Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road capital
Reclining on a sunny verge outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales I took in the dying minutes of a soccer match. I observed an elderly man doing the same, wearing a soft white hat, white socks pulled up beneath his knees. Fastidiously, he flattened a plastic bag before gently placing it on the grass to sit. The soil suddenly became damp and cold as I imagined a tomb full of bones and treasure in the car park below me. I surveyed the ordinary things in front of me and wondered whether they, too, might seem extraordinary in many hundreds of years: the soccer ball, the referee’s whistle, that diaphanous seat.
While time brings power to the ordinary, Chinese art seems to have long thrived in a less hierarchical, more integrated system of values than its Western counterpart. Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road Capital, curated by Yin Cao and showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until July 10, does justice to this. If not precisely understood, the interconnectedness between art forms in Chinese culture, between noble and ordinary, applied and non-applied, textual and pictorial, certainly brings into sharp relief the relative uniformity on view in our picture galleries and in particular the exclusion of objects presumably deemed too useful or humble. Painting is a highly revered form in Chinese culture but more in the context of surrounding forms, namely poetry and calligraphy. The latter remains the noblest art form – children are ingrained with the notion that the way they write their names equates to an important test of character. Its role within paintings, of documenting and poeticising, demonstrates an amalgamation, a crossing over of form, wholly exotic to Western pictorial history.
This exhibition places splendidly ordinary objects – chopsticks, hairpins, a pair of scissors, a tea grinder – beside “noble” forms, including calligraphic texts, a section of fresco and many fine examples of porcelain. It also speaks to provenance and the function of art objects within larger political and economical contexts, illustrated by maps and diagrams on the walls. Interestingly, the latter and its care for the vestigial and mundane – the layout of both these elements in the upstairs galleries, depicting locations and city grids – made me think of Western avant-garde practices. In particular, I was reminded of the work of Hans Haacke, who, in his own words, exposed the “operational structure of organisations, in which the transfer of information, energy and/or material occurs”. Haacke’s work has included mapping the shady dealings around the trade of artworks and property. So detailed are these maps that a 1971 retrospective at the Guggenheim was cancelled out of fear that a complex web of slum real estate holdings in Manhattan, forensically laid out by Haacke, might prove libellous.
Tang likewise speaks to the machinations of privilege and power, if more subtly and with the buffer provided by centuries of history. A lone earthenware “kowtowing figure” greets the visitor beside a plan of the Tang dynasty capital Chang’an – an 84-square-kilometre compound designed in accordance with ancient Chinese beliefs around feng shui, numerology and the unifying of man with heaven and earth. The gesture of greeting a superior by kneeling and flattening towards the floor – old-world tablet or business card in hands – may seem excessive but offers befitting material form to the way in which all societies, and within them museums, are lobbied by various interests jostling for influence. The figure, positioned diagonally on its plinth, faces back at the grid of objects and societal structures with sobering transparency and clarity; the way this deftly struck note resounded through the exhibition felt worthy of applause.
Chang’an, now known as Xi’an, was the capital of the Tang dynasty (AD618 to AD907) and marked the starting point of the Silk Road. Many of the objects in this exhibition reveal the richness offered by cross-cultural trading and the way innovation occurred on the back of imitation: a tiny leather water jug, presumably having belonged to one of the Persian merchants depicted in some of the figurines, becomes a porcelain ewer in Chinese hands, while metal and glass goods have their shapes turned into fine white-ware porcelain. Meanwhile, a tiny crystal casket adorned with gemstones – forming part of a five-layer reliquary housing what was believed to be the Buddha’s finger bone – speaks of the introduction and growing influence of Buddhism arriving from India. It was discovered a few decades ago in a secret niche under the rear chamber of the crypt belonging to the famous Famen monastery.
Amid its systems of privileging and layering, art often reinforces the belief systems, politics, power structures and wealth mechanisms of a society; art objects get promoted or relegated according to their place and function within larger hierarchical structures. Art can also be used as a political weapon, as was the case in the United States with its promotion of Abstract Expressionism and jazz music during the Cold War; or as a means of resisting the weaponry of state-sanctioned ideology, as exemplified by some contemporary Chinese art. Meanwhile, artistic skill can be co-opted as a means of scaling the power apparatus. In Western history this has corresponded, among other things, with a painter’s skill of representing or, in the case of portraiture, who they represent; in Tang China, it was calligraphy skills that allowed someone to earn respect and influence. In private possession, art objects can be both the source of humble pleasure and cues or monuments representing the status of the owners. This was absolutely the case during the Tang era: a person’s favourite possessions were taken to the grave, their tombs now providing us with important snapshots of a richly multicultural and progressive society, regarded as a golden age in Chinese history.
It was believed that the dead, in the company of their possessions, could carry on as if they were still alive. They were shown off during funeral processions that became so outlandish and cumbersome during the Tang era that restrictions had to be placed on how much stuff people could go out with. The objects and artworks were then organised and curated, sometimes into shrines, with “tomb guardians”– chesty, sharp-toothed and horned creatures sitting atop pedestals – placed at the entrance to guard the loot. As a direct reflection of the way society and the living operated above ground, the more important you were the more impressive your final utterance and tomb plot.
Which returns to the theme of art and legacy. “Tombs die too,” Roland Barthes noted while mourning the death of his mother and, more prematurely, the cultural monument he had spent his life erecting. In addition to chance discoveries made while digging the earth beneath building sites, chicken factories, car parks and restaurants, the objects in this exhibition have emerged from tombs of the royal and nameless and significantly from a network of burial sites lying beneath the new Xi’an airport. There is something both obscene and wonderfully karmic about this looting process: all that wealth and prestige given over to the public good; all those kowtowers and greedy officials met with the same disdain, by their developer descendants, resorted to when furtively negotiating their plots. The new airport will service millions while the once scenic now inconveniently placed tombs will pave the way for many more exhibitions such as this.
VISUAL ART Degas: A New Vision
NGV International, Melbourne, June 24-September 18
VISUAL ART Esther Stewart: How to Decorate a Dump
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until September 11
THEATRE Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Arts Theatre, Adelaide, June 23-July 2
THEATRE The Honey Bees
Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, until July 16
Sydney Opera House, until August 12
Brunswick Mechanic’s Institute, Melbourne, until June 25
MUSIC Broadbeach Country Music Festival
Various venues, Queensland, until June 19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "Buried treasures". Subscribe here.