Cybele Tom, Jan 27

Cybele Tom (PhD student, Department of Art History)

Seeking Balance: Material and Meaning in a Polychrome Guanyin

Discussant: Alice Casalini (PhD student, Department of Art History)

Wednesday, Jan 27

 4:45-6:45 pm, Zoom meeting (please find the registration link and pre-circulated paper below)



How do we approach objects that are so materially disrupted from their past identities that crucial aspects of their appearance are undefined? A large polychrome wood sculpture of the bodhisattva Guanyin, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, provides a rich case study for exploring this question from the perspective of conservation and science. The focus of a recent in-depth technical investigation and major restoration treatment, the sculpture was revealed to be a palimpsest of several distinct campaigns of surface decoration, the earliest likely dating back to the 11th or 12th century. This presentation reflects on the sculpture’s complex and severely compromised materiality. The technical findings are summarized as a means to elucidate the contingent nature of its authentic or ”true” appearance(s) and to lay the foundation for a discussion of the challenges of its interpretation. When an object’s material instability undermines its identity and intentionality, the conservator charged with its care faces uncomfortable decisions which, though based on a paradigm of aesthetics, visual coherence, and professional ethics, have potentially profound consequences for its meaning and the kinds of evidence it bears.

The presentation is based on the circulated paper co-authored by AIC scientists Clara Granzotto and Ken Sutherland, and which is currently under consideration at the Art Institute Review. The debut issue will thematize the notion of instability in works of art and the museum world more generally. We welcome your comments and suggestions and hope for a lively discussion. In particular, we look forward to your perspectives from within the discipline of art history. Beyond the issues raised in the paper and presentation, broader questions you might consider are: what is authentic for historical objects that are materially compromised? How does the (at times) constructed legibility of museum objects complicate your study of them? How are the material findings as presented here, for example, applicable (and not) to your research questions? How can conservation and art history work more closely?

Pre-circulated paper:


Zoom Registration Link:


Cybele Tom is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Art History and Assistant Conservator of Objects at the Art Institute of Chicago. More accustomed to working within a framework of categorization based on material characteristics rather than time period or culture, she has research interests spanning centuries and continents. She has an Advanced Certificate and MA from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC).


Alice Casalini received her BA and MA in Language and Civilisation of Asia and Mediterranean Africa from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. During her MA, she spent a total of four terms as an exchange student at the department of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University, where she specialized in Buddhist archaeology of Xinjiang. Her MA thesis focused on the Buddhist caves of the kingdom of Kucha. Her current interests lie in early Buddhist art and architecture of Gandhāra and Northern India.


Yifan Zou

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