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Buddhism and Contemporary Art – Encounter on Holy Ground

People usually rank religion alongside tradition, order, and eternity, while contemporary art follows in the exact opposite categories: constant change, creative freedom and innovation. Although art has been detached from the walls of the temple and the sacraments of the religious ritual, these two spheres are not alien to each other today and occasionally enjoy fruitful encounters. In the Biennale of Contemporary Buddhist Art Haein Art Project, held in one of the three largest Buddhist temples in the Republic of Korea – Haeinsa, in 2011 and 2013, they find yet another occasion for dialogue.

Photo: Official Website of Haeinsa Temple.

Built in the early 9th century, Haeinsa is located in Mount Kaya, in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, and today serves as one of the main centres of the Jogye Order – the leading Buddhist order in Korea, which continues ancient traditions and Seon practices (the Korean version of Chinese Chan Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism). In addition to its stunning beauty, the temple is also known for preserving the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of sacred Buddhist texts inscribed on more than 80,000 printed wooden blocks in the 11th century, which represent one of the most ancient and complete collections of Buddhist scriptures. During the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, most of the original blocks were destroyed, but at the end of the century they were completely restored, and from the 14th century until today they are preserved intact in the Haeinsa temple. The Tripitaka Koreana has been declared a national treasure of the Republic of Korea and in 1995 became part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Tripitaka Koreana. Photo: Official Website of Haeinsa Temple.
Tripitaka Koreana. Photo: Official Website of Haeinsa Temple.
Tripitaka Koreana. Photo: Official Website of Haeinsa Temple.

In order to mark the anniversary of the creation of the original texts, a festival was organized in 2011, offering a variety of exhibitions and interactive workshops. It echoed the spirit of the creation of the original printing blocks, which brought together monks from different factions, overcoming their opposing beliefs in the name of the shared mission. As part of the festival an exhibition of contemporary visual art has been organized, to which authors from all over the world were invited to present work, inspired by the ancient wisdom of Buddhism.

The Opening Ceremony of the Exhibition. Photo: Official Facebook Page of Haein Art Project.

A number of artists from all over the world took part in the exhibition in 2011 and its subsequent second edition in 2013, presenting their modern reading and personal experience of the philosophical teachings and spiritual messages of Buddhism. They employed a variety of techniques and materials, often quite unusual for the religious tradition.

Atta Kim - Ice Buddha. Photo: Official Website of Haein Art Project.
Atta Kim - Monologues of Ice. Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Atta Kim Studio.
Atta Kim - Monologues of Ice. Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Atta Kim Studio.

The Korean photographer and visual artist Atta Kim, for example, presented his work Ice Buddha – a statue executed in the completely classic Buddhist canon. The only unusual decision, which sits at the core of the whole idea behind ​​the conceptual work, is the use of ice as a constructive material. The statue was exhibited in the Lecture Hall of the temple, right in front of the ancient statues of Buddha, and in the course of the exhibition, it inevitably melted before the eyes of the visitors. Through this process of disintegration, Atta Kim depicts the central Buddhist question of the eternal cycle of transformation. To complete it, visitors were encouraged to take some of the melted water in a glass container with them to water a plant and thus, return the water to nature. The work is part of the author’s larger project “Monologues of Ice”, which includes several ice sculptures of Mao Zedong, Marilyn Monroe, the Parthenon, the Egyptian pyramids and the Qing Dynasty Terracotta Army, while each time the work is left to melt during the exhibit. In this way, Atta Kim raises the problem of eternity and insignificancy in the face of time, as well as the inevitable transience of everything and what remains despite it.

Leung Mee Ping - Memorize the Future 2013. Photo: Official Website of the Haein Art Project.

The Hong Kong-based artist Leung Mee Ping also resorted to surprising materials and approaches. In her installation, Memorize the Future 2013, she uses monks’ hair, collected from various Hong Kong monasteries, to knit a series of baby shoes. In Buddhism, entering a monastery is accompanied by a ritual shaving of the heads, which marks the separation from secular life and the beginning of the spiritual path. In fact, the artist worked on this project from 1998 to 2006, having completed more than 10,000 hair shoes at the time of the exhibition. The oxymoron in the title is due to the idea of ​​memories that are stored in human hair or can be symbolized by it, on the one hand, and the knitting of these memories into shoes designed for children – the universal symbol of the future.

Such combinations of the incompatible, accompanied by the opposition to any logic, such as the title of the work, are in fact typical of this branch of Buddhism, known for its brief dialogues between monks and teachers, which confront human reason with the abyss of absurdity on its path of meditation.

Xu Bing - Silkworm Series - Haeinsa. Photo: Official Website of Haein Art Project.

No less surprising is the choice of materials by the Chinese visual artist Xu Bing in his installation Silkworm series – Haeinsa, in which he used real live larvae of silk butterflies, laid on the pages of an open book. Xu Bing brought into the exhibition space larvae expected to transform in a few days into their next stage of evolution – worms. The eggs themselves were arranged on the pages of the books in the pattern of a printed text in an unknown and mysterious language, and after hatching, this “text” was transformed into movable swirls, crawling and sliding on the pages before the “words” turn into butterflies and fly away. Throughout his career, Xu Bing has been driven by his interest in the written word and the mysterious nature of writing itself. This work of his could be connected both with the text of “Tripitaka Koreana” and the power of the written word, as well as the Buddhist idea of the illusory and transient nature of the visible world and the continuous cycle of incarnations in nature.

These three examples are only a small part of the rich program of the two exhibitions, which invited spectators to find the traces of Buddhism in contemporary art and contemporary art in Buddhism. Alongside various media, such as writing on grains of rice, measuring the number of printing blocks, but also personal pain, through small stones and pebbles, even employing manhwa, the popular Korean webtoons, these examples demonstrate the great potential of combining century-old wisdom with new and innovative modes of seeing and comprehending the world. 

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