Mediums and Magical Things: An Interview with Laurel Kendall

Laurel Kendall
Laurel Kendall

Laurel Kendall served as President of the Association for Asian Studies in 2016-17 and is Curator of Asian Ethnology and Acting Curator of African and Pacific Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Kendall also chairs the AMNH’s Division of Anthropology and is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. An anthropologist of Korea, Kendall is author of numerous books on shamans, popular religion, and gender. Her most recent publication is Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places, published by University of California Press in 2021. In this volume, Kendall visits research sites in Vietnam, Myanmar, Korea, and Bali to explore the interplay between human actors and religious objects that are understood to be “ensouled, animated, blessed, or otherwise numinous.” Following statues, masks, and paintings from creation to religious use to disposal, Kendall illuminates points of commonality and gaps of difference in beliefs about such objects in different Asian contexts.

I interviewed Laurel Kendall about Mediums and Magical Things via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): We’ll start with a question as big as this book. What I immediately found most striking about Mediums and Magical Things is the breadth of this work, which covers South Korea, Vietnam, Bali, and Myanmar. What compelled you to embark on such a wide-ranging comparative project? On a very practical level, how were you able to make it happen? What were some of the benefits of this approach, and in what ways did it prove challenging?

Laurel Kendall (LK): There was a MacGuffin to the whole project, a statue in a museum in Vietnam and the imbroglio that ensued when the spirit medium who had gifted the image encountered it in close proximity to the floor. Anxious to learn more, my Vietnamese colleagues and I embarked upon a research project about temple statues, how they were made, ensouled, and tended, and what they meant to the spirit mediums and their community. At the same time, I was reminded of things I had heard but never fully understood regarding uncanny happenings attributed to the god pictures that hang in Korean shaman shrines. These stories from South Korea, shared with carvers, mediums, and temple keepers in Vietnam, probably made it easier for my interlocutors to share their own stories about the magic of things. The work in Vietnam fed my preexisting curiosity about the shaman paintings in Korea and led to an appreciation of the distinction between how temple statues are expected to “work” and how paintings, as tools of a shaman’s practice, are the site of an ongoing and intense engagement between the shaman and her gods, a site lacking the relative certainty of the god’s being ensouled in a wooden or metal container.

Cover of Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places, by Laurel Kendall

I’m not sure what moment of extreme presumption prompted me to add Myanmar and Bali to the study. As I became aware of a growing literature that described statue ensoulment in Buddhist and Hindu worlds, as I felt my work enriched by a dialogic engagement between popular religious practices in Korea and Vietnam, and as I experienced the pleasures of joint research, I felt emboldened to broaden the conversation. I have always thought of Asian Studies as a big tent where a lot of interesting things are going on; I began my career as an exchange student in Hong Kong which I experienced as an incredible crossroads. We all invest a lot in our careers as specialists, but looking, reading, and thinking beyond one’s specialty can be invigorating. I was encouraged by anthropologist Webb Keane’s asking why it is that, given the innately comparative nature of anthropology, anthropologists are so squeamish about doing comparative work. I was also well positioned; my job title is “Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections” broadly defined inside a classically encyclopedic Natural History Museum. It was museum work that gave me an opportunity to establish valuable professional relationships in Vietnam in the first instance. More generally, the museum encouraged and supported broad-based research. I make no conceit for what I am able to do outside my Korean comfort zone; the book is a dialogic patchwork of previously-published projects done in collaboration with good partners who were equally invested in the work: several colleagues from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology; Erin Hasinoff, who shared her knowledge of Myanmar and a brief stint of fieldwork with me; and Ni Wayan Pasek Ariati, who has been my research partner in Bali. These experiences also prompted me to broaden the disciplinary perspective of my work on Korean shaman paintings, happily combining forces with folklorist Jongsung Yang and art historian Yul Soo Yoon. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone also assumes a rigorous scouring of the existing literature and a great deal of humility.

MEC: As you discuss in the book, a non-practitioner of one of these religions might consider the statues, paintings, and masks simply part of temple decoration. What distinguishes these objects, in the eyes of practitioners, from decoration? Are they art, but also more than art?

LK: “Art” is in the eye of the beholder; museums and formalist connoisseurship rehabilitated what the Western world initially responded to as “heathen idols” usually described as “hideous.” But the rehabilitation of magical images as art elided the work that these things were originally intended to do. The treatment of religious statues and masks in most museums, until very recently, is akin to the display of Catholic reliquaries in European museums, a celebration of the skill and aesthetic accomplishment evidenced in the container that, in the case of a reliquary, elides the bits of bone or scraps of cloth that were once the raison d’être of the piece. I realized, rather late in life, that the imposing Buddha images I had been paying my respects to in temples all over Asia were considered not just as artistic representations but as literal presences, carefully crafted and ritually ensouled to make a site of encounter and efficacy. A great deal of effort, a mingling of magic and craft, is invested in making this happen, and there were sometimes disagreements among my interlocutors about what was required to make a proper image. I also found an abundance of cautionary tales regarding the mistreatment of magical images. In Vietnam, the legacy of recent anti-superstition campaigns and their associated iconoclasm was particularly strong, but it was not difficult, in any of the places where I worked, to find accounts of images striking back against breeches of image propriety.

MEC: I was fascinated by your discussions of the crisscrossing worlds of religion and the market. These objects are sacred, but at the same time they can be reproduced, commodified, and sold—and today we often see versions of them available as tourist souvenirs. What are some of the perspectives that you heard on this topic of objects as souvenirs during your interviews with interlocutors?

LK: Producing sacred images on commission in a workshop is an old practice across the breadth of Eurasia. The idea that religious images are items of commerce produced in standardized forms is not new. What is new is the explosion of domestic markets in many Asian societies, the greater accessibility of religious goods to expanding Asian middle classes, and the attendant debates about whether rationalized production and cheaper or more easily worked materials compromise the efficacy of a sacred object.

To the other side of your question, expanding global and domestic tourist markets encourage markets in souvenirs, decorative art, and faked antiquities, some produced by carvers originally trained in making sacred images. Everywhere I worked, interlocutors made a clear distinction between the sacred commodity and the pure commodity. And yet, things sometimes become more complicated on the ground. In Bali, where firm distinctions are made between sacred and secular masks, I also heard of masks that, in the words of one Balinese interlocutor, “became sacred by accident.”

MEC: A point that comes through at various times is the importance of an object’s genealogy. Religious practitioners might seek out a statue carved by a particular artist, for example, if they regard that artist as one who creates particularly beautiful and efficacious statues. Toward the book’s end, you talk about what is lost when museums add these objects to their collections without knowing their genealogy. Has the research for Mediums and Magical Things affected how you approach your work as a museum curator, or how you think about museum collections more broadly?

LK: It is often said that early anthropological collecting was more concerned with typology—both object type and typicality for a particular ethnic group—and less interested in the identity of the man, woman, or child who made or used a particular object. Our cataloguing systems reflect this. Also, many objects come to museums through trade, networks of runners and dealers with layers of obfuscating trade secrets. That said, the American Museum of Natural History maintains a careful archive such that any scrap of supporting information is carefully preserved in an acid-free envelope for future researchers. Sometimes old fieldnotes will reveal the story of the shaman who wore the robe or the performer who danced the mask. The weight of that enterprise makes a curator attentive to recording what is known and getting it into the folder. With respect to some of the Korean god pictures in our collection, names of painters and previous owners are known, but not the story of a particular shaman’s relationship to a particular god, the kinds of relationships I described in The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman. The best I could do here is note what we are missing.

MEC: As would be expected for a book about four different research sites and one that engages with scholarly literature on many different topics, the size and scope of your bibliography rival those of a graduate student preparing for their qualifying exams. Among the many works that you read, can you pick out a few that provided special inspiration, and/or which you’d recommend readers pair with Mediums and Magical Things?

LK: Alfred Gell’s notion of the “agentive object” was a formative influence, once my encounters with statues in Vietnam and god pictures in South Korea helped me to understand the premises of his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford University Press, 1998). This was a work of contemporary anthropology that I could also share with my Vietnamese colleagues as something that accommodated their own understandings of temple statues. Richard H. Davis’ The Lives of Indian Images (Princeton University Press, 1997) is an important work that takes seriously the many social ramifications of an image. Angela Chiu’s The Buddha in Lanna: Art, Lineage, Power, and Place in Northern Thailand (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), Donald K. Swearer’s Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton University Press, 2004), and Sarah Horton’s Living Buddhist Statues in Early Medieval and Modern Japan (Palgrave, 2007) are useful case studies of related phenomena. To broaden the discussion in time, space, and discipline, see a recent special issue of Ars Orientalis (50, 2021) on “Miraculous Images,” guest edited by Dorothy Wong.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, ethnographer, or person living in the world?

LK: The human form is at the center of Mediums and Magical Things, a project that went to press as controversies were roiling around public statuary, non the least the now-departed equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt which, until very recently, graced the main entrance of my place of employment. I have found myself returning to David Freedbergh’s The Power of Images (University of Chicago Press, 1989) with its claim for the uncanny power of human images. Museum mannequins would seem, in many quarters, to be ripe for an iconoclastic purging, often characterized as stereotypic, frozen in time, and sometimes downright racist. With my Columbia University Museum Anthropology students, I am exploring the different backstories associated with mannequins in AMNH’s Hall of Asian Peoples, to surprising and less-easily generalized results.