21 January 2010

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an

[Here’s the second part of my report on the art shows I visited while I was in Washington over the year-end holidays. This part exclusively covers the NatGeo exhibit of the terra cotta statues from the tomb at Xi’an, China.]

We booked tix for Wednesday, 6 January, for the Chinese terra cotta soldiers on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum at 17th and M Streets in downtown Washington. I had planned my trip to Washington specifically to see this show, open until 31 March, so I went down late and stayed past New Year so the holiday crowds would dissipate some, which turned out to be propitious because the timed-entry schedule was disrupted by the snow storm of the week before Christmas and several days of the exhibition were canceled. All was back on schedule by New Year and we took a bus downtown, alighting a block away from the museum about ten minutes early for our entry time. (We had to kill a few minutes in the NGS’s photo exhibit of life above the arctic circle in another gallery. Once inside the warrior exhibit, visitors can stay as long as they want, but the museum prohibits lining up more than 15 minutes before the scheduled entry time on the ticket.) I’d seen a half dozen of the statues some years ago when they were part of an omnibus exhibit of ancient Chinese art at the Met, but this show focuses on the clay figures. What I didn’t know for sure was that Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor includes more than just the warriors. It’s as much a history exhibit as an art show, with artifacts and other statues excavated from the tomb site of Qin Shihuangdi.

While the administrative process for the museum was unhelpful and confusing, from the perspective of buying the tickets on line through trying to get information about arrival procedures and bus transportation, the show itself was magnificent. Unfortunately, the NatGeo Museum is the last stop on the warriors’ North American tour. (The exhibit stopped at Santa Ana, California, in May 2008; Atlanta November ’08-April ’09; and Houston May-October ’09.)

First, a little background. Emperor Qin was born Ying Zheng in 259 BCE and became king of the state of Qin in 246, at the age of 13, ruling under a regent until 239 when he began to reign in his own name. (Qin, pronounced ‘Chin,’ is the origin of the Western name of the country, China.) During this period of war among the many independent states of China, Zheng was able to conquer all of his neighbors and in 221 BCE, having consolidated all the country under one ruler, he declared himself Qin Shihuangdi (literally, First Emperor) and reigned until his sudden death in 210 BCE. Qin’s short reign was both stern and innovative, introducing many reforms but punishing subjects and administrators harshly for the smallest failures. Qin started the structure that would become the Great Wall and, as soon as his reign as King of Qin began, he initiated the construction his tomb, a vast underground city in Xi’an, a few miles southeast of Qin’s capital, Xianyang. (Xi’an is about 570 miles southwest of Beijing, in the interior of China.) Qin’s rule is controversial and the record is somewhat suspect since it was written as much as 100 years after his death by his successors who were from rival dynasties and had no love for their predecessor. The tomb site, which was discovered by accident in 1974 (some local farmers were digging a well), is estimated to contain as many as 7,000 warrior statues, only 1,000 of which have been unearthed. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Xi’an tomb complex has yielded many clues to the accurate history of Emperor Qin and his empire, buried for over 2,000 years.

The burial complex, a true necropolis, covers 19 square miles (the size of Yonkers, New York, or Bozeman, Montana). In the center is the actual burial mound, to date unexcavated (for reasons I haven’t been able to discover), that is believed to cover a bronze tomb with 500 tons of mercury flowing as rivers which replicate the actual rivers of Qin’s empire, and a jeweled ceiling that symbolizes the heavens. (There’s a speculative artist’s rendering in the exhibit of what this tomb may look like.) The clay army was buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife, but there were other symbolic attendants as well, including entertainers, musicians, and civil servants—all life sized (including horses for the cavalry soldiers and chariots) with individualized faces and detailed hair styles, clothing, and armor. Many of the figures would have held weapons, reins, musical instruments, and other artifacts, but over the millennia, the objects, made of leather, wood, fabric, and other perishable materials, simply disintegrated underground and the modern discoverers are left to imagine what the clay people, posed in ghostlike postures with hands gripping vanished tools of their trades, might have been holding. Hundreds of other items, meant to serve the emperor in death, were buried in the complex, each in its proper location in the vast city of the dead, built by thousands of laborers, many of them slaves and convicts—some at the loss of their lives—to serve the spirit of one man. (Qin died suddenly, falling ill while on an inspection tour. It’s daunting to imagine what might have been added to the necropolis if he’d lived longer!) The whole image is fantastic.

Terra Cotta Warriors is divided into two parts (separated by the lobby of the NGS building, so visitors must keep their tix to reenter after the gap) comprising four “themes.” The first part, covering “Building the Empire,” “Power and Paranoia,” and “The Afterlife,” contains all the objects other than the clay soldiers—except for the very first exhibit, a sort of overture to the entire show, which is a lone cavalryman standing in the center of a small gallery, his horse by his side. Entering this room is a very dramatic introduction to the exhibition and provides a background explanation of the statues, the soldiers they represent, the history of Emperor Qin, and the discovery of his tomb. Further details unfold as you pass from one gallery to the next and read the panels for each segment and each display of objects. (If you’re like me, as many of you know, you will read as many of the explanations you can stand, a process which makes the whole visit last about two hours or so, including a couple of respites on benches placed in some of the galleries and in that lobby. NatGeo states that the visit takes about an hour, but I’d say only if you speed through the exhibits and even skip some of the displays. That’d be your choice, of course, but I can’t do that. I’m obsessive that way.) The first part of the exhibit includes about 100 objects ranging from bronze bells, to coins (the design that began in the Qin kingdom, a round coin with a square hole, and was adopted for the whole empire remained in use until 1912!), to roofing tiles, to a stone sewer pipe, to weapons, to limestone-tile armor. Using these objects as examples, the explanatory panels show the development of such innovations as uniform standards of coinage and weights and measures, assembly-line manufacture, saddles with stirrups, the crossbow, construction methods—often centuries before similar developments appeared in Europe. Most of these items were utilitarian in purpose, but they were often strikingly beautiful in their silhouettes and surface decoration. (The bronze bells in one gallery, though they were objects of warfare, are incised with the most astonishingly delicate filligree patterns. Even the spear points and sword blades—the parts made of wood or other perishable materials are no lonbger available for examination—are minutely decorated.) There are a few art objects in this part of the show as well, however, such as the two handsome lifesized bronze birds meant to accompany Qin Shihuangdi into the afterlife.

The second part of the exhibit, “Armies Unearthed,” includes an explanation of the creation of the statues and their reconstruction, the replicas of two recently uncovered half-sized bronze chariots (like one that might have carried Qin Shihuangdi’s corpse to Xi’an for burial), and eight warriors in three small groups. While it’s true that seeing the individual clay soldiers displayed in a gallery is not the same as seeing them arrayed by the hundreds in ranks and files, deployed to defend their emperor in phalanxes in immense pits north of the burial city, visitors to Xi’an cannot see the statues this close-up and examine the detail and differentiation. The massive project that the 7,000-man army represents is an impressive image, as revealed in the many photographs (including the exhibit banners) on view around the museum. Removed from their intended context this way, that accomplishment—and the absolute power Emperor Qin obviously wielded to require the 700,000 workers to construct the tomb and create the artifacts buried in it—is lost except in the texts of the historical pannels. But the artistic accomplishment that the statues reveal isn’t accessible at the dig site as it is when you can approach each figure within a few inches, unobstructed by any barriers (aside from a low railing) such as glass cases. You are close enough to touch the statues (although that would be a no-no: there is a terra cotta replica at the exit for touching).

According to the exhibit literature, each life-sized figure is about six feet tall and weighs between 200 and 400 pounds. (The horses weigh about 750 pounds each.) To create the torso, artisans built up coils of clay. The hands, arms, and head were molded separately and then attached. The legs and feet of each warrior are solid clay to support the weight of the figure. When a figure was complete, a layer of fine clay was applied to the entire sculpture so individual details could be incised by hand; each soldier is appropriately uniformed for his rank and military specialty—archer, crossbowman, spear-carrier, charioteer, cavalryman, and so on. In the case of one kneeling archer, even the exposed sole of his shoe is detailed with the knotted cords of the conventional design. After this was completed, the statues were fired at high temperatures. The hands were then positioned to hold weapons, many of which were stolen during the rebellions that followed the emperor’s death or simply rotted in their underground vaults. Craftsmen—about 1,000 workers are estimated to have helped create the clay army—sculpted the individual facial appearance of each figure by hand, adding mustaches, expressions, and other distinguishing features. Many of the faces are thought to resemble the artists themselves or some real person or military figure; no two are believed to be identical. Originally, the soldiers were painted with pigments made from minerals mixed with either egg white or animal blood. When the statues were exposed to the air upon excavation, the paint faded and only traces remain of what was apparently a magnificent aspect of the discovery.

Terra Cotta Warriors includes 15 clay statues: five non-military figures in the earlier galleries (two musicians, a strongman, a court official, and a stable boy), the introductory cavalryman with his mount, and, in the final gallery, eight soldiers—three officers, including a general; two archers; two infantrymen; and a charioteer. Some, like the strongman—with his bulging muscles and sumo-wrestler belly—are heavily damaged, pieced together like a giant 3-D puzzle from fragments gathered and assembled painstakingly by trial and error. (Mr. Muscle, one of the entertainment figures, is still missing his head.) Others seem to have emerged from the earth whole or nearly so. (Some of the damage is attributed to tomb looters following Qin Shihuangdi’s burial but some was simply the result of the underground chambers having collapsed on the occupants over the past two millennia.) The archeologists have speculated in many cases about what the men (there are no women among the statues so far discovered) were carrying, based in part of the positions of the figures, especially the placement of their hands and arms, and in part on the evidence on the ground near the figures’ burial site—such as remnants of weapons. The wooden spear handles or the arrow shafts and quivers have disintegrated, but warriors identified as spearmen were surrounded by bronze spear points on the pit floor and archers were identified by the arrow tips found with them. I can only imagine what else they’ll find among the 6,000 figures they think are left to unearth in Xi’an. The variety among the few they’ve already dug up suggests there are some amazing surprises yet to be seen!

I understand from friends who have visited Xi’an, one of the most popular tourist sites in China, that seeing the dig is an awe-inspiring experience, especially seeing the clay soldiers lined up as if marching out of their burial pits to defend the dead emperor. Nonetheless, examining these statues, with their expressive faces and intricate detailing, so close, has its rewards. I was first greatly impressed with the work in evidence. The start of the final gallery is an exhibit explaining how the statues were made, with illustrations of the workshops for building the soldiers and horses and examples of the reconstruction and conservation. This set me up for an appreciation of the craftsmanship and effort that resulted in the statues on display in the final gallery. It’s not insignificant that I was constantly reminded that these figures were constructed 2,000 years ago when our European ancestors were still running around hitting each other with clubs. Creating this scale of work even today would be an amazing accomplishment, not least because terra cotta is a brittle and fragile material even in small objects. Then the artistry, irrespective of the age and technical achievement the statues represent. I swear, these pieces look like they could spring to life and stride right out to do battle. Each face is as expressive as an actor’s in a close up. You could write a play featuring these eight guys just by interpreting their appearances here for character details—it’s all in there. In Kabuki theater, the mie, the dramatic pose held by an actor at a significant instant, is called “a frozen moment.” Each of these statues is a frozen mie. I have no idea if all 7,000 figures are different from one another as the archeologists speculate, but these eight (or 15, if you include the men in the other galleries) are characters, in the sense of dramatis personae.

The display in the last room at NatGeo is set up so you can walk all around the small groupings of soldiers, viewing them from the back and sides as well as the front. (You couldn’t do that at the dig, though there is a museum in Xi’an that probably displays examples of the statues, however accessible that would be.) No detail I could imagine has been left out—armor, caps, hair styles (even under a cap!), that shoe sole, mustaches. (One explanation notes that the stable boy was at first thought to have been a woman—until the trace of an adolescent mustache was discerned!) Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post asked why spectators would be “so happy to be there” to see the statues and posited that it has something to do with the need to see “authenticity” in this age of mass replication. Maybe he’s right: we need to cling to the idea that there are still one-offs in our culture somewhere—accomplishments that are unique and unduplicable. But I think that I was happy to have been there, to have seen those 15 clay statues, because they are innately marvelous, both individually—each figure a personality on its own--and en masse—an unimaginably immense achievement (which, granted, could only be accomplished under an absolute autocrat). In other words, while Gopnik says the statues are magnificent because they’re “authentic,” I say they’re authentic because they’re magnificent. (Ask yourself this: would everyone be so thrilled if there had been 7,000 really ugly things buried under that field in Xi’an? I think not! QED.)

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