Halt restoration to protect relics

Published: 12/04/2009 05:00



Reputed painter Le Thiet Cuong and painter, art researcher Phan Cam Thuong shared their viewpoints about the way historical and cultural relics have been “restored” in the last two decades.

Arhat statues, masterpieces at Tram Gian Pagoda in Chuong My district, Hanoi, were re-painted colourfully.

Le Thiet Cuong: The larger relics are, the more they are sabotaged during restoration. The more investment in relics, the more they are damaged. Why?

Why did the Heritage Agency of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism suggest a plan to restore Va Temple, in Trung Hung commune, Son Tay, Hanoi, by tearing it down to build anew? Who advised the agency to do it that way?

How could they build a ludicrous three-storey house in front of Ly Quoc Su Pagoda, Hanoi, on the occasion they restored the pagoda? Which state agency allowed them to break the thousand-year-old wall of Bo Pagoda or build a ferro-concrete statue to cover wonderful terra-cotta reliefs, typical of unglazed terra-cotta art of Vietnam in the late 16th century, at Tram Gian Pagoda, Hanoi? And then the ancient citadel wall in Bac Ninh was destroyed to build pigpens. Did the Heritage Agency not know about these cases?

We have to prevent the bad practice that anyone who has money can tear down temples and pagodas to repair, to re-paint ancient statues regardless of rules about restoration of relics. Temples and pagodas are national relics but they are located inside villages and they are taken care of by villages while the knowledge of villagers about preservation and restoration is too low. But the mistake should not be blamed on the people only. We should have independent companies to supervise the restoration of historical relics.

A country with a history of 4,000 years and a huge number of relics doesn’t have any school that trains technicians in relic restoration. It’s time to establish a school specialising in the restoration of woodworks, lacquer, pottery, silk works and others.

The relics that were restored well include the ancient house of Pham Ngoc Tung in Vinh Loc, Thanh Hoa province, which was restored by a Japanese university in 2002; wall paintings in An Dinh royal palace, Hue city city by the Leibniz Cultural Exchange Association (Germany); and 23 Champa sculptural works by French experts.

All of these works were restored by foreign experts. How is it that foreigners understand more about Vietnamese relics than Vietnamese? Because they see restoration of heritages as a science. Se we definitely need a school of restoration science.

Temples and pagodas are architectural works and artworks of Vietnamese people, the art of wood carving, bronze casting, and lacquer. We are losing artisans of these traditional arts because they are getting older. We have to consider them as living heritages to learn from.

Most restored relics are damaged during restoration. The damage is caused by lack of knowledge, intentional carelessness at work, and also by stealing of materials. We will be able to see Vietnam’s wood carving art of the 16th century in museums only. Going to Thien Tru, Huong Pagoda, Hanoi, visitors may think they are in Singapore when they see two big, ugly stone-made lions at the gate. The three-door gate of Voi Phuc Temple, Hanoi, is a copy of Lang Pagoda’s gate.

Many ancient statues have been re-painted badly, both in terms of colour and paint quality. The faces and limbs of all statues have been painted with industrial paint while they ought to have been painted with traditional Vietnamese paint. This kind of paint is not expensive at all but workers intentionally neglect it.

Hoanh phi (horizontal lacquered boards), cau doi (parallel sentences), cua vong (door paintings in fresco), bat bao (eight objects for worship), and altars at pagodas and temples are flashy and glossy because they were gilt with industrial paint, silver and other things.

We should immediately stop restoration of relics until we have a clear regulation, clear methods and a good team of restoration technicians. Temporarily halting restoration is to protect relics.

To repair Bo Pagoda in Bac Giang province, this ancient soil-made wall was broken out to make a road for vehicles.

Phan Cam Thuong: Vietnam needs to have a national strategy on preserving relics. Temples and pagodas are places where the country’s cultural heritage, tradition and history converge. We can build 1,000 modern houses but if we destroy an ancient temple, we will lose it forever and we can’t re-build it. That is a loss for history, tradition, spiritual values and culture. Damaging temples and pagodas is something that can’t be corrected.

Vietnam can only announce itself to the world through its culture, through preservation and bringing into play its cultural heritages. We can get to modernity through tradition. Going to the end of tradition, we will see modernity. It is true not only in art, but also in diplomacy, economics and other fields.

The restoration of cultural and historical relics in recent years is really alarming. The state and people have paid a lot of money but the results are very bad: Heritages have disappeared and been replaced by new relics. There are many reasons.

Dau Pagoda has four ancient Chinese words “Tuong Van Thuy Khi”. These words were not damaged, rather they were restored by being wiped out and replaced by four new words. The pagoda’s ceiling was painted with dragons, clouds in traditional paint. These were very beautiful but restoration workers repainted them with industrial paint. If we count every work there, it is really pitiful. And it is more pitiful that that pagoda was restored by a state-owned agency.

The restoration of statues clearly has damaged them. Ancient statues were made by jackfruit wood and covered with alluvial soil and traditional paint, and then plated by red lacquer trimmed with gold. This work is very costly and can’t be conducted during the spring, when the weather is wet. This technique makes the paint more glossy and the colour deeper. And the statues can breath in different weather in Vietnam.

When statues are restored, workers have used silver, not gold to trim statues. They replaced traditional paint with Japanese paint, even normal industrial paint. Consequently, statues look shiny and they can’t breath. Statues will be quickly damaged from inside. Moreover, painting statues is an art, which must be done by artists, not workers. Restored statues have entirely changed, especially their ancient appearance.

In pagodas, ancient people used hoanh phi and cau doi without patterns, just Chinese scripts on a flat base to reduce extraneous details. But nowadays, hoanh phi and cau doi in pagodas are very showy, with Chinese scripts on foundations with patterns. Worse, current craftsmen can’t make carved scripts floating on patterns so they paste scripts on patterns. This method will shorten the lifespan of hoanh phi and cau doi. Such products can last for up to ten years. However, it is worse when the feeling that we have at pagodas and temples is of flashiness, mish-mash and lack of aesthetics.


Provide by Vietnam Travel

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