Behind a glass box in the Arms and Armory wing of the Metropolitan Museum dangles a Saihai, or a signaling baton, from the Edo period. The baton’s handle is a long and thin lacquered wood. From it hang golden paper strips that are about as thick and as long as fettuccine pasta. Together the strips mouth a discrete pedestal that holds the Saihai up. However, the Saihai rather gives the illusion that it floats. Perhaps this is because the handle is propped up, as if an invisible hand were still grasping onto it. Or perhaps it is because of the weightless quality of its golden body.
The Saihai could be mistaken for a flower, blooming off a suspended branch. The cascading strips of gold deflate as they descend like an upside down tulip. Even the shadow it casts is reminiscent of nature – the strips dabble light and dark patches below them like scattered leaves. One imagines a dark opening beneath its petals, where it guards its seeds. The handle is engraved with peony blossoms, a flower remarkable for its large opening that only continues to swell over days.
There is also a musical quality about the Saihai. One imagines the strips as a ballerina’s skirt, propped on a pedestal. Perhaps she turns and sways as the black flute-like instrument above her plays soft music. Indeed there is a single hole pierced within the handle that could struggle out weak notes of song.
But the Saihai is also a quiet place. We do not know what lies beneath this lady’s skirt, this golden curtain. A few strips are curled up at their ends, as a tease. But in the end, the Saihai conceals. Its full signs of life make us wonder what it was once like when it moved, but we cannot know. We watch it float, mutely, as a place of secrets.
It is in this moment of silence that we realize that the Saihai no longer lives. It is as a dead thing that one venerates, from a distance, for its impressive life. The signs along its body remind us that it is now a fixed and frozen object. The strips’ creases have stiffened and bent permanently. Parts of the gold have now turned black. A divine light bathes the Saihai’s head, anointing it as if it has already parted for death.
The Saihai is an object full of contradictions: it tells us of all its signs of life, though silently; it appears weightless and flexible yet hard and static. To try to imagine a fierce military commander agitating these strips about for a signal of attack is difficult. We have met our object in its immaculate stage; it seems that it has not been touched for centuries. Anything that would alter its frozen form would come as a disturbance, as a violation of its perfection. As we come to associate it with its function of attack we realize that our flower, lady, and musical instrument in the end stand for blood.
A flash of lightening strikes the glass and for a moment the Saihai disappears behind the white light. It is the flash from one of the one thousand cameras snapping photographs in the Metropolitan Museum. We are reminded of the glass and the people that reflect on it. The dark, enclosed room makes not only the objects more prominent but also the spectators themselves. People swim across the glass as ghosts passing through.
As one watches oneself through the glass, one is reminded of the relationship of viewer and object. The glass, too, is an object to behold as it tells us that what we see is precious. At death, the Saihai left its function as a weapon to become an ancient jewel.