ruminating authenticity


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Phimai, 1986. Before it was ruined. Back when it was authentic.

Preservationists feel strongly about authenticity. In our Western world authenticity is fabric and context: we want original fabric in its original context. If all the furniture in the house is from other places, or if all of the logs in the log cabin have been replaced, we find it inauthentic. If the building has been moved from its original site to a historic building “petting zoo” (think Greenfield Village) we find it inauthentic.

I have made much of the Eastern view of authenticity which sees the craft and technique as authentic – hence a 1000-year old Shinto temple in Ise that is actually only 10 years old but was made with the same tools and techniques used 1000 years ago. Meanwhile we use nail guns and epoxies to maintain our “authentic” 200 year old building.

The problem of authenticity gets more complicated the closer you look at it. Right now I am in San Francisco at an ICOMOS conference on heritage tourism on the Pacific rim. Angkor will get a million tourists next year, twice as many as two years ago. The rush to authentic sites might destroy them. Several speakers, including Tim Winter of Australia, pointed out that Western ideas of authenticity have a lot to do with the romantic and solitary idea of discovery – encountering Angkor in the jungle as a forgotten site. In several Asian countries they are more interested in a group experience and rebuilding a missing site gives them a better sense of what is was like. Soon there will be more Chinese and Indian tourists in the world that Europeans and Americans, and the tourism industry will cater to their expectations and romantic ideas, not ours.

In 1994 in Nara they developed a more Asian concept of authenticity for heritage protection. This has often been interpreted to rebuild completely vanished and often poorly documented sites, a tendency Asia shares with Eastern Europe. And Tucson, apparently, where they are rebuilding a Spanish building that doesn’t even have surviving foundations. The argument is that visitors get a more authentic experience even though the thing itself is not authentic.

What is authentic – the thing or the experience? Everything cultural, is by definition, an artifice of human action, hence it is in some way artificial. But it is also authentic, if people do it in some “indigenous” way. So is the carved stone Jayavarman VII you buy at Angkor by a Khmer craftsman more authentic than the karaoke bar that craftsman spends his free time in? Nowadays we interpret historic sites by stressing continuity with the present. I like to define history as something that started a long time ago and isn’t over yet. But doesn’t that make the karaoke bar part of history? Part of Angkor? It’s there and it is as tangible as the 12th century temples.

We like to think of things as pure or untouched by commerce, but commerce is simply another cultural activity. Tim Winter passed around mass produced tchotchkes from Angkor which us educated types can decry as cheesy and inauthentic. But he challenged us to deny that these were part of the experience of many tourists.

Our conference is at the Presidio, a former military base. There are beautiful woods and palm trees and natural areas. But they are all cultural creations – they were designed and constructed by people, just like the parks in Chicago. Nature doesn’t exist outside of us in a pure state. Neither does culture – the Khmer guide who showed me the Bayon in 2001 was wearing the same brand of shoes I was and each of us were wearing those shoes with equivalent authenticity.

I’m starting to think authenticity is like heritage, an ideology that distracts us from reality. The truth, as someone said, is never pure and rarely simple.

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