Mediums and Magical Things opens with an episode in which the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology unintentionally stored three goddess statues in a way that the statues’ donors found disrespectful. Laurel Kendall uses this incident to begin her investigation of how, when, and why statues (Vietnam and Myanmar), paintings (South Korea), and masks (Bali) take on the power of the gods they depict. She also analyzes what this power means for the artists, ritual specialists, merchants, and tourists who encounter these objects.

The first chapter introduces the volume’s theoretical and methodological framework. Kendall, an anthropologist and the curator of Asian History at the American Museum of Natural History, acknowledges the baggage of “magic” as a theoretical concept, but argues that the term still communicates most effectively what she would otherwise refer to as “technologies of sacred production” (10). She brings the same critical eye to the method of comparison, which she mobilizes to resist, rather than support, the idea that magical things share a universal essence.

The second chapter addresses the processes by which statues, paintings, and masks become ensouled. Kendall shows that the material objects are not innately animated but, rather, must be activated through rituals that can fail. The next chapter moves back to examine the raw materials of statues, paintings, and masks, and the artistic processes of creating these objects. The anthropologist consistently attends to how media in different countries animate in their own specific ways. While gods “transmit irregularly through the pictures in the shrine” of South Korean mansin ritual specialists (59), enlivened Balinese temple masks are treated as charged objects that could potentially cause harm.

Kendall then considers how the deity, image, and ritual specialist form an assemblage that operates—if temporarily and contingently—as an agentive whole. Jane Bennett’s description of the electrical grid as an assemblage would further support Kendall’s observations about her informants’ metaphors of electricity linking deity, object, and person (2005). The author again attends to key differences: South Korean mansin claim more control than do spirit mediums in Vietnam and Myanmar, while in Bali, the god and its mask are in charge.

Chapter 5 pushes back against the dichotomy between carefully crafted objects and mass-produced commodities. Kendall argues that god images produced in rationalized workshops and/or for tourist consumption can also demonstrate efficacy. She cites the example of the “Jero Amerika” Balinese mask sold to a North American tourist, which exhibited its powers (and terrified its owners) despite being a “pure commodity.”

The final chapter looks at how museumification further transforms ensouled objects, especially when the objects have been stolen. A pilfered object may retain its potency to the point of endangering those who trafficked it, or even those who encounter it. Objects can be ritually de-ensouled in preparation for the market, including the museum market, but these processes can be incomplete or uncertain.

The conclusion revisits the book’s theoretical frame, starting with the three affordances of 1) the making of religious images, 2) the expectation of the images’ ensoulment, and 3) understandings of these images as ensouled. While these qualities may all apply to the four regions covered in this study, regional differences in the production and understanding of images of the divine demonstrate why the descriptor “animism” remains a poor fit for these phenomena.

Mediums and Magical Things leaves opportunities for other scholars to grapple further with the questions that the author raises. There are always more cases to consider, and the places where Kendall spent relatively less time—Myanmar and Bali—could receive more attention in future studies. Likewise, Mediums and Magical Things consistently engages Walter Benjamin’s argument that art loses its auratic quality in the age of its mechanical reproducibility, but the book does not address more recent theories of enchantment and disenchantment in the modern age.

Mediums and Magical Things makes a valuable contribution to the study of material religion, anthropology of religion, and religion in modernity. It is a timely volume that will no doubt fulfill Kendall’s hope that it “propel others down similar paths” (184).

Megan Bryson
University of Tennessee