Powerhouse Museum exhibition celebrating Buddhist sculpture

Granite carving of Arhat

A landmark exhibition of 16th century stone statuettes will touch down in Australia later this year — the first time the stone figures have left South Korea since they were discovered in the ruins of a Buddhist temple in 2001.

The human-shaped figures, named ‘arhats’ after the human disciples of Budda who achieved enlightenment, are part of the exhibition Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple Site: Reflections of our Hearts, opening at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in December.

It is the first summer blockbuster exhibition under Powerhouse Chief Executive Lisa Havilah, and one of 12 exhibitions slated in her first full annual program since commencing in January 2019.

The schedule announcement, made on Tuesday, kicks off what Havilah hopes will be a year unmarred by COVID-19 setbacks, following the hits to programming and visitation when the museum was forced to close from mid-March to June last year. (In July, it opened an exhibition celebrating Australian guitar-maker Maton).


Arhats among speakers
The exhibition Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple Site will coincide with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Australia.(Supplied: Chuncheon National Museum)

It follows the surprise announcement in July that the NSW Government would retain the Ultimo museum, scuppering long-held but fiercely contested plans to sell the site and relocate to Parramatta.

Everyday enlightenment

Contrary to the title, which is a reference to the figurative “500 arhats” within Buddhist mythology, the exhibition will present 50-60 of the sculptures — part of a larger group of more than 300 that were unearthed in Gangwon Province between 2001-2002.


Row of three small human-shaped stone sculptures, sitting cross-legged in Buddhist poses.
In Buddhist mythology, the arhats are portrayed as a group of 16 specific, individual disciples, as well as a more generalised group of “500”.(Supplied: Chuncheon National Museum)

The figures, carved from granite, range from around 30-40cm height, and no two are alike; across the group, expressions range from contented to amused and sad.

Min-Jung Kim, Powerhouse’s curator of Asian Collections, says the Buddhist sculptors who made them would have drawn on real people around them for inspiration.

“What really appeals about these objects is that they’re like one of us — not like Buddha, or god-like,” says Kim.

The exhibition, which premiered at Chuncheon National Museum in 2018 and subsequently toured to Seoul and Busan, situates the figures in a design by Korean artist Seung-young Kim.

Half the figures will sit in a room with a moss-covered brick flooring that conjures up their original setting; the rest will be embedded in a ‘wall’ of 700 speakers, from which a soundscape of dripping water and bells emanates.


Arhats among speakers
“These Arhat statuettes are from the past, but their expressions are universal, in fact quite modern as well,” Korean artist Seung-young Kim told the Korea Times.(Supplied: Chuncheon National Museum)

The exhibition is designed to bring visitors into a naturally meditative frame of mind.

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