Quarterly Research Update
The past three months saw a buzzing array of activities led by our three Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellows for this academic year. Our Third Thursday Lectures for April, May and June were delivered by Dr Amanda Kennell, Dr Stephanie Su and Dr Jungeun Lee respectively. We also held two international symposia organized by our fellows as summed up below.
So, have you ever wondered what happened since the story of the little girl who fell into a rabbit hole was first introduced in Japan in 1899? Dr Amanda Kennell’s research looks at this very theme on Japanese adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice in Wonderland. For well over a century, the Japanese have continued to put their own twist to the story to produce some of the most imaginative visual outputs. These include plays, comic books, fashion items, stationary and even food as seen in a photo Amanda took of her spaghetti dish, which was presented to resemble Cheshire the Cat [link to last e-mag]. Alice in Japan is not only an icon of popular interests, but a source of inspiration for a range of disciplines from literature to media and contemporary culture.
Amanda explored this fascination with Alice in Japan in the April Third Thursday Lecture particularly through the lens of Kusama Yayoi, one of Japan’s most iconic artists. Amanda explained that Kusama began establishing her relationship with Alice with her Alice in Wonderland Happening that took place in 1968 in Central Park, New York. Amanda explains that Kusama saw Alice as the embodiment of hippie culture. And that Kusama, a cutting-edge Avant Gard figure in the New York art scene by then, was presenting herself as modern version of Alice who can guide aspiring hippies to a world of freedom and fantasy. Fortunately, there were no magic mushrooms officially involved and in any case, Kusama’s work like her Infinity Room offers plentiful space for freedom and fantasy where the viewer is transported into a world of galactic mystery through total emersion.
Dr Stephanie Su gave a fantastic talk at the May Third Thursday Lecture. Stephanie who works across art history, material culture and conservation science gave us a thoroughly researched presentation on the world and power politics of colour in Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan. Focusing on the colour red, Stephanie illustrated how the use of synthetic dye not only enlivened the visual palate of modern Japan, but also celebrated modernity. Words like “decadent” were used to describe the sumptuous hue. Synthetic reds were popular and much desired and the plant-based colour literally paled in comparison.
Introduction of new hues did, however, ruffle some feathers. Stephanie cautioned that not everyone appreciated the wide use of vibrant reds in prints. The synthetic reds were interpreted as representing Westernisation and modernization, and was regarded by some as an uncomfortable break from traditional aesthetics. The Japanese, however, are a crafty bunch. Whether in an effort to push for commercial sales or to appease the critics, Stephanie explained that colourists of Meiji period were cocktailing different colourants to achieve desired tones. She outlined findings from recent scientific analysis that showed how printers experimented with a diverse the range of dyes for that perfect rich red. Being introduced to the many layers of meaning that synthetic dye represents, reading red seems far more intriguing than different shades of grey.
June was an active month with not only with Third Thursday Lecture on the programme, but also two symposia.
The first symposium was on the theme of “Adaptations or How Media Relate in Contemporary Japan” organized by Amanda. Over two-days, key scholars in the field of media studies probed for new directions in researching the subject of adaptations. With different media outputs such as adapted manga, anime, film, drama and video games increasingly being the subject of research, the symposium was an opportunity to see if a new disciplinary framework could and should be established to step beyond traditional modes of research practices. Future discussions will most certainly offer ways to academically unpick some of the intertwined nature of adaptations.
The second symposium was on the theme of “Display as Ensemble: Interdisciplinary approaches to display in premodern Japan” organised by Dr Jungeun Lee. Bringing together leading scholars from Japan, the U.S., Australia and the U.K., the subject of interior display was explored from different disciplinary angles to forge new ways of understanding the use of space in premodern Japan. Presentations included perspectives from religious iconographic use of space in medieval Kyoto to political and social historic use of ornaments as a way to establish rule, order and shared values. By taking a holistic view of display as an ensemble, new conversations emerged on defining how we approach objects and contextualise their presence.
Finally, as the season beckons for sun and sea, the June Third Thursday Lecture given by Dr Jungeun Lee talked about a large hoard of treasures pulled from the bottom of the East China Sea. From ceramics to metal, stone and lacquerware objects, some 24,000 items were recovered from the accidentally discovered Sinan shipwreck. It all began when a fisherman found some exquisite celadon objects caught in his fishing net near the small island of Sinan-gun in South Jeolla Province in the southwest coast of Korea. The celadon turned out to be 13-14th century pieces from Longquan kilns in Yuan China (1271-1368). Subsequent underwater excavation that lasted from 1976 to 1984 revealed that the hoard belonged to a 14th century trade ship that left China for Hakata in Japan. The discovery has since provided many clues to the material culture and maritime trade in medieval Japan.
While we may not all be lucky to find lost treasures of historic importance during our summer holiday, I hope that you enjoy the sunny days and treasure the little moments in life. Happy summer!
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer