Art, History

Eastern Exchanges

Last week I attended the preview evening for Eastern Exchanges: East Asian Craft and Design at Manchester Art Gallery. This new, free, temporary exhibition replaces the Sensory War on the Gallery’s second floor and features many cutting edge pieces of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craft and design together with a wide range of historical examples. Many of the older objects are on loan from various public and private collections, including Manchester Museum. The exhibition is well-lit and definitely not short on displays – it features over 1500 objects. Gallery director Maria Balshaw was on-hand to give the opening speech and was particularly exited about the opportunity to display a large 19th century Japanese ‘norimono’, a kind of sedan, which has not been exhibited in 30 years.

A 19th Century Japanese Norimono

A 19th Century Japanese Norimono

I recently read Masao Yamaguchi’s fascinating article ‘The Poetics of Exhibition in Japanese Culture’ published in ‘Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics of Museum Display’ (1991). In it, he discusses the various techniques employed in Japanese exhibition spaces to transmit knowledge about objects. ‘Mitate’, is the Japanese art of citation – that is – the transposition of meaning upon an object through association with a broader and usually mythological context (i.e an accompanying image, sounds, or even another object). Mitate could have been a useful technique to employ at this exhibition, where the approach to displaying objects was one of Western familiarity – the objects were mainly displayed in isolation, in a stark, white environment with an accompanying caption. This, however, may well have been the point – after all, the main focus of the exhibition was to appreciate the aesthetics and design of the objects and many of the older objects had been collected for exactly that reason. The fact that this display is in an art gallery rather than a museum did seem to shift the focus of the ethnographic items onto appreciation of the visual, but this was not necessarily reductive of the object. The modern art and craft pieces were displayed separately, presumably to create a chronological dichotomy between the two spaces, and were impressive and beautiful.

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Meiji Period Japanese Satsuma Ware water-holder.

Meiji Period Japanese Satsuma Ware water-holder.

A selection of Japanese Tsuba (sword guards)

A selection of Japanese Tsuba (sword guards)

Japanese laquer box with intricate decoration

Japanese laquer box with intricate decoration

Suit of Japanese armour, on loan from Manchester Museum

Suit of Japanese armour, on loan from Manchester Museum

The exhibition is open for a relatively short eight weeks and I would definitely recommend going to have a look. It aspires to take the visitor on a journey through the last 300 years of East Asian arts and crafts, combining old with new, and I would say it very much succeeds in doing so.

Eastern Exchanges is at the Manchester Art Gallery until May 31st.

Karp, I and Lavine, D. (eds.) 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. London: Smithsonian Institute Press.

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Archaeology, History

Roman meets Medieval at Cefn Caer

Last weekend I visited Cefn Caer Medieval Hall House and Roman Fort near Machynlleth, on the western Welsh coast. After a tip-off from a local antiques dealer who had a keen interest in archaeology and a lovely antiques shop in Machynlleth, my group sought out the house (a roadside signpost is coming shortly!) after making a telephone appointment for a tour. Arriving without really knowing what to expect, we were blown away by the Medieval house and its inspiring and engaging owner, Elfyn Rowlands, which was built upon the site of a Roman Fort in the 14th century. The building is now grade II* listed and the attached barn grade II, mainly thanks to the tireless restoration work by Elfyn and its links with Owain Glydwr, and it was interesting to hear about the challenges faced when living in such an important historic house.

The Exterior of Cefn Caer house.

The Exterior of Cefn Caer house

The Interior of Cern Caer showing original Medieval features. Potograph: www.cefncaer.com

The Interior of Cern Caer showing original Medieval features. Potograph: http://www.cefncaer.com

Rowlands was enthusiastic and fascinating – and a real character too! It was inspiring to see the work he had put into the restoration of his family home and the energy and wit he injected into his tours. He was keen to show us reconstructions of two beautiful – and intact- roman vases that he had found in the grounds of he house. The originals are now on display at the National Museum in Cardiff, who commissioned the painstakingly scaled and painted reconstructions for Cefn Caer.

A reconstruction of Cefn Caer Roman Fort. Image: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

A reconstruction of Cefn Caer Roman Fort. Image: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

The interior of the house is steeped in history in every corner and the smell of the wood and smoke help create an immersive authenticity. The tour was a real delight and well worth a visit if around those parts. The Cefn Caer website with more information and directions can be found here.

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