Monday, August 31, 2009

Lost Worlds- Emperor Qin's Hidden City

There is no greater temptation for an archaeologist than ancient places which seem offer a window into the inner workings of the ancient machine.  Imagine peering into a tomb mound containing a miniature city of palaces and offices, with rivers of mercury running into an ocean, and the starry firmament shining above!  Such is the description,  by the Grand Historian Sima Qian (born 145 BCE), of the sight which might one day face those who enter the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, China's "First Emperor."  

Herbert Eustis Winlock, the great curator and archaeologist associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had the fortune in 1920 to experience something like this thrill.  As he recall, when he moved the blocking to the tomb of Meket-Ra:

"My beam of light shot in to a little world of four thousand years ago, and I was gazing down into the midst of brightly painted little men going this way and that.  A tall, slender girl gazed across at me, perfectly composed; a gang of little men with sticks in their upraised hands drove spotted oxen; rowers tugged at their oars on a fleet of boats, while one ship seemed floundering right in front of me with its bow balanced precariously in the air.  And all of this busy coming and going was in uncanny silence, as though the distance back over the forty centuries I looked across was too great for even an echo to reach my ears..."

The great University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Loren Eiseley's essay "The Innocent Fox" describes an experience of nature that is also in essence the recovery of a lost world.  Part of his book entitled _The Unexpected Universe_ (1969),  Eiseley here recalls a transcendent encounter with a young fox in its lair:

"It has been repeatedly said that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe.  Man is destined only to see its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.  Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed innocent fox inviting me to play.  The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.  It was not a time for human dignity.  For just a moment I held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone...It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe."  

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting That Neolithic Feeling

Like many others, I have been fascinated by Chinese archaeology since childhood- oracle bones, bronzes, silk banners, jade burial suits, terracotta soldiers.  My first exposure to this world was the ground-breaking "Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China", which I saw in 1974 in San Francisco with my family.  My mother likes to remind me how my father and brother went through the exhibition in under an hour, while she stayed behind with me, transfixed for hours by the fantastic items (I was 8 years old).  

35 years later, this April, I was able to  visit Xi'an (ancient Chang'an), together with Perry, my mother Joy, and my sister Kathy.  In preparing for the trip, I used the excellent guide entitled China: Museums (M. Clifford, C. Giangrande, and A. White, Scala, 2009) - and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, aside from the famous "terracotta army" of  Emperor Qin Shihuangdi's tomb complex, there were several other major archaeological sites worth visiting.  I think it's worth mentioning these, not only in case others try to make the trip to Xi'an, but because the Chinese deserve credit for some very innovative ways of displaying and preserving ancient places.

Our first stop was Banpo Neolithic Village, the most famous site of the Yangshao Culture (ca.  5000-4000 BCE).  Now enclosed entirely within a roofed museum, the man-made moat surrounding the village is visible (above), as are the many circular pit houses with the impressions of the wood posts that once supported their ceilings.  Kilns, ritual areas, and tombs of various sizes were excavated during the main period of research (the 1950s), and I was quite excited to see such a large and well-preserved site of this early date.  A fascinating (and quite chilling) element was the skeleton of a man interred entirely face-down, one of the only examples of such a burial position I can think of worldwide.  I couldn't help but imagine that this was someone who broke cultural norms, and was not granted the right to a proper burial (talk about losing face!).  A curious aspect of the antiquated display were the modern clay figures meant to illustrate life in Banpo.  Strangely, these were conceived as hairy,  knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, rather than as the anatomically modern humans they surely were! 

 Traces of old ideological interpretations were also very evident in the labels and texts, which tried to make the case that the Banpo people were matrilineal.  Possible, but not something very easily retrieved from the pre-literate record.  As strange as the clay "knuckle-dragger" figurines were the modern (and somewhat erotic!) bas-reliefs adorning the roofs of the reconstructed village.  As much as I applaud the Chinese authorities for acknowledging the sex lives of Neolithic folks, none of us could work out why this was particularly germane to Banpo! 

Next time, I will post about one of the most exciting archaeological experiences of my life (other than my own excavations, of course!):  visiting the Han Yanling Museum in Xi'an, site of the shorter, but infinitely more diverse terracotta army of men, women, pigs, dogs, and chickens!  

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Jasmine Hour

ONE of the treasures of Hong Kong is Honeychurch Antiques, on Hollywood Road, the "Antiques Row" of this city.  Opened by former New Yorkers Glen and Lucille Vessa more than 45 years ago, Honeychurch sets the standard for taste and quality of all things Asian, especially Japanese decorative arts, and Chinese Export silver (which I have come to love).  I've just come back from a wonderful part of an afternoon spent there, talking to the Vessas about our trip to Tokyo, and also looking at the items in their gallery with their manager, Philip, who is also a wonderful raconteur and extremely knowledgeable about art and antiques.  The Vessas lived in Japan for years, and Glen is one of the best-known appraisers in the field of Asian antiques.  I love the way that you immediately get wrapped up in conversation with Lucille, who has a vivid and crackling  New York manner about her (even after decades away from the US), which makes me feel right at home.  Glen usually stays up in his office in the adjoining building, which is part showroom for larger pieces and rugs, and part workshop where furniture is restored and repaired for sale.  When I'm lucky, I'm taken in to say hello to Glen, who never remembers me, but I love talking to him anyway, whether it be about the way he met the actor Dennis Hopper, or Japanese wakasa lacquer, an amazing technique that requires 8 coats of lacquer and is often sprinkled with bits of mother-of-pearl.  Above is an example of  wakasa that looks very much like one of the low tables in the gallery right now.

The object that fascinated me today was a Chinese incense clock, a large rectangular steel box.  Certainly I am aware of sundials and waterclocks - waterclocks (or clepsydrae) were independently invented by the ancient Egyptians around 1500 B.C., and many examples survive in museums all over the world.  But an incense clock?  How would this work?  Philip, font of all fascinating infomation, explained to us that the openwork metal stencil inside the box was laid down over a bed of ash.  Then, laying incense powder above the ash, the incense would burn in intricate maze-like lines.  Divided into two main halves (for 6 or 12 hours each), the hours would have been subdivided by the use of various scents of incense.  Imagine the experience of this as time goes along!  The jasmine hour, followed by a sandalwood hour, followed perhaps by a tuberose hour as the afternoon wears on.  I love the idea of time progressing not with numbers of chimes, or buzzing alarms, but with a subtly changing scent that does not announce itself, but has to be noticed in order to take account of the time.  There is something fundamentally Buddhist about this level of awareness.  And I couldn't help but think that the maze of the incense trail is almost a precursor to the maze-like ways in which information makes its way through a computer circuit.  Ancient technology, to be sure, but somehow fresh.  

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Contemporary Art in Hong Kong

During the past year, I've tried to get a handle on the cultural scene in Hong Kong.  This city is so overwhelmingly about business and money-making, and not very evidently a creative center (at first glance).  A major eye-opener for me was last year's exhibition of "New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond" at the Hong Kong Art Museum.  Curated by Alice King, the show demonstrated in a spectacular way that the traditional medium in this region is not the kind of Socialist realism and its linear descendants that we associate with new Chinese art from Beijing and Shanghai.  Instead, Hong Kong seems to have become a center for the far more traditionalist (and to me, more vital) medium of ink painting, whether figurative, abstract, or calligraphic.  Her exhibition catalogue of the same name is very worthwhile, and I have used it as a guide to understanding the various strands of this tradition.  Yesterday I stopped by her gallery, Alisan Fine Arts, and had a chance to talk to Alice King a little bit about her current show (yes, more ink art!), and her desire to create a museum for ink painting in Hong Kong.  Amazingly, despite lots of recent discussion about how to develop the area called West Kowloon as an arts district, she told me that she has had little luck getting people interested in this notion.  It seems like such an obvious and good idea.  

Below are some examples of work in the "New Ink Art" exhibition and catalogue, to give you an idea of the special flavor of this regional art form.  The founder of the school is held to be Lui Shou-Kwan (1919-1975).  This work is a Chan (Zen) painting, with clear roots in traditional Chinese and Japanese Buddhist ink painting:

Working in a more explicitly calligraphic vein, Fung Ming-Chip (b. 1951) explores narrative and time in the laying down of the strokes of characters:

In a different, and more explicitly contemporary vein, Wang Tiende (b. Shanghai 1960), removes ink painting from its traditional scroll-based medium and places it on furniture, objects, and clothing.  I particularly like the way he uses burn marks (actually, cigarette burns) to create ghostly negative-space characters.  

Wilson Shieh (b. 1970 Hong Kong), whom I've had the chance to meet, is an astounding illustrator and painter who works out of a different tradition: the gongbi fine-line silk painting style.  His take on contemporary society is laced with a lot of sexual humor and innuendo:

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Some (including Alice King) might also place the internationally-known artist Cai Guo-Qiang (b. Fujian Province, 1957) among the "New Ink Artists."  Cai's use of gunpowder ( a Chinese invention) is literally explosive, and what I like is that they form an almost archaeological record of the event on paper.  He's shown a lot in the West, so he is likely to be familiar to many who follow contemporary art.  Personally, I think that the opaque Pinyin system of transliteration of Chinese names makes the artists' names almost immediately forgettable for most Western art fans (for example, this one would better be represented as Tsai Guo-Chang).  Here's a gunpowder piece he did for the Guggenheim:

In the future, I plan to post some examples of Ink Art we have purchased for ourselves, which now are hanging in the Hong Kong apartment.  It is really the greatest advantage of being here to witness change in China as it occurs.  

The Last Lecture

I've just finished reading The Last Lecture, the book written by the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch.  I'm sure everyone has seen (or heard of) the video of his actual "last lecture", but the book is worthwhile because it expands on many of the thoughts contained in the talk.  Pausch conveys in a powerful way the value of childhood dreams, of humility and selflessness, and he manages to make teaching seem like a sacred act.  There's a lot here for everyone, especially for anyone who has been or is interested in becoming a teacher.  It's a bittersweet book,  since he so obviously was unable to live the remainder of his extraordinary life, but ultimately it's a fantastic wake-up call about time, reality (virtual and otherwise), and the importance of extending yourself beyond the moment, beyond your own physical space, and beyond your immediate circle.   It reminds me that it's never too late to apologize, never too late to send a handwritten thank-you note, and never too late to get back to the business of living the real life.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bando Mitsuguro X, the star of the kabuki play I saw

Although photos aren't permitted in the Kabuki-za, I was able to find a picture online of Bando Mitsuguro X, the actor who played the lead roles in "The Six Poetic Geniuses."  I love the fact that these actors take lineage names which stress their inheritance of the mantle of past masters, in this case the Bando school.  Audience members enraptured with his performance kept yelling out his stage name, "Yamatoya"!  

Komachi Washes the Book, by Morotsugi Furuyama.

Washing the Book, an explanation

For a long time, I've been thinking about creating a blog that can serve several functions at one go: an outlet for whatever is on my mind, a place to write freely, and a way for those who might be interested in similar diverse topics to indulge with me.  The title, "Washing the Book,"  comes from a Japanese kabuki play I saw last week in Tokyo at the world-famous Kabukiza theater.  The play was called "Six Poetic Geniuses" (Rokkasen Sugata no Irodori), and featured in particular the character of the legendary beauty, Ono no Komachi.   Komachi was a famous poet who lived during the Heian period (ca. 825-900 AD).  In the final act, Komachi is overheard reciting one of her own compositions (a waka-poem) prior to a competition.  Her evil competitor attempts to disqualify her by writing Komachi's new composition into a book of the classical poems of the past.  When confronted with this false evidence, Komachi "washes the book" and the fresh ink swirls off the page, and she is vindicated.  The image and its implications had powerful meaning for me as I struggle with writing, with creating something new and indelible, and as I struggle with other peoples' perceptions of me and my work.  So this blog in a way is my own attempt to "wash the book,"  a form of inscription and a form of cleansing. 

Some amazing ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints depict Komachi in the act of "Washing the Book"- I've posted one above.