Lacquer as a form of exchange


Sơn Ta, is a resinous substance extracted from the Rhus Sucedanea tree native to North Viet Nam that has been processed for thousands of years in the same artisanal manner.  Traditionally, this resin was used as a protective covering of wood and everyday objects to decorate and protect them from the changes in temperature, humidity, termites and other insects. In the realm of the spiritual, Buddhist temples also used lacquer as the binding agent for polychrome wood sculptures representing Buddhas or deities. The use of gold leaf and silver bathed in the lacquer gives the icons a powerful symbolism and mystical a light. 

In the Dau temple in Northern Vietnam, there are even two examples of mummified monks whose bodies were covered in lacquer after having achieved the maximum level of purity and being.  Similarly in Japan existed the ritual of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification through a slow suicide over the period of many years consisting in a strict diet of nuts and grains finally culminating in the steady ingestion of natural Lacquer Urushi tea to dehydrate the body and protect it from microbes that break down the body after death.  After death, Urushi works on the body from the inside preserving it as a living record of one who has endured the difficult process to enlightenment in a final act of self-denial.  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton.   Source:  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton. 


Because of state control over its production and careful recordkeeping and the high aesthetic value placed upon lacquerware as national and state treasures, lacquerware objects trace a trail of commerce, trade and power that exist long after empires and records have vanished.  Unearthed from tombs dating from the Han Dynasty, at the base of each lacquered treasure found, is an inscription citing the date and names of the imperial workshop responsible for each phase of production that demonstrate state control over production as well as the nature of assembly production during that period.  Lacquered objects of these royal guilds and workshops have been found in as far as North Korea and Japan, showing the existence of an extensive network of trade and relations throughout the region.

Along these channels of commerce and exchange, lacquer objects and statues trace another type of exchange as conductors of knowledge and beliefs bringing Buddhism from India all the way to Japan.  Objects and ideas move back and forth across borders from east to west and back.  During Yuan Dynasty in China or what was known as the High Middle Ages in Europe, technologies invented in China such as the compass, printing press or gunpowder found its way to Europe through the silk trade route.  Enroute the silk trade from East Asia through the Byzantine empire through to Europe, might it be possible that the early Christian paintings of oil on wood board, with its layered transparencies and gilding be adaptations of natural lacquer with linseed oil substituting the unavailable lacquer trees? I am not tracing a specific chronological trajectory of influence in the art historical sense, but rather I suggest in thinking about historical images in terms of a geneology of essences and textures, a family of pictorial cultures and qualities that would trace Van Eyck’s oil paintings back through the panel icons of the Byzantine Empire right to the objects found in the tomb of the Marquis de Zhi.   

History is necessarily tied to a temporality, order, progress, and the relationships among them.  In this sense, lacquer objects are not a type of historical record but rather an image of a type of memory or a physical gesture. As memory, particular characteristics of lacquer - its textures, colors, brightness, shine- allow us to trace relations of similarities to artifacts and vestiges outside of its cultural territory.  For example, to suggest that the lacquer is the aesthetic origin of the first oil paintings on wood opens up a space to re-imagine another past, one more diverse and connected through sensations and images. This allows us to be aware of the vestiges of acculturation and socio-cultural exchanges lost between continents and territories when defined only by their military and ideological history.  These objects are material evidence of a similarity of the small and minor art lost in exchange and unwritten into the grand historical narratives that still persist today.