Arhat statues - Yeongwol, Gangwon Province
Installation view of "Arhats of Daily Introspection" at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
By Kwon Mee-yoo
The National Museum of Korea (NMK) is a treasure trove of significant Korean historical artifacts. For the first time, the museum has joined hands with a contemporary artist who designed an exhibition and contributed an installation artwork, bringing a fresh perspective to the appreciation of cultural assets.
"Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeong Temple Site: Reflection of Our Hearts" features 90 Arhat statues with simple, amiable, and lifelike expressions of joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure.
Kim Seung-young, a contemporary artist known for his site-specific installation works exploring the themes of communication and memory, designed the exhibition space in collaboration with the museum.
"I want visitors to restore the sense of walking in a forest. So I made these pedestals reminiscent of trees and added bird sounds to the exhibition space," Kim explained. "These Arhat statuettes are from the past, but their expressions are universal, in fact quite modern as well."
Arhat statues on display at the "Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeong Temple Site: Reflection of Our Hearts" exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
The Arhat statues were first discovered in May 2001 when Kim Byung-ho, a resident of Yeongwol, Gangwon Province, was leveling his land to build a hermitage. He found the human-shaped stones and reported them to the cultural heritage authorities.
The site turned out to be ruins of Changnyeong Temple, mentioned in the 1481 book "Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam" (Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea).A total of 317 statuettes were recovered from the site, 64 of them in complete form. The remaining statues were discovered with the heads separated from the bodies. Some of the stone statues were exposed to heat and there are burnt traces of the temple that housed the statues, suggesting that these Buddhist figures were created in late Goryeo dynasty (918―1392) and were destroyed during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) when Neo-Confucianism rose to power.
Arhat is the Buddhist term for those who have gained enlightenment, mostly pupils of the Buddha, or Sakyamuni. These Arhats have achieved nirvana and protect the Buddhist principles and they appear in groups of six, eight, 16, 100 and 500 in East Asian Buddhist art. The 300 statues from Changnyeong Temple are presumed to be part of the 500 Arhats. As Arhats are not gods or deities, but people who have reached the highest attainable state for humans, they are considered more approachable.
The statues debuted last August in an exhibition at the Chuncheon National Museum in Gangwon Province. It was selected as the top exhibition among all national museums last year and was moved to Seoul.
Installation view of "The Faces of the Arhats: Between the Earthly and the Saintly" at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
The first part of the exhibit "The Faces of the Arhats: Between the Earthly and the Saintly" consists of 40 Arhat statues. Kim created a brick floor and placed them on pedestals. The Arhats convey a variety of emotions through gentle smiles and sorrow-stricken looks to expressions suggesting that they're lost in thought.
"Please read each Arhat's expressions, strolling through this forest of Arhats," Kim said.
The "Arhats of Daily Introspection" section is a new addition to the Seoul exhibit, and was also designed by Kim. In contrast to the nature-inspired part, the second room is closer to the urban scenery of skyscrapers. Kim created his iconic style of a towering yet meditative installation using 700 speakers and placed 29 statues among them.
"I designed a city of Arhats, after the walk through the Arhat forest. The inkwell in the center reflects the speakers, Arhats and visitors altogether. You can listen to the sound of dripping water and bells while you walk around the structure, contemplating," the artist said. "Personally, I am a Christian, but this exhibit conveys Buddha's message through my perspective. The harmony between Christianity and Buddhism as well as cultural heritage and contemporary art is what we should pursue."
The exhibition runs through June 13.
Arhat statue / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea