Suzi Shaw, Conservator of Frames & Furniture, National Gallery of Victoria

The Second International Conference on Study of Oriental Lacquer Initiated by H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn for the Revitalization of Thai Wisdom was held at the Napalai Ballroom, Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand from 24-25th July.

The conference began with a traditional ceremonial opening and formal photograph with H.R.H Princess Sirindhorn, followed by presentations and a small exhibition of posters and contemporary lacquer wares. Headed by Sirichai Wangcharoentrakul, the conference was organised by three Thai Government departments: Fine Arts Department (Ministry of Culture), the Royal Forestry Department (Ministry of Natural Resources) and the Department of Industrial Promotion (Ministry of Industry). Delegates came from US, UK, German and Italian art institutions, as well as many from neighbouring South East Asian countries such Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), China and Japan, reflecting a good balance of interest. Simultaneous translation was provided into English, Chinese and Thai.

A wide variety of papers were presented. They included biologists developing methods to improve the germination of lacquer tree seeds, medical specialists discussing the allergic reaction to the various lacquer trees around Asia, homeopathic uses for lacquer tree sap, research on trade routes of stingray skin in the 17th century, and treatments on lacquered objects including further developments in research from the untiring Shayne Rivers (ex V&A Museum, now West Dean College). I attended to present a paper on the work that myself and Karen Fisher (Museum Victoria) undertook preparing Japanese lacquered suits of armour for the NGV’s 2014 exhibition Bushido: Way of the Samurai.

Of particular note were the papers given by those involved in the production of lacquer sap. Due to the long growing time prior to lacquer collection and toxic nature of the sap, few farmers are willing to use their land to grow the trees, preferring quick growing (and therefore quick profit) and less problematic plants such as rubber trees. Several SE Asian countries no longer grow their own variety of lacquer tree, in favour of those with higher yields and less complex growing requirements, meaning that traditional methods are being lost at a rapid rate. Vietnamese lacquerware is almost entirely made using synthetic or cashew lacquers, and demand for authentic lacquered artworks or practical vessels is limited due to their cost.

The Thai Government, with the personal interest of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, has been supporting a number of initiatives engaging scientists, researchers, botanists, and artists to continue and enhance Thai lacquer traditions. Fortunately there are also people such as Eric Stocker, a (French) Siem Reap based lacquer researcher and plantation owner in Cambodia, and Saeko Ando, a (Japanese) lacquer artist living in Vietnam championing the growing and use of true lacquer. As always with lacquer conferences there was a fantastic energy with so many attendees enthusiastic about Asian lacquer, but we mostly left with the sobering thought of how skills and material knowledge are increasingly being lost amongst the pressures of modern life. The next conference in this series will be in 2020.