Sunday, July 22, 2012

Creeped Out By Public Art

Probably “WTF” comes closest to my reaction when I received an e-mail saying that a community group wants to place this artwork in our temple’s neighborhood.


The explanation of the imagery seems to come from a realm that regards Buddhism as some extinct, exotic religion (the artist is from India):

“For some years now, artist Indira Johnson has used the emerging Buddha head as a symbol of the search for peace and self-realization. Because of the popularity of Eastern thought, yoga, meditation and other Eastern practices in mainstream culture, the Buddha image has evolved into a universal icon for peace, its cosmic dimension making it an archetypal symbol that crosses religious lines and reinforces its universality. Balancing between its secular face, popularized on T shirts, seen in garden shops, used by rock bands and trendy restaurants and its spiritual dimension the Buddha image, captures a growing societal longing for peace in an increasingly fragmented world.”

Uh, hello?! In Uptown as in many other urban neighborhoods, there are people who identify themselves as Buddhists and belong to active, on-going organizations called temples. The Buddha image for us is not just another motif in people’s gardens, rock band T-shirts and restaurant d├ęcor. The image represents much more than a pretty icon of “yeah, peace, man.”

I’m happy to report that members of our community interfaith coalition, the Treasures of Uptown, are sympathetic to my concerns. I hope in an upcoming meeting we can let the Uptown community leaders know that before they agree to a public art display that uses religious imagery, they should hear what people of that religion feel about it.

This is the statement I’ve come up with:

Problem with “Buddha-head”

In one of the major Buddhist scriptures, the Lotus Sutra, there is a description of Bodhisattvas (apprentice Buddhas) emerging from the ground, ready to roll up their sleeves and get busy helping those in need. To me Indira Johnson’s sculpture does not evoke this dynamic sense of “emerging” but instead looks more like a passive victim subjected to burial. Rather than inspiring a sense of peace, the imagery harkens to the custom of feudal and imperial Japan of burying people alive as torture and punishment.

Another issue is that showing the Buddha as just a head is representative of the long history of the plundering of Asian artifacts by the West. One of our temple members toured Southeast Asia and showed us photo after photo of altars where an out-of-proportion plastic head has been placed on the bodies of Buddha statues. The original heads of the sculptures were looted to sell on the Western art market. In the small community temples they are afraid to replace the heads with anything other than plastic for fear of looters returning in search of more Buddha-heads to adorn Westerners’ living rooms.

To me it’s like the recent athletic shoe design with the ankle chain – one person’s idea of a cute joke evokes the nightmares of a whole group of people’s history.

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Postscript - TGFI: Thank Goodness For Impermanence
At the meeting our community interfaith group had with the artist and Uptown United, I was relieved to learn that the 10,000 Ripples project is a short-lived public art installation similar to the cow statues that were put up throughout Chicago a few years ago. (Other cities have seen such temporary art motifs.) I can't do anything about the design and location of the 10 Buddha half-heads in the neighborhood, but they are willing to discuss amending the explanations (like the one quoted above). The artist said other Buddhists had no problem with her work - she got approvals in Evanston from a Zen group leader and the owner of the Tibet Center and in the Albany Park neighborhood, the Cambodians were all for it.

Post-postscript - see further development mentioned in Sept. 27 blog entry "Heads of Stake"