JOURNEY TO THE WOOD'S HEART
Of slaughtering of the tree shaping of the work, its immersion in a Borneo river to its emergence a few centuries later, a Hampatong several lives. To trace each, a scientific investigation goes back in time through the material. Story without jargon.
Summer 2008 was superb! As soon as I arrived, I dashed to Anthony’s. Laying down in the living of the flat boulevard Magenta, the Beauty reveals itself to whoever wishes and knows how to see it. With Anthony Plowright, one of the best experts in Indonesian art, we taste the delight of being able to look at her in every single detail. And, if the wine we are drinking is a modest cru, the moment is exceptional, and the questions, many. What does it represent? What is its age? To what group style does she belongs to? etc. Very quickly we have a carbon-14 dating done and a temporary base is made, for her to be standing up! No really! In the midst of summer in Paris, it’s a challenge! But we do manage to do it.
And, if the wine we are drinking is a modest cru, the moment is exceptional, and the questions, many. What does it represent? What is its age? To what group style does she belongs to?
At the beginning of September, when “Parcours des Mondes” opens its doors, the Beauty majestically thrones in the flat of the boulevard Magenta without ceasing to fascinate us and questioning us, awaiting the arrival of a collector from New York, who is a lover of tribal art and particularly art from Borneo, and who is passing through Paris. There is no doubt that with such an opportunity and with the intelligent advice of an expert such as Anthony Plowright, he is going to “fall in love”. This collector’s reaction is baffling. After having looked at it quickly, he declares that it scares him because it reminds him of his “nightmares” as a child. I admit that these surprising words which were brought back to me by Anthony Plowright left me stunned. Terrifying figures are common in tribal art in general, and this sculpture, in my point of view, has nothing scary. Then again!
Crédit photo: 401kalculator.org via Flickr.com. License by creative commons.
Bang, on the 15th of September 2008, the Lehman Brothers’ Bank is declared in bankruptcy. The financial world is seized by panic, the politicians get involved, media talk about an unprecedented economical and financial crisis, a chain reaction is mentioned, the darkest scenarios are relayed on the air and our hopes of a quick sale vanish while the leaders of the occidental countries dash from G7 to G20 summit!
Bang! on the 15th of September 2008, the Lehman Brothers’ Bank is declared in bankruptcy. The financial world is seized by panic, the politicians get involved, media talk about an unprecedented economical and financial crisis, a chain reaction is mentioned, the darkest scenarios are relayed on the air and our hopes of a quick sale vanish while the leaders of the occidental countries dash from G7 to G20 summit. The end of the year celebrations are gloomy and then time does its works. I understand that this exceptional “hampatong” is going to be difficult to sell. We are going to have to understand it, analyze it, to document ourselves on it and explain it. All the beauty standards of a monumental sculpture of Borneo are gathered in this masterpiece but in a totally hitherto unseen way. And that is what troubles those who see her for the first time, even those who are experts in Borneo art. Months and years pass by. From time to time I ask Anthony Plowright for some news about this “Queen”. The answers are most of the time vague and confused. The economical crisis, the fright she brings up, the researches which are taking time, are regularly and mechanically brought up like an old tune, an old scratched disc. Our relationship begins to unravel as time passes by, the exchanges become difficult. We are turning around the pole and getting nowhere! So, during December 2011, I decided to take back my Borneo “Beauty”, should it only be to get to enjoy it a bit for myself. Indeed, for years, I have only been able to be with her for a few hours. The 1st of June, at quarter to three p.m., the truck delivers the sculpture. Three years have passed without my seeing her. Once I am left alone with her, I understand how much I have missed her and I thank God for bringing her back to me.
Anthony Plowright is a pioneer in the use of science and its methods to authenticate and date Indonesian objects. Since the early eighties, he has undertook numerous datings using different technics on art objects coming from Southeast Asia.
Our cohabitation starts under the best auspices. So happy am I because I can at last look at her as I wish to, at any time of the day or night, with the light of the day, of candles or spotlights, at twilight or in full-light, I examine her in details and under every angle. I have at disposal a Carbon-14 document and a xylological study realized by Xylodata which identifies the wood, but I do not feel like pushing further. If this sculpture has remained several hundred years in the river’s silt, it should be possible to find traces that testify in favor of this watery past. Spontaneously, I call Victoria Asensis Amoros, director of the Xylodata Laboratory which has done the xylological study during summer 2008. She remembers perfectly this sculpture and during our conversation, I learn that a archeo dendrometric study, ordered by Anthony Plowright, and carried out in association with Catherine Lavier, exists. I never had knowledge of this. A few minutes later, the PDF document arrives by e-mail: the magic of internet. Very complete, this study brings some more essential and unknown informations (see here). I exult, so happy to have at last, four years later, this important document, which completes the carbon-14 dating and the identification of the wood. Anthony Plowright is a pioneer in the use of science and its methods to authenticate and date Indonesian objects. Since the early eighties, he has undertook numerous datings using different technics on art objects coming from Southeast Asia. By his side, I learnt many things. Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar! My curiosity will do the rest.
A sunny morning in June, I have the pleasant surprise of receiving a call from Alain Schoffel with whom, for many years and up to now, I have maintained a friendly relationship. “You are hiding something from me” he throws at me with a tip of deception and a pinch of curiosity in his voice. “No, I have never hidden anything from you, and I’m not going to start “ I reply. “I have come across Anthony a few days ago, he told me that you had something from Borneo which was “gorgeous” according to his saying. You haven’t showed it to me, you cheeky!”. Passed my surprise, I tell him the truth. “This hampatong has come back to me hardly two weeks ago and I am still working on it. As long as I had it in Anthony’s care, I could not tell you anything about it. But, from now on, you may pass by whenever you wish to see it”. A meeting is organized for September, the day before “Parcours des Mondes 2012”. The dices are thrown!
After all, if it is possible to know the composition of a star located at a hundred light years from our planet through the analysis of its light spectral, so we should be able to analyze a piece of wood to trace its past.
Like most of those who have been in contact with this monumental sculpture (with us it is only a handful), she brings up questions without giving many answers. Indeed, there is this carbon-14 research. Indeed, it has been carved in a tree used by the dayak artists (see here). All these informations are normally largely enough on a technical point of view to authenticate a piece of art from Borneo, but the art market’s reticence to recognize a piece of art which cannot be integrated in a corpus identified by experts is publicly known. Concerning pieces of art from Borneo, there are many examples of discoveries which are unique that have been published. Borneo is a gigantic island, covered by an impenetrable forest, this forest covers mountains which are cut through by falls and rivers, explored very lately, densely populated by tribes issued from many waves of migration and this running on thousands of years. These unique geography and history can only generate many different styles, some of which are limited to a group of a few villages and sometimes to one village! Therefore, there is nothing surprising to the discovery of a new kind of style. Yet, must we agree on what we mean by “style”! I then decided to find out what kind of scientific analysis are used to explore wood. After all, if it is possible to know the composition of a star located at a hundred light years from our planet through the analysis of its light spectral, so we should be able to analyze a piece of wood to trace its past. One thing leading to another, during summer 2012, my research on the web and my many phone calls to several laboratories and universities trend towards a field worthy of the best thrillers: traceology.
Left to right. Cross section of Shorea spp. Crédit Xylodata. View of the patina microscope Hampatong. View of the micro-texture in the plane transverse to the scanning electron microscope mode imaging with backscattered electrons. Crédit Lamoa Expertise.
In other words, this analysis determines if the sculpture has been carved right after the tree was cut down or later on a wood already centuries old.
From the day I met Marie-Pierre Etcheverry who works for the Lamoa Laboratory, I am convinced that I am on the good track. Not only she tells me that it is possible to observe, with the help of different types of microscopes, the wood and its patina and to pick a certain amount of clues (invisible when looked at with bare eyes) like traces left by modern tools for example, or the use of acids and different chemicals, but she proposes also to take in a new scientific method developed by two colleagues, Emmanuel Vartanian and Céline Roque from the Re. S. Artes Laboratories, and that enables one to know if the sculpture’s carving is consistent with the wood’s age. In other words, this analysis determines if the sculpture has been carved right after the tree was cut down or later on a wood already centuries old. I immediately give the authorization, enthusiastic at the idea of travelling to the heart of the wood of this old sculpture which dates back to several centuries. If the results are positive, this apparatus can be found quite useful to remove any remaining doubts concerning some pieces of tribal art. The world of art expands its field of knowledge and gains in clarity. The wood sampling takes place in September. Simultaneously, “Parcours des Mondes 2012” has just opened its doors and Alain Schoffel visits me to see, according to Anthony Plowright’s words, the “gorgeous” hampatong. His verdict is quickly given, he is enthusiastic. Not only it is impossible with an expert’s eye and experience to doubt of the authenticity of the object but, on top of that, he sees this sculpture as a master-piece from Borneo and further on, of east Asia tribal art. He pays great attention when I describe the scientific researches which are being done and he looks very interested by the kind of perspectives they open. To summarize his thoughts, Alain thinks that the scientific analyses are the prolongation of the expert’s eyes which perceives instinctively the object’s history with his experience and his knowledge. This position is moreover the same as that of the scientists who specify that their analysis will allow to confirm, but not to assert, the authenticity of a piece of art and its history. I am delighted, although cautiousness advises me to wait for the results of the scientific analysis which must end a few weeks later. It is on Christmas that the verdict falls. In addition to the carbon-14, an xylologic and archaeo dendrometric study, the surface and the patina examinations and the study of the alteration of the carved surface (see here) confirm this sculpture’s story, beginning from its being cut down to its being sheared, from its immersion in a river during an “archeological time” to its recent emersion as well as its antic processing. All the stages of the physical history of this piece of art are identified. It is the first time for a tribal art object.
Left to right. Spectrum elemental analyzes energy dispersive X-ray(EDX). Crédit Lamoa Expertise. Infrared spectra of the sample E3 and comparison processed in second derivative. Crédit Re.S.Artes.
On this beginning year 2013, I decide something then without imagining that the consequences will be felt many months later. But then, I am naïve and filled with enthusiasm, even idealism. The idea in that moment is to share these new scientific investigation technics and their results with the community of tribal art and allow the professionals to put them in practice. To do so, I write an email to the editorial staff of the Tribal Art Magazine, explaining the studies done, the results and the interest of this new approach. A first phone contact reveals itself to be very positive. The magazine seems to be very interested. We agree to confirm an appointment shortly. Weeks pass by… My phone messages and emails go astray in the optical fiber’s network. The Tribal Art Magazine no longer answers!