Inflatable Buddha Statue
Balloon-like Buddha sculpture on display at Worcester Art Museum
The Newspaper Company
September 10, 2001
Reincarnated in his strangest form yet, the Buddha has appeared in Worcester, dozing in
the serene slumber of perfect enlightenment.
Even in sleep, the "
Awakened One " is still prompting seekers to ponder the eternal questions of life and
Pilgrims visit his
25-foot-long, blue-tinted body, gazing at the serene visage that inspired one of the worlds
oldest living religions.
Yet, this Buddha wears a
funky goatee and is made of inflatable painted fabric.
Let me introduce you to,
" Paranirvana (self-portrait), " artist Louis de Sotos provocative "
sculpture " of the Indian divinity at the Worcester Art Museum.
" I hope visitors
approach with an openness to reflection, " said de Soto from his California studio.
" Theres so few places today where one can reflect in peace. "
Preferring to describe his
work as " sculpture, " de Soto said recreating Buddha at the moment of his death
encourages viewers to contemplate their own mortality.
The exhibit will be at the
WAM through Nov. 18.
On Oct. 25 at 7 p.m., de
Soto will give a talk at a reception honoring his work.
While this Buddha at
first glance maintains the shape and posture of one of the worlds most
recognizable sages, de Soto has given it his own face and goatee, a jarring detail that
startles some visitors.
" At first I thought it
was just a statue of a monumental figure, " said Eva Zelig, a tourist from Peru.
" Then I saw his face. Its a little mocking. And intriguing too. "
Responses like that please
de Soto, who builds artistic installations with a variety of materials but never so long
as this sculpture which measures 25 feet by seven feet by six feet.
" I dont have a
preconceived need for one kind of viewer response. Any museum experience is about
expanding ones basic knowledge. I hope people can learn something about Buddha and
themselves through my piece, " he said.
Visitor Bob Kennerly, of
Northboro, said " Paranirvana " succeeded as art because the enigmatic response
it prompted would stay with him after he left.
" Sometimes the best
art challenges viewers, " he said.
Yet his companion, Evelyn
McKinney admitted bewilderment.
" I cant imagine
what to think of it. I dont think Id want it in my living room, " she
Just as the historical
Buddha known as Sakyamuni offered a doctrine aimed at overcoming lifes pain, de Soto
made his sculpture as part of an effort to come to grips with his fathers death.
The 47-year-old artist found
solace in a 12th-century statue of a recumbent Buddha in the Southeastern Asian island of
According to wall notes
accompanying the exhibit, the original statue in Polonnarava, Sri Lanka, represented
Buddha at the exact moment of death, or " ultimate extinction of all worldly
aspirations, " when he was transformed from his material body into pure being.
By portraying Buddha on the
surface of inflatable fabric, de Soto has " underscored a sense of insubstantiality
and impermanence, " the notes state.
While teaching throughout
what became northern India and Nepal five centuries before Jesus Christ, the Indian prince
born Siddhatta Gotama, who became the Buddha, preached the ephemeral nature of life and
the need to overcome all earthly attachments.
" I think what I was
looking for was an image of death that didnt involve suffering. The Buddhas
image is contemplative, not painful, " de Soto said.
Visitor Robert Axelrod, of
Brooklyn, N.Y., was intrigued by de Sotos " use of a traditional icon like
Buddha with the materials of a contemporary artist. "
And he was thoughtfully
amused by de Sotos decision to give Buddha his own face.
" Since we all have a
Buddha-nature, it might as well be the artists face, " Axelrod said. "
Next time around, he can use my face. "
After " rather
impulsively " conceiving of the idea for his statue, de Soto took his design to a San
Diego balloon fabricator which made the figure from resilient fabric painted to resemble
In a recent telephone
interview, he said hed never considered making his work from " anything too
heavy to move around. "
Yet, de Soto, who teaches in
the art department at San Francisco State University, said the obvious artificiality of
the material " reinforced its made nature. "
" Death itself is a
heavy idea. We all know what its like to eat a hamburger or cut ourself shaving. But
until you experience it, death is an empty idea, " de Soto said.
While signs tell visitors
not to touch the exhibit, de Soto wasnt surprised to hear of one visitor who walked
behind to surreptitiously touch it to see what the structure felt like.
" Its a common
response. We all want to touch sculptures, " he said.
Every night, WAM staff turn
off the fans that fill the inflatable figure with air.
And as his namesake
preached, de Soto pointed out, this Buddha is born again every morning when staff blow him
For Grace Sutherland, "
Paranirvana " is a reminder of arts ability to shock the mind into a new
overwhelming. I absolutely love it, " the Worcester businesswoman said. " It
delights me the artist used his own face. Im always amazed at artists who can make
us wonder. "