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The Inflatable Buddha Statue
Balloon-like Buddha sculpture on display at Worcester Art Museum

The Newspaper Company    September 10, 2001


WORCESTER— 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 death.

Pilgrims visit his 25-foot-long, blue-tinted body, gazing at the serene visage that inspired one of the world’s 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 Soto’s 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. " There’s 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 world’s 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. It’s 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 don’t have a preconceived need for one kind of viewer response. Any museum experience is about expanding one’s 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 can’t imagine what to think of it. I don’t think I’d want it in my living room, " she said.

Just as the historical Buddha known as Sakyamuni offered a doctrine aimed at overcoming life’s pain, de Soto made his sculpture as part of an effort to come to grips with his father’s death.

The 47-year-old artist found solace in a 12th-century statue of a recumbent Buddha in the Southeastern Asian island of Sri Lanka.

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 didn’t involve suffering. The Buddha’s image is contemplative, not painful, " de Soto said.

Visitor Robert Axelrod, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was intrigued by de Soto’s " use of a traditional icon like Buddha with the materials of a contemporary artist. "

And he was thoughtfully amused by de Soto’s decision to give Buddha his own face.

" Since we all have a Buddha-nature, it might as well be the artist’s 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 stone.

In a recent telephone interview, he said he’d 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 it’s 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 wasn’t surprised to hear of one visitor who walked behind to surreptitiously touch it to see what the structure felt like.

" It’s 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 up.

For Grace Sutherland, " Paranirvana " is a reminder of art’s ability to shock the mind into a new awareness.

" It’s overwhelming. I absolutely love it, " the Worcester businesswoman said. " It delights me the artist used his own face. I’m always amazed at artists who can make us wonder. "


Updated: 11-9-2001

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