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Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco

A full set of 84 hand-carved model pagodas will be reunited in public for the first time in over a century at Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco, the latest special exhibition by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). Opening to the public this Friday, 31 May 2024, the exhibition traces the extraordinary journey of these models from the Tushanwan Workshop in Shanghai to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. 

Pagoda Odyssey unfolds across four main sections in the museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery, with some objects spread across other galleries and spaces. Together with related works, including 104 figurines that illustrate the coexistence of tradition and modernity that characterised China at the time, the exhibition paints a vivid picture of cosmopolitan Shanghai and San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, and looks at international expositions as platforms for trade and cultural exchange. 

Mr Clement Onn, Principal Curator (Asian Export Art & Peranakan) & Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research) of ACM and the Peranakan Museum explains, “The global odyssey of these handcrafted pagodas weaves a powerful narrative of cultural exchange between East and West that transcends time and space. This exhibition reflects ACM’s efforts to foster connections between Asia and the world, and to celebrate the beauty of Asian artistry and craftsmanship. We are proud to house these remarkable and exquisitely detailed works of art in the ACM collection, and to display them on a grand scale so that visitors can appreciate their craftsmanship and the insights they offer into China's architectural heritage.”

A glimpse into Chinese architecture 

Pagoda Odyssey reflects the enduring legacy of fine craftsmanship in China. Crafted from teakwood, the models were based on real pagodas in China, some of which have since been significantly modified, extensively restored, or otherwise no longer exist today. 

The models were created at the Tushanwan Workshop, established in Shanghai in 1864 by Jesuit missionaries. Guided by professionally trained priests, young artists were educated in the modern artistic methods of painting, carpentry, sculpture, metalworking, and photography. Many went on to storied careers and influenced other celebrated artists in China. Notable alumni include the watercolourist Xu Yongqing and sculptor Zhang Chongren, while other artists such as Ren Bonian and Xu Beihong were indirectly influenced. The enduring legacy of Tushanwan continues to inspire new generations of artists today.  

The meticulously crafted models range from 30 centimetres to over two metres in height, and represent a groundbreaking effort at the time to systematically research, document, and reproduce iconic pagodas from different regions and historical periods. As both a creative endeavour and a research project, the Tushanwan models serve as a vital architectural archive that preserves the essence of these pagodas as they stood at the dawn of the century.

Cultural exchange in Shanghai and San Francisco

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 was an important world's fair that celebrated both the completion of the Panama Canal in August 1914 and San Francisco’s recovery from a major earthquake in 1906. Attracting over 18 million visitors during its 288-day run, the exposition saw 31 countries participating to showcase their cultural and technological advancements. These included the introduction of many pioneering technologies on the world stage, such as demonstrations of the first transcontinental phone call and a fully operational automobile assembly plant. 

China's participation in the 1915 exposition reflected its commitment to showcase itself as a modern nation on a par with industrialised Western powers. At the exposition, participating nations demonstrated new methods and systems of education at the Palace of Education. These included China’s display of works from different types of schools, such as the full set of 84 model pagodas by the Tushanwan Workshop. To many visitors, the pagodas offered a first glimpse of China’s rich architectural heritage. 

Pagoda Odyssey is complemented by Towers of Faith, a photography display that invites visitors to contemplate parallels in the religious architecture of Singapore through photographs and drawings of five local religious organisations and their associated buildings – Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, Yu Huang Gong, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Sultan Mosque, and Saint Andrew’s Cathedral. In addition to archival materials and visual resources, this display presents a contemporary perspective through a collaboration with award-winning Singaporean architectural photographer Darren Soh. These works create a dialogue between the historical and the contemporary, and illustrate the continuing importance of religious architecture in today's Singapore. 

Exploring new approaches to physical and virtual visitor interaction, Journey into the Pagoda is an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience inspired by the architecture and folklore of the Pagoda of Six Harmonies in Hangzhou. Developed in partnership with Microsoft and Cognizant, this VR exploration blends fantasy and reality, bringing to life a pagoda’s architectural form complete with stunning landscapes. The experience takes visitors on a journey through the interior of the pagoda to a mythical creature awaiting at the top. 

For the first time at ACM, the exhibition also introduces a hyper-tactile experience, enabling visitors to directly interact with 3D-printed replicas of the model pagodas, as well as replica wooden brackets called dougong, enabling visitors to explore the intricacy of traditional Chinese joinery. 

Visitors can also enjoy a range of activities including digital and on-site programmes, talks, symposia and conferences, curator tours, and weekend festivals. Visitors can also visit Pagoda Land to make their own pagodas using LEGO bricks, and participate in other hands-on activities as they conclude their visit to the exhibition. These programmes are held in conjunction with the exhibition and reflect ACM's dedication to making Pagoda Odyssey a captivating and interactive experience for diverse audiences. 

Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco runs from 31 May 2024 to 1 June 2025 at ACM. Admission charges apply.

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