Buddhist statues convey the spirit of the KoreansIt was a poignant allegory of East and West ― technology versus religion ― when Paik Nam-june introduced his “TV Buddha” in 1968 during his fourth solo exhibition at New York’s Bonino Gallery.
The installation ― a statue of Buddha facing a television monitor, which showed an image of itself reflected through a surveillance camera ― brought existential questions of modern technology down to the sharp metaphor of a religious icon of self-reflection.
The late video artist dubbed “The Michelangelo of Electronic Art” was not alone in incorporating Buddhist statues in contemporary art.
Michael Joo, a Korean-American artist who currently has an exhibition at the Rodin Gallery, showed a statue of Buddha surrounded by a halo of cameras around its head in his “Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby)” as a way of dealing with the split of science and religion during this year’s Gwangju Biennale, one of Asia’s largest art venues.
The dualities of two major civilizations still seem to exist in modern society, where the West is associated with modern technology and speed and the East is considered the origin of Zen philosophy, the art of meditation and endurance.
Indeed, Buddhism has had an immense influence on Korean culture for nearly 1,600 years since its introduction in 372 AD. It was a state religion during the Silla dynasty and was actively practiced among the common people as it was perceived as an ideology that could save them from worldly affairs. There was a rise of resistance among the aristocrats, precisely because it was seen as a challenge to the prevailing order of life.
Buddhist relics and temples currently top the nation’s tourist attractions and Buddhist statues are some the most coveted items at major museums and auctions around the world. In March, 2003, a gilded bronze statue of Buddha, which was presumed to date back to the 7th century Baekjae dynasty, sold for $1.57 million at Christie’s auction house in London, during a sale of Korean and Japanese Art.
The Buddhist statues currently in Korea date back to as early as the 6th Century, when royal households began to adopt Buddhism as a state religion. They are considered some of the nation’s top treasures, mainly because they convey the spirit of the Korean people, such as the way the childlike smiles on the faces of Buddhist statues from the Baekjae dynasty hint at the romantic nature of Koreans.
One of the most valuable national treasures of Korea is insured for 50 billion won ($54.7 million), a gilded-bronze Maitreya Bodhisattva meditating statue (Banga Sayusang), which is rotated every six months for preservation reasons at the National Museum of Korea with a gilded-bronze Maitreya statue in meditation pose.
The two statues, which are presumed to have been made in the early 7th century during the Three Kingdoms Period, show a figure seated on a pedestal, elaborately draped with fabric that slips down to the floor.
The two show almost identical poses ― the figures both cross their right leg over their left knee, their hands rest against their cheeks and their eyes are closed.
According to Korean legend, the statues depict a teenage Buddha watching farmers plowing a field on a fine spring day, realizing that life is full of pain. Formally they are complicated poses, which many critics explain as a revelation of Korean figurative sculpture, as it involves intricate carving on the drapery of the fabric and demands an organic balance of body parts, whether in the ambiguous smiles or the subtle visual tension of the face supported on two fingers of the right hand.
Indeed the statues supposedly show an archetype of Buddhist art from the period ― the pose first originated in India ― which often depicted Buddha in a state of contemplation. (Perhaps man’s meditation is a universal theme, as seen in Rodin’s “The Thinker.”)
The Maitreya Bodhisattva later influenced the production of Buddhist statues carved from red pine at the Koryu-ji Temple at Kyoto, which is a highly-regarded Japanese National Treasure.
“In Buddhism, because none of the concepts are fixed, the artistic styles of statues vary depending on the religious traditions of different periods,” wrote Gwak Dong-seok, the director of Gongju National Museum in his book “Korean Buddhist Statues.” “While statues from the Three Kingdoms Period were more free-style, art from the Silla era tended to be more uniform. But it is the lively spirit of Buddhist statues from the Silla period that most idealistically described Buddha as a religious subject.i
One of the most important examples of Buddhist statues from the Silla period is at Seokguram, a giant grotto on the slopes of Mount Toham, which houses monumental statues of Buddha overlooking the East Sea.
The temple holds 38 granite statues; the main being a seated Buddha with his legs crossed, his right hand turned to the ground and his left hand suggesting the moment of awakening in Buddhist art tradition.
The grotto, which took 23 years to complete, was designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995.
Other examples from the period, which featured highly idealized forms of Buddha, include gold-plated Birozana Buddhas at Bulguksa Temple.
The piece is typified by the thick carving of its drapes, which is a rare find in temple statues that tend to focus on the solemn posture of the statue more than on details. The main Birozana statue at Bulguksa, however, shows a typical sample from the period: the face is wide, yet stiff and the upper body is rigidly upright. Other statues from the temple show similar traits. An Amita statue has a short neck and the carved drapes are also very realistic.
“The shape of Buddha has different aspects in every age,” writes Kim Hye-won on the Buddhist collection of the National Museum of Korea. “It began with slender body types wearing thick clothes. Then in the 7th century, the figures put on more flesh and were clad in outfits that sharply showed their body contours. These traits are similar in Buddhist statues from China. But generally, Korean statues show less visual tension; they are simpler and more dynamic.”
The production of Buddhist statues deteriorated during the Joseon dynasty(1392-1910), perhaps due to the strong influence of Confucianism. Only during the first part of the period were statues featuring intricate accessories and lush design smade with royal support. A gilded-bronze statue of Buddha, which was found inside a granite tower at Sujong Temple near Namyangju is a typical example.
Others still remain a mystery, like the twin statues of Buddha which lie prone on the ground outside Unjusa Temple in Hwasun County. A legend says that a female monk was attempting to build 1,000 stone towers and Buddhist statues during a single night in order to prevent a natural disaster that had been predicted. The statues were left as they were as day came before the monk finished the pieces.
Stories say that under colonial rule, the authorities tried to damage the statues, hearing that the nation would change if the statues were raised from the ground. Whatever their origin, these amazing statues, which are about 12 meters long, remain at a modern sanctuary of Buddhism.
by Park Soo-mee