The Smile of Buddha exhibition is the centrepiece of the Made in Korea festival currently showing in Brussels, which also includes photography, ceramics, architecture and video art. As the Korean ambassador to the EU says in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, not many people in the West know much about Korea, and this exhibition is planned to go some way towards remedying that.
The selection of work is interesting. Korea has a large number of Buddhist treasures from its past, so it certainly makes sense to build an exhibition around that – and sneaking in the regalia from a young 5th Century Silla dynasty prince while hard to justify on Buddhist grounds was certainly welcome to a visitor who wanted to see the skill of the Korean artisans and craftsmen whose followers would later be making the various Buddhist artefacts.
Entering the exhibition you are greeted by a replica of the seated stone Buddha in the Seokkuram grotto (above right), and then directed into a room which presents the history of Buddhism’s arrival into Korea, together with some Chinese and Indian representations of the Buddha, to provide context. Then starts the main event, and you enter into a series of darkened chambers with Buddhist chant playing meditatively over the PA system. The first treasure is the Silla gold crown and a rather fine gold belt to go with it. The crown is less ornate than some of the other Silla dynasty crowns which survive – no jade beads dangle from the antlers. And the accompanying belt is for a very slimline figure, which leads the specialists to conclude that these regalia were for a young – maybe teenage – prince, from the 5th or 6th century. The tree-shaped and antler-shaped prongs are typical of Silla design.
After some wall paintings from a tomb, we are introduced to a wealth of sculpture of buddhas and bodhisattvas, including the centrepiece of the exhibition, the famous gilt bronze Pensive Bodhisattva from the 7th century, National Treasure number 83. Matthew Jackson explains the importance of the object here.
There is a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the artefacts from strong light, and to illuminate the exhibition in an appropriately atmospheric way, and, on the other, to allow the visitor to actually examine the works and appreciate their beauty and craftsmanship. The balance was too often struck in favour of mood lighting, and particularly when it came to the Pensive Bodhisattva it was difficult to see the work properly. And in the room devoted to temple artefacts and reliquaries one exhibition case was in complete darkness. But the surround-sound chanting and the beauty of the individual items carried you onwards.
Half way through the exhibition you were permitted a brief detour: through some glass doors you were admitted to a bright circular space where Lee Young-jae’s 111 Vessels was on display. It was a relief to emerge from the sepulchral atmosphere to appreciate the clean, simple lines of the individual ceramic bowls. But, being in meditative frame of mind you were better placed to ponder the rhythm of the composition: each bowl an individual creation of its own, yet together they possess a strange unity.
Refreshed from the detour, you return to the main event where you are now in a slightly later period. After contemplating the muted and slightly austere silk paintings from the late Goryeo dynasty (14th century) you come to a more brightly lit room with works which seemed more geared towards entertainment than contemplation.
My own favourites were the jovial granite Arhats (Joseon dynasty, 16th century – above left) and a laid-back Avalokitesvara (gilt bronze, from the late Goryeo dynasty – above right) who looked as if he wanted you to peel a grape for him. Onwards to the colourful folk-art paintings of the Buddhist underworld, which brought the exhibition to a livelier close.
But before finishing, you were diverted to further meditation in the form of Bae Bien-u’s large, mainly black and white photographs of landscapes, particularly pine forests, in the early morning mist.
Like the 111 vessels which had gone before, you were drawn in to examine each individual tree – its cracked bark, its twisted trunk – and then contemplate the whole forest. It was good to see these photographs in their full size – several square meters each – in order to appreciate both the detail and the overall impact.
Rather forgotten in a separate wing to the Bozar building is S(e)oulScape, an exhibition of architectural projects in Seoul, featuring work from some of Korea’s most distinguished architects. Rather difficult to engage with, this exhibition would probably be easier to appreciate via a series of lectures. The small accompanying catalogue is a useful souvenir, enabling the designs to be studied at your leisure later. But while in the frame of mind to appreciate art and design in an urban environment, pop across the road for a coffee in the shopping mall opposite the museum, where Kim Sooja has installed some bright pink lotus lanterns in the rotunda.
The Made in Korea festival continues into February 2009, with associated performances, film and documentary screenings and educational events.
- Festival homepage at Bozar website