow us to carry through our exhibitions calendar till mid-2024 at least. Some of these exhibitions we planned have, unfortunately, had to be cancelled as the pandemic made travel impossible. But what replaces these, as well as what remains, are going to be great.
I’m immensely grateful for all the support on every front. I’ve worked SO VERY HARD to raise this money.
I’m so thankful that I can relax a bit for now… at least till our next Fundraising Gala in 2023.
My most important achievement, however – that which I’m most pleased with – has to do with turning ACM’s brand around.
When I took over the museum in 2016 – the general consensus from visitors was that the museum was “dark,” “full of bowls” and not a very exciting place. I was determined to subvert this impression of the museum as a fusty place for aficionados.
Notwithstanding the fact that we were the museum with the oldest things – we are a museum of antiquities, after all – I saw the potential in ACM being a youthful, dynamic, open, and (dare-I-say) sexy museum institution.
These were the exact words I used in my first management meeting in 2016 with my somewhat baffled senior team. Oh, and I also said that “old is the new new” would be our new operating mantra.
A big part of my strategy from then on involved my deciding not to jump (too easily) onto the bandwagon, so to speak, with regards to trends in the museum landscape.
For example, where many of the major museums (and arts organisations) in town were heavily focused on presenting Contemporary Art, I thought that perhaps it would be better for us to carve out our own niche in the space of contemporary fashion and design. Particularly since no one was paying serious attention to fashion and design.
From quite early on in my tenure, I toyed with the idea of the museum championing CRAFT, DESIGN & ARTISANSHIP, whether historical or contemporary.
I wanted to throw the spotlight onto the often unnamed and forgotten crafts(wo)men who had created all the amazing-beautiful objet d’arts and sacred objects in our museum, and whose livelihoods (and communities) depended on their being able to create these beautiful, functional objects.
I wanted to celebrate the equivalent of these ARTISANS today – by which I mean contemporary artisans, crafts(wo)men, designers, makers in the fields of fashion and furniture (broadly and in the first instance); and in so doing, draw a link between heritage and contemporary practice.
I felt like it was important for us to champion contemporary artisans in Asia and especially in Singapore. I felt that more than enough support was being offered to contemporary artists. But our artisans and designers were falling through the cracks.
To make this commitment public, I took the opportunity in 2020 to re-position ourselves – with the Board and the public’s strong support – as Singapore’s de facto National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art, when we finally opened ACM’s new MATERIALS & DESIGN Permanent Galleries, featuring Fashion & Textiles, Jewellery and Ceramics.
Another very big way in which I resisted jumping onto the bandwagon, was in relation to “immersive digital experiences”.
Not that there’s anything wrong with them – I love a good immersive, digital experience. I want to give a shout out to my colleagues at the National Museum of Singapore and the Art Science Museum, who have done amazing work in the space of art, tech and digital.
I just felt that ACM wasn’t the place for these; and I didn’t understand why “immersive” necessarily meant digital or tech. I decided that ACM would resist the pressure – great pressure, mind you! – to move into contemporary digital-tech art installations.
Instead, we would dive deeper and invest in good, old-fashioned exhibition curation and design.
We would focus and hunker down hard on the FUNDAMENTALS – aesthetics and originality: gorgeous objects from our (vast and under-appreciated) collection; gasp-inducing exhibition design; and always unique and relevant, preferably ground-breaking, curatorial perspectives.
ACM’s exhibitions are today known for their being extremely immersive – but in terms of their beauty, theatricality and ability to elicit wide-eyed wonder. This stems from a deep understanding of human emotions and the power of the object and of design to evoke, to provoke, and to awe.
This stems also from sheer hard work too, combined with ingenuity and deep professional experience, on the part of my brilliant museum team. Oh, and also, you know… our operating mantra – old is the new new.
[We’ve made some minor mis-steps along the way – I’m not sure about the design for the RAFFLES exhibition, for example – but on the whole, we’ve had very positive public feedback for our exhibitions.]
In investing in exhibition design, I was being true to my cause; supporting the creative and aesthetic excellence of designers in Singapore; making a point that Singapore has brilliant creative and design talent, and that we have to be the platform to spotlight this talent and grow in tandem with them.
I would push the envelope further on the contemporary-artisan front this year, by adopting a radical, non-conventional, community-partnership approach in putting on an exhibition on contemporary Singaporean fashion design.
#SGFASHIONNOW was in all respects unprecedented.
In an interview I did with a local Chinese radio station, I said, tongue-in-cheek, that the exhibition was a kind of rebellion 叛逆, in multiple ways.
Firstly – ACM was better known as the museum whose scope included ALL of Asia, but NOT Singapore. Yet here we were, blithely putting on an exhibition on Singaporean fashion.
You see, I never understood why we could not feature Singapore in our exhibitions – and I felt like with our re-positioning as a decorative art museum, our beautiful collection (which consists primarily of objects of decorative art, really); our strong interest in the Cross-cultural, in Design Practice for its own sake, and in Innovation in the space of Craft and Tradition, I could justify this move.
I planned this move carefully, and then made it quickly.
Secondly – ACM was better known as a museum presenting art made by artisans who were no longer alive. Yet here we were, presenting the works of still-living, still-practicing fashion designers.
In fact, the major criteria in the choice of designers featured was that they had to still be in business! This was because I wanted this exhibition to deliver a strong message of HOPE for aspiring designers in Singapore and Asia – a message that there WAS a future in fashion, and the museum was here to support them, as much as we could.
I also felt strongly that times had changed; and that we should not shy away from playing a more active, developmental role in the community and industry to which we’d thrown out lot. I believe that we have to move firmly away from this traditionalist mindset of seeing MUSEUM as GATEKEEPER; we need to see ourselves as CATALYSTS & SPACES OF OPPORTUNITY.
Thirdly – the exhibition was a kind of rebuttal 反击. It has been suggested to me by people in industry, society and government, that “SINGAPORE HAD NO FASHION”.
I thought that was just nonsense – and so I took all this as a challenge. Not only is there Singapore Fashion, so I wanted to retort, the scene is surprisingly diverse and full of talent and ideas. I will SHOW you.
Fourthly – the form of the exhibition itself was also unlike any other exhibition we’d ever done. We didn’t come up with the format ourselves. I felt it was important to consult and seek advice – and the eventual format was the outcome of multiple conversations I’ve had with stakeholders in the local fashion industry and community.
We were advised that the right way to approach this exhibition was to do it with the Industry and Community. I was so very humbled by the passion of all those who spoke to me and so I followed this advice to a T, even though it challenged us at the museum to work in a way we’d never worked before.
I’m proud to say that the exhibition is a multi-way collaboration between ACM, LASALLE College of the Arts (one of the local arts and design universities in Singapore); the Textiles and Fashion Federation (TaFF, the local fashion industry association), and the larger fashion community, by which I mean fashion designers, emerging and established, who are featured in the show; the fashion and lifestyle press and media; and patrons and supporters of local fashion, including influencers.
The exhibition itself was curated by students – five brilliant young women! – at LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion, with LASALLE faculty and ACM staff as mentors. I was so happy to know that even before the exhibition opened, the five student curators had managed to secure dream jobs in good companies.
The exhibition also featured the Winner and Finalists of SINGAPORE STORIES – an annual fashion design competition organised by TaFF, wherein Singaporean and Singapore-based designers were encouraged to create new capsule collections inspired by prevailing issues in the fashion industry (such as technology and sustainability), as well as ACM’s collections. This collaboration, which began in 2019, was also a FIRST for us – and it was motivated by my dream for the museum’s collection to be a creative inspiration and resource for local and regional creatives. [CONGRATULATIONS to colleagues at TaFF for the successful culmination of the latest edition!!!!]
The exhibition (#SGFASHIONNOW) was completely experimental in nature – we hadn’t done anything like this ever before, and we didn’t know if it would succeed. So we kept the scope of it small and manageable.
But the impact of this small – minuscule! – exhibition has been really encouraging. The show has reverberated at a scale beyond what we expected. So we expect to repeat #SGFASHIONNOW in 2022 on a slightly bigger scale, and we are exploring continuing this collaboration beyond that.
At this point, I must once again thank colleagues (who have now become friends) at LASALLE and TaFF; everybody in the wider community who has supported this initiative; and my brilliant colleagues at the ACM.
Here’s to more collabs. Because they are the future of museums.
This brings me back to the ACM Brand itself – my most important achievement, in my view.
A recent study internally commissioned showed that the ACM is today described with such values and essences as aspirational, energetic, adventurous, bold, open-minded, cosmopolitan… a true museum; a place one visits to find purpose.
The study also noted that the segment of the population most likely to recall ACM, are students in tertiary educational institutions (universities, polytechnics and such).
What this means, is that we have achieved our goal of cultivating a persona that is at once timeless yet youthful, dynamic, open, even sexy – embodying our mantra, old is the new new.
This is shocking yet humbling, since as I earlier mentioned, we are the museum with the OLDEST things on display and as such we would be the one institution LEAST expected to resonate with younger audiences. But I’ve always believed that a museum ought to be a space that is bursting with life (in more ways than one), and that people are really the most important aspect of museum; the museum’s heart and soul. ❤️
There’s still some ways to go – we are still seen as being niche, and not quite for the masses. Though I assure you should the pandemic not have happened – our suite of new permanent galleries and cancelled exhibitions would have conquered the Singaporean mainstream. I don’t do anything by halves.
Not to mention we have made it a point to have strong offerings for communities with special needs, for families with children, as well as to collaborate with communities aligned to our educational mission and curatorial focus (such as local communities of faith).
Nor have we forgotten our long-standing, loyal, slightly older, and young-at-heart, visitors. We maintain strong offerings for you (like an exhibition collaboration with the Palace Museum Beijing on Ming Dynasty treasures – which was unfortunately postponed and ultimately cancelled because of the pandemic).
It’s just that our increase in physical footfall is a result of new kinds of audiences – much younger audiences – throwing themselves into the mix.
If I may share one single image that kind of sums up what our brand is today – even if it’s meant to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek comment on the national museum landscape in Singapore, it is the one above.
This image is drawn from @sgmuseummemes – a local Instagram account that pokes fun at local museums and the Singaporean museum scene from an (evidently) insider perspective;
It is often very funny and spot-on in its observations – I follow it and it is VERY worth following.
I don’t usually do this nor do I know if it’s appropriate to do so – it is my personal blog, after all, not the museum’s, so should be ok, no? – but I really wanted to share this post here by way of a “thanks so much.”
I’m so chuffed for our brand to be associated, however casually or tongue-in-cheek-ly, with Tilda Swinton.
“And indeed there will be time / To wonder “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” / Time to turn back and descend the stair,”
I have always, in my time at ACM, made it a point not to turn back, but to humbly take advice where it is needed, give thanks all the time, and to simply… dare.
Oh… and never to take myself too seriously.
ANNIVERSARY III – BLOG
We’re almost there. Sorry for rambling on.
The most important anniversary for me took place last month, when on 9th October, DREAM OF A CITY turned 10.
10 years it’s been!!! Gosh!!! What a journey!!
When I started this blog while living, in limbo, in New York City, I never thought I’d still be posting, ten years later.
I was so young at the time, and so restless – caught, as it were, between love and a hard place; and living in / travelling between so many cities: London, New York, Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Dubai, Hamburg…
Then too, I was caught in an eternity of stasis, à la J. Alfred Prufrock. I distinctly remember a post way back when, where I made the connection. [LOL, does anything ever change?]
“In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michaelangelo.”
When I returned, finally, to Singapore, I didn’t stop travelling. I embarked on an insane, epic 43-city Grand Tour of the port and imperial cities of Asia, documenting every single stop in excruciating detail on this very blog!
Looking back on the hundreds of posts on DREAM OF A CITY, I’m moved to tears.
What a life I’ve had!! What an achievement all of this was!! What a dream it has been!!
This wee little blog of mine would go on to spawn three books, including the new one I’m writing. Given that the earlier books were pivotal in my securing the position as Museum Director, I can certainly argue that DREAM OF A CITY contributed too, to my career as it stands today.
I thought I would stop blogging once I became Museum Director – but the nature of my posts shifted.
This blog became an outlet for me, a means by which I made sense of the craziness behind-the-scenes, the joy and the challenge I faced running a major national museum with a strong international standing.
It’s been a gruelling time for me.
I share only a fraction of what I go through on a daily basis. But being able to share however little I could was enough. I found solace and strength in my writings here, and I used these writings to reassure myself that I have done well – that I am doing well.
DREAM OF A CITY has played an instrumental role in defining who I am these past ten years.
More than anything else in the world, this blog has been the one constant thing in my life, reminding me to believe in my vision for the institution I lead, and for myself as a writer, arts professional and advocate.
I’m not ready to give it up just yet.
Conversely, I’m thinking on how to let everything else go, such that I focus more on dreaming of/and cities again.
I’m ready, for example, to get back to Grand Tour-ing.
It irks me that I’m writing a new book right now on these historic Asian port cities, half of which I’ve never been to. I really ought to be visiting all of them, speaking to people, hunting down historic sites, researching in archives!!
But then… What am I to do?
“Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”
I think so. I have to.
My life depends on it.
So the year ahead shall be about hatching a larger scheme to extricate myself graciously at a suitable point – a high point – of my career. It doesn’t do to overstay one’s welcome… and the sea, and all its port cities, beckons.
Unless of course there’s some way for me to balance all that is required of me professionally, with all that I wish to achieve creatively?
I don’t know if that’s possible. And at a pinch, today’s me would say LIFE FIRST, WORK SECOND.
My doughty sea-horse, my cheval de mer, is already saddled, and as I’ve discovered, I need no Knight in Shining Armour to save me – I am my own Chevalier.
The galloping off into the sunset won’t be quite so soon, of course. I still have a few things I want done in order to secure my legacy; I still have a few people I wish to set up properly.
But it will come, when least expected – I’ve never liked being predictable.
“And would it have been worth it, after all, / After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, / Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, / Would it have been worth while…”
Yes, yes, of course… Every minute of my life has been worth it – I don’t regret anything.
But it is time, it is time… now I’m at the top of the stairs… to take the leap. And morph into that merman
“Riding seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black.”
Yalla habibi ! يلا حبيبي