Statues with Spirits

Illustration by Jason Raish

It was ninety-five degrees, a typical Cambodian morning, and I was squeezed into a twenty-person bus with more than thirty Cambodian colleagues—including two monks in long orange robes. 

This was my first field trip during a two-week conservation course in Siem Reap, where I was working at the year-old Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum. We were examining collections near the world-heritage site of Angkor to delve into the issues of context, conservation, and how to display art respectfully.

We drove to Angkor Conservation, a depot used by the original French archaeologists to keep everything they found at the ancient temples—statues, columns, mounds of lintels—that is still used to store many of the artifacts being classified and studied around the region.

My colleagues and I had come to think through tough decisions common to museum workers everywhere: Should ancient artifacts be removed from their original temples to be studied and viewed in museums? Do American and French museums that legally export Khmer art have a claim to educating a broader public, or are they participating in cultural theft?

As we walked along the rows of tagged and classified artifacts, my colleague, Samouen, turned to me and asked, “In America, do statues have spirits?” The Cambodian group stared at me in disbelief when I told them, no, I hadn’t ever learned that statues have spirits.

Working and living in Cambodia was a drastic change from walking through Emory’s Quad to my art history classes. In Siem Reap, I thrilled at driving to work on my motor scooter past herds of goats, rice fields, and millennia-old temples of towering sandstone with still-extant carved details from Khmer mythology.

I had anticipated many adjustments when moving from Atlanta to Cambodia, but I hadn’t expected to reevaluate my definitions of art, heritage, and life.

Do statues have spirits?

In my first day at the museum, I encountered the Buddha statues when a coworker gave me a tour. Most of the statues in the museum were Buddhas seated on a mythical snake, the Naga. The Buddha’s hands were gently folded in his lap, his eyes closed serenely in meditation. The regal Naga protectively rose above the head of the Buddha as he sat in lotus position.

Many of the Buddha statues had been broken at the neck or defaced during the thirteenth-century reign of Jayavarman VIII, a Hindu tyrant who seized the throne during a period of unrest following the death of the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. Though he likely had wanted to erase all traces of the previous religion, the faith proved more resilient; today, Buddhism is practiced by almost all Khmers in Cambodia.

After the tour, I grabbed my notebook and documented a dozen major conservation problems found in the open-air museum, such as wind erosion, termites in the plywood pedestals, and liquid stains. A colleague, Sopheap, told me the stains were from frogs that lived in the statues’ hollows relieving themselves on Buddha’s lap. Nature has its own approach to art, it seems.

Nature, in fact, has been acting on the statues for centuries: these relics had been buried for eight hundred years before being unearthed by Khmer archaeology students in 2001. They had been placed in the ground lovingly, likely by a rebellious servant who respected the sacred images.

After we finished our tour of Angkor Conservation’s warehouse, we walked to a large shrine on the grounds containing a single Buddha. To my eyes, this statue wasn’t much different from those we had seen sitting in row upon row inside the warehouse. But clearly, my colleagues thought this Buddha, found at the Bayon temple and worshipped by Cambodia’s king, was special: they took their shoes off and bowed with lit incense held between prayerful hands as they reverently ascended the steps.

I wasn’t sure how to process or react to this unselfconscious blending of academic skepticism and Buddhist faith, but my Cambodian colleagues found no such disconnect: for them, the dual natures of spirit and object, holy figure and artifact, coexisted peacefully.

They referred to the Buddha statues as preah bot, which literally translates to “Holy Buddha”—the same word used by Buddhist monks in their daily chants. There is no clear linguistic distinction between the Buddha as a religious spirit and as a statue. The language itself reinforces the peaceful coexistence between a physical object that needs to be preserved and a spiritual being that needs to be honored.

Seeing my colleagues’ profound experience with the Buddha reinforced the inspiration I had felt when first studying Bernini and Rubens in my art history classes. The quickening pulse, the otherworldly feeling, and the sense of timeless awe that come with viewing great works of art confirm that, yes, art has a spirit that inspires each person who encounters it.

Anne Marie Gan 08C graduated with a double major in art history and Italian studies and was a Luce Fellow in Cambodia. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the spring 2011 issue of Emory in the World, the magazine of Emory's Office of International Affairs.

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