the world will never be the same

Sometimes I try to imagine what Chinese looks like to people who have never studied it. I stare at Japanese or Sinhalese or Korean or Arabic, although none of those writing systems really are as complex and simultaneously irregular and beautifully consistent as Chinese (sorry, all of you linguists of the “other”). The closest I can come to reverting to my pre-Chinese life is looking at Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky, but in fact that’s nothing like it, because as a reader of Chinese, you still recognise components within the made-up characters and your brain churns them over and over, trying to make sense of what you’re seeing — Book from the Sky would look something like this, if translated into English: “jEinvz,f folEKfwnkfgpv,,wlelxc ocoeRappaleHf oo kehrejKn”. In fact, maybe it’s the Chinese equivalent to lorem ipsum. Basically, Chinese can never again be a random collection of sticks and squiggles to me, even though my literacy has dropped from something around 3000 characters back to closer to… well let’s not discuss that, huh?

This is all a preamble to saying how in the last two weeks, my way of seeing the world has changed, and I don’t imagine it will ever go back to how it was. Everything I see and read, I analyse with the eye of a conservator, even though I don’t yet have the skills. This morning I read a newspaper article on countertenors, and these lines immediately got me thinking: “The last of the castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922, leaving the only sound recording of a voice that one modern critic described as ”Pavarotti on helium”” Immediately I forgot about the poor castrato himself, and was wondering, What format was that recording in? How was it preserved? Can they be sure that the recording hasn’t been corrupted and that the voice is true to its original? I wonder if they analysed it when it was digitised. The next article I read was about Alannah Hill, who until now was mostly just an over-the-top girly Melbourne clothes designer. They included a photo of her “first design” — and again, I was peering at the photo, wondering if it was a scan of a scan of an original printed photo, what had happened to the negative, and examining the crazy blouse she was wearing thinking how it would be a conservator’s nightmare were it still in existence — the material looked flimsy and the trim was barely attached to the hem. Of course, all of this newspaper reading left me room to worry about how to keep the article on Afghanistan’s hidden treasures when the paper itself is so flimsy and obviously will rip and tear within days (solved that one by… getting the article online).

When I hear about a natural disaster or conflict, I wonder about risk management plans for the cultural sites affected. When I read about Séraphine Louis, whereas once as an art historian I would mostly have been intrigued by her art and her story, in addition to that I now burn with curiosity to know what her secret homemade pigments were made with, especially because they are so stable and require very little conservation. When I read about attacks on Rembrandt’s Night Watch, I am thrilled to know that upon being sprayed with acid, the painting was saved by immediately rinsing it with water. High five, disaster response conservators!

A messy floor-drobe owner from the moment I was born, now I look at my clothes with an entirely different perspective. I am aware of how every crease, every stain, might affect the fabric; I’m equally aware of how the choice of hanger will impact the drape of a dress. I question the best way to shelve each book: laying flat, or standing upright? I hung my damp jacket next to my handbag overnight; will this affect the leather in the long run? I knew all these things before, of course, but now I am constantly thinking, What is the best conservation solution to this problem?.

This is turning into a bit of a novel, so I shall stop. But I am so utterly smitten with my course. This first unit, which finished yesterday, was a constant thrill. From discussions about ethics, to a warning lecture on what to expect when asked to authenticate a most-probably-forged painting, to a proposed script for “Indiana Jones and the Long Tail of Conservation” — I loved every second of it. I WANT MORE! It’s going to be hard to go back to work on Monday…

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One thought on “the world will never be the same

  1. Pingback: fever | today I did this for me

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