A friend recently took me to an amazing exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). It was called Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, and the concept and design were by Robert Wilson.
What was special was that the display was presented as a series of 10 rooms, each one themed to a particular experience with the wall coverings, especially composed music, and customized lighting. It started in a darkened room painted all black, displaying one perfect – black – vase. It was meant as a space for meditation, and the music was punctuated by what sounded like a falling pencil, but I was later told was Wilson himself dropping a chopstick.
The next room was wallpapered with a customized design of evenly-spaced precious objects such as vases and pins and other beautifully-made luxury products. In a chicken-wire enclosed space, the pictured objects were displayed in the center of the room. Room 3 was a display of court robes, including the emperor’s own robe. They were exquisitely woven and embroidered. I am into textiles and textile art, so I spent some time just trying to understand the artistry and techniques here.
Room 4, painted a dull blue, had a glass case with a 2000-year-old bronze statue representing the common man. He faced the Emperor’s throne in Room 5, painted red with a dramatic and fearsome dragon. This might have been my favorite room.
The rooms on either side had religious art – Buddhist on one side, with five statues; and Daoist on the other with three hanging scrolls in a darkened room that represented a cave.
Room 8 was a contrast, representing the decorative role of women. In a room lined with silvered mylar, the central display was of more gorgeous robes, head-dresses, and furniture.
It also had a pair of “lotus” shoes that went on a woman’s bound feet. A little child’s coat, delicately embroidered, was a reminder that the children also lived in this environment of beauty and constraint.
The next room, Mountains of the Mind, contrasted mountains carved of jade with a custom wallpaper that at first glance looked like the spectacular limestone mountains of Guilin (which I’ve actually seen, many years ago). But on a second look, the mountains are made up of apartment blocks, office towers, and factories, some functional, others dilapidated.
The brochure for the exhibition suggests that mountains represent the divine and spiritual in China, and the idea of retreating to the simplicity of the mountains was a dream of courtiers and Emperors. The wallpaper seemed to contrast that idea with the impacts of economic progress and perhaps the opposing dream of material prosperity.
At the center of the room was a glass case with a simply exquisite very long scroll, apparently woven of silk and enhanced with paint and maybe embroidery. I pored over that for a long time.
The final room I found anti-climactic. Set up in contrast to the darkness of the first room, the idea was “Lightness” and it was painted white with bright even lighting. A single exquisite white jade vase was on “display.” I put display in quotes, because it was behind what seemed to be lightly frosted glass, and was high above my head. I could barely see it; it was like a ghost of a vase. Which was a shame, because by the picture in the brochure, its detailed carving is part of its beauty.