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Obscure Objects of Desire

After all the drama of BCAM — the hurried construction, the opening spectacle, the glistening parade of ridiculously expensive objects, the fevered debate over what should and shouldn’t have been done and all the rhapsodic talk of L.A.’s preeminence as a capital of contemporary art — an afternoon spent with Robert Singer in the quiet, carpeted, softly lit chambers of LACMA’s Pavilion for Japanese art is a welcome respite. The curator of Japanese art at the museum since 1988, Singer is old-school. He wears a tie. He knows everything about everything, it seems, within the walls of his department. And he loves the objects in his care with a fervor that few contemporary curators could suspend the irony to muster.His conversion to Japanese art, as he tells it, was instant and absolute. It was the mid-1960s; he was 17 years old, with no conception of Japanese culture beyond the few traditional porcelain objects his grandparents had collected. Then one day in college, he happened into the room of an upperclassman who’d just returned from Tokyo with a modest collection of modern ceramic ceremonial tea objects. His grandparents’ pieces had been effete, delicate, but these were rustic, asymmetrical, wild. It was the art-historical version of discovering punk rock.“It wasn’t gradual,” he says, “it was a 10-second freak-out. I just flipped out. Call it an epiphany, I don’t know. It changed my life, in literally 10 seconds. “I was at Antioch College then. I went to six undergraduate colleges, always trying to find more Japanese art history, more Japanese language, classical Japanese — which is not so easy to find,” he adds pointedly, “as classical Chinese.”Over the course of about three hours, Singer leads me through ceramics, porcelains, enamel, lacquers, scrolls, screens, bronzes, terra cotta statues and textiles. He explains the exceptionally intricate process of enamel work, the toxic effects of lacquer and the “enlightened” state of Japanese export policy. He takes me to the museum’s boardroom to visit “Mr. Haniwa Horse,” a 4-foot-tall sixth-century, low-fired clay horse he’d just paraded before the board of trustees in hope of securing the money to acquire it — which he did, it turns out. (“He is so handsome I can’t stand it,” Singer had gushed in an earlier e-mail. “And 50 percent larger than any other known haniwa horse from the sixth century!”) He speaks of each object intimately and exhaustively, lavishing it with the sort of tenderness he might show to a beloved grandchild.“When I was in graduate school,” he tells me back in his office, “if you were interested in objects, you went into museum work, and if you were interested in theory, you went into academics and teaching. Each side makes fun of the other. The university people say museum curators are only interested in objects, they don’t get the big picture, they don’t get the stream of history — whatever. And then we say they wouldn’t understand an object if they fell over it. They have no idea about questions of authenticity or quality.”He goes on to give several accounts of blind academic folly, all with the same slightly pitying moral: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, my friend, and a cigar can be a beautiful thing.“I’ll never forget it,” he recounts, “it was a long time ago, when this postmodern po-mo speak was taking off. There’s a really celebrated painting of a geisha, and in it there’s a child, a girl. She’s an apprentice geisha, almost like a servant to a geisha. They’re called kamuro, and everybody knows what they are, and this guy who clearly should have known — he’s Japanese! — he said she was a dwarf geisha and it showed the suppression of women, you know, in the 17th century. We were just falling off our chairs! I wouldn’t do this, but another Japanese raises his hand and says, ‘Ah, I don’t know how to say this but that’s, you know, a child — that’s why she’s little — and she’s serving tea and, you know, helping the geisha dress, and she may grow up to be a geisha or she may be a servant her whole life, but she’s a child, she’s 12. Not a dwarf.’ But the guy didn’t care!” Sitting on the table between us as Singer tells this story is a recent acquisition: a small, bronze 12th-century dragon head, originally intended as the head of a staff. When one holds such a thing — something not only beautiful but so very solid and real, forged by the hand of another human being 800 years ago on the other side of the world — it’s easy to understand Singer’s passion.


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