Ajumma Virgin Mary’s long journey to Rome

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Ajumma Virgin Mary’s long journey to Rome

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The artist Oh Chae-hyun believes in the power of native soil. When it comes to materials for his sculpture, he sticks to granite quarried from his hometown of Gyeongju, Korea’s first capital.
“When I touch stones from Gyeongju, they feel warm, as if you are touching a person’s skin and there was blood running under the hard surface,” he says.
This artistic sensitivity drives Mr. Oh to carve sculptures so vibrant that the government commissioned him to render the Virgin Mary for the residence of the Korean ambassador to the Vatican. But Mr. Oh’s earthy sensibilities have also gotten him into trouble. In 2001, when he carved the Virgin Mary for a local church, the priest who ordered the work was put on trial because Mary was portrayed as a bare-breasted Korean peasant.
Near his studio in Paju, Mr. Oh seems to have recovered from the affair, which was a blow to his artistic self-confidence at the time. When he’s feeling down in his day-to-day work, Mr. Oh says that a few cups of makgeoli, or thick rice wine, around midday get him through the afternoon.
“No wonder it’s the farmer’s favorite drink,” he chirps, driving down the road to his studio. “They keep me well. Beers and wines make me sweat when I work.”

In his early years, Mr. Oh became known for making figurative sculptures modeled on pre-modern Koreans, who were much shorter than the typical caucasian figures most students are encouraged to reproduce at art schools. Mr. Oh found jobs doing religious statues for Buddhist temples.
When he accepted an offer to produce a statue of Mary for a local church in 2001 he was asked channel the distinct spiritual sensibility of a Korean woman.
His statue at a church in Mirinae showed an Asian boy Jesus wearing a coolie rack loaded with rice sacks, returning home from work with his mother after a hard day. Mary is dressed in hanbok, a rosary on her belt, carrying a water jar on her head and revealing part of her breasts.
The Korean artistic idiom of portraying exposed breasts comes from a folk tradition in the late Joseon era, when working-class women wore shorter jackets after giving birth to a boy as a sign of maternal pride. The water and rice were biblical metaphors for “our daily bread.”
When his stone carving of Mary and Jesus was first installed at the church, its parish wasn’t so receptive.
The church authorities cursed Mr. Oh for making Mary look like Maya, the mother of the Buddha. Even harsher rebuke fell on Andrew Bang, the Roman Catholic priest who commissioned the statue after he saw Mr. Oh’s works at Jogyea Temple. Mr. Bang was accused of hiring a Buddhist artist to depict Mary as a “prostitute.”
“Our perception of art was too different,” said Mr. Bang. “I wanted to see Mary through the image of our mothers. But others were more used to the idea of the Mary imposed on us by traditional western teaching.”
Mr. Bang was eventually tried at a Catholic court on charges of commissioning a non-traditional artwork that could lead to misunderstandings of Catholicism.
After a series of open panels among Catholic theologians, the case was dropped because the panel was not convinced that the sculpture had any Buddhist references. If Mr. Bang had been found guilty, he could have been stripped of his right to hold mass.
However, the trial did drag on for two years, leaving a stain on Mr. Oh’s artistic self-confidence. For outsiders, the case showed a lack of cultural understanding by the Catholic Church, which has been notorious for nourishing a doctrinaire conservatism.
“Religious sculptures become objects of worship as soon as they leave the artist’s hands,” said Mr. Oh. “One can’t insist on the work’s artistic integrity. I should have known better.”
Maybe Mr. Oh had been naive.
Or perhaps the work simply reflected Mr. Oh’s hybrid religious upbringing.
Born in a Buddhist family, he was sent to a Protestant middle school and then to a Catholic high school, where, he says, “the students were asked to say aloud the Lord’s prayer five times a day.” After college, he married a woman from a Confucian family.
“We go to a church and temple together,” says his wife, smiling. “But that’s mostly because the experience makes him feel humble.”
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Once the dispute over his statue cooled down, Seong Yeom, the Korean ambassador to the Vatican, commissioned Mr. Oh to do a similar work for a courtyard at the ambassador’s residence in Italy. In this version, Jesus is perched on Mary’s back, smiling like a child out of a fable. Mary, carrying a water jar with her left hand, is also smiling.
Ambassador Seong’s proposal of the artist’s work was initially put on hold last year after it was first submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The art jury within the ministry said that Mr. Oh’s style “lacked a modern sensibility” and was inadequate for a diplomatic residence.
However, Ambassador Seong insisted on Mr. Oh’s work. The statue was finally unveiled at the ambassador’s courtyard on October 4, which is Korea Day in Italy. When Cardinal Sepe stripped the cover of the statue, a crowd shouted in excitement.
The local Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, covered the work in great detail, describing Mary’s face as being “transcendent” of her life’s suffering. The paper said that Mary’s exposed breast represented the pride of a woman who gave the savior to the world.
“As an artist, you think about how your works could convey the subject in a meaningful way,” Mr. Oh says. “For Mary, I wanted the water jar to represent the burden in her life. She gave birth to a child in a stable. So why couldn’t she be a poor Joseon woman who was too naive to know anything but her son?”

Outside his studio in Paju, Mr. Oh is working on a Buddha statue. Next to the piece are giant hunks of granite, some weighing over 15 tons. For the seven years that Mr. Oh studied marble sculpture at Carrara, Italy, he desperately missed the texture of rock from his hometown.
“For an artist, a birthplace isn’t just a place he is born,” he says. “The experience lasts forever. It becomes a foundation of your artistic sensibility. Then it becomes part of your work.”


by Park Soo-mee

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