LACQUER AND THE AURA

The unique art object was once the stronghold of the concept of authenticity.  In today’s context, technological tools for reproduction has overcome the question of skill in the artistic gesture and almost anything can be reproduced.  While we are conscious of the technical reproducibility of most objects, there endures a psychological yearning for unique objects and authentic experiences.  In order to negotiate between objects mass produced and the psychological need for the real experience, I propose to change the valuation of a work of art based on its one-of-a-kind-ness and authenticity to the locality that makes it unique. The unique object can then signify a quality of production that also emphasizes or certifies a clear designation of origin in its location in time and space. A more illustrative example is with wine.  A grape from a particular vineyard depends on several factors of harvest, weather, know-how, care, geography, having a very specific time-spatial dimension and procedures that satisfy the desire for the particular without the need to be one of a kind.

Vietnamese natural lacquer also contains these qualities. A work created with son ta can never really be reproduced. Climate, time, topography is recorded on its body.  Its aura is not located in the authorship of an individual whose genius is central to control and creation but rather in the extraordinary singularity of the conditions that make possible its existence - the intersection of the local climate, territorial factors, cultural traditions, time, catalyzed by a body in action and the intention of the author. Through its materiality and coherent designation of origin, a work made of natural lacquer retains the uniqueness contrary to mass production and resists the technologically reproducible.  In addition, the experience of lacquer work is one that cannot be mediated or reproduced by other means.  With its quality of depth, mirror-like shine and luminosity reflecting through layers of precious metals, only the composition of a lacquer image can be captured by photography and digital media but not the quality of its presence, further remarking its specificity of being.

A second feature that historically defines the aura is the concept of beauty. Changes throughout the 20th century demonstrated empirically that beauty is socially constructed.  In contemporary arts, beauty is under suspicion for its association with bourgeois values of the past and its manipulation and commodification as an element of desire and seduction in marketing.  Despite everything, there endures a psychological longing for the aesthetic and aesthetic experiences in art that belong to something beyond ourselves and beyond a solipsistic simulacra of the world.  Beauty needs another reframing within the arts. I suggest to redefine beauty with the qualities of "care, take responsibility for or worry about".

A neologism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the concept sorgees, a structural quality within any desein (being existing in the world) that creates concern, care, and anxiety for its existence and which expresses the unit of condition of being in relation to other beings, in all their situations, its history, its temporality. This care or anxiety makes it possible to perform as a being-unto-death (as a way to be deeply aware of mortality). This concept emphasizes living deliberately and conscienciously towards the inevitable and non transferable event of death as something particular to every being, as a way to access a complete and fully realized life.

Applied to the art, Japanese culture has certainly incorporated these qualities of being-to-the-death to which Heidegger refers in their conceptualization of beauty for many centuries.  One example is the aesthetic concept of mono no aware.  It is not the optical aspect of things, nor is it a particular genre or iconography but rather is a fleeting quality of something that creates a reverberation within the consciousness of each viewer upon his or her own ephemeral condition. It is the quality of an object, a literary text, a landscape full of pathos that evokes this sensitivity for the pain and emotional pleasure of a impermanent life.  There are no promises of transcendence but rather an acceptance of the conditions of existing and the appreciation of life as an aesthetic ideal.

Another aesthetic concept of the Japanese tradition, parallel but completely different to the concept of the aura in the West, revolves around the word "mystery".  Mystery in European art is instrumental towards the promise of transcendence of another world. However, mystery in Japanese aesthetics is a value idealized through the complex quality of yūgen that encapsulates the supernatural grace of a cultivated technique or the virtue of the allusive above the explicit encouraging the participation of the cultivated imagination of the spectator and the dark mystery of indeterminate things.

Utilitarian lacquer in Japan par excellence contains these two qualities of yūgen and mono no aware capturing a deep sophistication in the relationship between the aura, philosophy, design, human labor, as inseparable elements.  Therefore, the loss of the aura is also a loss of real production and the deep and intimate attachment to the singularity of experience.  At a time in which information seems like a right free of charge, in which everything becomes uncovered, visible, and when our perceptions are overwhelmed with graphic information, only the elusive or the ineffable offers a small comfort.  The search for elements of what aura can mean today contours our relationship with how the media shapes how we view the world.