Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art

Masks That Span a Millennium from The Midas Touch

By Jennifer Heyes

An ancient Vietnamese Buddhist idol – Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – and Marc Quinn's 2010 work, Song of the Siren are both stunning examples of how the medium of gold can be used to create, as Quinn himself remarked, “the ultimate hallucination which drives humans to madness.” Why has this metal, which has no inherent value of its own, become the ultimate symbol of wealth, power and influence across millennia and throughout the world? Both of these exceptional pieces highlight the longevity and timelessness of gold. Whilst cultures were using it to cast fine sculptures of their deities and icons, were they aware that the pull of this metal would last long into the future, and continue to captivate the imagination of a 21st century audience?

Over a period of two thousand years, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara has been depicted in many different ways throughout the cultures of Asia. Bodhisattvas play an important, symbolic role in Buddhism. They are considered to be sentient beings who have achieved Enlightenment, thus escaping the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. Yet these figures have chosen to defer Nirvana (release from this cycle) and remain on Earth to spread their wisdom and help others towards Enlightenment.

They remain as part of the mortal realm, often figureheads to whom those in need may appeal. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in particular has had myriad depictions; from masculine versions such as this early Vietnamese piece, to later ones in mainland China, where there was a migration towards a more androgynous figure.

Bodhisattvas have long been objects of mysticism and legend. One such tale is of Avalokiteshvara’s acute connection to the world around him: legend has it that his head split with grief on seeing how much evil there was on Earth. The Buddha Amitabha then turned these pieces into separate heads and placed them all onto Avalokiteshvara, topping them with his own image and thus creating an 11-headed figure, often also depicted with multiple arms.

The comparisons to be drawn between the two works, separated as they are by over 1,000 years, at first seem few. However, we can draw some interesting associations. Both deify their subjects, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as a traditional, sacred object, whilst Quinn’s piece idolises and immortalises the female body as a timeless, deified entity. Both use the medium of gold to create their subjects as revered and glorified, making the choice to use this most precious of metals in the pursuit of a perfect image.

These pieces also highlight our shifting perception of religion and religious worship – the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents a deeply religious culture, where people use these figures as a personification of their Gods; figures to whom they could appeal in times of crisis and equally, celebrate in prayer. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was the figure upon whom one called for protection against shipwreck, fire, wild beasts and other calamities. He is also the embodiment of peace and compassion. Song of the Siren represents worship of celebrity, of beauty and, perhaps most importantly, of gold itself.

Sirens have long been a focus of myths and intrigue. First found in Ancient Greek myths, these seductive apparitions used enchanting music and song to lure ill-fated sailors to a watery grave. Often depicted as a cross between a beautiful woman and a bird, these creatures were the scourge of the seas; even the great hero Odysseus instructed his crew to tie him to a mast to prevent him falling prey to their song. Quinn’s Song of the Siren certainly evokes this tradition – Kate Moss’ steely gaze staring across the ages, a ‘siren’s song’ all of its own.

Song of the Siren is one in a long line of pieces to celebrate the female image, “stretching from the Venus of Willendorf in prehistoric times, through Nefertiti’s bust in Egypt, images of the Virgin, and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Renaissance, to Warhol’s Marilyn…” (Marc Quinn cited in: Exh. Cat., Groningen, Groninger Museum, Recent Sculptures, 2006). Throughout history, the veneration of the female form has formed the backbone of many artworks, its study providing some of the greatest art ever produced.

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