art buddhism installation exhibition culture ash

Two Buddhas stand facing each other. One, a headless metal statue. The other, a crumbling sculpture made from over 20 tonnes of incense ash, which was collected from Buddhist temples in Shanghai and across China’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Sydney’s time is running out to see the face off between the two Buddhas, with prominent artist Zhang Huan’s Sydney Buddha exhibition finishing this Sunday.

The metal Buddha provides the casing for the ash Buddha, which has deteriorated (as intended by the artist) over the span of the exhibit due to its exposure to the environment. When the artist displayed a similar artwork in Taiwan, before the exhibition had even opened the ash Buddha collapsed and made a hole in a nearby wall. The Sydney Buddha has fared better, so far.

The sculptures explore the brief nature of life, its impermanence and its stages of renewal and decay. Mr Huan has expressed that the ash in the installation has a spiritual significance for him, as he considers it to hold the memories, souls and prayers of the people who originally burnt it.

“The piece conveys the collective memory, soul, thoughts and prayers, and collapse of mankind. It implies a collective ineffectiveness, arising from taking action when none should be taken, upsetting the natural order of things,” Mr Huan has said.

As I took in the aroma of old burnt incense and wandered around the statues, I thought about how the ash Buddha had to be freed from its metal casing before it could be complete, but how now that it had been released it was beginning to crumble. In that way, I can see its intended metaphor for the impermanence of life. The ash Buddha’s decay is striking to see, as it crumbles down and collects around the incense sticks that are poking out of its knees. Its destruction is inevitable, but entirely to be expected.

Sydney Buddha is a free exhibition taking place at Carriageworks, until Sunday 22 March. For more information about opening times, visit the Carriageworks website: here.

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1. Sydney Buddha exhibition at Carriageworks (shot with a fisheye lens) / 2. Ash Buddha / 3. Ash Buddha / 4. Metal casing Buddha / 5. Metal casing Buddha head / 6. Ash Buddha / Incense sticks on the ash Buddha’s knee 

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