Monday, May 10, 2010

The Buddha Has Landed

@ Asian Art Museum/Pace Gallery

Sixteen tons and what do you get, sang Tennessee Ernie Ford in his 1955 popular hit.  Another day older and deeper in debt. Well, for fifteen tons (and hopefully no debt), we've gotten Chinese artist Zhang Huan's Three Heads, Six Arms Budddha. This 26-foot gargantuan statue, his largest to date, is in honor of the the Shanghai San Francisco Sister City 30th Anniversary Celebration. It has landed here, courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission and Zhang's representatives, The Pace Gallery, one of the powerhouses of the international art world. Because of the size, it has to be installed piece by piece, a process which fascinated local bloggers like Mike (of Civic Center Fame).  

@ Asian Art Museum/Pace Gallery

Three Heads Six Arms is part of a series of monumental works depicting the fragmented extremities of Buddhist statues. The series was inspired by Zhang’s discovery of religious sculptures that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution for sale in a Tibetan market. He began the series in 2006 shortly after moving from New York City to Shanghai where he retired his performance art practice and embraced a more traditional approach to artistic creation.

@ David W. Sumner

According to Zhang, “When I saw these fragments in Lhasa, a mysterious power impressed me. They’re embedded with historical and religious traces, just like the limbs of a human being.” The fingers of Buddhist deities are considered highly symbolic because they convey different spiritual meanings through various hand gestures, or mudras. Zhang continued the series with several even larger sculptures combining the legs, feet, hands and heads of Buddhist deities. The artist, having been deeply moved by the sight of the desecrated statues, believes that by recreating these fragments on a grand scale, he is able to alleviate the pain caused by their destruction."

@ Asian Art Museum/Pace Gallery

"The shape of Three Heads Six Arms came from my correlation of it with the Chinese mythological character Nezha, inspiration came from Tibetan Buddhist sculptures. I replaced two of the three Buddha heads with human heads,” said Zhang. Among the sculpture’s three heads is a self-portrait of the artist. “Three Heads Six Arms reflects the changing realities of Chinese people today and also reflects the attitude that humankind has conquered nature and even reflects deeds of volition and hope,” said Zhang.

The question is, will it enable our mayor and the Board of Supervisors to embrace the Noble Eightfold Path - "right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration." Since one of the Buddha's heads is a self-portrait of the artist, it is doubtful that there will be much of an aura of detachment from the things of the world. The effect is one of artistic ego and contemporary art and power politics, erupting through the concrete floor of the plaza. Bigger is better seems to be the theme of this year's celebration of Shanghai. First, there was the 21-foot robo baby displayed in Shanghai, and now, this monster which lacks even a fraction of calm compassion or even the ferocious energy evoked by Tibetan tanka paintings.  The Buddha advocates compassion toward all sentient beings. Does this ? The giant sculpture is more reminiscent of something created by Ray Harryhausen, the movie special effects pioneer,  I almost expect it to lurch forth from the plaza and lumber toward Van Ness Avenue, menacing the less-than-evolved beings that presently occupy city hall.

A dedication ceremony for Three Heads Six Arms, (2008) will be held on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 10 a.m. in Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, located across the street from San Francisco’s City Hall. or or call (415) 581-3500
Three Heads Six Arms (2008) will be on view through 2011.Civic Center:
David W. Sumner:
E-mail David W. Sumner at:


Kathy Hodge said...

The issue of religious symbolism in a public place is interesting. It seems this piece uses religious icons as raw material to express more of a cultural exploration than a Buddhist. But I wonder how a piece would go over that incorporated Christian religious symbols. It would probably be seen as irreverent by some, or endorsing Christianity by others. But as artists, are we not to be able to include the loaded imagery that has permeated most of our educations?

Also, of course our government is not to embrace the Eightfold Path, "right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration" Don't you know Sarah Palin tells us the law should be based on the Ten Commandments?

namastenancy said...

That's an interesting comment. SF is a pretty liberal place but there have been protests against things like our annual Christmas tree in Union Square and a cross on Mt. Davidson. I suspect that Buddhism is not seen as so divisive or controversial as other religions. The piece is also about as non-spiritual as you can get - it's much more about the ego than it is about Buddhist detachment.

I hope that you are being ironic about Palin but if you, I just want to point out that we are a secular society with a separation between church and state. The Asian Art Museum and Zhang Huan don't suggest that we adopt Buddhism as our state religion or even that we live by some of the Buddhist precepts. But I think that right speech and right action would work better for many of us than a law demanding that we worship the One God. Whose God? Christianity has been battling that one out for 2000 years.

Kathy Hodge said...

Does anyone quote Sarah Palin seriously? Wait, I don't want to know the answer to that one! Of course I was being sarcastic, the most religious among us should be the ones fighting most strongly for the separation of church and state.

I haven't seen the piece in its entirety, but what I see I like. It's just interesting to think about what would happen if it were an icon of Jesus, or, god forbid, Mohammad.

namastenancy said...

WHAT? Not serious about Palin (LOL!) - I felt I should check because a couple of my discussion groups have been over run by people who admire her.

I am going to try and get a better photo from my photographer friend, David. I sort-of-like the heads and arms of the piece but the torso is just plunked gracelessly down on the ground which is why it reminds me of something that Harryhausen would do. Did you ever see the Sinbad movie where he did the action figures? This Buddha reminds me of something from that.

Heaven forbid that we put up anything that's supposed to represent Mohammad. That would be dangerous for everyone invoved.