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Exhibition features 88 faces of enlightenment

Posted May. 07, 2019 07:47,   

Updated May. 07, 2019 07:47


As visitors walk past a pitch-dark space into a special exhibition hall at the National Museum of Korea, stone statues greet them, with some smiling while others in agony.

On April 29, the museum opened the special exhibition titled, "Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeong Temple Site: Reflection of Our Hearts." Arhats, also called "Nahan" in Korean, are Buddha's disciples and saints who have attained enlightenment. The 500 Arhats were discovered among the ruins at the site of Changnyeong Temple in Yeongwol, Gangwon Province after a local resident's reporting. In the following year, archeologists excavated 317 Arhat and Bodhisattva statues, 64 of which in perfect shape. The exhibition features 88 of the Arhat statues shown at the Chuncheon National Museum last year.

The exhibition consists of two parts: one highlights Arhats' faces going between the sacred and secular worlds, while the other presents Arhats meditating in everyday lives. Part 1 displays 32 Arhat statues placed on 33 pedestals on a brick floor, featuring the Buddhist saints making all kinds of facial expressions including childlike smiles and the look of asceticism. One pedestal is kept empty, with a sign saying, "Look at the Arhat in your own mind." A curious viewer looking over the pedestal would find his or her own face reflected on a mirror.

Part 2 presents 29 Arhat statues buried among some 700 speakers piled up like pagodas. Designed and created in collaboration with contemporary artist Kim Seung-yeong, the space embodies Arhats introspecting amid a jungle of building. Against background sound combining urbans noises, water dropping and bell ringing, the space creates an profound and mysterious atmosphere.

Won-Mo Yu onemore@donga.com