Friday, March 10, 2017

Life After the Watson

Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective. (English, obscure)

So. It seems we’ve reached some sort of conclusion here, at least in the blogosphere. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, but I think at the very least some reflection is deserved. What did I start out thinking my Watston was going to be? Let’s get a little throwback, and look at my original blurb:
My Watson Year will be an exploration of the sacred object from the point of view of an art conservator. All over the world, traditions nurture their spirituality and preserve their identity through the care of objects. The need for discretion and cultural awareness is paramount among conservators, because the power and meaning of sacred objects is based on the interaction between object and viewer. Whether this interaction occurs through visual or physical contact, sacred objects have a quality of “interactivity” that relies on understanding the object’s power, spirituality, and continuing significance to a spiritual community. I am captivated by objects that rely on interaction to maintain meaning and by the challenges caring for them presents. How can conservators, who are trained as artists and scientists, learn to revere objects properly, if our goal is to care for them analytically? In the end, this is the goal of my Watson year: to engage with and learn from sacred objects and the people who care for and venerate them to understand how sacred objects are relevant in a modern world.
Keep in mind, I wrote this when I applied for the Watson. 2014. Ancient history. But don’t I sound all nice and fancy? Ah, 2014 Lindsay. What a sweet summer child.

Now, in 2017, I have an Elevator Pitch. Note: This is for particularly long elevator rides. Do not engage if the person asking “So what did you do?” looks like they scare easily or are otherwise uninterested in the real answer.
During my year of research as a Watson, I studied the intersection of science and spirituality in the conservation of sacred art objects. I traveled in Spain, Bulgaria, Japan, Ireland, India, Indonesia, and New Zealand, working with conservators, museum professionals, faith communities, government officials and strangers on the street to determine if and how science and spirituality can be used in harmony to develop in-depth and inclusive treatment.* I spent most of my time trying to understand how communities navigate their relationships with their sacred material culture, and how conservation can be applied to preserve spiritual heritage. I found that to accomplish the preservation of both material and immaterial heritage, open dialogue with communities that have ties to sacred objects is essential, even imperative. Additionally, the involvement of communities in conservation decision-making opens avenues of communication that can be used to further promote understanding, education, and policy. Being a field that interacts so intimately with material culture, conservation is perfectly positioned within institutions to be used as a bridge between communities, promoting education and open dialogue. Conservators therefore have the privilege and responsibility to be involved in promoting cultural awareness and diversity, using physical treatment to bring discussions about cultural sensitivity and political activism to the forefront.
*Stop here to spare the weak.

Oof. Just a teensy-weensy change, right? But how could 2014 Lindsay have known what turns the year would take?

My biggest question, of course, is what I will do next. I’ve been on a path toward a graduate program in art conservation for six years, and spending a year finding out what conservation (and its adjacent fields) means to me has been an immense privilege. By throwing me into the thick of it with only my brain and my backpack, my project exposed questions that I had never thought to ask, and avenues of research that were previously unknown to me. My worldview, and my view of conservation within it, expanded beyond the limits I had created for myself, opening my eyes to the potential for personal and professional growth within the field.

So you can imagine that when I first returned home, I was a mess of questions and culture shock. There was no way I was going to be able to write a coherent reflection on my year. Luckily, I have a slight advantage over newly-returned Lindsay—eight months, to be precise—and I can now reflect better on how I want to take what I learned from my Watson and continue what I started. My time abroad made me acutely aware of how much I want to apply my interest in conservation and conservation ethics here in the States, where this kind of work is at such a unique crux in its development. It is my goal to work with archaeological and ethnographic materials in a private or institutional setting, and to further pursue conservation ethics in this area.

Fortunately for my determinedly stubborn side that likes to plan, this still means grad school. I have plenty of room to grow as a student and practitioner of conservation, and I’ve honestly missed being in the classroom during my time away. I look forward to having the time and resources to study the hand skills, lab techniques, and to geek out at how awesome and difficult and multifaceted treatment is—and only a graduate program in art conservation can deliver. Of course, admission doesn’t always happen right away, so I’ll keep a weather eye on the horizon and my fingers tightly crossed.

Even as I look forward with excitement to future opportunities, I’m still drawn to the siren’s song of the year I spent away. Memories of this past year seem to flash before my eyes with startling clarity at the strangest moments; I’ll be buying coffee, or poring over the Christ Child I’m treating, or wandering the grocery store, and my newly-fashioned heart starts to beat in my chest like a drum, go, go, go.

I’ve been back about eight months, and I've settled in. Sometimes the days of my Watson seem to be falling out of my head faster than sand through a loose sieve. And no matter how much I try and tell myself that my Watson is really only just beginning, I cannot help but feel that this last entry is something of an end. By putting off this final reflection I’ve tried to delay the process of reintegration as long as possible, but here we are.

So thank you for going on this incredible journey with me. By no means think that it stops here—I've still got work to do, and too much itch in my shoes to keep me from doing it. But I think the important part is that I've got more questions bouncing around in my head now than I did back when I began, and now I have a direction in which to channel them. I’m not done yet! And I won’t stop until I am. Until next time:

Denouement (n.): The resolution of a narrative. (English)

Finishing Well: May and June in New Zealand

Kaitiakitanga (n.): guardianship of the environment or culture; the kaitiaki ("guardian") is responsible for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of their charge. (Maori)

My last month and a half were spent in New Zealand, which was at once so familiar and so foreign that I found myself pleasantly unbalanced. I attempted to master the New Zealand accent with dismal results, visited The Shire to fulfill a lifelong dream, and got involved at once with the contemporary Maori arts scene in Auckland. Auckland artists are working to redefine the notion of “tradition” and “traditional” in their art, challenging the imaginary yet solid borders between modern and traditional artmaking. Needless to say I was all over that like white on rice. Unless it's wild rice, in which case I was all over that like deliciousness on wild rice.

Then I got to Wellington, the seat of government and artistic policy-making in New Zealand, and everything got really, really complicated. I had the pleasure of working extensively with people in and around Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, and hearing from people working in all levels at the institution. I came in flying half-blind, and the people at Te Papa were incredibly kind and welcoming to me, showing me the ropes and teaching me the vocabulary for conversations I didn’t even know existed.

Let's get some context into the picture. In 2011, the Waitangi Tribunal (a commission that deals with Maori claims relating to the Treaty of Waitangi—please look it up. I can't do all the explaining that is required to do that treaty justice, and it's really, really important) published what is known as the Wai 262 Claim, an inquiry into the place of Maori culture, laws, traditions, identity, and knowledge in New Zealand. In (really) short: who owns or gets to manage Maori culture? In the introduction to their inquiry, the Tribunal wrote:
"What we saw and heard in sittings over many years left us in no doubt that unless it is accepted that New Zealand has two founding cultures, not one; unless Māori culture and identity are valued in everything government says and does; and unless they are welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change. Māori will continue to be perceived, and know they are perceived, as an alien and resented minority, a problem to be managed with a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer-funded programmes, but never solved." (source)*
The claim holds that Maori should control all usage of Maori images, because intellectual property laws protects individuals but not iwi ("tribes.") For example, images of moko ("tattoos") and tattooed faces on tourist and souvenir items are found deeply offensive by many Maori. I should insert here that great and terrible caveat, "not all." Not all Maori are offended by these practices, and some actively support the tourist industryI was once told that if you ask 100 people, you'll get at least 100 different opinions. But I digress.

Another very important example (and a personally embarrassing one) is the case of heitiki, which are small carved figures, usually of green stone, which have immense sacred power, and, in many cases, personal identities and histories. Not knowing this, I picked up a cheap heitiki keychain for my sister in Auckland. Cool and unique, right? Wrong. As their images are diluted and disseminated into the souvenir industry, original heitiki lose their power. So, my purchase unknowingly fed into continuing controversy and showed just how little I know. The keychain now holds an uncomfortable place of prominence on my shelf at home, a reminder to stay humble as I walk through new worlds.

So, where does Te Papa come in? Well. Because of its efforts to unify, represent, and educate both Maori and non-Maori peoples in New Zealand, Te Papa is held up as a sort of ideal by the international museum community as a “truly bicultural institution.” But, as one of the Maori curators I met challenged, biculturalism is a lofty and perhaps unobtainable goal. Te Papa therefore lends itself as a third space, where representatives of different iwi meet with each other and with non-Maori New Zealanders, and cultural events can be organized with the aim of education, inclusion, and open dialogue. Weighty stuff, eh?

Luckily, within the conservation department there seems to be a real awareness of the delicacy of the situations and materials the staff are dealing with. For example, there is the case of the oil painting portraits of iwi rangatira ("chiefs," the heads of Maori hapu, or "clans"). For preliminary treatment, it is not uncommon for paintings conservators to use saliva as a cleaning agent. The enzymes in our mouths are gentle but effective, and I've done it myself on several occasions to remove dust and other coatings from the surface of an oil painting. However, this practice is completely forbidden on the rangatira paintings—applying a saliva-soaked swab to the surface of that canvas would be equivalent to spitting in the rangatira's face. So, alternate and more appropriate methods of cleaning are used, and offense is avoided.

One conservator told me that at Te Papa they work in the conservation of values, and encouraged me to think not of capital-o Objects but of the people and values they represent. Indeed, the objects these conservators treat are often not "objects" at all, but ancestors and important cultural figures, complete with names, histories, and personalities, who should be treated with the utmost respect. So, the conservators at Te Papa have their work cut out for them. Cultural deference is shown to Maori conservators when developing treatment plans, unique methods are used when treating culturally significant Maori objects, and almost complete authority is given to iwi over objects with mana and tapu (“power” and “restrictions” respectively, in the simplest of translations.) It's a collaborative work  of respect in progress.

These measures are to me, a foreigner, at once inspiring and thought-provoking. I look at the efforts being made by the New Zealand government and it makes me reflect upon the United States’ treatment of Native American peoples and material culture in museums and in archaeological policy; concepts of artistic and cultural autonomy that are cemented in law in New Zealand are only recently emerging in the United States. At Te Papa, Maori and non-Maori cultural relations are navigated on a daily basis, with sacred Maori objects being at the center of those discussions. Nowhere else had I seen institutions use such culturally sensitive objects as tools for social change so deliberately. The complex implications of these conversations made me reconsider practices in the United States, where archaeological and ethnographic conservation still have much room to grow, and I felt a renewed call to action.

This is not to say that there aren't efforts being made at home, by any means. Here in the States we have the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (which I visited for the first time in October and could not recommend more highly—if you want to see culturally sensitive objects being used deliberately as tools for social change, start here!) and the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA—another highly complex piece of law that I recommend you look up) which was enacted to protect Native American and Hawaiian grave sites and their contents, as well as to criminalize the trafficking of Native American and Hawaiian remains or cultural items. Repatriation is an ongoing and evolving process, and institutions across the country are reevaluating their place in the preservation of heritage; museums are beginning to respond to the need for diversity and inclusion, both in their collections and their staff. It's exciting stuff, people! I have got to get back into a lab! Maybe I’ll even go into policy—who knows? And why limit myself?

*This is an excerpt from Ko Aotearoa Tēnei: A Report into Claims Concerning New Zealand Law and Policy Affecting Māori Culture and Identity (2011), a publication which covers much, much more than just Wai Claim 262. If any of this material interests you, I highly recommend you read further.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

April in Ubud

Ambedo (n). a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life. (English, obscure)

Hello again.

Let's just say things got complicated, and take it from there, eh? We'll just ignore that five and a half months have passed, and pick up just like—

I was in Ubud, on the island of Bali in Indonesia, for just under a month. Surprisingly (to anyone who doesn't know me) I didn't see the beach once. Rather, I rented a bike and hauled my cookies around the island. Here's a disclaimer, to all of you who want to Eat, Pray, and Love: GET A SCOOTER. I feel slightly betrayed by Julia Roberts and her casual, easy-breezy pedaling around the island, as I hauled my tuchus up those mountains. Bali is hilly as HECK. I was disgusting. Like, darn. Not a cute look.

A favorite moment of mine was meeting the eye of a man biking in the other direction, him having just come up a massive hill and me about to go down it, and rolling our eyes simultaneously at each other. Why the hell didn't we just shell out the extra cash for a scooter? You got me, mate.

I rented a small cottage in a Balinese family complex and took it from there. Since the closest "supermarket" to me was a forty-five minute bike ride away from my house, I spent the month eating cup noodles, chicken nuggets cooked in the toaster, and surprisingly delicious burritos from the local hot spot, Taco Casa. The cottage itself was excellent, and partially open-air. My kitchen and work room/dining room/ living room were roofed, but otherwise open to the elements, which made for some excellent thunderstorm-viewing. There were also at least eight million geckos, which I tried with middling success to befriend, and some ginormous monitor lizards. We got along for the most part; if I promised not to laugh when they fell off the ceiling, or out of trees, or off the fence, they would promise not to scritch-scratch their way across my ceiling at 2am. Let's just say it was a scritchy-scratchy month.

A major highlight of the trip was my trek to Goa Gajah, a temple complex a little ways outside Ubud. This temple is home to some 9th-century Hindu caves, some totally awesome ceremonial baths, and also has a Buddhist temple on the premises. The syncretism present in the temple is astounding, with Buddhist and Hindu iconography blending seamlessly together, and worshipers paying their respects at each site with equal reverence. It's also a tourist hotspot, and just a tip: they will give you the required sarong for visiting the temple inside the gates. You don't have to ride up all sweaty on your bicycle, realize this is the first time in a year you've gone anywhere without a giant wrap, and then panic-buy a sarong from an all-too convincing vendor. Not that I did that. I'm just saying.

Goa Gaja's "Elephant Caves" entrance

I also had the immense pleasure to attend a Kecak and Fire dance while in Ubud, which was a fascinating experience to say the least. Kecak is a kind of Balinese dance/performance art that is performed by a cast and chorus, usually to tell parts of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem. It's breathtaking, with about a million candles and a cantor and a chorus of men shouting "kecak, kecak" it's impossible not to get caught up in the moment and movement. What's interesting for me about the Kecak, however, is the fact that the form it exists in today is almost completely different from what was first encountered by Westerners in the early 1900s. It has been adapted, reproduced, and redistributed so many times over that it only exists now as a form of entertainment for tourists, no longer holding any of the power that it did in its first iterations. The fire dance, however, still maintains some of its spiritual components, as it requires the dancer to enter a hypnotic trance before he begins to dance the hot coals. It is performed almost always in combination with a Kecak.

I'm sure you can hear all the questions whirling around in my head by now, thinking about legitimacy and my old nemesis Tourism and all that, but I'm not sure if it's my place to get into that. The funds that tourists pay for the show go to maintaining temple functions and spiritual practices for local residences, plus upkeep and income. Is that so bad? And as for legitimacy, well, I wish I knew more about performing arts to weigh in on that one. Maybe that's for another Watson.

I stayed in Ubud for a little under a month, and I found that month to be frustrating project-wise and complicated soul-wise. Ubud is an artistic and spiritual center in Bali, a serene mix of temples and small shops and endless rice fields, and it was there that much of the weight from losing Gamgam hit me. I got quite sick—nothing dangerous, just drawn-out—and took it as a sign from my body and the universe to take it slow. So I took long walks, worked on my fiction in progress, got local therapeutic healing, read several books, and carefully monitored my emotions. I took several very long and taxing bike trips to temples around Bali, and found very limited material for my project that was strictly conservation-based. As an alternative, I made an effort to talk to and work with Ubud artists who work in the religious and tourist trades of sacred Balinese art. Still, contacts were pretty thin on the ground.

It wasn’t all bad, however—there was a moment when I could feel my heart start to clear. I was sitting under a pagoda at The Agung Rai Museum of Art in the midst of a torrential downpour (I had worn white and walked to town without an umbrella, so I was trapped at the mercy of the elements) and I pressed play on my iPod. Jordan Lee’s acoustic Amazing Grace filled my ears, and I felt a heart-stopping calm come over me, like I could feel every raindrop hit my soul and wash it clean. Things got better from there.

I can't believe that this time last year I was in Kyoto. I've still got some thoughts left on New Zealand, plus the Returner's Conference in Maine and re-entry. They're forthcoming, I promise! Until next time~

Monday, June 6, 2016

India: March in Madras

Hiraeth (n.): the desire or longing to go back to a place that has been so changed that it does not exist anywhere except in one's own mind. (Welsh)

As it turns out, Chennai is a huge center for Christians in India, as it is the place where St. Thomas the apostle (that's right, our friend Doubting Thomas) was martyred. As such it is the home to many, many Christians and lots and lots of relics and cathedrals and all of the things I obsess over.

First up, the Saint Thomas Basilica, known as San Thome to the locals. It's quite a large churchit looks like a lot of the Spanish cathedrals I visited at first glancebut once I stepped inside it became clear that the cathedral took its Portuguese heritage and applied a uniquely Indian spin. The first thing I noticed was the fleet of ceiling fans that bedecked every column, jutting out over the congregation on adapted flying-buttress mounts, incorporating form and function in a way that wouldn't be necessary in Lisbon; likewise the stained glass windows are patterned with large panes of color that coordinate with the mosquito netting.

I made my way up to the altarpiece but was flouted in my academic pursuits because the figure of Jesus, a rare statue that depicts Christ as fully-clothed, had been removed for Lent. This wasn't altogether surprising (at my home church we observe the season by covering our altar's cross with a purple shroud) but it did rather bring a halt to my search. Luckily, there's a museum! Its collection consists of a lot of old stone carvings (both Classical and local styles), some human remains excavated from the San Thome grounds, and a collection of relics from Saint Thomas, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Philomena and Saint Francis Xavier. The museum is also the antechamber to the underground crypt of Saint Thomas (which is air-conditioned!).

Chennai is also home to another monument to Saint Thomas, the Saint Thomas Mount. Located on the top of a hill overlooking Chennai (you can see straight to the ocean,) the altar is built over the place where Saint Thomas was martyred. The church is home to an impressive collection of relics—I counted over sixty different saints—as well as a number of Saint Thomas's personal effects. One of the most notable is the Cross of Saint Thomas, which is said to have been carved by the saint himself and to weep blood. I don't even know how to approach conserving a bleeding stone cross, but luckily for me the stone hasn't bled since 1707. There is also a portrait of the Virgin Mary reportedly painted by Saint Luke that Saint Thomas used for his own personal worship. Suffice it to say that the Mount is home to some heavy-hitting relics.

I also visited a collection of local temples in Chennai, which I'll have to do in bullet points because there is just so much to get through:
Mylapur Temple was undergoing restoration while I was there, but it had no shortage of visitors. Members of the community were participating in the cleaning and maintenance of the common areas, while priests cleaned and cared for the statues behind closed gates. Lots of color, and great smellsI came at lunchtime, when many temples serve a simple meal for visiting pilgrims.
Murugan Temple was under construction at the time I went. The only hall open for worship was a small linoleum-and-fluorescent-lights temporary structure, and I made an offering for the repainting of one of the shrines. The idols and offerings are all being held in a central location until they can be properly installed in their new homes.
Amman Temple, my personal favorite that I visited, is right off the Chennai beach and one of the few places you can catch a breeze in the city. It is also a unique temple-going experience: right from the moment you step through the gates, you are directed on a tiny (one-person-at-a-time, can't-really-turn-around tiny) path that twists up and around the pyramid of the temple, leading you to each statue in turn. It's a bit dizzying, and not for the claustrophobic, but I loved it! I wouldn't recommend it at peak hours, though.
Permar Temple had real live conservation work going on! Way in the back of the temple (I think it took at least twenty minutes to get from one end of the complex to the other) they are conducting a mural conservation project, which is distinct from the routine repainting that most temples undergo every 10-ish years. Of course nobody was there when I was, but it was so neat to see the work in progress!

My final notable stop was to the Government Museum of Chennai, which I visited for its Hindu Sculpture Gallery. At the entrance to the gallery was this notice, translated from the Tamil:
All these images are religious in purpose; with a few exceptions they are designed to remind worshipers of the divine, conceived by Hindu philosophy as the Impersonal Absolute. It is easy today to slip into the mode of seeing the sculptures as works of art: products of great creative minds. While being these, there is a function they fulfill, something governed by a different, though not opposed, set of considerations. The sculptors followed the rules laid down in the Silpa Sastras. These sculptures are the most imperishable art, frozen for the moment...for posterity. They are shaped and formed in the art of creation, and live for [a] moment of specific duration.
A "different, though not opposed, set of considerations." I like it. (And for those who don't know, the Shilpa Shastras are a set of manuals that are the standing authority on Hindu iconographythey are the canon that include rules for proportions, manners of interpretation, composition and even guidelines for architecture.)

On a more personal note: while I was in Chennai I had the pleasure of doing a homestay, trading my solitary travel lifestyle for a temporary family, and it was absolutely wonderful! Living with a series of aunties and uncles (who seemed, more than anything, to be determined to feed me until I burst) provided me with an insider’s look into India and its culture, as a well as a sense of security that I hadn't known I was missing. It also meant that I had an enormous extended network of family and friends that were eager to take me under their wings and send me headlong into daily Indian life. I attended three weddings, went to Easter services and the accompanying massive family gatherings, ate my way through no less than five ceremonial feasts, and participated in the neighborhood children’s spirited celebration of Holi.

I am extremely grateful to all the people who took me under their wings, feeding me idly and masala dosa until I burst, and extending to me their endless kindness. My personal life was a source of great stress for me while I was in India, but because of these people I had a family who was willing to go above and beyond to take care of me. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Wearing a saree at my first Indian wedding

I spent my last week in India doing a tour of the South and its most sacred places, meaning I was in a new city every day. I took it as a chance to conduct a serious comparative study of the butter chicken masala and na'an of South India (spoiler: Madurai won) but also to have as much information about temples and history and religion and culture thrown at me as possible. Shout out here to my driver, Danielhis AC game was on-point. I don't think I'd have survived a week of above-40C temperatures without him.

I departed Chennai and our first stop was Kancheepuram, where we visited several temples in the town and I participated in my first puja, or fire ceremony. I was blessed by a priest and had red powder smeared on my forehead to represent the goddess, Parvati. In Kancheepuram I also had my first experience of the dangers of summertime temple-visitingsince temple complexes are massive and partially outdoors, the stones heat up to dangerous temperatures and can leave blistering burn welts on your bare feet. I took to carrying a pair of  what I dubbed Temple Socks (patent pending) to protect my poor wimpy feet.

Interestingly, larger temple complexes are much like large cathedrals in that they have a main sanctuary (or "sanctum sanctorum") that houses the main sacred object (i.e., a relic, statue, altar, lingam, tomb, dedication to a local deity or saint) which is the temple's main attraction. Just like in a cathedral, however, there are several smaller annexes (equivalent to chapels) where worshipers can find a fairly standard set of gods and goddesses, like Shiva, Ganesha, Parvati, Murugan, or any number of their various incarnations. There are also marriage halls, multi-purpose meeting rooms, and sometimes even enormous reservoirs for sacred bathing contained within the labyrinthine passages.

Next was Mahabalipuram, which is a small town on the coast that is best known for its archaeological wealth. I visited Arjuna's Penance, a series of carved caves very reminiscent of the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, but on a much smaller scale. My favorite part was seeing the vague imprint of paint on the ceiling of one of the smaller cavesfor 6th century pigment, that's not a bad paint job! Nearby are the Five Rathas, monolithic mini-temples (I say mini only because Indian temples are HUGE) that tell the story of five brothers fighting for one girl (there's one temple each for the girl and the brothers, with the twins sharing one structure). They are 1,300 years old and carved from sandstone; since they are right off the shoreline, the sea air is slowly but surely eroding them away, and there is as of yet no way to save them from their (eventual) destruction. A little further up the coast is the Shore Temple, which is made from granite and stands only meters from the Bay of Bengal. It's a structural temple (as opposed to monolithic or carved, like the Rathas or Arjuna's Penance) and it has a material advantage over the sandstone structures in the area. It's gorgeous, especially with the sea breeze!

The next day was Pondicherry, which is a beautiful city even further south along the coast. My personal highlights include the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which I visited to meditate for a few hours. It's absolutely beautiful and equally silent, and it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the city. Next I visited the Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, which was a shock to the senses after the quiet of the ashram. Not only is it a very, very busy and bright temple, but they. Have. An. Elephant! Named Lakshmi, the elephant is a vessel for Ganesh. For a small fee you can pay to feed the elephant and she will bless you for Ganesh. I have to admit I was too much of a coward and too afraid for my purse to do it, but I did stare adoringly for a while. What are the ethics of taking care of a living vessel of a god? Way above my pay grade, that's for sure.

Then it was off to Tanjore, which was super duper cool! First we waited for the heat of the day to wear off (which was a process that got more essential by the day, I swear) and then we headed to Tanjore Palace, where they have a library of ancient and religious texts from around the world. Cool conservation tidbit: since the library isn't climate-controlled at all, the curators of the collection have lined the glass boxes with a local aromatic wood that keeps bugs from getting into the books. Totally neat! There is also an art gallery inside the palace where I went to go pay my respects to the carvings of godsto my surprise, it is a regular and encouraged practice to touch or rub the statues on display for blessings. My guess is this links back to the "different, though not opposed, set of considerations" that governs sacred sculpture on display in the Chennai Museum; these sculptures, though in an art museum, are somewhere in between the realms of the artistic and the sacred, and their inclusion in the latter means that they are still very much interactive. Our final stop of the day (pro-tip: always visit Indian temples during summer sunsets. It's cool enough to walk around and the buildings glowwin-win!) was Brihadeeswarar Temple, which is enormous and just over a millennium old. While I was there I participated in another puja, and I was given a knotted cord to wear around my wrist to protect me from the evil eye.

The next morning we drove to Trichy, where I burned off my feet and the rest of my legs visiting the Rockfort Temple. Spoiler alert: it's on the top of a mountain. I nearly died. I got to the top of the temple complex (which is built much the same as others, with a progression of temple halls and smaller chapels, but this time the progression was vertical) and I wasn't allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. It wasn't the first time I've been denied entry to a sacred place, and I'm sure it won't be the last, but gosh did my legs hate me for it. Luckily there was a smaller temple to Ganesh further up the mountain, so I hiked up and was rewarded with stunning river valley views, plus a visit to Ganesh at bathtimethe priests periodically bathe the statue with milk, herbs, and other materials to maintain its spiritual purity and care for the god it houses. Next we went to the Srirangam Temple, which honestly redefines everything I have ever said about Indian temples being huge: this one has a city inside of it. It's the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, and occupies 156 acres of land. I didn't visit all of itnot by a long shotsince there are many parts I am not allowed into and others are uninhabitable for poor wimpy me during the heat of the day. One of the parts I remember best, however, are the relief sculptures covering almost every inch of available wall space in the temple. There are particular sculptures that are treated with similar reverence to the principal statues inside the great halls of the temple, anointed with oils and decorated with colorful powders and flowers, proving that nothing inside these temples is just for decoration.

Later that day we went to Madurai, where I visited the Meenakshi temple, which may have been my favorite temple of the trip. Not only is it mostly covered (my soles wept for joy) but it has so many interesting and varied areas for worship that I was ooh-ing and ah-ing every time I turned a corner. There's the Hall of a Thousand Pillars (spoiler alert: it's 985 pillars), the outer shrine to Meenakshi (I wasn't allowed inside the sanctum), the Hall of the Temple Tree (nandis, celestial lingams, and a golden flagstaff representing humanity and the universe are located here) and a lot more Halls that I didn't get to visit. There's even a museum! Seriously, these places are massive. The part I found most interesting, however, was a repeated pair of sculptures that kept cropping up in almost every part of the temple: Shiva and Kali. The story goes that Shiva and Kali were having a dance competition. Shiva, being the Lord of the Dance, had a distinct advantage and won. Kali, in her anger, grew very hot, and to this day worshipers pelt her statue with ghee (clarified butter) which is meant to cool her down. Not surprisingly this has begun to degrade the statue over the years, and now certain statues of Kali have been ghee-proofed to preserve them. Conservators, fighting the good fight! But what about the story? Are centuries of tradition to be abandoned? And why choose material culture (the statue) over immaterial culture (the ghee throwing)? Is one more important than the other? More unanswerable questions for Lindsay.

My next stop was the island town of Rameswaram, home to the Ramanathaswamy Temple dedicated to Shiva. My guide told me I was lucky—the temple had just been restored for the first time in twelve years in February. All the paint was fresh and bright, and he explained that this is the prime time to come visit a temple, when it's looking its best. The main attractions of the temple are a series of sacred baths that are among the holiest in the country, so there are a lot of wet pilgrims walking the halls. There is also a 3600-year old lingam, created by the goddess Sita, and all interactions with the lingam are facilitated by priests. I often wonder if this is not the reason that so many of these sacred objects have lasted so long; the implementation of a mediator in the form of a priest allows interaction with the object while maintaining its relative safety and minimal exposure to the elements.

Finally I made it to Kanyakumari, the final stop on my tour and the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. First I took a ferry out to Swami Vivekananda Rock, which is a temple on a rock out in the bay off the tip of the peninsula. It has a memorial to Swami Vivekanada, a historical figure who is considered a saint in India for his works spreading Hinduism and nationalism in India and the world, as well as a small shrine to Kanyakumari, the local patron goddess, whose footprint is preserved on the surface of the rock. Next I went back to shore and dipped my feet in the holy waters of the thriveni sangamam (the convergence of three seas—the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea—is considered very holy and has purification properties) and then made my way to the beach with the rest of the pilgrims to watch the sun set. Not a bad ending to two months in India!

My last night in India at Kanyakumari Beach

So! That's India. I'm so proud of you for reading all of that. My next entry will be about my month in Indonesia. I'm already in New Zealand, with less than a month left on the road, which is more than a little absurd. But here's to ending well!

If I could just keep your attention for a minute more, I'd like to make a quick podcast recommendation. It's called "Museum of Lost Objects," and it's a program about antiquities and sites that have been lost, looted, or destroyed during the conflict in Iraq in Syria. Here's a link if you're interested; I highly recommend it. It's right up my alley—maybe it'll be up yours too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

India: February in Mumbai and Bangalore

Akihi (n.): listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them: you've gone akihi. (Hawaiian)

These are my highlights from my two months in India and (some of) what I learned there. It was a pretty tumultuous time in my life, with the death of my great-grandmother and a major part of my application to (and rejection from) NYU taking place, and it's hard to put it all into words, which is part of the reason why I've been avoiding it. Another component is that my time in India was changed greatly from what I had proposed in my original Watson project, and I'm still trying to digest how I feel about that. Not that this year is going at all like I had proposedthat stopped way back in Septemberbut I had to rethink how I was going to approach India more deeply than I have with other places I've visited.

This year I've grown more and more to value my independence. I go everywhere on my own, plan everything by myself, carry all my belongings on my back and spend the majority of my time alone. It's sometimes lonely, but more often very liberating. Empowering, even. But due to tensions in the north of India, my solo female status (and obvious foreign-ness), and other concerns, made this style of travel in India inadvisable. So after a lot of thought and scrambling, I decided to scrap my original plans to trek in the north and head for the south.

I started off with a couple of days in Mumbai/Bombay, and if you've never been before, let me just tell you it is HUGE. Like we're talking mondo colossal, massive, immense, and just generally vast. Monumental. Gargantuan. Brobdingnagian, even. But I had places to be, so I swallowed my overstimulated panic and went about my business. I used a tour service for the four days I was in the city, so I had reliable (and air-conditioned!) transportation to and from sites, plus guides. It was a good way to start.

My fist full day in Mumbai was spent out in the ocean, visiting the Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island in Mumbai Harbour. It's reached by taking a small ferry (which, in the heat of the day, was perhaps my favorite part of the trip) and then hiking up the side of the island to the caves. This site (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was a very popular Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese landed in the sixteenth century. The gorgeous statues and bas-relief were used as target practice by the Portuguese, and there are still bullets lodged in some of the sacred stone. The elephants for which the caves were named are almost completely destroyed.

An outlying cave on Elephanta Island, carved into the mountainside

Today, the Elephanta Caves are a place of both tourism and local pilgrimage. One of the most sacred pieces of stonework in the caves, a lingam (which is an abstract representation of Shiva/the universe/the union of male and female/the nonduality of reality/you get the picture it's really complex and hard to explain and I think the meaning changes slightly for each individual lingam) was left untouched and is still used for worship to this day. While I was there it was covered in flowers and many people left oil lamps or other offerings. It's pretty fantastic to realize that a place like this exists both practically and successfullya place that's been through so much change but can still be used for some of its original purposes, while showcasing its complicated history. So often the places I visit have chosen to either represent history or continue being a place of worship. Not gonna lie, I drooled a little.

Next stop, Kanheri Caves! Located a little ways outside of Mumbai, in the depths of a wildlife reserve, these caves are very similar to the Elephanta Cavesbut Buddhist. They were not subjected to the same destruction that the Elephanta Caves were, but are not being used for anything other than as a local sightseeing destination. There are one hundred and nine caves in all, and they are not as artistically developed as the five Elephanta Caves, although this is mainly because many of them were meant to serve as living, studying, and meditating quarters. The main caves that are decorated with sculpture, however, are gorgeous. I especially liked the meditation hall, which was designed specifically so that the repeated om would reverberate strongly through the mountain.

Monolithic Buddha outside the main meditation hall (human for size)

Next, I spent a little while in Bangalore/Bengaluru, which is further south and in the center. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, it has a huge concentration of tech companies and is also delightfully located up on a plateau, making its climate a lot more forgiving than elsewhere in India. What I wouldn't give for a Bangalore breeze right now.

It was in Bangalore that I began to really explore the unique way in which Hindu religion interacts with objects. One of my guides in Mumbai described Hinduism as "a religion of objects" which was naturally devastatingly oversimplified but also helpful to keep in mind. As I have delved more deeply into Hindu practices, it has come to my attention that some principles of “conservation” already exist within Hindu culture. For example, in Bangalore I was able to witness the daily cleansing ceremony at the Bull Temple, a ritual that includes cleaning the temple’s gigantic stone bull statue from top to bottom, bathing it in oils, and decorating it with fresh flowers. The religious ceremonies surrounding this ancient statue already take care of it and emphasize cleanliness and preservation of the statue above all else. If the statue were ever to be severely damaged, it would be given a funeral and buried on temple grounds.

Although institutional conservation is a fairly new field in India, Hinduism has already instilled values that take care of sacred material culture. The art that is important to religious functions, like lingam stones or special statues or even certain temple decorations, are given special attention and care. But more on that later.

My third stop was Chennai/Madras, where I spent a month exploring the uniquely diverse spiritual culture of the city. I'll talk about Chennai and my tour of south India in my next post, coming soon!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ireland: January in Dublin

Nefelibata (n.): "cloud-walker"; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination, not obeying the laws or conventions of society. (Portuguese)

Dublin is, in my less-than-humble opinion, a truly excellent city. It meets several of my requirements for excellence, including but not limited to:

  1. A river or sea port
  2. A slightly quirky but mostly efficient public transport system
  3. A historic university campus
  4. A slightly-labyrinthine-but-very-inviting covered market
  5. Multiple Thai restaurants (preferably that deliver)
  6. An improbable yet easy-to-navigate city plan, and
  7. At least one enormous bookstore with an extensive Crime and Thrillers section

Also it didn't hurt that Dublin and Boston are very similar-looking cities.

One of my first site visits was outside of Dublin, however, when I went on a day trip to Newgrange. If you've never heard of it, please please Google it because I won't be able to do it justice in my little blog and it's a veeeery cool place. To start with, it's older than the Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza (think about it. That's five thousand years, people.) Not much is known about what it was used for, or how it was built, but we have learned a lot by studying the materials it is made from, and it's home to some of the best surviving megalithic art in the world. The most fascinating feature of Newgrange is its connection to the winter solstice; the entrance to the interior of the mound is perfectly aligned with the sun and the surrounding terrain that the first rays of sunlight of the solstice pierce directly into the heart of the chamber within, completely illuminating it.

The re-discovery of Newgrange was made in 1699, when local landowners decided to dig for stones on the site. Until its appropriation by the state in 1890, Newgrange was a site of local curiosity and unrecorded popular tourism. Names are carved into the sacred stones going back hundreds of years, scratched into the walls right alongside prehistoric stone art. Since there are no records of the tomb from the seventeenth century discovery, we have no way of knowing how it may have looked when it was abandoned, and no way of finding out what may have been lost.

Newgrange is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and access is restricted to controlled, guided tours through a nearby information center. Guards protect the grounds during the night, and tours are restricted to small groups. When asked about why security is so tight, our guide responded, "Preservation is only possible with knowledge." She explained that because no rules were made for the site for almost two centuries, much of what we could have learned about Newgrange has been lost and its complete preservation was impossible. Now, with the regulations and security, Newgrange can be maintained at its current state and protected from further damage.

This is all making my developing grudge against tourism seems rather petulant. Essentially, the tourism industry is what makes conserving Newgrange possible; entry fees provide for its upkeep, and selective viewing keeps the site intact.

Back in Dublin town I had lots of places to visit, including the National Museum of Ireland. The Museum has several branches, but I focused my efforts on the Archaeology and Decorative Arts museums. There I had the chance to meet with the conservators in their laboratory and view some of their ongoing treatments as I picked their brains. Some of the most impressive conservation work is being done on book shrines that have been discovered in peat bogs, the great environmental conservator. Book shrines are a type of reliquary, an ornately decorated case that houses pieces of sacred text, such as a gospel, saint's letters, or even a fragment of holy text, and the text inside is revered in the same way a bodily relic might be. They are most often made of metal (or at least the surviving ones are) and decorated with jewels, intricate metalwork, and fine enamels. Their time in the peat bogs has reduced many of them to shadows of their former glory, and conservators are working to stabilize and study these treasures.

With funding being what it is, almost no restoration is done at the NMI beyond that which is done for the sake of stabilization. As many relics and book shrines are missing their "sacred bits" (i.e. they were looted and the relic was discarded, or the more-easily-decomposed pages were lost to time), they have lost any sacred connotations they might have had and are consigned to life as archaeological objects. Sometimes, however, the Museum's sacred objects are lent out for special church services, or for reconsecration. The Museum maintains strong relationships with the historical homes of the objects they safeguard, and provides protection that often would be otherwise be impossible for the original institutions to provide.

My next stop in Dublin was the Chester Beatty Library, which is right next to Dublin Castle (well worth a visit if you're in the area!) and is a total geek-fest if you're a fan of the written word. Which I am. To give you the short version, a man named Chester Beatty loved books. He spent his life collecting the best examples of the written word from around the world, and the fruits of his life's work are now housed in the Library. Its collection is displayed in two permanent exhibitions: "Arts of the Book" and "Sacred Traditions." Guess where I went first.

The upper floor is dedicated to seven world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Sikhism, and Jainism) and the manifestations of the sacred within the written word. All of these religions have examples of where a book is more than a book, and the written word is just as sacred as any relic. Needless to say I spent several long afternoons there, soaking it all up.

Perhaps the most profound experience I had in Ireland, however, was my trip to the airport. My cab driver, Robert, was a lovely man and keen to learn about why I, an American, was flying to India after living in Ireland. We chatted on the way to the terminal, all about my travels, and he seemed very concerned. "Do your parents know where you are? Did you get all your shots? What do you do when you get sick? Make sure you take your malaria pills." I tried to appease him, saying that this was my eighth month on the road and that I could handle being on my own; he believed me, but barely. We arrived at the airport and as I unloaded my bags he reached into his pocket, taking out a small lacquered pendant of the Virgin Mary. He placed her in my hand and said softly, "Take her with you. I know your parents must be worried with you traveling alone. She'll look after you" and then returned to his cab and drove away. I stood there dumbfounded and crying for a few moments before I remembered myself and shuffled off to check in.

It occurred to me as I stood in line for security that my Madonna is exactly what this project is about. She's not bedecked with jewels or sitting behind bullet-proof glass--who knows where she even comes from--but she is one of my most precious possessions, and her presence makes me feel safe. I bought a silver chain in the airport and I now wear her around my neck, and I'll continue to cherish her. She's important because of the value and spiritual power belief gives her--she doesn't need impressive provenance or the power to move mountains to make her worth taking care of. Rather, she's the manifestation of goodwill and kindness, and a man's faith that an image, no matter how small, can have life-changing impact.

I know I'm a bit behind on these reflections, and I hope to have more up very soon. I'm writing from Indonesia, and I owe you at least one very long post about the two months I just spent in south India. It's absurd to think that I have less than three months left of this project, and even more bewildering to think that I'll soon be back in the U.S. So, here's to the final quarter!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Inspiration For It All

Ineffable (adj.): unable to be expressed in words. (English)

Growing up, I was privileged enough to live right down the road from one of the best art historians and life-enthusiasts I've ever known: my great grandmother, Marnie Wengren. Gamgam. One of my earliest memories is of a day spent with her in Boston, the first time she brought me to the Museum of Fine Arts. We visited many times over the years, but that day she headed first for the Ancient Egypt exhibition--her favorite. She led me determinedly past the mummies and hieroglyphs, saying there was someone she wanted me to meet. Finally I was placed solemnly in front of an enormous statue of shining black stone: a woman's body with a cat's head.

"This is Bast." She said, like she was introducing an old friend. "Do you know why she's special?" I shook my head.

"Because she has a secret."

She didn't tell me what the secret was, but I've been searching for it ever since. Over the years Gamgam has been a constant presence in my life. She took my sisters and me to the theater, and sent us to art classes--she firmly believed that if anyone is ever really to love art, they have to try their hand at making it too. Tea is always offered, served promptly at four with her signature chocolate chip cookies and proper teacups. She is an unflinching advocate for the Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea,) and a formidable opponent at any card game.

I spent endless afternoons of my childhood browsing her bookshelves, poking through her enormous collection of turtle figurines, and contemplating the Gandharan Buddha that sits in her living room. Her apartment smells sweet, like Carmex lip balm and baby powder, and the sunlight drifts gently through half-drawn curtains. As I got older she took me to lectures on Mary Cassat, documentary films, and could lead me through our beloved MFA even as her eyesight was going and she could no longer see the paintings.

Gamgam instilled in me a deep passion to know and seek out the hidden depths of art, searching as earnestly in the gorgeous oil paintings of John Singer Sargent as in the rather absurd-looking computer-painted chicken I made for her when I was eight. It's that passion that has led me to this year of exploration and self-discovery, looking for the sacred in art around the world. She was absolutely thrilled when I got the Watson, and has had her fingers crossed for me as I wait for a decision from NYU. When I got confirmed at sixteen, she gave me the Saint Christopher medal that I wear constantly around my neck; my first sacred object, the token I took with me to my Watson interview and hold every time I'm on a plane. I've given her paintings, she's given me paintbrushes; we've spent hours talking together about my dreams for the future as an art conservator and her memories from when she worked in various museums and traveled the world.

At twenty-two, most of my friends are astonished that I have a great grandmother--she's ninety-nine, for heaven's sake, and she still makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. I knew when I said goodbye to her way back in July that there was a good chance that she wasn't going to be there when I got back. She knew it too. Now, my worst fears are being realized.

Gamgam is dying.

What was a seemingly harmless problem is no longer, and we only have days left with her. And I'm trapped on the other side of the world. I've been gone for almost nine months but this is the furthest from home I've ever felt.

I know she would never have forgiven me if I had waited at home instead of taking this fellowship. She's read every blog post I've written at least eight times, and we've video-chatted regularly while I've been away. I told her I'd be on her doorstep the morning I got home, and we'd talk about my adventures over tea. She is my rock, the force of nature that has always lived just ten minutes down the road, and the inspiration for all of this; I have never contemplated life without her.

On Monday I got to call her, to tell her I love her. I refused to say goodbye. Instead, I told her about my days in India. I complained about the mosquitos, raved about the food. Finally, I asked her if she remembered that day in the Museum, with Bast. When she nodded, I made her a promise.

I promised I'd keep looking for secrets.


Gamgam died while I wrote this entry today. I don't have it in me to change any of these verbs to past-tense. Please keep her and our family in your thoughts and prayers.