Art & Events,  Lifestyle

Exhibition review: Substance to Style, Aberdeen

Substance to Style, Traditional Arts of East Asia – Exhibition Review and Personal Reflections 
Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen

This exhibition is part of a national programme focused on East Asian and Egyptian collections. University of Aberdeen participates by displaying their Chinese, Japanese and Korean treasures in their collection. For this, they worked with National Museums Scotland.

Displayed based on the materials used by these cultures, such as bronze, ivory, silk, lacquer, jade, steel, ceramics and paper, each case displays objects made of one type of material with its history of use in China, Japan or Korea. The materials would also be written in Chinese calligraphy, which is a nice touch.

The music, performed by Liu Chen, compliments the displays well. The gallery in the Sir Duncan Rice Library often uses music or ambient noises to help visitors immerse themselves into the world the exhibition is displaying (it was also used for the Ta-Kheru: Discovering the life of an Ancient Egyptian woman exhibition at the end of last year).

Starting from the left, the first objects on display are made of ivory. Delicate and magnificent, these took my breath away as I am not familiar with carvings into ivory. It was only later that I found out from prof. Craig Clunas during his The Lives of Asian Things talk that these Netsuke were in fact heavily collected by Scottish upper-class ladies of the nineteenth century and are not a rare sight.

Netsuke in the form of clams and conch shells, Japan, late nineteenth century

I must confess that while writing this review I started to question how ethical it is to display and admire ivory, especially since I liked it so much. While reflecting on this, I found a fantastic article which advocates using historic ivory for education purposes about illegal trade and its effects. The information panel for ‘Ivory’ in this exhibition states in bold writing at the top that ‘today the demand of ivory threatens elephants with extinction’ continuing with information about this later on. This is doing the job of bringing forward this issue from the first lines.  For me, it worked, as I ended up doing research into the topic, and what is better than an exhibition igniting a desire for knowledge?

The lacquer objects were another favourite of mine, they are absolutly exquisite. The details are extremely fine and delicate, and are over emphasized by the perfect lighting on their display. Kudos to the curators who managed to display the objects in such a manner that you can go close to them and admire every single detail and carving.

Another favourite of mine is the silk scroll from Kyoto, Japan (c. 1660), showing the Tale of Shuten Doji, which I admired for a very long time (see feature image of this article). As for the talk by Dr Abeer Eladany’s, Behind the Scenes of a Museum, apparently there are more scrolls in the collection. However, most were not in good enough condition to be displayed, but lucky for us, this one was chosen. Close to the display case, there is a small screen with a slideshow showing several high-quality images from the scroll, allowing us to admire more than just what is physically displayed in the case.

A rare sight, this time both for me and for the general public, is the legendary Yongle dadian encyclopaedia, a partially lost Chinese work commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, between 1403 and 1408.  As Prof. Clunas said in his talk, not many volumes survived several historical catastrophes, the one in the Aberdeen University’s collection being a rare sight indeed. However, apparently it has only been recently re-discovered in the collection. How many other hidden treasures are there in the University’s collection? I want to see them all!

I could go on forever about my favourite exhibits, however, I will let you discover for yourselves.

This exhibition is a fantastic way for people to get familiar with some of the East Asian cultures and treasures. The symbolism of the objects was presented carefully, the visitor getting a full experience of traditional music, objects, letters and legends. Besides my unfamiliarity with seeing East Asian art in person, I do believe that this initiative and programme is necessary, as Scotland did not focus on these cultures and their art before. The north east has a well-known connection with Japan (see here) and it is not uncommon for Japanese traditional objects to be collected by Scottish people. I think the initiative through this national programme is admirable and I am looking forward to seeing more in this direction.

Is the exhibition inclusive to the public?

Yes. Generous spacing between the cases indicates that it is wheelchair accessible. The cases are also at a lower level, making it easy for wheelchair users and children to admire the objects as well. There are activities for children as well, with a dedicated space for arts and crafts. I did not see anyone bored or rushing through the cases, a sign of a total success and of inclusivity. I highly recommend visiting the exhibition.

The exhibition is on display until 22 August 2019 in the Gallery of Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen, and is FREE of charge. For more information and opening times, please see here

Also, there is a talk about the exhibition, the last from a series, ‘Caterpillars to Cloth: Silk in East Asia’ by Dr Louise Boyd, National Museum of Scotland, on Thursday, 6th of June 2019, 6pm, at the Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen. For more information please see here

  • National Museums Scotland Website 
  • University of Aberdeen Website 
  • Information labels, Exhibition
  • Talk given by Professor Emeritus of History of Art, University of Oxford, Craig Clunas, ‘The Lives of Asian Things’ at University of Aberdeen  (May Festival, 25 May 2019)
  • Talk given by Dr Abeer Eladany, Curatorial Assistant for University of Aberdeen museums, ‘Behind the Scenes of a Museum’ (May Festival, 25 May 2019)
  • Undiscovered Scotland
  • Good, C., Tyrrell, P., Zhou, Z., Macdonald D., ‘Elephants never forget, should art museums remember too? Historic ivory collections as ambassadors for conservation education’ available here (Highly recommend reading it!)
  • Also, I found this interesting investigation of tracking illegal tusks through GPS on National Geographic! 

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