Heterochrono: Lacquer and time

A quality that characterizes heterotopia is the simultaneous clash of different temporal experiences in a singular space. To illustrate, Foucault gives the example of a cemetery as a physical place whose relevance is reserved by its function for a future time after death. A burial ground accumulates temporal experiences of the past, future and present and collides with the reality of our experience of daily life. 

To me, the history of the son ta is full of these contrapositions and accumulations of time.  The production of a work in lacquer, its history, and how we experience a lacquer object carries this constant collision of the past against our temporality and historical moment. As a cultural artifact, it is more akin to a fossil, a memory that contains in its strata a register of the age, humidity conditions, geographical location, the form of its cultural thought, and the imprint of the hand that produced it.  Any object protected by son ta natural lacquer is coated, layer-by-layer with the resin extracted from the earth. Drying depends on the conditions of atmospheric moisture and climate. The lacquer records these conditions through the colors and its transparency when dried, but it is the sanding and polishing, an act of destruction and sculpting, which creates the image or final object. The surface of the image seems delicate and controlled, contradicting the physical, sometimes violent process of its creation. Sweat and heat emanating from the hand gives shine to the surface, bestowing the object a quality of being that seems to transcend time. The resulting object is agency or technology that extends of the physical body of the artisan through time and space through touch. The physical encounter with a utilitarian object of lacquer is an embrace from the hands in the past to the present, a corporeal confrontation of several temporary planes in one space. It is a tactile memory.

 

Chinese Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–9 AD), dated 2nd century BC.  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lacquerware_bowl,_Western_Han_Dynasty.JPG

Chinese Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–9 AD), dated 2nd century BC.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lacquerware_bowl,_Western_Han_Dynasty.JPG

Lacquer object as real memory

In a conference about lacquer in Asia organized by the Hubei Art Museum during the international triennial of lacquer in Wuhan in 2010, Professor of art history Pi Dao Jian of the Guangzhou University narrated his experience as the chief archeologist during the excavation of the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng dated from the warring states period (around 450 b.c. and discovered in 1978.  After over 2,500 years, Dr. Pi was the first person to touch these objects extracted from chests containing several hundreds of lacquered objects.  He recounted the moment when he beheld the lacquer objects in his hands he was overwrought by a physical emotion of contact, of holding the past through these physical objects that survived intact still shiny and lustrous as if they had been deposited there the previous day.

While it is true that while Professor Pi and the team of archaeologists were already in a space of heterotopia, the decisive revelation of the heterotopia is the the physical encounter with a being outside of our time and culture. In this case, the lacquer bowl belonging to the Marquis de Yi was a conductive material making visceral the experience of heterochrona or temporal multiplicity.

It is an example of what the historian Pierre Nora refers to with "real memory" in his essay "Historic places", to explain the difference between memory embedded in gestures and cultural habits, techniques and rituals transmitted through “non-oral traditions, in the self-knowledge of the body, not studied reflections and deeply rooted memories" to contrast historical memory transformed into a subject matter, "voluntary and deliberate, a duty, not spontaneous, psychological, individual, and subjective, no longer social, collective, and total”.

Natural lacquer, a substance before writing, has value as history as memory of the gesture in haptic collectivity.  It is gesture, heat and sweat of a body pressed into material and form.

Tracing the history of lacquer as carrier material, a palimpsest of textures, scents and expressions from another time, may allow us to enter into kind of interpretive relationship and dialogue with the past, not simply as an object of classification and study, but as a receptiveness to be communicated to by an object outside of our own historical cultural horizon, its otherness, in a process of understanding the present.

When one thinks of the effect of time on organic matter, the mind evokes a patina of cracks, wrinkles, dust, nothingness that follow a pattern of decay observable in the natural world.  But these artifacts of lacquer from the tomb of the Marquis de Zi comes down to us through time, lustrous and smooth, belying their millennial age, disrupting and destabilizing our notion of time and permanence. 

 

  

Lacquer box in the shape of a mandarin duck excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Yi.    SOURCE:   Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian,  1   (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 152. and http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/tmarlacq.htm   

Lacquer box in the shape of a mandarin duck excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Yi.  

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 152. and http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/tmarlacq.htm

 

Palimpsest

A second characteristic of a heterotopia is something that serves a specific unchanging function within society but which spatial location and rituals change most radically in relation to the ideologies or dominant values of each age.  Examples of such spaces of heterotopia are cemeteries, brothels, or prisons.  These institutions function in all societies in diverse forms, however, their design, location and practice depend on its relation to the moral and social order of the disciplining power in each era.  It is through the changing locations and habits of use of these places of anomaly or “periphery” that gives shape to the center, the legal and "normal".

This characteristic of heterotopia, as both a constant and variable allows us to trace and compare the epistemic breaks between different social regimes.

An ancient city like Hanoi with its intermittent wars of territory and rebellion, its agrarian economy and values and oral traditions, and the abrupt change of written language from Han Nom to Quốc Ngữ, has left many voids in recorded history.  The social uses of space throughout the city have changed through the ages leaving ambiguous traces for historiography other than as archeological sites.  Hanoi and its streets is a substrate of homes as commerces built upon foundations of other homes upon commerce and family altars, all the way through time.  In a millennial city like Hanoi, except for the few clearly marked spaces clearly dedicated to the operation of the state, what space is not a Heterotopia?  In other words, in a place where every space is saturated with memory without a continuous record, what can be used as a constant in order to reference and compare cultural and ideological changes? Belonging to its territory, Son ta has been used throughout ancient history in a multiplicity of forms up to the present, and has marked on its body in each form of every major dialectical change in this society.

During the feudal period lacquer was used as a protective and decorative skin for wooden objects in temples or for everyday use.  During the colonial period, son ta was introduced as a image making medium as the concept of beaux arts and artistic authorship was introduced to Vietnam.  During the revolutionary period as painting, this medium was charged with nationalism and propaganda.  In the present day, after Doi Moi coinciding with international postmodernism, is a liminal period of changes in form and reflections on its own history.  

With its qualities related to time, its many layers of building up (or construction) to the sanding away (or erosion), I liken Vietnamese son ta to a type of palimpsest, an ancient tablet or manuscript which preserves traces of writing that has been erased or written upon-- both being relevant vestiges and testimonies of another time that is barely discernable and entirely open to interpretation.

Source: Plate XII. ''The S.S. Teacher's Edition: The Holy Bible.'' New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896. {{PD-US}} and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_ephremi.jpg

Source: Plate XII. ''The S.S. Teacher's Edition: The Holy Bible.'' New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896. {{PD-US}} and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_ephremi.jpg