The Spirit of Jang-In

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

28 October 2011 — 12 February 2012

 

The word jang-in represents one who would devote themselves to a particular profession throughout their life, mastering that particular craft skill. The jang-in believe in setting high moral standards and consider their works to be a representation of their ‘other-self’, their works embodying their own passion, soul and dedication. From the Korean Bronze Age to the present day, many artisans have used metals to create functional objects of great beauty and of powerful symbolism.

In early 2012 I was fortunate enough to visit the Spirit of Jang-in exhibition during its closing days at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum. Supported by the Korean government, the exhibition celebrated the ‘Year of Friendship’ between Australia and the Republic of Korea, marking 50 years of bilateral relations. This stunning exhibition of 163 exquisite objects chronologically traces the development of metal craft from ancient artisans through to the spectacular Kingdoms of Gold of the Silla royalty, the influence of Buddhism on craft skills and practice, the simple beauty of everyday objects and the impact of the dark days of the early 20th century. Reflecting a contemporary spirit of jang-in, a selection of works from Korean artists living in Korea and Australia are also featured.

 The entrance to the exhibition.

Prior to the main exhibition the viewer is greeted by a series of multimedia displays of the beautiful Korean countryside. From a heavenly snow blanketed pagoda to images of blooming cherry blossoms in the evening twilight, these scenes, accompanied by traditional music and gentle aromas, instil a calm sense of tranquillity while evoking the Korean landscape which clearly influenced many of the exquisite creations which follow. Upon entering the exhibition, immediately one finds themself amongst priceless delicate treasures dating back to the very beginnings of metal crafting in Korea (c. 1000BCE). On display are pieces such as small mirrors, belt buckles, pole top bells, small daggers, and other implements. The artisans of the time are thought to have been inspired more by religious faith than functionality or beauty. They overcame considerable technical difficulties to make extremely fine line decorations on the objects created in this period. The influence of both animism and shamanism, which were practiced at this time, can clearly be seen in the works displayed. Accompanying some of these original objects are masterful contemporary recreations, allowing one to fully imagine them in all their restored beauty and splendour.

Tiger-shaped belt buckle, Three Kingdoms Period 100 BCE-100 CE, collection Daegu National Museum.

Moving on to the next section of the exhibition one comes across many precious objects from the Three Kingdoms Period, among which is considered one of the highlights of the exhibition, the Silla crown, belt and crown ornament set from the Tomb of Heavenly Horse and on display for the first time outside of Korea. The Silla period (57BCE–935CE) is strongly associated with metal work, especially gold, and this is clearly demonstrated by its overwhelming use here. Indeed the name of the capital city of Silla was Geumseong, meaning ‘golden city’. The gold crowns of the Silla rulers were not only full of religious symbolism but also indicated the rank of the wearer. In addition to giving an insight into the rulers’ power, these objects also reveal the presence of the highly skilled artisans who heavily imbued not only gold, but the spirit of jang-in into their work.

Gold crown, Silla 500-600 CE, collection Gyeongju National Museum, National Treasure No. 188.

It was during the Three Kingdoms period that Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China. With the spread of Buddhism metal crafting practices flourished, on display are many Buddhist ritual objects, such as golden Buddha statues, Buddhist bells, incense burners and other ritual objects. The tradition of Buddhist works continued into the Unified Silla (668-935) and Goryeo periods (918-1392). It is thought likely that the craftsmen who made these sophisticated spiritual objects were themselves Buddhists. The long hours spent in making sacred objects by hand, likely involving melting the metals, making moulds, forging, hammering, chiselling, etching and inlaying, must have been indistinguishable from their meditations and prayers. The combination of ancient Silla traditions and the influences of Song and Yuan China inspired Korean metal artisans of the period to create new works of stunning beauty.

Seated Buddha, Unified Silla, collection National Museum of Korea, National Treasure No. 79.

Following on from the Buddhist pieces, metal craft designs are displayed which depict the familiar motifs embedded in the life of the Korean people and the stories behind them. Objects which feature these themes include those from swords, to mirrors, to ritual sprinklers. The animals, plants and landscapes portrayed in the objects were favoured by Koreans, influencing Korean art as a whole. The motifs displayed demonstrate a close connection to nature but also reveal religious influences on the Korean consciousness. As well as this, Korean artisans poetically and skilfully crafted metal into objects that adorned people’s daily lives. Featured are everyday but by no means mundane metal objects from the United Silla (668-935) to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Although the highly sophisticated metal work practices of the Buddhist era declined during the Confucian era (Joseon dynasty 1392-1919), metal craft production grew and included more everyday objects such as hairpins, candle stands, tobacco containers, spoons, and bangles.

Ear pick, Goryeo, collection National Museum of Korea.

During the first half of the 20th century, Korean identity, traditions and crafts suffered during Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 and then the Korean War (1950-1953) which plunged both halves of the country into ruin. During the years of the Japanese occupation, artistic freedom was severely limited and the Korean identity was suppressed. As a result the number of metal craftsmen declined as did their traditions. Some of the works featured such as cannons and other tools of warfare serve to represent this troubled time. However, with rapid industrialisation and modernisation in the second half of the 20th century, South Korea overcame this and achieved remarkable economic success. With modernisation came the realisation of the importance of preserving traditional crafts. On display are the remarkable works of three metal artisans who are officially known as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ of Korea. Explored are the challenges faced by these jang-in and their different approaches to contemporary Korean society as well as masterful recreations such as the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, exquisitely decorated jars from the Unified Silla and a wash basin for use in Buddhist ritual.

III Shooting the image III (cannons), Lee Byong-hoon 2011, collection of the artist.

The final section of the exhibition is reserved for contemporary artistic pieces. Here young artists attempt new techniques on new materials and in doing so challenge both their artistic creativity as well as the minds of those of the audience. When thinking of the meaning of jang-in, and the commitment to their craft that it implies, the name can certainly be applied to this new generation of artists. Alongside these works the stories and works of a selection of Korean-Australian artists are also featured. Some artists have created works which naturally reflect their Korean heritage while others have chosen to express their own migrant experience, responding to the Australian environment through the materials, forms and motifs of their works. These works play a significant part in maintaining the spirit of jang-in but also embrace Australian culture.

Urn-samjogo, Yoo Lizzy 2002, collection of the artist.

Though few, if any negatives can be raised with regard to the exhibition one is the space allocated to the exhibit. The Jang-in exhibition shared a common wall with a very noisy fantasy movie exhibition which at times all but drowned out the tranquil atmosphere which this exhibition attempted to maintain as the viewer wandered through. The exhibit and the experience as a whole would have been better served if the exhibit was displayed within a quieter part of the Powerhouse Museum. Despite this minor point, the Spirit of Jang-in exhibition was a well orchestrated, fascinating and wholly enjoyable journey through the past 3000 years of Korean metal craft. In which is told a compelling story of Korean history, culture and its most meaningful rituals and beliefs. The concept of jang-in reveals the Korean artisan’s work ethic, which was traditionally about enduring intense labour, gaining skill from repetitive practice, and knowing materials through understanding their essential nature. From this understanding the jang-in is no less an artist than any other who has worn that title. Objects that embody the spirit of jang-in reflect the maker’s spirit and the making process itself, often touching the viewer’s heart.

Urn-samjogo, Yoo Lizzy 2002, collection of the artist.

The exhibition was organised by The Sydney Powerhouse Museum in collaboration with and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea, the Australian Government through the Australia-Korea Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the National Museum of Korea.

All images have been provided by the official Powerhouse Museum website at http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/jangin/

 

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