[VIEWPOINT]How to desecrate a sublime work

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[VIEWPOINT]How to desecrate a sublime work

The Cultural Properties Administration recently announced a project to build a museum at the Seokguram cave Buddhist temple site beginning in May. The museum will be built about 100 meters southeast of the national treasure, which was built in the eighth century during the Silla Dynasty.

The museum will be a one-story building with a basement, and will also feature a replica of the temple itself. The administration estimated that construction would cost 5.2 billion won ($3.9 million). Given the time schedule and the limited budget, the building may not be made of granite as the original is, according to the administration.

How absurd.

Seokguram sits overlooking a valley southeast of Mount Toham. The temple's Buddha gazes over the sea to the east, and the water in the valley seems to have its source at the site Seokguram is built upon. In fact, water used to gush out of the floor of the main room of Seokguram Temple.

If a building and a life-size model of Seokguram, which I am sure will be horrible eyesores, are built just 100 meters away from the cultural treasure itself, Seokguram will have another historical crisis on its hands.

The policymakers must understand: Whether it be made of granite or whatever else, a copy of the temple can never duplicate the overwhelming serenity and sublimity that suffuses us when we walk into the cave temple. Any dull, life-size model, shoddily constructed with modern technology and machinery, will only sadden us; it would be a blasphemy against the divinity of Seokguram.

The administration said it will minimize the degradation of the natural environment on the project site, but those are just words floating in the air. The pine trees that fill the site will be felled; the valley will be crowded; people will trample on whatever small trees or flowers survive.

A plan like this was devised because people do not understand what makes Seokguram so valuable.

Korea is a small country. There is not a single year in our history that we did not suffer. Religions, whether Buddhism or Christianity, have tried to purify the struggling country by leading people to nirvana or to heaven through religious practice. That religion brought to life is what Seokguram represents.

I have studied Seokguram all my life. I have seen the cave temple many times since I was a youngster, but I am still overwhelmed by it.

As I studied more about Buddhist art in Korea, China, Japan and India, I could feel Seokguram gradually drawing me closer. I dare to reach my hand out to the treasure because I instinctively know that Seokguram belongs to a higher level of artistry than all the other things made by human hands. Therefore, if I cannot develop my own sense of humility before grandeur, I can not approach Seokguram. I only felt entitled to start studying Seokguram when I reached my middle 40s.

The realization that makes human beings Buddhas is called in Buddhism nirvana, or the state of complete absence of sensation. Living our lives, we experience numerous small realizations and become mature little by little. The realization that Buddhism teaches is a culmination of completeness. Maybe no human being would ever be able to reach that status.

To express that realization in an art work, the Shilla people understood that they had to create the best art they were capable of to represent absolute purity. In other words, by creating an unprecedentedly absolute work of art, they tried to materialize the ultimate truth. That is why Seokguram is so divinely beautiful.

Seokguram is isolated. The Bulguksa temple was built in an accessible place, so a lot of people were able to visit it. Seokguram has retained most of its original form through innumerable wars and invasions because of its hidden location.

Now ignorant successors want to distort and degrade the light that Seokguram emits. What should we do?

If the museum is for education, just select another location. Seokguram already has lost some of its mystique because of bad restorations during the Japanese colonial period.

Let us not disturb this cultural treasure any more.


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The writer is a professor of art history at Ewha Womans University.

by Kang Woo-bang

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