This could have been a rather dry artefact show but contemporary artist Kim Seung-Young has come up with a brilliantly innovative display. The first gallery, called The Faces of Arhats: Between the Earthly and the Saintly, features 29 arhats arranged at intervals on pedestals. The room is dark, with the texture of the sculptures picked out by skilful lighting. The floor is a field of bricks, some of them featuring words and phrases written in English or Korean. “Regret,” says one. “Are you free from yourself?” asks another. The faint sounds of birds and wind may be heard. There’s even a dank, slightly musty smell, although it may have been only my imagination.
In the second room, Daily Introspection, Kim has created a six-metre-high, semi-circular enclosure from more than a thousand old audio speakers. One Buddha and 21 arhats are nestled incongruously on small shelves within these speaker towers, which resemble a broken ring of city skyscrapers. We hear a steady hubbub of voices and the sound of dripping water.
The first room presents the arhats as figures of solitary contemplation, isolated in space, perfectly self-contained. In the second installation, they are inserted within the stream of urban life, silently asserting that even within the noise and bustle of the city, one may find time for introspection.
With its severe verticality and play of voices, the display suggests the Tower of Babel, as portrayed by artists such as Peter Bruegel the elder. This may be an overtly western association, but the Old Testament saw Babel as the origin of the diversity of peoples and the different languages we speak. It was also a challenge to God, an attempt to reach heaven by human ingenuity. In the Buddhist context, in which there is no Supreme Being, it may be read as the aspiration to nirvana, with strivers not being punished but ultimately rewarded.
This exhibition debuted at the Chuncheon National Museum in 2018 and was restaged at the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, in 2019. It owes its presence in Sydney to the Powerhouse’s Curator of Asian Arts and Design, Min-Jung Kim, who had a strong feeling that with the pandemic closing in, this was just what the city needed. After a bruising few years, which have left its future and identity in ruins, it may also be what the Powerhouse needs. One wonders if shows such as the Five Hundred Arhats will even be possible if the Ultimo venue is transformed into a ‘fashion and design’ hub.
Like everyone else, Min-Jung Kim has not been able to travel to Korea to prepare the exhibition, and the artist, Kim Seung Young, has not been able to come to Sydney. Everything has been done at a distance, with the most painstaking care for detail.
The ultimate lesson to be taken from the arhats, is one of patience and forebearance. The small book that comes with this show, tells us: “The main objective of Goryeo’s arhat-based practices can be understood as salvation from various forms of disaster.” That salvation lies in turning inward, not expecting miracles. And so, if the Premier sees fit to lift COVID restrictions with unseemly haste, that’s no reason to throw away the masks and start partying as if the crisis is over. In Buddhist parlance, that desperate search for pleasure is nothing but bad karma. If the Buddha could sit for seven weeks motionless beneath the Bodhi tree, we can stand a few more days at home.