Sunday, 22 April 2018


You enter the exhibition through a darkened room in which you remain for five minutes, with slight illumination on a small black-glazed porcelain vase. You are invited, indeed almost compelled to meditate on what you see, or do not see, and when the doors open you enter a white room brightly lighted and echoing with noises of bells and whistles. Welcome to Power and Beauty in China's Last Dynasty.

Many successful exhibitions make their points didactically: thematically, chronologically, they order and explain their theses. Shortly after seeing Power and Beauty at the Minneapolis Institute Of Art, I returned to London and visited the British Museum's Living With Gods, which draws across various religions to show ways in which they reflect the same experiences of life. Given that dynastic China lived with gods in the form of their emperors, Robert Wilson's exhibition covers much of the same territory, but in a more focused and totally different way.

Wilson, perhaps best known for his design of Philip Glass' opera Einstein On The Beach, has selected objects from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China for some two and a half centuries, until 1911, and placed them in ten small rooms, each with its own design, atmosphere and sound. Most tellingly, the rooms and objects are not curated, explained, as the viewer moves from room to room. Instead, after soaking in their impact, after speculating on their presence and meaning, it is not until you leave the exhibition that a docent hands you a guide, inviting you to reflect on your own reactions, and measure them against their historical, social and artist background.

It is a hugely exhilarating experience. Room by room your senses open up, sometimes trying to connect what you see and what you see with what came before. Sometimes you simply stop and absorb the effects, as if you were being drawn into the lives of the objects rather than drawing them into your own. After I was handed the guide, I began to retrace my steps, but after reversing into two rooms I stopped, preferring to collect my own responses first, then measure them against their provenance; absorbing the things themselves as they engaged Wilson, before borrowing their context.

You emerge from the meditative darkness and come a room of white walls with a large display in the centre, familiar perspex holding small treasures. The sounds of bells and whistles attract your attention as you study the display. But entering the third room, you are overcome by the smell of the straw-lined walls, the percussive noise, the constant changing of light. Hanging before you are robes that reflect grandeur, and you feel, with the smell of straw, somehow detached from them. It turned out the room was devoted to Order and Hierarchy; my senses had been followed where they had been led. The explanation of the objects simply reinforced the overpowering reality.
Thus it followed, room by room. Darkened walls and harpie-like screams as you tread on soft carpet; a powerful smell of sandalwood as you're met with a throne and dragons. Icons presented in a shiny, modern setting, with deep bass sounds suggesting chants or whale song. Three meditative screens met in what we might think of as traditional Chinese sounds in one room; in the next walls of icy silver, lush clothing and jewellery and an aria from Turandot. The senses begin to draw themselves together, and then a darkened room decorated with a contemporary mountain scape, crashing sounds and koto music, and a wonderful rough jade sculpture of mountains taking pride of place. It's as if the previous rooms have melted themselves into this presentation, and then you move to the final room, like the first one simple, but as bright as the first was dark, walls glowing white from within. As the first did, this room contains only one object: a green jade vase, accompanied by the sound of waves hitting rocks. It's something eternal, yet fleeting, and I walked back to it twice before actually leaving the exhibition and receiving my guide, as if it were telling me the dynasty's story, recalling its memory for me.

There is no point in delving deeper into the thematic breakdown of the rooms, or how my reactions moved in different directions from their intent. Because my reactions are part of Wilson's intention; his instinct is to reflect on the way in which an ancient China presented itself, to itself. You view as an outsider, trying to understand this new but long-hidden world. The exhibition itself is a metaphor for something that did not disappear totally with the passing of the Qing Dynasty, but the Power to which it refers resides, in the end, in its Beauty. Beauty was encouraged, indulged as a by-product of power, as were philosophies and religions which had a symbiotic relation to power. But watching that green vase, as if it were the only reminder of what I had just seen, I felt sure that, like the statue of Ozymandias, that beauty was what endured long after the Qing were gone. I say 'long after', but it has only been a century, and what, in the end, is a mere hundred years?

Power And Beauty in China's Last Dynasty
concept and design by Robert Wilson, with Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at MIA
at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until 27 May 2018

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