Master of Buddhist Symbols

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Master of Buddhist Symbols

Mural Painter Portrays a World Where Nothing Is Linear

Who said power and desire are not Buddhists' favorite subjects? Well, such ideas may go against their religious ethics, but they certainly inspire artists to paint.

Park Kyung-kyu, who paints murals for Buddhist temples and monasteries, says he enjoyed painting "Amitabha's Keuklakdo," a mural about 100 meters wide, that depicts the day the Amitabha descends from heaven to perform reincarnation on his followers.

The event, as Mr. Park has depicted it, is as erotic as images from "Chun-hwa," the Korean version of "Kama Sutra," and the surface is more sumptuous than Cezanne's bowl of fruit.

Newcomers to Buddhist art will find it difficult to imagine that "Keuklakdo" depicts an important religious event. The only indication of its religious reference is the halos around the figures' heads. Even then, the painting's overall atmosphere or the courtesans' stylish hairdos are rather closer to the works commissioned for wealthy aristocrats during the Chosun Dynasty hundreds of years ago. The mural is that rich. However, Mr. Park says these paintings are normally hung in sacred rooms alongside the golden statue of Buddha for public worship.

Literally meaning "the painting of extreme pleasure," "Keuklakdo" depicts the sacred temples and Buddhist followers greeting the coming of Amitabha. Although it may be a cruelly Christian (or Eurocentric) interpretation, the painting is the Buddhists' version of a "paradise on Earth."

The palace roof is turquoise, similar to the color of roof tiles on Korean houses. Along the balcony, exotic court women play various instruments. The palace surrounds a small pond containing floating lotus leaves with baby Buddhas on top.

The two women accompanying Amitabha are dressed in a suggestive manner. Ripe peaches around them further emphasize their sexual codes. Like many religious paintings produced in the Byzantine period, the holy ecstasy in "Keuklakdo" embeds a strong sexual connotation.

Mr. Park says that of all the glorious places in the Buddhist scriptures, he likes the Amitabha's paradise the best.

"It's nice and warm and exhilarating to draw," he says.

Mr. Park, 38, began painting Buddhist murals when he was 13, following his two sisters, who also painted murals. Since he began, he has never doubted that this is the right profession for him. He bluntly says he is not interested in doing anything else.

Mr. Park talks of symbols and what they suggest in the narrative, but says viewers do not necessarily have to interpret the symbols.

His paintings are full of symbols. Referring to a recent work titled "2,000 Martyrs," he says that although the mural shows only 200 figures, each figure in Buddhist painting represents 10. He also points out that in Buddhist art, there is a transcendence of time and place. Nothing is linear. This is why the circle is often used to represent Buddhism, or eastern mythology. Everything in Buddhist philosophy is based on circulation.

Eastern academics draw a similar analogy for the history of Buddhism. Despite its long history, the Buddhist scriptures have not yet been put into one book, like the Christian Bible, for example. This is partly due to frequent invasions from the West, either physical or intellectual, which distracted Asians from concentrating on the essence of their spiritual identity. On the other hand, more than 8,000 scriptures reflect the true Buddhist concepts, which embrace diversity.

Despite the pleasure he gets from painting religious scenes, Mr. Park says religious art is "always a cautious business," because "the art is subject to all kinds of denouncements."

The paintings that are less traditional than others are often criticized as "groundless art," because they do not faithfully reflect the scriptures. There is also argument about different schools of Buddhist art.

Entering the 1990s, Chosun Buddhist art, displaying more traditional elements, clashed with Koryo Buddhist art, recently introduced from Japan. However, Mr. Park is more interested in what the paintings are about than the school from which they come. A devoted Buddhist, Mr. Park's favorite Buddha is Shakyamuni.

Though there are limitations, Mr. Park tries to escape from simply juxtaposing the characters, "like portraits," he says. By rearranging the composition, he tries to insert his own narrative into the painting.

He cites his "Birozana" painting as an example. In this painting, Buddha is represented through the floral patterns of a mandala, the fictional flower appearing in Buddhist mythology. Mr. Park says this is a significant departure from traditional Buddhist painting.

And how much does Mr. Park charge for a mural?

It depends on the piece, but for each pyung (equivalent to 3.36 square meters), he usually charges 100,000 to 200,000 won. Fortunately, enough new temples are being built for artists like him to make a living.

Mr. Park's studio is on the way to the Blue House, near the Sagan-dong Gallery buildings. The small alley that passes his studio is one of the rare streets in Seoul where you can see houses from the colonial period. There you can meet the artist who says that he likes looking at the southern sky, because that's where the Amitabha's paradise exists.

by Park Soo-mee

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