Monday, September 25, 2006

Amazing work...

Happy ends are great. Remember the Chinese vases in Fitzwilliam museum that were smashed to pieces by a spectator? The first one has been fixed, and the two others will be soon. The first restorated vase was displayed in an exhibition called "Mission Impossible", where the "ethics and choices" of restauration were displayed. I saw it on Saturday, the second last day it was on.

The exhibition occupied only one gallery, but it was a very interesting entity, showing how different materials decay over time, how environmental factors like excess light contribute to the damage, and most interestingly was asking questions about what is the "right thing" to do with a number of exhibits. Fixing old things is not always as straight-forward as you might think.

For instance, a number of paintings have been restorated over the years, some better than others. As modern technology such as x-rays and ultralight would allow you to see what's original and what is added, would you try to restore the painting to its original state or just keep it as it is? What if the painting was last fixed 300 years ago by someone now famous? Or, if you have an old musical instrument, which of course is not a display item but whose function stems from it being used, and using it would mean that you would eventually need to replace its moving parts, strings etc., and perhaps eventually lead to structural damage, would you keep using the instrument as it was supposed to or do you deprive it of its function and make a showcase item out of it?

The centerpiece of the exhibition was the Qing-vase now glued together by the amazing Penny Bendall. The vase was safely inside a strong glass box (that looked bullet proof...). Accompanying it was a video that showed the process of fixing the vase, from dividing the staircase into areas, collecting each piece and spec of dust that might have come from the vases into labelled boxes, then proceeding to assemble the puzzles, glueing them together, restoring the glazing and decorations...

Brilliant work, but I didn't realise she needed to do so much repainting of the decorations. This issue was BTW discussed in one showcase, where they showed examples of Eastern restoration style: in China and in Japan they also traditionally have fixed broken vases and plates etc., but unlike in the Western tradition, where the restauration is made as invisible as possible, they tend to make the restoration as visible as possible, and the items become demonstrations of the conservator's skills. The cracks are filled with lacquer, and the lacquer is eventually gilded with leaf gold, so that the fault line shines and at the same time the object gets a new life.

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