At the Rubin: As Atta Kim's Buddha Melts, Vodka Flows

All was in readiness: the blue-velvet-covered stage. The moat around it. The two men from Queens with their 30-inch saws.

All was in readiness: the blue-velvet-covered stage. The moat around it. The two men from Queens with their 30-inch saws. Some people look to the Second Coming of Christ, but at the Rubin Museum of Art, they were awaiting the Buddha.

He came, on Friday afternoon, in the form of a half-ton of ice, carved the day before into the image of a larger-than-life deity. In this installation designed by artist Atta Kim, the sculpture’s simple job was to melt, providing a lesson in elementary chemistry and recycling to the curious, and hopefully a spiritual and aesthetic experience to the so-inclined. To capture every drop, the Rubin, a boutique museum of Himalayan art on West 17th Street, would be open all night long.

“Human beings disappear in a moment, but you can’t see it happen,” said the artist. “Ice also disappears in a moment, but at a speed we can observe.” 

Most museums put on some kind of nightlife programming, but perhaps none do it as routinely and imaginatively as the Rubin. Where other institutions opt for lectures, chamber music ensembles and the occasional cocktail hour, the Rubin goes nightclub every Friday, with a party space called K2 that offers wickedly stiff drinks (the red llama–four liquors masked by OJ and lime–is a popular choice), live music and film screenings. Last week, Parker Posey introduced The Night of the Hunter; last month, Henry Rollins gave a talk on the neuroscience of dreams. In April, it’s Loudon Wainwright III and Kurt Andersen. Late-night Fridays have been part of the museum’s DNA since it opened, in 2004; program director Dawn Eshelman called them “the gateway drug to the Rubin Museum of Art.”

The show was exactly the sort of participatory event that the Rubin has embraced to distinguish itself from bigger institutions. Visitors were encouraged to ladle melting water from the moat into nearby glass vials–with a suggested donation of $1 per liquid souvenir–to foster springtime in gardens around the city. “We’re anticipating a huge demand for Buddha water,” curator Beth Citron said. She frowned: “Hopefully, people won’t drink it.”

As the stocky Siddhartha was raised to the stage, the museum patrons oohed. For a last touch-up, father-and-son ice sculpting duo Takeo and Shintaro Okamoto wielded their pair of jagged saws–tools one would expect to see in the hands of Satan’s dentist. As they shaved the ice, centimeter by centimeter, one of the saws slipped, nearly cutting an assistant. (A woman cried out: “I’ve got that on videotape in case you want to sue!”) Mr. Kim praised the detail work, particularly the eyes and mouth, which made for a cheerful Buddha. “The mercy and compassion come out in the face,” he explained. Then, Mr. Kim approached his already melting creation, and the noise dropped to a classic museum whisper. He took the ladle and poured some water over the Buddha’s intricately carved hair, winning a round of applause. The artist posed for pictures, then invited a young boy to be the first to touch the art.

Museum patrons were pleased. Judd Fitze, a mustachioed Pennsylvanian on his annual New York vacation, stopped to watch. “I have no idea what this statue’s about, but it’s gorgeous,” he said. Since 2003, Mr. Kim has worked with ice, overseeing the creation of frozen statues of the Parthenon, Mao and Marilyn Monroe, then photographing them as they melted. When Ms. Citron wanted an unusual way to close “Grain of Emptiness,” an exhibition of Buddhist-inspired art, she introduced him to the Okamotos.

They are the undisputed kings of the New York ice Buddha scene, having spent two years carving a Buddha a day for Tribeca sushi house Megu. But for this job, their old cardboard templates were useless. Mr. Kim had requested a Korean Buddha–smoother and stockier than the Japanese style. The Rubin Buddha was born in the Okamato’s just-above-freezing chamber in the wilds of Long Island City, watched over and photographed by Mr. Kim. While the Okamotos realized his vision, the photographer sipped apple juice and discoursed on the spiritual significance of what he called the Buddha’s “spring picnic.”

As the statue melted into the night, the Americans’ eagerness to feel the sculpture surprised Mr. Kim. A tight budget prevented the Rubin from advertising the event, the museum said, but word of mouth drew a blockbuster crowd. Through the night, drinks in hand, more than 1,500 paying visitors came to rub the Buddha, pose with him and stand on either side to see if he was clear enough to see through. (He was.) Well before dawn, the thousand glass vials were nearly gone, and the crowd, too, and the half-melted statue had a deep handprint in its chest, the mark of dozens of successive palms. Not incidentally, and happily, the night’s liquor receipts were 30 percent above normal.

The partying didn’t offend the artist. Buddha, he said, “experienced everything in his life: drinking, women, everything. And then there was just peace.”

At the Rubin: As Atta Kim's Buddha Melts, Vodka Flows