Sacred Stuff and the Market

Anthropological studies of sacred objects have typically concerned their production and use in pre-industrial settings; indeed the age of mechanical reproduction is often counter-posed to belief in the magical power of things. Current research in the market economies of East and Southeast Asia forces a qualification. In this part of the world, many objects intended for sacred or ritual use have long been the subjects of artisanal production and have been commissioned, bought, and sold. With the prosperity of Asian market economies, the production and consumption of sacred goods has also expanded, often with rationalized techniques of production and distribution. In some instances, secular souvenirs and tourist art are made to resemble sacred prototypes. How does this affect perceptions of sacredness and efficacy? Under what circumstances do once-sacred statues, masks, and paintings enter new global markets for antiquities and curios?

While anthropologists have done significant work in analyzing popular religious responses to the commodification of human relations under capitalism, students of popular religion can profitably extend Alfred Gell's assumption that people enter into relationships with objects to ask how markets affect the relationship between people and sacred goods. This question assumes attention to how such goods are made, acquired, used, and disposed of.

Vietnam: Sacred Statues

As elsewhere in East Asia, temple statues in Vietnam are produced with a mingling of artisanal skill and ritual attention. The beauty of the finished work, combined with the auspicious circumstances of its production, contribute to a statue's future efficacy as a vessel for the animated presence of a Buddha or god. In a collaborative research project with the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in the fall of 2004, Vu Thi Thanh Tam, Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, and I asked how statues produced for temples to the Mother Goddess had fared in a ramped up market economy where rationalized production and accelerated demand pull new statues into the domain of mechanical reproduction. At the same time, a global market in Asian antiquities has been recasting old statues as "art," which has prompted thefts, suggesting a diminished fear of statue power. In interviews with carvers, temple-keepers, and spirit mediums, our research suggests that while some mediums are content with cheaply produced statues, the contemporary Vietnamese market in ritual goods offers a range of consumer choice.

Completed statues in a workshop in Son Dong Village, Vietnam

Statue carver in the Red River Delta of Vietnam prepares a cavity for the amulet and precious materials inserted inside a statue before it is animated

Vietnamese carver shapes the head of a Catholic saint

In tandem with research for an exhibition on Catholic culture in Vietnam, in 2007, Nguyen Van Huy, Vu Thi Ha, Vu Thi Thanh Tam, and I interviewed carvers of Catholic statues, a range of Catholic clergy, and ordinary Vietnamese Catholics regarding the production, use, and proper disposal of old statues that had been blessed and used in devotional acts. We were particularly concerned with how Vietnamese Catholics regarded the international market in old statues that had peaked over the last ten years and found a range of opinion regarding the propriety of selling old, unused statues, with concern for whether the profit from these transactions would be deployed toward sacred or secular ends.

South Korea: Idol and Icon

AMNH 70.3/2435 Changsǔng post in the Hall of Asian People

My research on sacred objects in a Korean context began in 2006 with the iconic image of the changsǔng, or village guardian pole. Roughly carved out of tree trunks or hewn of stone, changsǔng are often portrayed with bulging eyes and fanged grins that inspire fear in children. Changsǔng once guarded the entrances to Korean villages from malevolent forces. My research followed the changsǔng through a century of Korean modernity. Early twentieth-century Japanese photographers reproduced them as ethnographic curiosities in books and on postcards for the developing tourist market. Miniaturized changsǔng were sold as tourist souvenirs. Since the 1980s, the changsǔng has been reinvented as a "Korean thing," erected in folk village theme parks, made the subject of folkloric excursions, given photographic representation in nostalgia-inducing rural settings, produced as high-end handicraft and gallery art, and is said to be best appreciated by a discerning Korean eye. In some contexts, and in the talk of some cavers, the changsǔng has been resacralized, its production and installation hedged with some of the same cautions and taboos that were already familiar to me from the statue carvers' workshops in Vietnam.

Shaman painting from Korea. A pious Buddhist laywoman has become a deity in the pantheon of her shaman descendant

My growing interest in sacred objects led me back to the familiar world of Korean shamans and a specific focus on paintings of gods that are hung and venerated in shamans' shrines. Working with Jong Sung Yang, a folklorist, and Yul Soo Yoon, an art historian, I began to explore the different ways Korean shaman paintings are understood and valued in shaman shrines, private collections, and South Korean museums and the specific circumstances whereby they have migrated from one domain to another.

Students of material culture studies have profitably examined how "sacred objects" are produced, used, and subsequently transformed into collectable commodities, then resacralized in a different key as museum objects that represent an exotic “Other” (African art is a primary example). These studies of changsǔng and shaman paintings in Korea show how things once considered artifacts of a rural past come to be regarded as the distinctive art of a national "us." The assignment of value to old paintings can be understood in relation to the nostalgia that has infused South Korean appreciations of national folklore and folk art, but at the same time, shaman paintings are still actively produced, hung in shrines, and venerated. The compressed pace of South Korea's transformation meant that my three initial categories of analysis—shaman shrines, private collections, and museums—were not as discrete as I had originally constructed them. Many shamans have become cognizant of the interests of curators and dealers and perceptions of paintings as empowered and potentially dangerous objects, which color stories of collecting.

Balinese Masks in Temples, Performances, and Tourist Shops

In 2012, I extended my sacred objects research to Bali, working with Balinese cultural historian Ni Wayan Pasek Ariati. In Bali, masks are used to entertain gods, Balinese people, and tourists, and are produced as portable icons of Bali to be purchased by tourists and collectors. I intended to explore how carvers navigate, mark, and possibly blur these distinctions; how Balinese performers, dealers, and curators characterize masks in different domains of practice; and how the meaning of a mask might be transformed by different uses and intentions. Bali experts Hildred Geertz and Ron Jenkins had sensitized me to the fact that "sacred" and "secular" are not clear distinctions in Bali but I had only the dimmest notion of how this blurring might be realized.

During my first twenty-four hours in Bali, two long-term ex-pats had independently shared with me the story of a tourist mask, purchased in a shop, that was taken back to New York. In New York, it vibrated on the wall (in some accounts it flew around the room) and generally caused inauspicious things to happen until the owner brought it back to Bali, where it was installed in a temple. We subsequently asked about this story in nearly every interview, using it as a conversational prompt. Nearly every carver and dancer we spoke with recognized the tale, although the details varied, and those who had not heard it took its logic as "the kind of thing that happens in Bali." It became one means of describing the ways that some masks can, counter to the carver’s original intention, become sacred and powerful "by accident," to quote the performer and scholar I Wayan Dibia. Conversation partners described a fairly consistent logic of causality: coincidental use of empowered wood, coincidental adherence to auspicious days, a carver who just happened to give the work full concentration, a mask that absorbed offerings over time, and the propensity of niscala beings to go where they want to be. Carvers and performers provided many other examples of masks that had been initially carved for secular uses, either in performance or display, but had given indications of being more than that.

I. B. Anom as Topeng Tua

K. Kodi working on mask

Masks in action

The notion of "animism" has come back into anthropological writing after a century’s hiatus, usually to describe a connection between human actors and animate forces or powers in the natural world. This renewed discussion has so far not included the ways human and other agents make or cause particular types of things to be animate, to have the agency of souls or spirits abducted to them. In the case of Balinese masks - along with temple statues and images in many Asian settings - "animate" is an active concept; human agents are seen to deploy particular techniques and procedures in workshops as well as in ritual settings, a process that might begin with the procuring of material, in this instance the wood for carving. Ethnographic descriptions of the production of animated images, in Bali and other places, are usually mechanistic with an emphasis on a successful versus a failed or inauspicious sacralization. The Bali example inverts the discussion when actions and circumstances are out of proportion to a commission’s original intention and even things produced as outright commodities, like the mask in the tourist shop, can become sacred, empowered, magical, and possibly dangerous.