Jericho and the Buddha

Jericho, Anselm Kiefer, RA 2007
The grand classical facades that frame the courtyard of Burlington House offer a dramatic setting for big sculptural gestures. With Anselm Kiefer's towers, installed earlier this year, they speak of an order and purpose fundamentally out of joint with the uncertainty of the present century. The hubristic structure of raw concrete and steel, vertiginous and unstable, invokes - both structurally and metaphorically - the fear of impending collapse. It is a vision of foreboding, a war ruin for our time.

Now, a few months on, the courtyard has become the setting for an equally powerful kind of disjuncture: not this time between structures past and present but between forms that belong to radically different places and traditions. Zhang Huan's piece is also a ruin of sorts, but rather than being pitched precariously skyward, it straddles the space like a broken idol from a remote civilisation. The platonic order on which western culture is built (the stone facade) is juxtaposed with the swollen and battered bulk of a giant Buddha, his torso torn from his massive legs and his head wedged beneath the weight of a giant copper-plated foot.

3 Legged Buddha, Zhang Huan, 2007
The message is confusing and apparently contradictory. The artist tells a story about buying years ago the small fragment of a gold plated statue from a street market in Lhasa which had been looted from a monastery during the Cultural Revolution. And so with his three-legged Buddha the temptation is to read the head as what is crushed underfoot: Buddhist worship, Tibetan culture, even artistic practice, during the years of repression in China. And yet its solid presence is also strangely hopeful, a reassertion of belief not only in the return of religious forms to China but also a statement of intent by a Chinese artist set on occupying the ground of western cultural values (in the courtyard of the Royal academy no less). It may be that for Zhang Huan 'the Buddha is Life' - his beaten copper body damaged but resilient, and capable of returning to us as life returns - but it remains unclear to this viewer at least whether the impulse behind the work is spiritual or imperial.