“Buddha Rush” is a profile of the artist Casey O’Connor, who in 2005 dumped hundreds of quarter-size porcelain Buddha heads into the American River near Colfax, and a portrait of the town and region's response to the discovery of these unexpected objects. What were Buddhas doing in gold country, where did they come from, and what were they worth? The press sent reporters to find out and residents imagined the town reviving with tourist revenue. Then the Bureau of Land Management got involved: the heads may have been archaeological artifacts removed illegally from federal land. An arrest was made, but the mystery remained unsolved. Then in 2006 O’Connor came forward to take responsibility; the Buddha heads were not antiques from Asia but contemporary California art. Working from interviews, media reports, and online commentary, I track the Colfax “Buddha rush” as it grew, ricocheted off histories of the Gold Rush, the Central Pacific Railroad, and Pacific-Rim immigration, and rebounded into modern understandings of Buddhism. I situate the saga in a wider history of modern-contemporary representations of and responses to the Buddha. Ultimately, this is not a story that simply reaffirms conventional notions of the cool or contemplative Buddha; the Buddha's presence and meaning may be less clear, less detached from history, power, and violence than we assume. O'Connor's work and its reception pushes us in unexpected ways toward California’s complex relationships of artistic praxis, landscape, race, class, and culture.
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