Presidential Address & Awards Ceremony

Laurel Kendall, AAS President, American Museum of Natural History  

Friday, March 17, 9:00am - 10:15am

Things Fall Apart: Material Religion and the Problem of Decay with examples from Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar

Things fall apart, but they do not do so at the same rate or in the same circumstances.  Sacred images decay at different rates depending on their own innate material properties and as they interact with air, water, earth, fire, and with the variables of local practice-- incense smoke, libations with ghee, the rubbing of human hands.  The disintegration of a sacred image may be precipitated by human agency (iconoclasm) or postponed by it (acts of care and restoration).  In recent writing, the instability or “vibrancy” of matter engages the attention of socio-cultural anthropologists (Tim Ingold) archeologists (Ian Hodder) and philosophers (Jane Bennett).  I am not offering a controlled comparison much less an argument for a particularly “Asian” approach to the dissolution of religious images.  I am suggesting that when we draw the specter of decay out of the shadows it leads us to some local insights on how local actors navigate the inevitable deterioration of material things through their own understandings of the agentive spirit entities that sometimes inhabit them: What are the cautions that inform the refurbishment of statues in spirit medium temples in Vietnam?  How is the relatively rapid deterioration of a Burmese nat image linked to Burmese understandings of nat-ness in relation to Buddhahood? How has the Korean shaman’s desire to give her deities a clean and pure seat abetted and frustrated a market in antique shaman paintings?

BIOGRAPHY:  A scholar of popular religion and its material manifestations in East and Southeast Asia, Dr. Kendall began her long acquaintance with South Korean life in 1970 as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, when a chance encounter with female shamans led her to subsequent anthropological fieldwork. Her Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) offers a 30-year perspective on people described in Shamans, Housewives, and other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life (1985) and The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman (1988). In 2010, Korean colleagues awarded Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF the first Yim Suk Jay Prize recognizing a work of anthropology about Korea by a non-Korean. In 2007 the International Society for Shamanic research gave Dr. Kendall a lifetime achievement award.

Dr. Kendall’s recent work concerns the production and consumption of sacred objects in contemporary market economies, with fieldwork in South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bali. Her most recent book, God Pictures in Korean Contexts: The Acquisition and Meaning of Korean Shaman Paintings (2015), is the product of an innovative collaboration with a Korean folklorist (Jongsung Yang) and an art historian (Yul Soo Yoon) documenting active social lives of sacred images as they travel in and out of shaman shrines, art markets, and private collections.

At the American Museum of Natural History, Kendall has curated several exhibitions, including Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit (2003), a unique collaboration with the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology that earned Kendall a Friendship Medal from the Government of Vietnam.

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