Little friends for the other world

Korean funerary figurines that escaped the pyre on show in NYC

by Yoko Haruhara

Tomb artifacts have a powerful effect over their viewers, reminding us of the grandeur of the past. The design of tombs and funeral vaults on a monumental scale and with luxurious details stand as symbols of a desire for immortality.

In contrast to the splendor and finery we find in royal funerary art, though, the charms of the average individual’s mortuary items are often overlooked.

Currently the Korea Society of New York is hosting “Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World,” an exhibition that provides a glimpse at commoners’ funerary art in Korea. The wooden dolls showcased were all used as decorations on funeral biers between the 19th century and the early 20th century during the late Choson Dynasty (1392-1910).

As a previously uninvestigated form of Korean folkloric art, the subject matter is worthy of a full-scale examination. The funerary figures are a product of the Korean belief that the soul of the deceased lives on after death, taking its place in the collective pantheon of ancestors. These funerary practices came into being with the establishment of the Confucian state ideology in the late 14th century, which held that the deceased was intimately linked to the worlds of both the living and the dead by shared relationships to collective ancestors.

The funeral sent the soul to the afterlife and demonstrated filial piety toward one’s ancestors. These rituals were syncretic, mixing Confucian practices with pre-existing Buddhist and shamanistic ones. The decorations reflect this, with shamanistic elements protecting the soul from danger as it made its way to the other world while Buddhist motifs reflect the religion’s beliefs about rebirth in paradise.

The exhibit showcases 74 figurines, with characters from all human walks of life: clowns, dancers, musicians, soldiers, male and female attendants, children, scholars and Buddhist monks. Known as kkoktu (which can be roughly translated as “puppet”), inspirations for the figures were also often drawn from mythical creatures, such as phoenixes, dragons and goblins.

Generally 20 to 30 cm in height and carved from wood, kkoktu celebrated the transition to the other world, which deeply held Korean cultural beliefs thought would be a joyful experience. The humorous and amicable facial expressions and poses of kkoktu reveal their cheerful demeanor, which was meant to counter the somber atmosphere of the funeral ceremony.

They are festively painted and have the appearance of children’s dolls. In practice, they were placed as ornaments on sangyo (mortuary bier). Rectangular in shape, the biers were constructed to resemble a building with a roof, a veranda and a railing. The coffin, placed inside the bier, would serve as a temporary home for the deceased.

Male sangyo-bearers would carry them to the graveyard, leading a long procession of family members, relatives and friends who walked in line behind from the village to the burial grounds. The procession was led by a ceremony master, who would sing songs of mourning in honor of the deceased. A sangyo reproduction included in the exhibition is a one-tenth scale replica of an actual late-18th century piece.

Each kkoktu has its own function and role in the funerary pantheon, enriching the funeral procession and symbolically providing companionship and protection to the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. Kkoktu guards, who acted as spiritual guardians, were used to decorate the front of biers. They appear in a myriad of guises, riding on horses, tigers and mythical animals. Figures with miniature weapons, including spears or swords, were believed to fend off evil spirits. Their armor is typical of the military gear worn during the Choson Dynasty. Rites of exorcism were also employed during funeral ceremonies, including the performance of a dance during a procession by male participants who wore large masks with four golden eyes and would swing fake swords ritualistically.

Traditionally, the figurines themselves would be burned after they had been used. Thus, having survived what was intended to be an ephemeral existence, the artifacts that have been brought together in this collection are truly treasures. Paper flowers eventually replaced the wooden figurines, and, in modern times, the custom has disappeared altogether.

The funerary dolls of this exhibit serve as a palpable reminder of the Confucian world of Choson Dynasty Korea in which life and death intimately coexist. There are wonderful venues in Japan to enjoy and examine such Korean art and artifacts, including Tokyo National Museum (www.tnm.jp), which has an exhibit in the Toyokan Asian Gallery with Korean archaeological artifacts and metalwork (till Jan. 27, 2008), and Kyoto’s Koryo Museum of Art (www.koryomuseum.or.jp), which is showing (till Dec. 24) a 1,700 piece collection of Korean art and an exhibition of blue and white porcelain of the Joseon Dynasty (18th-19th centuries). The Korean Embassy’s Korean Cultural Center (www.koreanculture.jp) in Tokyo also has an ongoing series of exhibits of Korean art, ranging from the traditional to the contemporary.

The handiwork of the anonymous artisans of Korea provides a fresh perspective on the richness of Korean culture, as their art speaks to us as a conduit for the kaleidoscope of traditions they represent.

“Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World” shows till Nov. 20 at Korea Society Gallery, 950 Third Avenue 8F, New York City.