Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Qing Dynasty Comes to Minneapolis

The featured exhibit currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—the one you have to pay to get into—is devoted to artifacts from the Qing Dynasty. It has drawn widespread interest less for the artworks on display than for the way the items are displayed. Gone are the wordy placards, gone are the chatty headphone monologues. In their place we're left with a single program handout and a lot of nameless things to look at, accompanied by a wide array of piped-in music, unusual wall-coverings, variable lighting, and an unexpected thunderclap or two.

All of these trappings are the creation of Robert Wilson, whom, if I had been asked during a pub quiz, I might have identified as the lost Beach Boy. In fact, Wilson is a renowned theater, dance, and opera designer.

Visitors are lead into the first room of the exhibit in groups and told to sit on a bench in darkness. On the opposite wall, high up on the left, they will see a black vase, illuminated from above by four small bright lights. Some sort of meditative music fills the room, and it's pleasant sitting there in the dark with a bunch of strangers.

I was the first guest in our group to get up and walk over to the vase. It wasn't easy to see, even up close, due to the glare of the tiny lights, and whatever beauty it had was lost to me. It's described in the flier as a nineteenth-century object, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone had bought it recently at Pier 1. 

The strength of this introductory room lay in the peace and control it exerted. It was pleasant to imagine that when the doors were finally opened and we were allowed to move into the next room, it would be largely empty. There would be no one pressing in behind us, we would have lost our own anticipatory haste, and we'd be ready to look at things, one by one, with a calm, discerning, and appreciative eye.

Indeed, the second room was as brightly lit as the first had been dark. The room had a strangely pleasant brightness, like a scene from Interstellar.  Arranged in a matrix on shelves in a second square of walls inside the room were all sorts of "Chinese" things—incense-burners, mirrors, hats, pom-poms, religious effigies. I didn't know what half of them were, but most of them looked pretty cool. And as if that weren't enough, there were many more artifacts depicted in a similar matrix on the walls of the room.

The next room contained five exquisite robes. The walls were covered in straw. The next had robes, hats, furniture, and other items associated with women during the Qing Dynasty. The walls were covered in very reflective aluminum foil. I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think "Tuche de gel sei cinta" from Puccini's Turandot was playing in the background.  

I think you get the idea. A throne room. A Daoist "cave" with scrolls. Especially effective, due to the lighting, was the room with five Buddhist statues.

I'm not sure that the darkened room nearby devoted to the common man was entirely effective. It was large, but contained only a single figurine, maybe 6 inches high.

But the biggest misfire, I think, was the final room, which was devoted to light, as opposed to the darkness of the first room. (You know, yin/yang?) It contained a single pale green jade vase, but was otherwise filled only with the cheery sounds of a British music hall number. That really didn't fit. Yet, it was "light" music. Better, I think, would have been some koro music by Toumani Diabate and the New Ancient Strings.

In short, I liked the show. And reading over the program later, I became aware of all sorts of connections between the rooms that hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure the exhbit is quite worth the admission charge ... but the rest of the museum is free, for heaven's sake,and you could easily spend weeks exploring its many permanent and temporary exhibits.  

We stepped over a few feet to an exhibit called Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki.

Also very good stuff.

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