NORTH ADAMS -- Korean-born artist Ran Hwang stares at an empty wall. She places a button on a pin and taps it into the wooden panel with 20 or 30 strokes. To her ears, the hammering sound mimics the moktak, a wooden gong used in temple ceremonies.
In a meditative, Zen-like state, Hwang repeats the process hundreds and thousands of times over. Drawing upon centuries of Buddhist practice, her mind empties, reflecting the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Brilliant images form gradually before her -- a glittering palace, flights of birds, blossom-bedecked branches -- expressions of her creativity that will travel around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Ecuador.
On Saturday, her imagery joins works by five other world-renowned artists of Asian descent to form the exhibit "Freedom: Just Another Word For...," on display in Mass MoCA's Kidspace Gallery through May 2014.
In Hwang's "Dreaming of Joy," a giant red bird is confined by bars. But the cage door is open, and the bird fades away, scattering loose piles of buttons across the floor. It represents dedicating oneself to freedom, she explained by email from Korea, and the buttons represent human ashes after death.
The work reflects on an effort to move beyond boundaries, in a world where all life is fleeting.
"About 10 years ago, I got vintage buttons at a flea market and started to use them as a medium for my collage work," Hwang explained.
Following the 9/11 attacks, she said, she discovered the true value of a plain button.
"It is commonly found everywhere but priceless enough when it's nowhere," she said.
And, just like a button and a needle, "those mediums and myself are meant to be together."
Her subjects express the vanity of human desire and ambition, she explained: In this impermanent, mundane world, every moment is precious and beautiful.
Kidspace was created as a collaboration between Mass MoCA, the Clark Art Institute and Williams College Museum of Art. Each year, the institutions individually interpret a central theme through an exhibit, project or activity.
The title of "Freedom" evokes the chorus of the hit song "Me and Bobby McGee" -- "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" -- made famous by musicians from Janis Joplin to Joan Baez. But Kidspace curator and Director of Education Laura Thompson describes the exhibit's overarching theme, "Words and Images," as "a visual exploration of how words and art can have multiple meanings."
During her 11 years at the helm of Kidspace, Thompson has reached the conclusion that now, school children don't have the skills or the time to think in depth about art.
"I chose to look at the word "Freedom" for the show because of that," she said, "to give an alternative view to what many people may think of as the way in which you define freedom."
Thompson observed that often freedom is approached solely from a nationalistic perspective. "I wanted to show that there's broader meaning," she explained, "so I chose artists who, because of their biography, have experienced limitations in freedom."
"Those sensibilities are articulated through their artwork."
Notwithstanding its name and primary focus, Kidspace "is not just for kids," Thompson said. "A third of the visitors who come through here are without children."
And it is not just a place to stand and stare. The signature gallery "Art Bar" will provide materials similar to the ones the artists use as well as complete "projects in a box," so young and old can create original artworks inspired by the exhibit. Visitors can also draw or write whatever they want on a "freedom of expression" wall, Thompson said.
Ran Hwang expects children will be surprised to discover what her big bird image is made of.
"And they will enjoy playing with the buttons on the floor," she said.
If you go ...
What: Opening reception for ‘Freedom: Just Another Word For...' with artmaking, activities, meet the artists, snacks
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: Kidspace gallery, Mass MoCA, North Adams
Followed by: Family concert by Beatles tribute band ‘Bubble'
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Mass MoCA Club B-10
Information: (413) 662-2111, ext. 1, www.massmoca.org