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!

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