The New York Times: Glitter That Epitomized an Ancient Culture

By Sylviane Gold, Friday 22 July 2011 for The New York Times.

Gold was so entwined with the ancient culture of Java, the chief island of the Indonesian archipelago, that even its dogs, it was said, wore golden collars.

John Miksic reports the rumors just to debunk them in his book “Old Javanese Gold,” which has been revised and expanded as a companion to the Yale University Art Gallery’s revelatory new exhibition of some 200 gold objects from pre-Islamic Indonesia. Part of a collection donated to the museum by Valerie and Hunter E. Thompson, the artifacts in “Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection” do not, in fact, include a dog collar. But they are so striking in their diversity that it is easy enough to imagine pampered pets whose gilded accouterments would fit right in with the show’s ritual objects, ornaments and everyday items.

No doubt the array of exquisite miniature jewels misnamed “bird rings” contributes to this illusion. Intricate designs studded with tiny gems and mounted on pea-size rings, they do look as if they could adorn the claws of a well-to-do bird. More likely, the labels say, they were a kind of ear ornament, worn along with the more familiar-looking hoops and hooks incised with geometric patterns and scrollwork.

There are other kinds of jewelry here, too — wire bracelets, delicate chains, carved seal rings, embossed anklets and necklaces of pendants shaped like tiger claws, the better to render the wearer as strong and courageous as the beast. There are clasps and finials used for clothing, heavily inscribed and inlaid with stones. Javanese goldsmiths turned out dainty beading and filigree as well as boldly sculptural forms, catering to a multiplicity of tastes and conventions.

Dazzling as the jewelry items are, they seem almost ordinary when compared with the more mysterious objects connected to specifically Indonesian practices. The earliest of these, a burial mask and funerary face covers made of thin sheets of beaten gold, are powerful and moving in their abstract simplicity and evocation of death.

Less cosmic but equally suggestive, a beautiful little container with a carved lid resembling a flower was probably used for lime powder, one of the components necessary for the millenniums-old habit of betel chewing. An ornate sculpture of a leering, hook-nosed demon was once the handle of a kris, the often wavy-bladed dagger revered in Southeast Asia. A crystal-topped, beehive-shaped golden helmet was made to crown either some noble personage or a full-size statue of Buddha.

Smaller sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas attest to the religious fervor that also found expression in the vast 10th-century temple complex at Borobodur on Java.

Anyone who has been to Borobodur, or to the nearby Hindu temple at Prambanan, will not be surprised at the 14 centuries of artistry and workmanship on display in “Old Javanese Gold.”

But even knowledgeable visitors may be stopped in their tracks by the display case filled with tools similar to those used by the craftsmen and artists who made the objects on display. Somehow, with nothing more than humble little hammers and awls, these magicians transformed shiny lumps of metal into sophisticated works of art.

“Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection,” Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, through Aug. 14. Information: or (203) 432-0600.

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John Miksic is Associate Professor, Southeast Asian Studies Program, at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of the book  ‘Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery’, 2nd revised edition, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dr Irving Johnson featured in ‘Hot Profs in NUS’ – The Ridge, August 2007 Issue

Hot Profs in NUS, The Ridge, August 2007 Issue.

Dr. Johnson’s spontaneity and enthusiasm in everything he does could not have been more evident than in how he readily agreed to this interview. Known for spicing up his lectures by performing shadow puppetry, singing and then complaining about how Singapore has no spontaneity, this man strongly believes in discovering your angin. This interview was conducted by email because the Hot Professor was running off to look at paintings in Thailand.

How do you feel about being called a Hot Professor?
It’s great! Finally some credit. Thank you ExpressMen and GO. But then again, it depends on how you say it. 🙂

What is your angin?
Ah … my passions. I really like performing Thai shadow puppetry (NANG TALUNG). I don’t know why. My dream is to one day perform across southern Thailand – buy myself a pickup, and travel from village to village performing at temple festivals, funerals, etc. Can’t do without nang talung. I think if there ever came a day when I couldn’t do puppetry, I’d shrivel up into a dry mass of sadness and depression. I also really enjoy painting in the classical Thai style. I’m working on a painting right now for a wall in my living room. It’s been more than a year now and it’s still far from complete because I only work on it in my spare time.


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SEAS Alumnus Wang Zineng featured in NUS Centre for the Arts (CFA) Artzone Magazine Issue 2, Aug – Oct 2007

One Cool Guy – Wang Zineng has chosen a route less followed by his peers in opting for a life dedicated to the arts, Artzone Issue 2, August – October 2007.

While others are busy climbing their way up the career ladder in the private or public sector, Zineng chose a subtler route.

What differentiates him from the rest of the recent crop of graduants is his eye for detail and an infinite appreciation of the arts, especially visual arts.

For Zineng, the arts scene is not about the glitz and the glam. The passion for art in him overpowers the conventional path material success.

Zineng has recently completed his honours thesis on Malayan batik painting in the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, NUS. Presently an adjunct assistant curator at NUS Museum, he is in charge of four projects: one involves setting up the second installation of NUS Museum’s exhibition on their permanent collection known as Highlights: Modern Southeast Asian Art Collection, which will run until 2008. In this project, Zineng helped to finalise the selection of artworks, identify the overarching themes of these works, and decide where within the NUS Museum to place these artworks. He also contributed to the exhibition brochure.

Unlike the movie Night at the Museum where dinosaurs were seen chasing humans and working at the museum seems like an exciting adventure, Zineng’s job requires more than just surface action. Besides having to do thorough research in preparation for exhibitions, he constantly needs to preserve a healthy rapport with the  staff, artists and other professionals.

When asked about his future plans, he spoke of studying textilemaking in Indonesia in August and will continue to develop theoretical and context-based bodies of knowiedge in Southeast Asian art and culture.

His interests are not confined to modern art. Instead he gets pleasure from firsthand research and keeping abreast with developments in the study of the ethnographic arts.

“My plans are simple; they revolve around only one requisite – that I believe what I do bears relevance and interest to people around me. If I ever stop believing, that is the day I discontinue making plans.”

Zineng shared his heartwarming memories of an encounter which took place at the end of an afternoon touring Bodies and Relationships: Selected Works of Lee Sik Khoon before it opened.

“Lee Sik Khoon’s wife came up to me and thanked me for putting into words what she has always lett about her husband’s art but could never express. Quite naturally, I felt a great sense of pride at that point.”

By Hanizah Abdullah, Artzone Contributor

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Thai Princess performed with the NUS Thai Music Ensemble

Thai princess ends fruitful visit to S’pore, The Straits Times, Thursday 26 April 2007.

PRINCESS Maha Chakri Sirindhom of Thailand wrapped up a three-day visit to Singapore yesterday.

She made four stops on her last day here, which started at 9.30am and included a visit to the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) in Buona Vista.

Touring the institute’s research facilities, the princess showed”, “good grasp and great interest” in genetic sciences, said GIS’ deputy director, Associate Professor Lawrence Stanton.

Her three-day visit began, with the launch of the International Convention for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology.

The inaugural conference and exhibition, which ends today, showcases devices and technology designed to rehabilitate people with disabilities:

Known for her involvement in community and social development projects, the princess’
interest in health care stems from the influence of her grandparents, who were trained medical personnel.

In addition to her visits, she also made personal donations of $5,000 each to three centres for the disabled – the Rainbow Centre and Margaret Drive Special School, SIA-Minds Employment Development Centre, and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.

On the diplomatic front” she met Singapore’s leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who hosted a lunch for her at the Istana.

The warm hospitality shown her left the princess “extremely pleased” with her visit, said the Thai Ambassador to Singapore, Mr Chalermpol Thanchitt.

It was not all work, though. She found time to attend a concert at the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge on Monday.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) performed two songs composed, by the princess.

She gamely agreed to join the orchestra on stage, playing a tune on the sor duang (a
two-string violin-like Thai instrument) with the National University of Singapore Thai Music Ensemble and SCO.

The rare royal performance received a standing ovation.

Said Mr Chalermpol: “It was a great show of friendship and unity.”

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