Angkor Balancing Act Weighs Aesthetics, Authenticity

siem reap city – For modern re­storation experts at Angkor, the ultimate crime is to add new stones when strengthening a mon­ument and make them look as if they were part of a centuries-old structure.

But as international expert Pierre-Andre Lablaude pointed out at the meeting of the International Coordinating Committee of Ang­kor last Thursday, there may be situations when a purist’s ap­proach actually defeats the purposes of restoration.

One such case, he said, is the work done by the Apsara Author­ity—the government organization that manages Angkor—at the south gate of Angkor Thom, where heads carved in stone have been placed on some of the headless figures lining the bridge. In accordance with restoration protocol, the stone heads have been left looking new, although they are atop 800-year-old bodies.

Mr Lablaude said at the meeting that although the heads are skillfully sculpted, “One cannot fail to deplore the fact that this beautiful work is being ill-served due to a lack of finishing touches and patina, which gives those white heads set on blackened bodies an especially strange look.”

Pascal Royere of the French institution Ecole francaise d’Ex­treme-Orient faced a similar issue at Baphuon, Angkor’s second-lar­gest monument after Angkor Wat, whose restoration should be completed by next April.

The gigantic pyramid was dismantled stone by stone by the EFEO in the 1960s to consolidate its foundations. When Mr Royere and his Cambodian team em­barked on its rebuilding in 1995, they had to decide whether to follow Baphuon’s original 11th-century design or to incorporate the changes made 400 years later, including the 70-meter-long sculpture of the reclining Buddha created on one side of the pyramid with stones from the crumbling parts of the monument and its top section.

They finally opted for the 15th-century plan, Mr Royere said during a site visit held last week as part of the ICC program. How­ever, some architectural elements were added to suggest the non-missing top portion of the pyramid so that people can get an idea of Baphuon as it first stood 900 years ago. New stones were used in other sections of the monument when the original ones could not be found.

To make the new stones harmonize with the period ones, they were aged just enough to preserve the beauty of the temple, but not so much that restoration workers can’t easily spot them, Mr Royere explained.

The ICC technical experts agreed with his approach.

“One must not forget that, while a monument from the past no doubt constitutes a scientific object of which it is absolutely essential, for the sake of future researchers, to quite scrupulously keep recollection and documentation of potential transformations, a monument first remains a work of art with an aesthetic, poetic and emotional value, which it should continue to convey for us to enjoy,” Mr Lablaude said.

At Mr Lablaude and the other in­ternational experts’ recommendation, the ICC will hold a workshop on stone aging next year.

The ICC meeting ended Thurs­day with a visit to the Preah Noro­dom Sihanouk Angkor Muse­um—locally called “red museum” because of its terracotta exterior.

At the initiative of its director, Ly Vanna, and with the help of EFEO’s archeologist Christophe Pottier, the museum has ac­quired displays on Mr Pottier’s archeological digs conducted at Angkor in the mid-2000s and some of the 3,000-year-old objects his team excavated. They came from the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where they had been temporarily exhibited since May 2009.

For permanent display at that museum next to Angkor park, some exhibits had to be re­de­signed, said Mr Vanna. For example, one wood panel of the pre­historic grave exhibit on the floor was replaced by clear glass for primary school students who visit the museum to better see the ex­hibit, he said.

The museum was built by Sophia University in Japan to house the 274 sculptures of the Bud­dha its team discovered at Banteay Kdei temple at Angkor, but it is managed by the Apsara Authority, which has yet to spend resources developing it, as its empty rooms can attest.

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