Laurel Kendall will give a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Thursday, March 4, at 12:15 pm. Her talk is entitled “Things Fall Apart: Material Religion and the Problem of Decay with Examples from Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar.”

In popular religious traditions in Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bali, spirits (or gods or invisible energies) become visible through their material realization in the corporeal bodies of shamans and spirit mediums and via ensouled statues, paintings, and masks that give the gods or spirits presence on altars or in masked performance. Kendall will examine a basic problem of material religion, that ensouled, numinous, or otherwise empowered materials are also vibrant matter, subject to material decay. The objects she will discuss are produced in commercial workshops where knowing craftsmanship entangles (what we commonly call) technique with what we might (more cautiously) call magic to produce an efficacious or agentive image. Questions of efficacy are inextricably linked to material processes as they are realized through local understandings of things unseen and how to serve them, individual and community choices, and the larger socio-political economy in which material religious projects take shape. As a work of comparison, she reveals how questions derived from ethnographic encounters in one place may yield surprising answers in another.


Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections at the American Museum of Natural History and a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University, is an anthropologist known for her work on shamans in South Korea but has more recently been exploring popular religion in material forms in other Asian settings. Her soon-to-be-published Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places (U. California Press, 2021) is a culmination of these efforts.


This event will be held via Zoom. A link will be circulated to registrants by 10 am on the day of the event.