A painted dragon overlooks the throne of the Qing emperor

Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty

I saw Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The exhibit was designed by Robert Wilson, the avant-garde theater director behind things like the production of Einstein on the Beach. It’s a memorable experience. It closes June 10.

The presentation here is as much the star as the art. Using lighting, sound, and even smells, Wilson presents artifacts from the Qing (and earlier) dynasties in interesting ways. It is simultaneously very postmodern and minimalist, but also emphasizes a larger historic context around these objects in a way a standard museum presentation might not.

Ten rooms. The first is Darkness. You are asked to meditate for five minutes before entering the exhibition proper.

The second room is Prosperity. It houses the largest number of objects. Each of these is a masterpiece, but here they’re displayed as though they’re items in an automat or something. Kitschy 1950s retrofuture/enterprise music plays. Basically, it encourages you to contemplate the wealth of a society that could have cranked out all these objects.

Brightly lit shelves housing Chinese artifacts

Red laquered Chinese box

There’s a room representing Order and Hierarchy, in which five noble robes are displayed, the light and sound sequencing over them in a pattern, with the emperor’s robe in the center.

The next four rooms form a thematic juxtaposition. Representing “The Common Man” is a single tiny figurine, 2500 years old. Directly opposite from this darkened room sits the throne of the Qianlong Emperor. The room, representing “Fearsome Authority” has a great dragon painted around the walls, and the ceremonial music here is interrupted by screams, reminding us of the cruelty that comes with absolute power.

Tiny Chinese figurine

Chinese figurine overlooking throne room

A painted dragon overlooks the throne of the Qing emperor

On either side of the throne room are wings representing Buddhist Art and Daoist Art. In keeping with the minimalism of the other two rooms, five statues in a polished steel room represent all of Buddhism, three paintings in a room made to feel like a cavern represent all of Daoism. Each feels like a respite and an escape from the dreadful power of the throne room.

The next room represents Court Ladies and Noblewomen, and features sumptuous clothing and jewelry. It mirrors the room with the noblemen’s robes.

Chinese textiles with butterfly and flower motif

The penultimate room is called “Mountains of the Mind” and seems to represent an escapist fantasyland represented by secluded mountain life. Jade artifacts are displayed in relative darkness, although the room occasionally creates jump scares of thunder and bright lighting. Here sits Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion , one of the Mia’s greatest treasures and the largest jade carving outside of China.

Jade Mountain

The centerpiece of the room, though, is a long illustrated scroll showing scenes of life in the fantasy mountains. It’s a fairly epic picture book with encounters with divine beings and fantastic beasts sharing space with mundane idylls. There are hundreds of figures, most of them monks, most of them tonsured, most of them looking quite happy, and every one of them male. It’s an interesting take on monastic life, I’ll say.

The final room, contrasting the first, is Lightness and features a single pale vase set into the wall where the walls and floor glow white and your eyes are still adjusting to the light. You get either the sound of waves or kitschy contemporary farewell music depending on when you enter.

It’s a little inspiring in terms of things like blackbox larp and experience design. (Or maybe a weird dungeon crawl. The program does read like a keyed map.)

Links

Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson

The curious history of Mia’s beloved jade mountain, now starring in “Power and Beauty”

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