Asia Society Museum

I believe that art is about timing. In beautifully rare instances, you meet the right work of art at the right moment -- and something remarkable happens. But having two of those experiences in one day, at the same place? I thought that was impossible. Until we went to the Asia Society Museum in New York.

Emaciated Siddhartha is a third-century sculpture in the The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara exhibit. It’s a unique depiction of the Buddha Shakyamuni, whose drastically gaunt body slumps with jutting bones and a downcast spirit from years of intense asceticism. According to history, he realized at this low point that harsh personal measures wouldn’t save him from terminal suffering. So he embarked on the moderate approach known as the Middle Path and achieved enlightenment. As someone who has severely struggled with body image, I interpreted this as simple, powerful permission to seek harmony. Staring into the Buddha’s hollow eyes, and knowing that he found physical and emotional peace through balance, was the most nourishing reminder I could have asked to receive. Emaciated Siddhartha is one of more than 70 works of Buddhist sculpture, architectural reliefs, and gold/bronze pieces that will be on display through October 30.

Drawing inspiration from a 10th-century Indian sculpture is the giant work of metal poetry called Custos Cavum (“Guardian of the Hole”) by Korean artist U-Ram Choe. It’s part of Asia Society’s U-Ram Choe: In Focus exhibit. The “In Focus” series features contemporary artists who create new works inspired by pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. Choe’s sculptures, which have been referred to as “biomorphic mechanical sculptures,” are made of stainless steel, resin, motors, gears, custom CPU boards, and LED’s. He animates them with robotics that he develops and programs. Custos Cavum is a guardian that takes the shape of a seal. His purpose is to make sure that small holes in the earth remain open to connect two separate worlds. When the holes begin closing, he gnaws them open. When the guardian feels the opening of a new hole, he falls into a deep sleep. Are you with me? Because this is really cool. Winged spores called Unicuses grow from his sleeping body and fly to a new hole, unleashing a new generation of guardians. Eventually all of the guardians die and the two worlds cease to communicate. But then Unicuses start growing from a bone of the last remaining Custos Cavum, leaving hope that the holes connecting both worlds will one day open again.

Custos Cavum measures 865/8" x 1413/4" x 1023/8" and rests in his own room at the museum. He moves slowly and hypnotically, like a Hayao Miyazaki film. I’m telling you, this massive robotic seal is as alive as you and me. He breathes in and out as his spores flutter and sway. I fell into in a trance that was gentle and playful and sad. My first reaction was to laugh, and then to cry. I felt like I was 5 years old, and I felt like I was 85. I realized a world of things, and I realized nothing. In an interview with the show’s curator, Choe said “I have a habit of watching viewers react to my work. The moment my piece starts moving, some viewers seem to marvel as if they were seeing a religious icon in a temple or cathedral. Others react almost as if facing the grandeur of nature, like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Observing their reactions, I have wondered what art, religious icons, and natural wonders may have in common. I believe the common element may be the sense of wonder we feel when we encounter something that goes beyond the realm of logic and seems to transcend the death and suffering that we are bound to as human beings.”

That sense of wonder is something I’ll never forget. U-Ram Choe: In Focus is on display through January 2. 

Image courtesy of Asia Society Museum.

Custos Cavum