Now that I’ve rambled randomly on the subject of digital replacement of Kyoto’s artistic treasures, let me return to trying to summarize what was actually discussed at the roundtable discussion held at this year’s AAS meeting.
Fusuma (sliding screen) paintings at Ninna-ji, just as they should be seen, in place in a historically/culturally contingent location.1
Yamada Shôji of Nichibunken (International Research Center for Japanese Studies) started off, explaining briefly that many (some?) prominent Buddhist temples in Kyoto have begun replacing their artistic treasures with digital reproductions, re-moving the originals to museums where they might be better conserved. Digital reproductions meaning, extremely high-resolution high-quality physical reproductions of the objects, on physical folding screen backings, etc. Many museums and other institutions are creating digital archives, databases, and the like, to make their collections available online – this is a separate thing. This is physical objects, made to resemble the originals, and physically placed on display within the temples. The process is described in a bit more detail in a NY Times article from a few years ago. This creation of digital replacements helps free the temples of the responsibility to care for the objects, and the museums clearly benefit, as it adds great treasures to their collections, adding to their prestige, to the quality or appeal of their exhibitions, and attracting visitors.
Yamada named only a few examples, though I’m sure there are others. In 2009, Daigô-ji replaced a set of screen paintings by Maruyama Ôkyo with digital reproductions, while Nanzen-ji, two years later, replaced a set of screen paintings of tigers by Kanô Tan’yû. In addition to being shown at the temples (in place of the originals), digital reproductions have been used in museum education outreach programs (e.g. visits to schools) and in exhibitions, e.g. at New York City’s Jacob Javitz Center (though not, as far as I know, at any museums). But, there are problems. The Ôkyo paintings, Yamada explained, failed to properly copy the colors and tones, and fine details of color variation within the original. Furthermore, I believe that none of the digital reproductions produced yet truly fully escape the problems of pixelization. Even the most high-resolution photos & high-quality printing also cannot reproduce the reflective effect of gold and silver foil, nor the textures of paint, ink, and traditional paper (or silk). If you’ve ever looked at a painting up close, without glass, you know that it’s completely different from looking at a digital image of it; texture sounds like a really minor thing, but it has a profound impact on the viewing experience – it changes the artwork from an image, into an object.
Another set of fusuma paintings, also at Ninna-ji.
For this reason, among others, Nijô Castle has had works reproduced not digitally, but in the traditional manner, hiring artists expert in the traditional techniques to recreate older works. Since copying the old masters and doing things in an extremely careful, perfect, controlled manner – performing each brushstroke precisely as one means to, in a perfectly expert manner – are essential elements of the traditional training process, I can imagine that the reproductions have the potential to be amazingly faithful to the originals. Though, I’d be curious if that was indeed the result.
Meanwhile, the digitally reproduced Nanzenji paintings exhibited a different problem: they were too beautiful. They raise the question of the goal of digital reproduction – is the aim to reproduce works as they are, or as they once were? The aged, faded, sometimes discolored version of something is the version that is famous today – as with Roman sculptures in perfect white marble, though they were originally likely quite brightly painted – so, how should the reproduction look? Can we even know, correctly, accurately, what the painting originally looked like, or are we just presuming/guessing?
Yamada finished up by suggesting Five Principles that he would like to see the digital reproduction project abide by, going forward.
*Actual state reproduction – not imagining what the original state might have been like
*Open to the public – the originals, now in a museum, should be accessible
*Local conservation – originals should be kept nearby; objects from Kyoto temples should remain in Kyoto museums.
*Reproduction monitoring and preservation – the digital reproductions will degrade just like any other object will, and indeed, perhaps faster than the originals (modern materials are, ironically, just not as long-lasting in many cases).
*Honesty in labeling – when a reproduction is being displayed, it must be very clearly marked or labeled as a reproduction. Visitors must not be encouraged to mistake it for being the real one.
One from a set of swirling dragon paintings, on folding screens at Ryôan-ji, also in Kyoto.
Prof. Hyung-il Pai, from UC Santa Barbara, raised a different set of questions, chief among them, Who has the authority, and authenticity, to protect and present a nation’s heritage?
She discussed the early origins of “cultural heritage” and related movements in Japan, in the Meiji period, and through this discussion, helped us recognize the artificiality of the ranking criteria, assumptions, and motives underlying appreciation and conservation of cultural heritage. In other words, “tradition” is invented. The particular ways that we seek to appreciate and protect cultural heritage, the types of things we appreciate & protect, and those we don’t, are not objective, but are shaped by the discourses of our current time; these discourses are very much products of this current contemporary cultural/political moment, and also of the Victorian/Meiji period invention, or emergence, of the museum, of tourism, etc. in their “modern” forms. The ranking criteria for Important Cultural Properties, for example, Pai tells us, are essentially frozen in their Meiji period forms. So, the particular cultural/political properties of that time, more than 100 years ago, continue to govern much of the Japanese government’s policies on cultural heritage preservation today.
Pai also asked us to consider the corporate agenda inherent in all of these digital reproduction efforts. Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, and others are closely involved in these efforts, and as Pai reminds us, they are for-profit companies; we must always look to see who is profiting, and must ask, should it not be the public, the temples, and scholarship? Though a bit of a tangent, Prof. Pai also raised the point that the DNP Corporation (Dai Nippon Printing) owns and sells access to digital images for the Tokyo National Museum (and other museums?), meaning it is a corporation, a for-profit corporation, and not necessarily the museum, that is profiting every time a scholar needs to pay the not-very-reasonable fees for either high-quality digital images to study (for research), or for permissions to publish those images in a scholarly publication.
Finally, she poked at another very important aspect of this entire digital reproduction question, namely, the problem of whether or not we need to see “the real thing.” This post is already quite long, so perhaps I’ll skip discussing this point at too much length, though I think it profoundly important, and in some respects the most interesting aspect of the entire question. But, suffice it to say, there is a romantic, nostalgic, feeling about seeing the real thing that must be considered; the age of the object, the history of the object, the idea that the artist himself painted this very object, these very brushstrokes, and that this object, this very same one in front of you has been seen or handled by great historical figures (or even just anonymous figures, of bygone eras) – these are powerful and very important and valid feelings. A reproduction, even if done perfectly, down to the texture and everything, may reproduce the image, the composition, the colors, but that’s all it reproduces.
There is, of course, more to this roundtable discussion. My notes are quite sparse, so I thought I could squeeze it all into one blog post, but I realize now that I don’t want to go on and on any longer, and that it would probably be best to put the rest off until a later post. I just hope that I do manage to get around to writing that post… If I don’t, please feel free to give me a poke, a nudge, to remind me to do it.
1) In truth, we can’t in most cases say that screen paintings or wall paintings at temples are being kept in their original locations; over the course of history, they have often be re-moved to different temples. But that’s a culturally rich part of the provenance and history of the object, and of the temple, whereas moving pieces to museums feels more sterile…