Chinese Art is Back

December 13, 2011

About half a year ago, Stephen Little (curator and head, Chinese and Korean Art) and I both arrived to the museum. Our first mission was to bring LACMA’s collection of Chinese art back on display. As of this past weekend, approximately forty objects are now on view. The reinstalled gallery is designed to tell the history of art in China, with each dynasty distinguished by examples that reflect the aesthetics, technology, and ideology of their time period. To achieve this goal, nothing is more illuminating than our best-known pieces.

One of the most celebrated early Chinese artworks from LACMA’s collection is a cauldron called ding from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). This ding is from a set that would include more vessels of different shapes and sizes. Called mingqi in Chinese, meaning “spirit objects,” such sets were used during burial rituals and ceremonies conducted for ancestors, and demonstrate the importance of ancestral worship in the early times of Chinese civilization.

Lidded Ritual Food Cauldron (Ding) with Interlaced Dragon, China, Shanxi Province, ancient state of Jin, middle Eastern Zhou dynasty, about 500–450 BC, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eric Lidow

Equally famous is a seated Buddha carved of marble. The Buddha has been part of LACMA’s Chinese art display since the 1940s as a long-term loan, until officially entering the museum’s permanent collection in 2007. With a serene face and gracefully proportioned body, the Buddha exemplifies the highest achievement of Buddhist art in China.

Probably Shakyamuni (Shijamouni), the Historical Buddha, China, middle Tang dynasty, about 700–800 AD, gift of Ruth Trubner in memory of Henry Trubner and purchased with funds provided by Kelly and Robert Day, H. Tony and Marti Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation, David Bohnett and Tom Gregory, Ric and Suzanne Kayne, Richard Merkin, M.D., Lenore and Richard Wayne, Sharon and Robert Blumenfield, Edgerton Foundation, Myron Laskin, Mary and Robert Looker, Nancy and Dick Riordan, and Mr. and Mrs. Hazelle Hickman

While showcasing these masterpieces of different time periods and medium, I also wanted to convey the continuity of art making in China. Chinese culture has always valued and revered history and tradition. Imitating the past is considered the necessary first step of learning and is a source for creativity. Archaism is a reoccurring theme over centuries.

On display is a longquan-ware vase in the shape of a cong, not far different from a jade cong of the Neolithic period. Cong refers to the geometric shape that combines a circle and a square. The circle symbolizes heaven and the square symbolizes earth in early civilization. Together they present the dual-system of yin and yang that is still important in Chinese philosophy and ideology today.

Vase (Ping) in the Form of an Archaic Jade Ritual Tube (Cong), China, Zhejiang Province, Southern Song dynasty, 1127–1279, gift of Carol Holmes

Square Tube (Cong) with Masks, China, Neolithic period, Liangzhu culture, about 2600–2400 BC, gift of Carol Holmes

A jade disk from the middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is decorated with dragons on one side and raised bosses with spirals on the other. Its design—the donut-like shape and the raised spirals—is also inspired by a Neolithic piece.

Perforated Disk (Bi) with Dragons, China, late Ming dynasty, about 1550–1644, gift of the Marcia Israel

Perforated Disk (Bi) with Relief Spirals, China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty, 481–221 BC, gift of Carl Holmes

We are very glad to have LACMA’s outstanding Chinese collection back in the galleries. More treasures will be put on display in the rotations in the coming months.

 Christina Yu Yu, Assistant Curator, Chinese Art

East and West, Past and Present: Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads

September 22, 2011

In ancient China one’s Zodiac sign was fixed by the position of the planet Jupiter during the year of one’s birth (it takes twelve years for Jupiter to orbit the sun). On this level, Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads represents a system of measuring time and distinguishing characteristics of the human psyche linked to the heavens above.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, installation view, © Ai Weiwei

In the mid-eighteenth century the Qianlong Emperor, ruler of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty—a Manchu (not Chinese) by birth—was fascinated by European technology. On the condition that they not proselytize, he invited European Jesuit priests into the Forbidden City, where they worked as scientists, engineers, architects, and artists. These priests spoke, read, and wrote Chinese fluently; in this way they could easily communicate with the most eminent Chinese and Manchu scholar-officials in the Forbidden City. Sent to China by the Vatican with the mission of converting China to the Catholic Church (in which they largely failed), these priests nonetheless had an enormous influence on Chinese intellectual and artistic life.

Among the projects commissioned by the Emperor from the Jesuits was a grand palace known as the Yuan Ming Yuan, or “Palace of Perfect Brightness.” It consisted of a mix of styles: sections built in traditional Chinese wooden architecture and others made of marble, imitating such European palaces as Versailles. In front of one building in the European manner was a large fountain, with twelve animal-headed waterspouts. These functioned as symbols of the Zodiac and of the hours of the day (the Chinese measured the day in units equivalent to two Western hours, which when multiplied by twelve makes up a twenty-four hour day).

In an astonishing irony, in 1860 the entire Palace was destroyed and looted by British and French troops as part of military actions of the Second Opium War. Of the twelve original bronze heads, seven survive. In casting his new Zodiac Heads, Ai Weiwei carefully followed the style of the originals, but exercised considerable artistic license in designing the five heads whose models are missing (including the dragon).

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads are thus a multi-layered meditation on political power, the nature of time, and the often tormented relationship between China and West, at the same time calling into question the arbitrary nature of such concepts as “national treasure.” That all of this is accomplished with considerable humor is a tribute to Ai’s detachment. I am proud that LACMA is showing this work by one of China’s greatest artists and most courageous social critics.

Stephen Little, curator, Chinese and Korean Art

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