Up LACMA’s stone steps, there lies a small corner of Asia. A Korean morsel of cultural artifacts wrapped up in yellowed tapestries and lacquered boxes.
The exhibition centered on the gilt bronze Pensive Bodhisattva, which looked down from his glass-enclosed perch, first finger and thumb pressed together in a thoughtful mudra. The Bodhisattva seemed to reign over this tiny nook of expansive LACMA. Two benches and corners filled with stacks of pillows pushed the suggestion to meditate to the forefront of the museum experience. This statue looked almost too traditional, almost commercial, but more classically nuanced. It was, however, authentic and mystical all at the same time. Hen and Chicks under Flowers, as well as Cat under Chrysanthemums were also traditional in appearance, but were flat and did not have enough life to evoke any sort of emotion.
The large mural to the left of the entryway above the inviting wooden bench was the beginning of a story about something, but it wasn’t quite clear what that something was, at least not initially. The exhibit description proclaimed that the Korean culture is the “synthesis of international trends and indigenous creativity.” As the gallery wrapped around, pieces of life as art were displayed: the documentary painting of the Sixteenth Birthday Banquet for Queen Singjeong depicted on wooden panels, the brightly colored, quilted wrapping cloth, or bojagi, looked almost like a quilt that would be draped over a light-colored wooden bed in a country home, and the dark, richly cherry lacquered document boxes.
Two men’s hats made out of horsehair, lacquered and twined, reminded the viewer that Korean art encompasses everyday items and that those everyday items may become less ordinary and most definitely museum-worthy long after their traditional uses have expired. This is exemplified by the three document boxes made of lacquer on wood with mother of pearl inlay, which evoke the sleek simplicity of antique luggage. The gilded bodhisattvas, expressions of spirituality that is brought into everyday life and sprinkled throughout the home come to rest in protective museum cases. The idea behind the the layout, the placards, the organization of the exhibition becomes clearer as the viewer walks through it. Korean art permeates Korean life. It is as though nothing that is used daily is without a sense of artfulness. The art displayed is actually mostly artifacts.
The final work of art was a display put together by brothers Noritaka and Takumi Asakana. Shards of broken ceramics from destroyed and unidentified kilns from the Goryeo and Joseon periods filled tiny boxes. And yet painted tops of vases and bottoms of teacups appeared somehow intact in the confines of the exhibit. On the opposite wall was a large mixed-media work, Untitled (Tea Bowls), with brightly colored squares reminiscent of a bojagi dotting the large canvas of grayscale teacups. This work, created in 2008, was the thing that did not belong with the rest of the more traditional pieces in the exhibition, but it was still welcome for it transcended traditionalism and brings the viewer back to her own time.