by Drew Martin
Last night I watched an interesting documentary called Buddhist Art: A Fragile Inheritance, which is about the state of Buddhist wall paintings around Asia. The documentary focuses on China, Bhutan, and India, and the conservation efforts to minimize the damage from humidity, earthquakes, floods, tourists and other factors that jeopardize a multitude of hundreds-of-years-old works of art. Some of the worst damage is even done by poorly-trained teams of restorers who have patched cracks with incompatible materials, painted over the artwork with modern pigments, and varnished the walls in an attempt to make them look better. One cultural difference is that in many places the imagery is part of the religious concept of reincarnation and cycles of life; so repainting the originals has been a tradition. But now the residents of these places understand the importance their paintings have on a world stage and are willing to preserve them. The Courtauld Institute of Art in London has been involved in recent years to help determine the best way to maintain the paintings with the least amount of restoration. The documentary scratches the surface of the vast number of wall paintings that are in disrepair but gives a pretty good overview about what is being done to conserve them, especially the various techniques to analyze the damage, and the materials used to prevent them from crumbling such as special adhesives and grouts based on the composition of earthen walls. At the Mogao Caves in Jiuquan, China, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, the 492 cave temple paintings can have 18,000 visitors a day so the national park has handled the influx of tourists and the damage their presence brings by building a massive center complete with exact replicas of the temples. The feeling I had at the end of the documentary was that it is remarkable that on one hand we have a group of people dedicated to preserving art that is crumbling while there are also people in the world determined to destroy such works. The more recent destruction of the architectural heritage of Palmyra, Syria by ISIS brought back the bad memories of the destruction of the 4th- and 5th-century carved Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Even if the efforts of the art restorers can never be complete, the hope behind their actions is even more important than what they physically save.