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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhas of Bamiyan’


The situation in Japan of course has not, and will not, go away overnight. It is still very much on my mind, especially after hearing directly (on skype video chat, rather than simply in text form via Facebook, Twitter, or email) from a friend who, though quite safe in Tokyo and quite far from the real center of the devastation, was even there in Tokyo terrified, and shaken, if you’ll pardon the pun, to the core.

I have been putting off posting about anything else for a few days, watching other bloggers put up post after post of serious, concerned, disaster-centric posts. People in Japan sharing their own photos and their own stories; people sharing images and information from the news, and lists of websites for finding and getting in touch with people, and for making donations to the relief efforts.

Here‘s just one of the many many stories being posted online right now. An op-ed piece published in the NY Timesa New Yorker reminisces about her time in Tôhoku, and how much has changed in the last few days, and writes about her relatives in Tôhoku, experiencing this tragedy firsthand. A beautiful, short, piece, entitled “Memories, Washed Away.”

Gary Leupp, history professor at Tufts University and Edo period culture/society specialist, meanwhile, shares his thoughts on the disaster, touching upon the history of the city of Sendai, its poetic beauty, and historical artifacts and sites damaged and lost, and those which have hopefully survived.

It is far too easy to simply move on and get on with our normal lives here in Hawaii… I just learned that my rabbi back home in NY asked after me, and made some kind of announcement to the whole congregation about my being okay. Given how completely out of danger I was, and how relatively normal the last few days have been, I cannot help but feel bad that anyone should be worried about me at a time like this.

But, what can I say? Of course, I cannot, I will not, “move on” completely. I will continue to think about what’s going on in Japan, to pay attention to the news, to be concerned; to keep in touch with friends over there, and to do what I can to be supportive for Japanese friends here. But in the meantime, some scattered news bits from other parts of the world:

*Neil Gaiman – the author of Neverwhere, American Gods, and the comicbook series Sandman, and easily one of my favorite writers – has been working for quite some time on a non-fiction book about The Journey to the West, the classic Chinese story from which The Monkey King is particularly famous. And now, it has been announced that Gaiman is working with others on a film of The Journey to the West. It has been done before, numerous times, in both Chinese and Japanese films and TV dramas, and I don’t want to say that I definitively predict that this one will blow those all away, I trust Gaiman with this kind of project. He’s exceptionally insightful and creative in understanding the internal logic of fantasy worlds, and amazingly skilled in bringing such worlds to life; he’s profoundly respectful of other cultures and their histories, while at the same time not as invested in the project as an expression of nationalism as a Chinese or Japanese creator might be. In short, I’m very much looking forward to it.

*UNESCO has decided not to recommend the reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the Afghan government has decided to go along with that recommendation. Now, admittedly, there are some pretty good reasons for them not to be reconstructed – chiefly, the argument that the millions of dollars it would cost might be better spent on alleviating poverty or any number of other humanitarian or development sort of purposes, and the argument that reconstructions would be fake. There isn’t enough material from the originals to reconstruct them properly from the original materials, and so, really, reconstructed versions would be fakes.

Still, my knee-jerk response is to say that of course they should be reconstructed. Their destruction was a heinous act of religious intolerance, and was the destruction of astonishing sites of cultural and historical value on a global scale. Monuments that, the argument goes, belong to all humanity, not just to the Afghan gov’t to do with it as it pleases.

But, then again, if indeed logistically it is not feasible to reconstruct them, if that is indeed the case, then that has to be the result, obviously.

*The Australian reports on continuing damage and threats to major tourist sites from hoards of tourists. This is, of course, nothing new, but it continues to go on, continues to be a problem, and sites continue to struggle to find solutions. As with artworks, so with sites, and so too I am sure with other cases which don’t immediately come to mind – a balance must be struck between access and conservation. Allowing people in to historical sites such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur, and the Great Wall seems only natural; denying access to these sites because they are so important, and beautiful, and impressive, essentially defeats the purpose of conserving them, just as keeping the Mona Lisa locked away in a dark storage vault to keep it safe from light and other conservation threats completely defeats the purpose. If we’re protecting something – whether it be artwork, or a site – we are presumably protecting it for people, but, the people (or display – exposure to light, air, moisture, etc.) are themselves the threat.

Never mind the graffitti, the people climbing where they shouldn’t, those stealing bits of rock. Even those who are fully obeying the rules are causing damage, as the moisture in the air they breathe out – multiplied by multitudes of people times days, weeks, months, years – encourages the growth of mold in centuries-old cave paintings in Dunhuang. As the erosion caused by footsteps, just regular ordinary footsteps, again, multiplied by thousands or even millions of people, day after day, year after year, wears down the floors of the Great Wall, of, frankly any and every building that sees visitors. You touch the walls, and you think it’s nothing. But multiply that by however many people, touching it however many times – that’s why those bronze statues at your alma mater, you know the ones, the ones that people rub for luck on exams, are so shiny and polished only in those places. Even just the lightest touch of robes brushing up against the wall as people walk by, happening time and again, wore off the wall paintings, only below a certain height, a certain point on the wall, in a famous and majorly old and important Buddhist temple in Japan (I’m blanking on which one at the moment..), and that was a site where tourists have never been let in – the damage was done by courtiers hundreds of years ago, and other religious devotees, visiting the temple and worshipping by walking around the perimeter.

Is there a definitive answer? Perhaps. I don’t know. Perhaps not. Perhaps we just need to strike a balance, keep a close eye on the sites, or make difficult decisions. Some sites are closed off; others are replaced, essentially, by reconstructions built next door and opened to the tourists. It’s a problem that is not going away any time soon; and, hopefully, if everyone does their jobs, the sites themselves won’t be going anywhere either.

*Donny George, former director of the Iraqi National Museum, has died. He collapsed in Toronto airport, and was declared deceased shortly afterwards at the hospital; he had been in Toronto to give a lecture on Mesopotamian artifacts and efforts to combat the black market illegal trade in such objects.

Dr. George had been instrumental in recovering thousands of objects looted from the Baghdad museum in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, and was a real force for good in the museum world. His loss will surely be felt deeply.

*The Japanese contemporary art show “Bye Bye Kitty” which I have been eagerly awaiting for quite some time opens later this week at Japan Society in New York. A brief article today accompanies a slide show of installation shots and of staff working to figure out how to get Nawa Kohei’s life-size deer sculpture in the doors.

I quite like Gallery Director Joe Earle’s comments on having the show despite recent/current events. The article states: “Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami will surely hang over the exhibit that opens March 18, but Joe Earle, vice president and director of the Japan Society, noted that much of the work itself had already contemplated such destruction. After all, he said, every Japanese child, from a very young age, is trained to prepare for such disasters.”

And while I don’t like to attribute too much to Murakami Takeshi, or to talk about him too much, he often speaks/writes about his own theory of the profound importance and fundamental role that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played – and continue to play – in shaping the collective psyche of postwar Japan. Going along with Earle’s comments, I would say that the creators of these contemporary current artworks are fully embedded in the cultural and societal issues which face Japan, including not only a culture of overworking salarymen, and extraordinary pressure placed upon high schoolers, as seen quite directly in two works from the show, but also in a society that is constantly aware of the dangers of natural disasters, and takes preparations very seriously.

*One more link for now. The New York Times has a rather interesting article today about the collection of the White House and its curator, a position started 50 years ago by Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.

One could probably write volumes about private collections, and could take all different sides of the issue, talking about how cool it is to think of all the wonderful things that a place like the White House must have, but then also the negative side of how many similar private collections throughout the country and the world must have so many awesome artworks and other objects hidden away from public view or access.

I’m not sure I have anything really to say about it all at the moment, without getting into a pages-long stream-of-thought ramble on the subject… I shall simply say that I think it a very interesting and intriguing job to have; fun and interesting to realize that there definitely are curatorial-type jobs outside of the major museums, and just nice, and fun, to get a brief glimpse into it through this article.

That’s all for now, I suppose. Stay safe, everyone. My thoughts and prayers to those throughout Japan continuing to struggle with this crisis, and to their friends and families overseas.

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Once again, I have put off talking about certain topics long enough that they have piled up… so, it’s time for another Quick Links post.

(1) The pagoda of Yakushi-ji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, has never been open to the public in the 1300 years since it was built. That is, until yesterday. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of pagodas are not meant to be entered. Having evolved out of the Indian stupa tradition – large mounds erected over the grave, or simply some relics, of a major figure – pagodas serve chiefly as reliquaries and symbols, and not as prayer halls or some other type of building designed for human occupation and use.

The pagoda at Yakushiji is about to undergo an eight-year renovation, during which not even the exterior will be visible. So, perhaps to make up for that, and to help maintain/attract interest in and attention to the site, and to the marvels of Asuka period architecture and design (all of these reasons are just speculation on my part and not mentioned in the article), they are allowing visitors, up until March 21, to take a peek inside.

I wish I were in Japan right now to take advantage of this opportunity…

(2) Speaking of renovations to ancient monuments, WIRED has a new article on the reconstruction of the Great Buddas of Bamiyan.

We’ve been hearing about reconstruction efforts for years, ever since the Buddhas – surely some of the largest Buddha statues in the world, carved right out of the mountainside in the 6th century – were dynamited and destroyed by the bigoted, religiously intolerant, and anti-culture Taliban in 2001. Now, a researcher from Germany claims to have an actual plan for the reconstruction, which he is expected to present at an upcoming UNESCO meeting in Paris.

UNESCO, as I understand it, is generally against the dramatic alteration of World Heritage Sites, and especially against reconstructions being counted as World Heritage Sites. (This is why the rebuilt Shuri Castle in Okinawa does not count as a World Heritage Site, but rather the site it sits on and the ruins and such below it are the listed/designated UNESCO Site.) … But, should UNESCO really be opposed to the reconstruction of these statues, so inappropriately destroyed? I suppose if they are not restored, the empty caverns could continue to stand for centuries, or millennia, as a monument to intolerance and religious hatred, reminding us all what an asshole thing it is to allow your own beliefs to supercede appreciation of other cultures, and of the past.

(3) A figurine excavated from the Chihara Ohaka tomb in the town of Sakurai, in Nara prefecture, is the oldest humanoid haniwa figure to ever be discovered. The 4th century figure is 67 cm (26.4 in) tall, and 50 cm (20 in) wide, predating the previously earliest found haniwa figure by several decades.

More can be found (in Japanese) at the Asahi Shimbun, for as long as they decide to keep that article up.

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