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Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places

October 19, 2021
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Zoom Webinar

Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnology and Division Chair and Anthropology Division Chair, American Museum of Natural History
Lesley Sharp, Barbara Chamberlain & Helen Chamberlain Josefsberg ’30 Professor of Anthropology, Barnard
Max Moerman, Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

Moderated by: Myron Cohen, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

Paintings, statues, and masks—like the bodies of shamans and spirit mediums—give material form and presence to otherwise invisible entities and sometimes they are understood to be enlivened, agentive on their own terms. This book explores how magical images are expected to work with the shamans and spirit mediums who tend and use them in contemporary South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bali, Indonesia. It considers how such things are fabricated, marketed, cared for, disposed of, and sometimes transformed into art market commodities and museum artifacts. The two discussants approach this discussion of animated images from two different but intersecting directions. Max Moerman is a scholar of Japanese religion whose work focuses on visual and material representation. Lesley Sharp is a medical anthropologist with an interest in material culture whose recent work has focused on organ transplants and related questions of “life” and “death.” As moderator, Myron Cohen brings a broad knowledge of East Asian popular religion.

Laurel Kendall (author) is Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections at the American Museum of Natural History, Chair of the Anthropology Division at AMNH, and a Senior Research Scholar at WEAI and a former President of the Association for Asian Studies (2016-2017). As an anthropologist of Korea, Kendall has worked with and written about Korean shamans for several decades with an interest in how their work has been transformed by the social, economic, and demographic transformation of Korean society. Museum work led Kendall to Vietnam where she co-curated with Nguyen Van Huy the exhibition, “Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit” and was awarded a Friendship Medal by the Government of Vietnam for this effort. Kendall subsequently worked with colleagues at the Vietnam Museum of Anthropology exploring how sacred things navigate modern markets when they are commissioned for sacred use, when they are transformed as ethnic art, and when once-sacred objects are sold as antiquities. She took her growing interest in the emerging field of material religion back to Korea and a study on the social lives of paintings that hang in shaman shrines. These experiences, in two different but in many ways resonant places, caused her to imagine the broadly comparative work now realized in Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places (University of California Press, 2001). Adding examples from Myanmar and Bali, the book presents the vitality of popular practices surrounding ensouled images, making a dialogue between the four cases while tugging against any easy generalization either between or within traditions.

Myron L. Cohen (moderator)’s research has focused on Han Chinese culture and society during late imperial and modern times. His fieldwork in Taiwan and in villages in northern, eastern, and western mainland China has been concerned with uncovering commonalities and variation as among widely separated Han Chinese communities, especially with respect to family and community arrangements. His present writing is on the historical anthropology of a community in southern Taiwan during the imperial era; among other issues, it explores the impact of the Qing imperial state on local society; the wide-ranging use of contracts and other forms of documentation; and the placing of state, society, and the gods within a coherent cosmological frame. He is a recipient of the Chinese Anthropology Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Shanghai Society of Anthropology.

Max Moerman (discussant) is Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures. He is Co-Chair of the Columbia University Seminar in Buddhist Studies and an Associate Director of the Columbia Center for Buddhism and Asian Religions. He holds an A.B. from Columbia College and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. His research interests are in the visual and material culture of Japanese religions. His current book project, Geographies of the Imagination: Buddhism and the Japanese World Map, is under contract with the Harvard University Asia Center. He is the author of Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2005). Recent publications include the intriguingly titled, “The Buddha and the Bathwater: Defilement and Enlightenment in the Arima Engi,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (2015).

Lesley A. Sharp (discussant) is Barbara Chamberlain & Helen Chamberlain Josefsberg ’30 Professor of Anthropology, a Senior Research Scientist in Sociomedical Sciences the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, and a Fellow of the Center for Animals and Public Policy of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine of Tufts University. A medical anthropologist by training, Sharp is most concerned with critical analyses of the symbolics of the human body, where her research sites range from cosmopolitan medical centers and research laboratories within the United States and other Anglophone countries to urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa. Sharp’s early research (1986-1995) addressed the power of spirit to mediate the suffering, displacement, and economic struggles of migrants and locals within a booming plantation economy in northwest Madagascar. Since the early 1990s, her research has addressed the ethical and moral consequences of innovative medicine and science, where investigative domains include the ideological and embodied consequences of organ transplantation, procurement, and donation as transformative experiences among involved parties in the United States; the imaginative and temporal dimensions of innovative and highly experimental transplant technologies, with specific reference to xenotransplantation and mechanical heart design in various Anglophone countries; and, most recently, the ethical, alongside everyday moral, consequences of human-animal encounters in experimental laboratory research. Her book Strange Harvest won the 2008 New Millennium Book Award of the Society for Medical Anthropology.

Online via Zoom. The event is organized by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and cosponsored by the New York Southeast Asia Network. 

Contact Information

Athina Fontenot