Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Kyoto: Departure

Anagnorisis (n.): a moment of critical discovery. (Ancient Greek)

So! I know you were all dying to find out, yes--I did make it into a proper Japanese conservation studio in the end! Shortly before I left Kyoto I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Oka Bokkodo, one of the most prestigious conservation studios in the city. There I was fortunate enough to meet with conservators and generally synthesize what I learned during my various escapades in Japan. Are you ready for a geekfest? Here we go!

Some context: since the end of Word War II, Japan's national government has selected objects of cultural value and titled them “Important Cultural Properties.” Each year National Treasures are chosen from these objects, and they are put on the fast-track for conservation, restoration, and exhibition within Japan. The studios that work on these objects, therefore, have to be incredibly well-qualified; there are only twelve in the country that are allowed to work on National Treasures, and only one that has existed since the inception of the National Treasures program: Oka Bokkodo.

Since the government controls which pieces are worked on and by whom, there is often miscommunication and overlap among conservators working on National Treasures; for instance, the studio working on the wall paintings of a National Treasure building will be different from the studio working on the walls themselves, making for overcomplicated treatments and inefficient distribution of manpower. Likewise there are rules and restrictions placed on conservation studios and how much restoration they can actually do on damaged artworks—inpainting, the post-facto restoration of lost pigment by a conservator and a particularly controversial facet of paintings restoration, has been banned in all conservation studios treating National Treasures because of the potential for inaccurate restoration and the resulting outrage from academics and the public.

These regulations become especially complicated where sacred objects are concerned; sometimes the damaged part of an object can impact its sacredness or worship potential, rendering it corrupted or even useless within a sacred context. For instance, there have been several cases of ancient sacred mandalas with pigment loss that affect their utility in meditation practices. However, when monks bring these works to be restored by the conservation workshops they are turned away—the inpainting that would restore the mandalas to their original sacredness is forbidden by the regulations that the government has imposed. Likewise there have been statues of deities that have lost their eyes or body parts due to material deterioration over time, but these pieces must be forever taken out of commission because their restoration goes against government policy.

I found this conundrum particularly fascinating because I have always been in the pro-conservation camp rather than pro-restoration, believing that stabilization was most important and that restoration would be unfaithful to the history of an object—a similar stance to that of the Japanese government. However, it seems that this stance must be reevaluated case by case for sacred objects, because the difference between conservation and restoration is the difference between death and life for many sacred objects. There is a record of a statue in Kyoto prefecture that, through the materials analysis of conservators, was found to have a head that did not match the rest of its body. The academic community flew into an uproar, and the head was removed and swapped out with a replacement to passify the malcontents. The result was the destruction of the central worship figure for a congregation of thousands, effectively ruining hundreds of years of tradition and terminating a massive source of traffic and income for the temple—but at least the statue was right, wasn't it?

Which brings me to a bit of reflection. I am continually surprised by how broad the reach of this project has turned out to be; it's about art and religion, sure, but it's also about chemistry, anthropology, and economics, and politics. It seems a bit obvious, if I step back and look at the big picture; conservation is essentially the process of preserving culture, carrying on ideas and values in their material form. How could that process not cast a wide net? And religion is so often a point of cultural contention that I don't know how I could think its material manifestation to be without broader consequence. And who knows what I'll find in the next six months? It seems that everywhere I go, I explain my project and the response is “Oh, you've come to the right place—we really need that here.”

I had expected to feel exhausted at this point in the year, having traveled alone for six months and anticipating six more. And I do--I'm tired, and I miss my home and my family, but I also feel inspired and invigorated by the thought of what's still to come. So here's to the next six months--the pitfalls and victories, the long nights in airports and early mornings on mountaintops. I'm so glad to have you along for the ride!

Kyoto: December

Vellichor (n.): the strange wistfulness of a used bookstore, filled with the unknowable passage of time. (English, obsolete)

I'm writing from my flat in Phibsborough, Dublin. Kyoto and I parted ways just before Christmas and I spent the holidays here in Ireland. No snow, but rather a lot of rain--we got the full force of Storm Frank (the most ominous storm name ever) and there was glorious hail and gale-force winds and oodles of water flying sideways. Happy new year, by the way! The first of the year marked the first day of the second half of my Watson, which is more than a little staggering to contemplate.

But, we have some catching up to do! December was another busy month (although now that I think about it, all of my months have been busy) during which I did a bunch of travelling (to Nara, and Tokyo!!) and applied to NYU, and said goodbye to what might now be my favorite city in the world. I'll do my Japan wrap-up in two parts, with this being my review of my travels and the second a reflection on what I learned about conservation in Japan, and my thoughts about moving forward. So, without further ado--

Nara is only about an hour from Kyoto by local train, and is a city best known for its deer. Yes, you read that correctly--deer! Nara is home to a massive, open-air deer park; it's said that the deer are sacred, messengers of local gods, so the animals roam free and are treated with the utmost respect. They're everywhere, though it's surprisingly hard to get a good selfie--I lost a perfectly good map to a deer with the munchies attempting it--but the deer are an excellent cure for frowns. Unless you're fond of maps.

Once one progresses past the incredibly distracting deer, there are several gorgeous and impressive temples, shrines and museums to visit inside the park. I went first to Kofuku-ji, a temple known for its two pagodas and scenic vistas on the outer edge of Nara Park. As it would so happen, I couldn't get in to visit the main temple hall--it's being restored. Ah, sweet irony! I guess I'll have to come back in 2018. But I could get to the National Treasure Museum, which is always a good sign. (This project has done nothing to curb my obsession with treasure. Am I conservator or pirate? That's the real question.)

The fascinating thing about Kofuku-ji's museum is that it's set up very much like a temple; silence is to be kept throughout the premises, and an appropriate level of reverence is to be observed. The museum was established by the Japanese government to protect and display cultural objects on the site where they were once revered before they were destroyed due to anti-Buddhist sentiment in 1874. All of the objects on display are sacred, and the more prominent devotional statues have altars and saisen-bako in front of them. I was one in a long line of people waiting to pray and make offerings in front of a statue of a Kannon, a many-armed Buddhist deity that takes a place of prominence within the museum. The museum's purpose seems to be to conserve and stabilize the objects, rather than restore them to any former shiny glory, but it works; the air is contemplative and respectful, with signage and docents to help any intrepid academic wandering the halls. It also helps along the museum's didactic focus, showing the evolution of Kofuku-ji as both a place of worship and a place of history. In short, A+, would definitely visit again.

Next on my list was Todai-ji, a massive temple that happens to be the largest wooden building in the world. In all seriousness, there is no photo I took that could convey the sheer enormity of this place--and that's nothing compared to the statues within. Among others, Todai-ji houses the world's largest statue of the Daibutsu (Buddha Vairocana), sitting pretty at 15 meters tall and weighing 500 tonnes. And to top it off, it's been around since its casting in 752 CE. If that doesn't make you flip out I don't know what will.

The temple is a huge tourist attraction, of course, and consequently it felt a bit like barely-controlled chaos inside. There were of course saisen-bako in front of each devotional statue, and an area for contemplation and lighting candles, but there were also plenty of tour groups mulling about, shouting and posing for pictures, and a gift shop. (It's really common for temples and shrines to have a shop of some sort on the premises, to sell charms and the like, but they're never in the main hall, and they sell chachkies just as often.) It was odd, and a bit disconcerting; certainly a different feeling from the National Treasure Museum, which just goes to show that context can have just as big an impact on the sense of an object's sacredness as its physical state.

I made a trip back to Nara later in the week to visit the Nara National Museum because it's closed on Mondays. Side rant--if I could just get rid of Sundays and Mondays, it would greatly streamline my project. Of course I value days spent in my pajamas just like anyone else, but seriously! Sundays are what seem to be a universal day off (in Spain you couldn't even go to the supermarket), and then Mondays are no-museum day. The number of times I have showed up at a museum on a Monday all fired up and ready to go and gone home grumpy is absurd. Although perhaps this has more to do with my learning curve and stubbornness than anything else. Anyway.

The museum is host to an impressive collection of Buddhist art and is well-worth a visit if you're ever in the area. Unlike the National Treasure Museum at Kofuku-ji, the environment is secular and most sacred objects are displayed as historical, archaeological, or ethnographic objects. It's also undergoing renovation in its Buddhist Sculpture Hall (damn!) but it had a temporary exhibition on the Nara matsuri, an annual festival involving almost every religious establishment in the city. Huge parades, portable shrines, and massive rituals all over Nara--just my cup of tea.

Next, I made my way to Tokyo! For those of you foolish enough to think that Tokyo and Kyoto are close to each other (read: me), think again. It took a ten hour overnight bus ride to get to Tokyo, and whether it was the sleep deprivation or the sheer enormity of the city, I was completely overwhelmed. I really do hope I get back to do Tokyo its due diligence, since I spent two days in a city I could have spent two years exploring; even as someone who's spending a year abroad visiting new places, my "must-visit" list seems only to be getting longer.

My first stop was the Tokyo National Museum which was very large and also under renovation (did they hear I was coming??) but super cool to visit because they have an entire exhibition dedicated to museum conservation and the maintenance of the permanent collection. It was especially interesting to hear about preventative conservation aimed at earthquake protection--it's not something we really have to worry about back home, but they do it so well (and on such a huge scale!) at the National Museum.

Then things got political, as I moved on to Meiji-jinja, the shrine best known for its connection to Japan's imperial history. The shrine is dedicated to the deified Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, and is situated within a massive forest in the heart of Tokyo. It's very beautiful and surprisingly quiet for the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, and I made a beeline for their Treasure Museum. To my surprise it wasn't the statues and relics I've come to expect from treasure museums on shrine/temple/church/synagogue grounds, but rather a small room filled with the personal effects of the Emperor and his wife. Treasure is really an all-inclusive term, I guess! Although at a shrine dedicated to an Emperor and Empress, it makes perfect sense--like keeping the belongings of a patron saint in a church, for pilgrims to visit. Very neat stuff!

My final destination in Tokyo was Yasukuni-jinja, which is known internationally and shrouded in controversy. It's a beautiful shrine, eerily silent and bare, and houses a museum on the grounds, which naturally I couldn't resist. However this is no ordinary museum, for Yasukuni-jinja houses the enshrined spirits of the Japanese war dead serving from 1867 to 1951, and over a thousand convicted war criminals. I was greeted in the foyer of the museum by a perfectly preserved Model 96 15cm Howitzer from 1936, there enshrined "to comfort the noble souls of the war dead." I knew then I was out of my depth, but that I had to go deeper.

There are a few routes one can take through the museum, and unfortunately I only had time for the shortest tour of an hour. I was led through countless rooms lined with infographics and war memorabilia, essentially a history museum explaining the war from the point of view of the Japanese, which needless to say was a new experience. It was overwhelming, to say the least, and I was not mentally prepared to face all this tension on the grounds of a shrine. As I have since discovered, Yasukuni-jinja is still a very controversial site within Japan and the rest of Asia, and it has been continually criticized for its nationalist sentiments since its creation. But as I wandered through the halls, looking at the endless photographs of the war dead, their personal effects, their last letters home, I felt myself completely unable to form a coherent thought, much less cast judgement.

There are conservators who work on those objects, and maintain the museum's collection--what do they think, as they hold the pocket watch of a dead soldier? What is a conserved machine gun's place in a shrine? And how does a restored bomber comfort the souls of the dead? I hope one day to go back and spend more time on the grounds, to read all the signs on the walls and look at the photograph of every soldier. I'll let you form your own opinions about Yasukuni-jinja; honestly, I'm still processing it. But can I just ask that you visit before making any judgement? There are some things that are just too complicated to feel at a distance.

So, that about wraps up my travels in Japan. I know I ended on a rather heavy note, but I also hope it gets you thinking the way it did for me. Hopefully I'll be back someday, to continue the journey I started rather abruptly in October, and one that will stay in my mind for a long time. As it is, I've got just a bit more Japan left for you in the next entry--some Kyoto-specific conservation nerding out, just for you! Until then!