Posts Tagged ‘association for asian studies’

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…

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Finishing one’s schoolwork for the quarter is a wonderful feeling. In about a week from now, I’ll be in Yokohama again, where this blog started, attending an intensive language program. But for now, for a few sweet days, I’m free to relax and deal with some other things – like updating this blog!

Fusuma paintings at Ninna-ji, in Kyoto.

I began back in March posting about the panels I attended at the annual Association for Asian Studies conference this year… apologies for the hiatus, but I knew I’d back to it eventually. And here we are. Following the panel on Japanese castles, I attended a lively roundtable discussion about the replacement of artworks in Kyoto temples with digital reproductions, while the originals are being sent to museums, to be kept and conserved.

I remain unclear on what exactly the relationship is between the government and the temples, as to whether or not the government has the power to take objects out of temples even if the temples are opposed to it; I am also unclear as to what the temples’ positions are on the matter. Of course we can easily imagine temples wishing to keep these objects which have, in many cases, belonged to the temple for hundreds of years. But, to be honest, I can also imagine at least some temples being eager to see the objects better taken care of in governmentally-funded museums equipped with modern conservation equipment (e.g. climate controlled storage spaces); it’s certainly not uncommon for private collectors here in the West to donate, sell, or long-term lend objects to museums, saying that they themselves could not take care of the objects properly.

Fusuma and wall paintings in the Rinshun-kaku at the Sankeien in Yokohama.

I can see people being quite passionate that these objects, owned by the temples, belong to the temples, and shouldn’t be taken away; I can also imagine others being equally passionate that all steps should be taken to protect and conserve these precious objects. Both of these attitudes are, I think, quite valid and justified. But, of course, as with so many things, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it depends on the type of object, its relationship to the temple, the conditions in which it’s being kept, and the issue of access. In the case of objects integral to the physical design/appearance/decoration of the temple, such as the fusuma (sliding door) paintings (also known as shôhekiga, “screen and wall paintings”) at so many temples, personally, I think they should stay. To take this logic to its slightly absurd extremes, if we’re going to remove wall paintings to conserve them, how is that so different from removing the walls and posts themselves for conservation, and replacing those – indeed replacing the entire building – with modern reproductions?

Similarly, I feel that objects (whether they be scrolls, or something else kept stored away) with a particularly long or strong historical connection to the temple should likewise be kept, and not taken away sent away to museums. While I certainly appreciate and don’t deny the conservation instinct, as a historian, there’s also the strong feeling of allowing an object, and a temple, to continue its history. I’d rather see books say “the painting was painted for the temple in [insert year] and has been there ever since,” or “the object was donated to the temple by [insert famous name here] and has been there ever since,” rather than “the temple held the object for hundreds of years, until in 2009 it was removed to a museum for conservation, and replaced with this modern reproduction.”

A folding screen (byôbu) painting in a Kyoto private collection, on display only for the Gion Festival.

That said, the issue of access was a prominent one in the roundtable discussion, and I think it’s a very important one, not only for scholars, but for the general public as well. Where is the average member of the public, the tourist, or the scholar, going to be more easily, more frequently, more able to see the object? How often does the temple show the work? How often would a museum show the work? I don’t know how large the average temple’s collection is, or how often objects are rotated, but taking a stab in the dark, I imagine it possible that objects of any significance for the temple will be shown relatively often, whereas most museums only show 1-10% of their collection at any given time, and given the much wider range of types of objects (and themes, periods, or styles) to be shown, the likelihood of any given object being shown is pretty slim. But, in terms of scholars or others requesting permission to access works not on display, I gather that generally museums are much easier to get into than temples. So, returning to my point about historical connections or associations, I think that perhaps it’s okay if objects without such a strong historical connection do go to museums. Admittedly, the issue at hand in digital reproduction in Kyoto pertains more exclusively to fusuma, wall, and byôbu (folding screen) paintings, but, for the sake of argument, the famous Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, for example, has a painting of Okakura Kakuzô as Qu Yuan, painted by Yokoyama Taikan, which I would love to see someday. The object itself is only about 100 years old, and neither Okakura nor Taikan had any dramatically special connection to the shrine; how exactly it got to be there, I don’t know. But I do imagine that the shrine, which consists almost entirely of verandas open to the sea air and possesses no formal gallery space, puts the painting on display extremely infrequently, if ever. Now, I’m not challenging the shrine’s right to own the painting – not by any means – of course they have a right to own it, just as much as anyone has a right to own anything that they own. But, if hypothetically the painting were to come into the possession of a museum instead, not only might it be conserved better (I have no idea what the conservation conditions are at the shrine; they might be quite good), but it would probably be shown more often, and, would probably be more accessible to scholars. I don’t know about Japanese museums, but, so long as one has a decent reason, it’s quite easy, in truth, for scholars to get into the Metropolitan, or the Smithsonian, to look at objects in their collections – I very much doubt the same thing can be said for most temples and shrines, if for no other reason than because they don’t have the same kind of bureaucratic infrastructure in place to allow for it (not to mention the very different religious and cultural attitudes between temples/shrines and museums as to the purpose of access, the purpose of protection, etc.).

I’ve drifted off topic here a bit… but in my next post, I’ll come back to the Kyoto case more specifically, and try to summarize what was actually discussed in the roundtable, possibly with a relative minimum of my own extemporizing.

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