Comparing Gods and Things: Looking At and Beyond Korea
Laurel Kendall - Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections, American Museum of Natural History
The Council on East Asian Studies is pleased to present the 4th Seong-Yawng Park GRD ‘65 and Marguerite Clark Park Memorial Lecture.
The lecture will take place from 4:30 to 6:00pm, with a reception follow in the Luce Common Room on the 2nd floor.
Anthropology is an innately comparative discipline and yet, it has been noted, contemporary anthropologists are generally squeamish about explicitly comparative work. There are good reasons for this—from the naïve generalizations of the discipline’s Victorian forefathers to the overly mechanistic generalizations of structuralism. What is proposed here is more modest, something in the manner of a dialogue that brings things learned in Korean shaman shrines into conversation with other popular religious traditions where gods/spirits/energies become visible through their material realization in the corporeal bodies of spirit mediums and shamans and via ensouled statues, paintings, and masks. In Hindu and Buddhist worlds (including Korea), such objects are produced in commercial workshops where knowing craftsmanship entangles (what we commonly call) technique with what we might (more cautiously) call magic to produce an efficacious or agentive image. In Korean shaman practice and among spirit mediums in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bali, these statues, masks, and paintings are intended to facilitate the presence of otherwise unseen entities in ritual settings. This presentation describes a comparative project that became Kendall’s recently published book, Mediums and Magical Things. As a work of comparison, the discussion reveals how questions derived from ethnographic encounters in one place may yield surprising answers in another and sometimes enrich an understanding of the point from which one began.
Laurel Kendall is Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections at the American Museum of Natural History, a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University; and a former President of the Association for Asian Studies (2016-2017). As an anthropologist of Korea, Kendall has worked with and written about Korean shamans for several decades, describing how this living tradition has responded to the social, economic, and demographic transformation of Korean society. She has written and edited several books beginning with Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits (1985). Museum work led Kendall to Vietnam where she co-curated with Nguyen Van Huy the exhibition, “Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit” (opened 2021) and was awarded a Friendship Medal by the Government of Vietnam for this effort. Kendall subsequently worked with colleagues at the Vietnam Museum of Anthropology exploring how sacred things navigate modern markets when they are commissioned for sacred use, transformed as ethnic art, and when once-sacred objects are sold as antiquities. She took her growing interest in the emerging field of material religion back to Korea and a study on the social lives of paintings that hang in shaman shrines. These experiences caused her to imagine the broadly comparative work now realized in her recent book, Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places (University of California Press, 2021). Adding examples from Myanmar and Bali, the book presents the vitality of popular practices surrounding ensouled images, making a dialogue between the four cases while tugging against any easy generalization either between or within these emergent traditions.
The Seong-Yawng Park GRD ’65 and Marguerite Clark Park Memorial Lecture was made possible by a generous gift from the estate of the Park family. The principal objective of this gift is to foster the study of Korea at Yale by bringing recognition of the Korean peninsula and its affairs and achievements to Yale and the wider community.