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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Divinity and Identity: Xu Zhen's Guanyin

“The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture,” by artist Xu Zhen at the National Gallery of Australia's Xu Zhen exhibition, “Eternity Vs Evolution.”

Can nineteen, artfully arranged classical statues of gods, God, and other figures add up to the Chinese Bodhisattva of compassion? A thought-provoking work of art I recently discovered, by the Chinese artist Xu Zhen seems to beg that question. And I love a begged question!

“The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” is actually an arrangement of nineteen colossal statues, made of a variety of materials made to look like bleached Greek marble, currently on view at the National Gallery of Australia’s Xu Zhen exhibition, “Eternity Vs Evolution.” The statues include Athena, Ulysses, Zeus, the Statue of Liberty and Christ, among others and they stand in a line and are posed so that a viewer facing the first statue, Athena, sees an Athena with arms seemingly sprouting all around her. The effect is said to produce the Buddhist figure known in China as Guanyin, the thousand-armed, a divinity putting off Buddha-hood in order to free every being from suffering. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Guanyin, known by various names in different cultures, may be the most popular figure in Buddhism. Guanyin is known as “the merciful” and “the compassionate” and has been equated by Catholics with the Virgin Mary. The figure may be more commonly known by her Sanskrit-derived name, Avalokiteshvara, and may be depicted in other cultures or settings as a male.

A Comparison of Xu Zhen's Guanyin with a Vietnamese sculpture (called Quan Am) from 1656, now in the History Museum of Hanoi and a Chinese Guanyin in a women's monastery in Anhui. Pictures from the National Gallery of Australia and Wikipedia.

I saw “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” on a publicity video for an exhibit put out by the National Gallery of Australia, which is currently showing a retrospective of Xu Zhen’s work and I was struck by the pairing of divine figures from different religious traditions and what messages the work sent. The work probably defies most viewers’ internal sense of categorization, including ancient Greek deities, Christ and the Statue of Liberty. I have not, as yet, identified every figure. I believe several are classical male athletes, but even so, every figure represents some sort of ideal, and is it so strange in 21st Century America to worship an athlete or athletic prowess?

Christ, of course, is a savior of humanity, and his sacrifice sounds somewhat akin to Guanyin’s, in putting all of sentient creation before herself. The Statue of Liberty also fits part of Guanyin’s mission: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus). Perhaps the inclusion of Greek deities requires some flexibility as they are not, as a rule, selfless. But Athena is a goddess of wisdom (and war) who was prayed to for help, as was Zeus. In a particular time and place, these figures may have been the correct sources in times of trouble. Ulysses and the other human figures may have you wondering whether Xu Zhen just needed statues with arms pointed in particular directions, but then, Guanyin, was at least once human, and may continue to be perceived that way. And it is not Christ's humanity that brings Christians closer to God?

There are seeming contradictions, but these, to me, are the most fun to think about. I believe that the figure in the last position of the line, with arms raised above and hands crossed could be Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology who challenged the god Apollo to a music competition and was condemned to be skinned alive. This is a tricky sell, given that Guanyin is merciful, compassionate, but Christ is clearly merciful and compassionate, and yet, his sculpture in this work of art is in the posture of crucifixion (Xu Zhen removed the cross, but left Christ’s human figure.) That the world would need a Guanyin (or Christ, or even a Statue of Liberty) speaks to the suffering that is native to the human condition. The statues are mostly male, with a female (Athena) in the front, but again, Guanyin is a female representation of a divinity that is also seen as male. I am no expert in Buddhism, but if the figure arose from an Indian tradition, this gender swapping does not at all seem strange to me. Hindu divinities often have a male and female form and gender fluidity is understood as part of life.

I have unanswered questions about “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture.” I haven’t identified most of the figures and I haven’t seen a comprehensive list of identities, even to know where Xu Zhen took all of the statues from. Given the famous ones, I assume that they are all famous examples of classical statuary. I was even reluctant at first to publish this post without knowing for certain (and frankly frustrated that this information was not readily supplied by the National Gallery of Australia) but then I considered the example of Zeus in the lineup, which I believe is based on the Artemision Bronze, and began to wonder if this lack of information is not part of the game of this work of art. The Artemision Bronze, a figure that seems to be aiming a weapon, has been alternatively identified as Zeus and Poseidon. The weapon is missing. Was it a thunderbolt or a trident? We don’t know. And again, even the identity of Guanyin, called by many names, considered alternately male and female, is somewhat in flux. The Statue of Liberty, or at least Emma Lazarus's conception of it, was based on the Colossus of Rhodes, which was a statue of the sun god Helios! The notion that one god (or God) is more than one god is not unprecedented. We also know that gods and religious worship change over time. I’ve done a pretty good job, at least, of convincing myself that it’s okay to post this article without knowing everything I think there is to know about this artwork!

But what do you think? Are you entirely comfortable with this mix of figures? Do you think I’m just playing games with this work of art? Let me know in the comments below. I personally think that the best works of art are those that beg us to play. I think the best stories do that as well. But identifying more of the statues may actually lead to more playfulness and fun and that, to me, is what art is about. So please, if you are an art lover, look at the photos and see if you can identify the rest of the statues that form “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” and if you are curious, check out the rest of the Xu Zhen show at the National Gallery of Australia. If you like playfulness, you will find much to enjoy!

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