Most classic representations of Buddha, and indeed many items of Buddhist art more generally, are quiet and pensive. As they have come down to us, they are painted in subdued and muted colours, or left in simple undecorated stone or metal. At her lecture at the KCC last week, Park Young-sook pointed out that originally many of the sculptures would have been brightly painted. But the fact is that what we see now tend to inspire the viewer in the direction of quiet contemplation rather than noisy jubilation. This effect is often emphasised by their mode of display – in dark temples or low-lit museum display cases. We are encouraged to enjoy the sublime peace in their expressions, appreciate the perfect craftsmanship in the depiction of their robes, and note the significance of the minute differences in their hand gestures. Above all, we are encouraged to do this in perfect silence, like the Buddhas whose lips are kept firmly closed.
Park Chan-soo overturns all those preconceptions. His big gilded Buddha, currently dominating the reception area of the Korean Cultural Centre, suffused with a pop art sensibility, is wearing an unnaturally toothy grin. A pair of sculptures celebrate joy and laughter: one pot-bellied figure entitled Happiness looks like he has just imbibed a few jars of makgeolli, while another old man is simply enjoying the company of his grandchild.
These are artworks from the real world, seeking to find the numinous in the everyday. Park Chan-soo has in the past been a regular visitor to Daewonsa temple in Sancheong County at the food of Jiri mountain. I have recently returned from a brief temple stay there, and one message I took home from the monk who looked after me was “Enjoy yourself. Be happy. Don’t be so serious.” It’s a message which seems to be embodied in much of Park’s work.
Early on in the exhibition, Park Chan-soo was available for question and answer, and I asked him about the robust, possibly inebriated joviality in much of his work. He pointed out that Buddhism does not ban alcohol (though it is prohibited to monks): the emphasis was more on its moderate use. Reinforcing the message, he directed me towards his sculpture The three stages of drunkenness: three wood carvings in the shape of soju bottles with human faces. The first shows a benign jollity, the second has entered the tipsy stage, while the third looks like he is about to engage in a late Friday night brawl. The set is charming, amusing and has a simple message.
Park’s sculptures themselves speak with many voices. At one end, his work is immersed in folk art, in pre-Buddhist times. Some of his carvings seem to be inhabited by hundreds of demons, while his party piece at the opening of the exhibition was to carve a Jangseung – a traditional Korean totem pole designed to ward off evil spirits from a village. Nothing very Buddhist about that.
Interestingly though, his method of carving is novel: instead of using a hammer to drive his chisel through the wood, he uses a moktak, a percussion instrument used in buddhist prayer and shaped rather like a maraca. So even though the subject of the work might seem nothing to do with Buddhism, the sound of him creating it transports you to a temple in the mountains.
Emphasising the universality of Buddhism and its acceptance of other religions, there are Christian icons in the current exhibition of Park’s work, including two crucifixions and a sculpture which looks rather like a madonna and child: but in this case the madonna is dressed in hanbok and standing on a lotus flower. And the simple carvings of a sleeping monk, or indeed of the laughing self-portraits, do not require any religious feelings at all: simply a connection with humanity. For those who find traditional Buddhist art hard to engage with, this exhibition has been a breath of fresh air, bringing new life to the genre.
Park Chan-soo is holder of Korea’s Intangible Cultural Property No. 108, Mokjogakjang, (목조각장, wood sculpture). His exhibition runs at the Korean Cultural Centre until 29 May 2010.