For Keisuke Sugiyama, 46, an associate professor at Tohoku University of Art and Design and former senior conservator for the British Museum Hirayama Studio, painting conservation is a foray into history, both national and personal.
1. What does a Japanese painting conservator do? We examine and restore works painted on silk or paper using traditional Japanese techniques and offer preventive conservation.
2. What are the basic steps to restoring a painting? We start with photographing and examining the work. Then we document findings in a condition report, which is necessary to discuss a conservation policy with the item’s owner. Only after that do we actually start the restoration. Then we write another report when we finish.
3. Why did you choose to work in conservation? I’m a fifth-generation hyōgushi (traditional Japanese scroll mounter). My grandfather and father trained in Kyoto, so I followed in their footsteps. I grew up watching my father and grandfather making hanging scrolls, and I remember falling asleep to the pounding sounds of their work. Sometimes, I even played with their tools.
4. What’s the most fascinating piece you have worked on? The “Death of the Buddha (Nehanzu),” which is a 15th-century painting that was acquired by the British Museum in 1913, but had never been displayed because of its poor condition. The museum conservators spent six years working on this in collaboration with Japan’s Association for Conservation of National Treasures. I was able to work with 12 conservators from six different studios in Japan and many conservators and scientists in the British Museum.
5. Compared to jobs in Japan, what was it like working for the British Museum? In Japan, most conservators work in private studios and treat specific works for clients, which include institutions. At the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio, however, I was part of the institution’s team, so I not only examined entire collections, but was also involved in important decisions regarding their upkeep, including how they are displayed and loaned to other galleries.
6. What do you think of the British Museum’s Japanese art exhibitions? I love the British Museum’s collections. Its galleries cover a vast expanse of Japan’s art and history, from traditional works to modern manga. Its exhibitions, which have included ones on shunga (erotic woodblock prints), Hokusai prints and manga, are also spectacular and inspiring. The museum attracts 6 million visitors every year, so I believe its exhibitions can play an important role for Japan in terms of PR.
7. As a lecturer at Tohoku University of Art and Design, how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your classes? I teach remotely now, which actually has more pros than cons. Online lectures, for example, can be more interactive for students. When I introduced videos, the students became really enthusiastic and asked for more. I realized then that there wasn’t much video content related to my field available, which is one reason why I started an Instagram account to showcase Japanese conservation techniques.
8. So you think online classes are a good thing? There are still things that need to be done in person, like practical lessons, but yes, it’s a new way of teaching that can help us improve the learning experience for students. Some students started to compare lecturers to YouTubers, so we adapted to make lessons more entertaining.
9. What’s the most important tool of your trade? The maru bōchō (round knife), which is a specific knife for cutting paper and silk, is like the “soul” of the scroll mounter. Every time it’s sharpened, it gets shorter, so it indicates how long you’ve been working. My father’s one, for example, is much shorter than mine. When I compare my maru bōchō to his, I feel like I haven’t worked that long at all.
10. What’s the best part of conservation work? Being able to experience the past through historical art is extremely exciting. Conservators get closer to artworks than most people are able to, and we can spend weeks examining details. That’s an amazing way to appreciate the techniques of artists and their history.
11. What is the toughest part? It’s never straightforward. Every artwork is unique, so even if you successfully treat a piece, it’s not guaranteed to work the way you want it to.
12. How can a regular person keep an artwork or document in good condition for a long time? Keep it away from direct sunlight and store it in a dark, stable condition; one that’s not too humid. It is good, though, to display it regularly and let it air out. We call that mushiboshi.
13. Can I use sticky tape to repair a work at home? Definitely do not use sticky tape. Starch paste is probably the best — but if it’s important, you really should go to a professional.
14. Do you have any advice for someone hoping to work in conservation? Things often change during the conservation process, so a flexible mindset is important. The work involves a lot of repetition and attention to detail, so it requires a certain degree of patience, but seeing the results is always rewarding.
15. What do you do in your spare time? I like to play with my kids. Recently, my conservation Instagram account is also becoming a hobby.
16. If you were a famous painting, what would you be? Something simple, like a Zen ink painting on paper.
17. If you could have a deep conversation with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be? My grandfather. I was already working in conservation when he was alive, and we were close, but there were many things I didn’t notice about the way he worked. I have so many questions I’d love to ask him, even just technical things.
18. The world would be a better place with more of what? Hanging scrolls. It’s such a shame there are less of them now. It’s a nice tradition and ritual to hang a scroll appreciating the season and store away the previous one for the next year.
19. Why are there fewer hanging scrolls in Japan now? Traditional Japanese houses have built-in tokonoma (scroll and ikebana display spaces), but these days, homes are becoming more Westernized — without tatami or tokonoma. With that culture disappearing, sadly, hanging scrolls are disappearing, too.
20. Can you tell us something about yourself you think many people don’t know? I’m actually quite open and don’t hide things. Now I’m wondering if I should be more mysterious.
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