The first time I entered the Freer Gallery a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck by the imposing wooden statues positioned at both ends of the north corridor. In June, when I started working as an intern at the Freer|Sackler, I found myself returning to them again and again. I often take a detour to admire their terrifying, unearthly beauty.
Created in the early fourteenth century to guard the gate of the Ebaradera temple in Sakai, Japan, the statues were carved in the likeness of the Kongorikishi, or Ni-o, benevolent kings who accompanied the Buddha and protected him during his travels in India. Their wrathful, violent appearance was believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the temple grounds from thieves.
As film and television and the rest of our visual culture have grown increasingly dark and violent, our ability to be shocked or truly scared by a work of art has diminished. But what must it have been like to encounter one of these wooden guardians at night in the fourteenth century? Would a thief sneaking into the temple under the cover of darkness encounter these supernatural gatekeepers and turn back? As monks moved through the temple at night, would the dancing flame of candlelight give the illusion that the Kongorikishi’s facial expressions were changing?
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a security guard working the late shift at the Freer|Sackler. Staring at those terrifying faces night after night in the dark, eerie silence of the museum, it’s not hard to believe that your mind could play tricks on you. I can imagine the statues slowly coming to life as the sun sets each night. They would climb down from their plinths and patrol the museum, looking for anything, or anyone, out of place. It would be a long night left alone with only these statues and your darkest flights of fancy to keep you company.
Maybe for those with a vivid imagination, art’s ability to inspire fear hasn’t been so diminished after all.