A Season of Anniversaries

[I’ve been receiving loads of flowers this past year for various reasons… ❤️ This bouquet was specially commissioned by my colleagues at ACM to celebrate my being conferred the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government (more about this later). The flowers – the iris and the orchid – were chosen to represent the relationship between France and Singapore. The bouquet was created by @humidhouse, run by the foremost botanical artisan (I don’t know how else to describe him) in Singapore, in my view anyway. Thanks for the bouquet!]

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. 

[Stillness… what I wish for most of all in my life right now… and as represented in these beautiful ceramic pieces by local artisanal ceramicists @raoceramics (right) and @mudrockceramics (left)… I feel such a sense of calm and balance, each time I regard them simply being on the counter-top… 🦋]

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?”

[In the spirit of trying to set aside more time for leisurely pursuits, I’ve been reading and re-reading a whole lot…. I recently stumbled upon an old copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, which was one of my textbooks when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature at U.C. Berkeley. This collection includes my favourite poem of all time: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I quote from Prufrock liberally in this post… ]

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. 

[I’ve been trying to cook more, but I haven’t been very successful. The farmer brought back an actual terracotta tagine from a recent worktrip to Dubai. So I took the opportunity to whip up a proper Moroccan chicken tagine, spiced with amazingly flavourful ras el hanout brought back from the Dubai’s souks. It was just divine!! The main dish was accompanied with French puy lentils fried with diced red bell peppers, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy, and in extra virgin olive oil, garlic slivers, garam masala and ground coriander; gherkin salad in two ways – tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, and in Greek yoghurt with Turkish honey, Iranian sumac and chilli powder; and Tunisian harissa on the side. Mind you, this was also a slow-carb meal. 😜 ]

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. 

[I’ve also recently been very intrigued and taken by contemporary Mainland Chinese pop music of the guofeng 国风, or “National Style”. This involves fusing traditional Chinese instruments (such as the erhu or pipa) or classical Chinese lyrics or sentiments, with contemporary beats, instruments and sensibilities. Many of these guofeng, or guofeng-esque pop songs are actually from soundtracks of contemporary Mainland Chinese period dramas. I must say that popular music in China has become extremely sophisticated – catchy hooks, a clever blend of traditional and contemporary, and rapturous, ravishing lyrics. I have an entire playlist of hours and hours of guofeng or soundtrack songs that I listen to almost every day. This song 《晚夜微雨问海棠》is one of my favourites – it’s really gorgeous; a love song, of course. “那年风吹过海棠 / 你的目光 / 热切能与天光相当 / 轻唤我回神一望 / 眼前少年携段春光 / 未曾想人世变幻有多无常”. Listen to it on Spotify: httpsw://open.spotify.com/album/35HLanKLG2JBIKCbVDIv1y]

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. 

[Between April and September this year, I managed to finish writing the Introduction, and the first thirteen chapters to my new book – more than 50,000 words put on the page. The Contents Page here provides an outline of the first two sections – or the first third – of my book. I have 26 chapters to go. I wish I could’ve travelled to each and every one of the port cities I feature in my new book but that has been impossible with the pandemic, and with work. Ah well… ]

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 original jumbo quail I featured in my last post died a few months ago. She was replaced by another who is just as full of personality, and absolutely a delight to be with. Here she is, lounging sensuously like an odalisque, peering off into the distance. She is so tame that she feeds on dried mealworms from my hand. ]
[The other inhabitants of the farm (aside from chickens and quail) are a flock of pigeons – they are at turns feral, ridiculous and completely adorable. Here they are, battling for a spot in the makeshift bath. Three of them are in the bath and one is all fluffed up, having just gotten out. Yet another is outside of this shot. The two pied pigeons (the “gangsta dalmatians”, we call them) recently gave birth to a baby pigeon, making it a flock of six. Don’t be fooled – they do not get along at all, and can be rather vicious to each other. All this makes for endless, absorbing entertainment. ]

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. 

[After multiple failed tries, one of the eggs (left) laid by the “gangsta dalmatians” finally bore fruit. Peepoo was born on 10th October (middle) and by 7th November (right), he or she was almost full grown. He or she (it’s impossible to determine its gender at this point) doesn’t look in the least like his/her parents, who are black and white pied pigeons. I think he’s a she.]
[In the early morning of 7th September, my grandfather, my Ah-Kong, Mr Ong Poh Chuan (1932- 2021) passed away quietly and gracefully. He was 89. He had been ill for some time now. It was the first time I’d seen a photograph of him when he was young (at front), and my cousins remarked on how I looked very much like him. At the cremation, I laid my bouquet – a trio of white chrysanthemums – on the casket; and then as we said our final goodbyes, I held my mother close and we both cried. In the end, he was so blessed in having all of his children – my aunts and uncles – some of his grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren with him when he passed. Rest in peace, and lots of love. 😢❤️🕊 I suppose this should count, also, as another milestone this past year… ]

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. 

[This page from my 5-year Report to the ACM Board sums up my achievements between 2016 to 2021, on multiple fronts. I’m unable to share details of how we’ve achieved this, but suffice to say we’ve managed to do very well in all these 8 areas. This also gives a sense of the degree of complexity involved in museum work, and how I have to take on multiple personas and play a variety of roles in my time as Museum Director.]

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.   

[Ethereal, ravishing view into the Russel Wong section of the LIFE IN EDO x RUSSEL WONG IN KYOTO exhibition. The show did better than we expected, given that it was hit not once, but three times by social distancing rules relaxing and then tightening again. Just before the first round of tightening took place in May – when we moved from groups of 8 persons back to groups of 5 – there were super-long lines queuing up to enter the exhibition!! At the time, we were so worried about managing crowds because we didn’t want to fall foul of safe distancing inspectors and rules!! Ah the irony!!! In these interesting times, you get anxious when you have no visitors, and you get anxious when you have too many!! If not for the pandemic, the exhibition would have been a sure-fire blockbuster – and possibly even profitable. At least, that was the intent when we had planned the exhibition – we wanted to experiment and see if we could not only recover cost, but profit, from an exhibition! ]

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. 

😅

[We took a huge creative risk with the RAFFLES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA – REVISITING THE SCHOLAR AND STATESMAN exhibition in 2019. The most controversial part of the exhibition was actually the marketing and advertising campaign, which was daring and radical. When it was first proposed to me, I gasped and said “Let’s do it”. Kudos to @thesecretlittleagency, our marketing agency for the exhibition, who conceived of this brilliant campaign. It did its job. It was popular with younger audiences, and it made the exhibition a blockbuster. There were even complaints that the exhibition paled in comparison to the ad campaign! 😂 All in all, however, the RAFFLES exhibition did its job in sparking dialogue and positioning ACM at the very centre of real dialogue on our colonial past. The exhibition also did wonders for our Brand – contributing to us being seen as open-minded, daring and adventurous (more about the ACM brand later). ]
[The GUO PEI – CHINESE ART & COUTURE exhibition, which came hot on the tails of the RAFFLES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA exhibition in 2019, was also a huge creative risk for us. I will confess that in the spirit of strategic marketing – I had always planned for ACM to re-emerge on the cultural scene in 2019 (after 4 years of major renovations) with a big bang! I wanted to CHALLENGE mindsets as to what a museum such as ACM could do. I was accused by some long-time supporters as selling out; there were insinuations of us flirting with commercialism. But at the heart of the exhibition was this story: the greatest couturier in Mainland China was reviving and re-introducing Chinese culture into Mainland Chinese and World popular culture, by way of being inspired by Singapore’s Peranakan heritage (and Singapore’s Peranakan Museum). In other words – let’s be proud of our culture and heritage!! The exhibition sits up there as one of our most visited exhibitions of all time, alongside the Terracotta Warriors and the Kangxi Emperor. It is our highest grossing exhibition of all time, in terms of ticketing revenues, though it did not attract much by way of sponsorship – partly, it was because ACM at the time was just emerging from a 4-year shroud (of renovations), and partly, people just couldn’t picture ACM putting on a contemporary couture exhibition! Because of Guo Pei, however, it later became much easier for me to solicit donations, gifts and sponsorships for ACM because patrons were impressed at the quality of the exhibition, at its success, and at our ability to transact, so to speak, at the global level and to engage with a young audience. Like Raffles, it totally transformed public perceptions of the ACM Brand – now it was dynamic, sexy, timeless. ]
[The third in a trio of blockbuster exhibitions in 2019 was LIVING WITH INK – THE COLLECTION OF DR TAN TSZE CHOR – its Chinese title is far more evocative: 《水。墨。情。- 又逢香雪庄》. The exhibition surpassed all our expectations in terms of footfall and revenues, grossing more than RAFFLES, but not GUO PEI. It showed that ACM could take a traditional medium (Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy), and a much-loved collection (the Xiang Xue Zhuang, or collection of the late Dr Tan Tsze Chor, given to the museum 12 years ago) – and re-present it, in an elegant, always respectful yet breathtakingly refreshing manner, for a contemporary audience. If not for the fact that COVID closed the exhibition a month before it was due to close, it might actually have surpassed GUO PEI in terms of revenues – this was once again very gratifying to know, because it demonstrated that our visitors were willing to pay for exhibitions featuring the museum’s own collections, as long as these exhibitions were value-for-money in terms of new perspectives and gorgeous vistas. And this exhibition played a pivotal role in our fundraising efforts – I would take potential patrons on a tour of this exhibition, during which they would be so impressed that afterwards, when I made an ask, they always graciously acquiesced with a gift. ]

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.

[At the core of the ACM Brand are these three essences: BEAUTY, WONDER, RELEVANCE… which translate, in everyday language, into Gorgeous Objects and Collections, Gasp-Inducing Exhibition Design, and Ground-breaking Curatorial Perspectives. ]

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.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: My strategy was to organise a major fashion or couture exhibition with an Asian couturier or designer at the top of his or her game, every two years. The follow-up exhibition to GUO PEI was meant to be this: a collaboration with veteran Indian couturier Tarun Tahiliani. I am so inspired and have so much respect for Tarun and his India Modern philosophy, which resonates so much with us. ACM x TARUN TAHILIANI – NEW PERSPECTIVES IN INDIAN FASHION would have run from May till September 2021 (this year)!! We had been planning this exhibition and working with Tarun since 2019, but with the pandemic making it impossible to travel to Delhi, we decided in mid-2020, to first postpone it till next year, then decided, in early 2021 – when it was clear the pandemic wasn’t going away – to cancel it altogether. I’m still heartbroken. This would have been an amazing, and game-changing exhibition. 💔 (NOTE: these images are randomly taken from the internet for my own personal use only for this blog… though yes, we WERE HOPING to loan the piece Tarun made for Lady Gaga…)]
[We finally re-opened ACM’s 3rd floor permanent galleries on Materials and Design in April 2020. A highlight of the 3rd floor is the FASHION & TEXTILES GALLERY, in which we present rotating displays of our vast historic fashion holdings. This year’s showcase was on the theme of FASHIONABLE IN ASIA. It makes the point that “fashion” isn’t just the preserve of Europeans. There was fashion in Asia as well – Asian fashion wasn’t static, or unmoving; folks in Asia too strived to be modern and fashionable, adopting the latest materials, styles and silhouettes from across the world, and creating amazing locally-made, luxury fabrics, textiles and clothing. This was true whether it be Mughal India, 17th century Sumatra, Edo-period Japan or the Malay Peninsula in the late 19th century. In European museums, Asian clothing is often placed in the category of “ethnography” or “textiles”. We decided we had to reclaim the term Fashion for ourselves as Asians. ]
[The Peranakan Museum, a department of ACM, re-opens after three years of renovations, in early 2023. More so even than ACM, the Peranakan Museum is – at its very essence – a decorative art museum, presenting a gorgeous collection of objects from Peranakan material culture. The three main curatorial themes – ORIGINS, HOME, STYLE, designating the museum’s three floors – reflect this. The Peranakan Museum is made possible by way of generous gifts and support from donors, patrons and collectors in Singapore and the region. In the year ahead I shall morph into yet another alternate persona – the batik-clad Director of the Peranakan Museum. Akan datang… I won’t reveal more. ]

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.   

[OK – I will admit that my FAVOURITE EXHIBITION OF ALL during my tenure as Director is this one: FAITH BEAUTY LOVE HOPE (FBLH). It brought tears to my eyes because of its heart-breakingly gorgeous exhibition design, and because each and every piece in the exhibition reflected the love, hope, joy, anguish, faith and yearning of all the beautiful brilliant people with whom I have the privilege to work with at the museum: my colleagues, my board members, our volunteers and docents, our colleagues at the restaurants and the museum shop. I loved this exhibition – I loved it so much. It really was a game-changer – it represented ACM AT ITS VERY CORE: we may soar to stratospheric heights in terms of the QUALITY of what we do, but we know that we are NOTHING without PEOPLE and COMMUNITY. The exhibition was thrown together in a record two months – when the Palace Museum Beijing collaboration on Emperors of the Ming Dynasty had to be postponed AGAIN in late 2020. I also had my brush with mortality during this time – and I realised that what was most important in life was exactly what the exhibition aimed to celebrate. ⛰🦋 ❤️☀️ ]
[FAITH BEAUTY LOVE HOPE spawned a few very important community collaborations. The first was with the religious elders of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) in Singapore, wherein each of them picked pieces from the Museum’s collection, recorded a video about their reflections on the piece and on their faith. These were then uploaded onto the IRO and ACM’s social media platforms. The Museum aims, also, to be a space for religious understanding and harmony – FAITH & BELIEF is the theme that organises our entire second floor.]
[I’m so happy and honoured to be working with our Mandarin Guides – the group of museum docents who guide in Mandarin at the museum – on a new publication 《亚洲文明博物馆百件珍藏》100 Treasures of ACM. This is a series of books, inspired by the FAITH BEAUTY LOVE HOPE exhibition, and which will feature – as the title suggests – 100 masterpieces from the museum, organised along the themes of Faith, Beauty, Love and Hope. The book will be co-published by ACM and 联合早报 Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore’s local Chinese-language daily) in May 2022. I can’t wait. It will be our first Chinese publication featuring our collection. (NOTE: This is an indicative layout and design only – it will not be the final.)]

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.

[Giving an early morning interview, in Mandarin on local radio station, 96.3 好FM about #SGFASHIONNOW… ]

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.

[The #SGFASHIONNOW Brand Identity, designed by the inimitable @farm.sg – one of the most forward-thinking interdisciplinary design studios in Singapore. I love this so much – it’s so guerilla, so dynamic, so unlike anything ACM has ever done!! #SGFASHIONNOW itself is both VERY ACM, as well as a provocation of ACM – our student curators proposed the theme THE FUTURE OF CRAFT, which I absolutely loved!! And so I found the money to take bring their curatorial vision to life. We have SO MUCH TALENT in Singapore. 💪🏻💪🏻💪🏻💪🏻💪🏻]

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 Finalists of SINGAPORE STORIES 2021. Congratulations to the winner, @jonmaxgoh (at centre, in the white T-shirt) for an ethereal, transcendental, thought-provoking collection that both manages to be space-age, as well as rooted in heritage (and ACM’s collection). LOVE IT!!! The winner of SINGAPORE STORIES 2021 will have a piece from his collection featured in #SGFASHIONNOW 2022. ]

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. 

💪🏻

[In the meantime, we have also partnered with @taff.sg on The Museum Collection – wherein local jewellery designers create new collections inspired by ACM’s Collection. I could not resist this piece – The Drew Warisan Signet Ring by State Property @thisisstateproperty. The piece was inspired by heritage jewellery pieces in the collection that celebrate birth and fertility, as well as death and mourning – so it’s the circle of life, so to speak, in one ring. I bought this for myself, as a celebration of these multiple anniversaries I’m commemorating in this post. ]

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.  ❤️

[UP CLOSE WITH ACM is one of my favourite programmes. It – and other programmes – represents our commitment to #ACMforAll. This is a collaboration with Dialogue in the Dark Singapore wherein we offer an intimate experience, led by programme facilitators with Visual Impairment. During this 90-minute session, participants can, while blindfolded, handle 3D-printed objects based on works of art in the museum’s collection. They will then get to experience the museum in a completely new way, from the perspective of their visually impaired facilitators. The tactile takes centrestage – and one begins to understand just how profoundly touch can elicit emotions and fire the imagination. ]

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. 

[I know it isn’t quite so politically correct of me as Director ACM to share this – but I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t stop chuckling!! From left to right: Timothée Chalamet, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray at the Cannes Film Festival 2021, for the launch of Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch. Image from the ever-irreverent @sgmuseummemes. ]

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.

[In late October this year, I was conferred the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (“Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters”) by the French Government. The title acknowledges my significant contributions to the arts, as well as my contribution to Singapore-France cultural relations. This came as a complete surprise – I’m still in shock. It is a huge honour for me and I’ve been so humbled by it. My acceptance ceremony took place at the ACM on 26 October, with the Ambassador of France to Singapore conferring the medal on me. I’ve told my friends, in jest, that I’ve always wanted a Knight – I never thought I’d be one. ]

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.”

[My first ever post on DREAM OF A CITY was on The Question of Home, and was uploaded on 9th October 2011. At the time, I was caught in limbo, having just moved to New York City from London, but actually shuttling between Singapore, New York, London and many other cities. It sounds glamourous, but replace “shuttling” with “doing visa runs” and you’ll understand what I was doing. I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I posted that post. This very post, my latest – which took me at least two weeks to write and put images together for – is my 453rd. ]
[I began my Grand Tour of the Port and Imperial Cities of Asia in May 2012, when I went to attend an old friend’s wedding in Penang. The city itself so charmed me that I ditched the wedding (with apologies), and instead, decided to wander the streets of Old Georgetown with my camera, shooting the historic streetscapes and architecture. I didn’t stop there – I would go on to travel to some 44 cities across Asia between 2012 and 2019. Goa, India, was my 37th stop. The next chapter in my new book, tentatively titled THE GREAT PORT CITIES OF ASIA AND THE INDIAN OCEAN will feature Goa. Which reminds me… I gotta get started on it. 😂]

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. 

[The books I’ve written thus far… the first, The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia, was a product of this blog… One book led to another, and another and the Museum Director job. ]

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? 

[After my Grand Tour of the Port and Imperial Cities of the Subcontinent, I had every intention of continuing on with my journey, westward, by way of Aden and Jiddah, to the Port Cities of the Levant. Ideally, I would like to take a year off – and just wander the region, take in the history, architecture and historic hotels. I miss the wandering so much! ]

“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

[…my cheval de mer …my sea-horse ]
[…sunset over the skyscrapers in the distance …view from my balcony]
[…and finally, roses and chrysanthemums from the farmer as night falls ]

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art, Art & Architecture, Books, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, Home, Life, Literature & Philosophy, Museums, Photography, Singapore, Sociology & Urban Studies, Southeast ASia, Travel & Mobility, Urban Farm and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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