Dec 10, 2007

a history of history

we went to the asian art museum on sunday morning to see hiroshi sugimoto's history of history. i'd missed the deyoung retrospective (see some of his stuff here, and here) and the talk he gave on history of history, so figured i should at least catch the show itself. the main idea is that history can be reified into objects, and that photographs themselves are a form of frozen time. as he puts it, "I came to realize that photography is a process of making fossils out of the present." the show is a sort of wunderkammer, stuffed with objects extracted from pre-history to the present day. you walk in through a short passage flanked with fossils from silurian seas, the sandstone surrounding ammonites and ancient sea lilies carefully lifted away to reveal not just the outlines but also the forms of the organisms themselves jutting out from the rock. at the end of the entry corridor, a photograph of the caribbean, half ruffled dark water and half cloudless sky. it could be a photograph of a primordial sea. thinking back, i'm reminded of frans lanting's life through time series; another effort to capture, in the present, images of a prior time. both are exercises in re-membering, reattaching pieces of memory (or created memory) to the collective consciousness.

in one of the side rooms of the 4-roomed exhibition, an entire wall was hung with pages from the burnt sutra of the nigatsudo. this is a copy of the avatamsaka sutra that was in the nigatsu hall in todai-ji when it burned down in the 17th century -- it was written in a platinum-rich ink on paper dyed blue with indigo and tightly rolled for storage. when unearthed among the ashes, the lower third of the entire scroll had been charred by heat but a remarkable amount of the material survived the burning of the hall.
the scroll is interesting not only for the circumstances of its survival, but also because of the pigments used for both scroll and of the pigment used for the ink. paper dyed with true indigo is difficult to produce since the colouring agent in indigo must be dissolved in a reducing, alkaline solution and then reoxidised and dried onto the dyeing substrate to achieve the final colour. the reduction-oxidation process is the reason why indigo dyes tend to achieve different shades over the course of a print run -- any given shade is difficult to reproduce. in any case, you can see the sutra for yourself (or a page of it, anyway):



you can see that the brushstrokes are surprisingly distinct for having been burnt -- the ink pigment, being platinum rather than carbon (as is usually the case with chinese and japanese brush inks), was preserved intact rather than combusted in the heat. more: had the pigment been highly acidic or basic like the oak gall and iron inks favoured by manuscript writers of the middle ages, the sutra would have been consumed by
ink corrosion, a different, slower fire, but a kind of burning nonetheless.

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