At the end of January, Chinese New Year marked the Year of the Dragon, a calendar flip that perfectly matches the content and spirit of Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy, a wonderful exhibit at the Bowers Museum (www.bowers.org) in Santa Ana. Presenting artifacts and precious objects from three ancient Chinese dynasties--the Qin, Han and Tang--the show moves between things monumental and intimate, folding back on itself with remarkable curatorial and visual sophistication.
Anchoring the exhibit are four life-sized terra cotta figures, underworld protectors of Qin Shihuangdi, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), who unified over a dozen feudal states into what became imperial China. The imposing figures of three warriors and a horse look not only frozen in time but also seem so steadfast in posture and gaze that one wonders whether or not they would ever flinch if they were to come to life. Hooves sharp, sinews taut, the horse seems perpetually at the ready, as does the green-faced, thick-armored warrior kneeling nearby. Beliefs about the need for protection in the afterlife were strong and specific in ancient China, so emperors like Shihuangdi modeled their tombs on actual cities to ensure their spirits would rest safely. Complete with buildings, attendants, animals and standing armies, these burial complexes are so large that archaeologists have been finding new areas of the dig for several decades. Even from the wall displays charting the dig site, it's nearly impossible to fathom the scope of this enterprise. Be sure to take your time moving back and forth from the wall texts to the artifacts, allowing yourself the gradual discovery this work requires.
In a reaction against the perceived excesses of their predecessors, Han Dynasty emperors (206 BCE-220 CE), reduced the scale of the figures to two feet in height, but did not scrimp on the numbers, which are just as vast. The figures here are visually arresting in different ways. Female attendants, their robes flowing and hair perfectly piled, seem at once proud and regal. There is fascinating material about cross-dressing female warriors, the most famous of which, Hai Mulan, became the subject of a Disney animated film. Most awe-inspiring, however, is the set of stone tomb doors with their surrounding frames that give one a spine-tingling sense of both power and timelessness.
Finally, the exhibit visits the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), the period most associated with the aesthetic, philosophical and intellectual accomplishments with which Western civilization became fascinated in the 19th century. My favorite pieces: Two dragons, glistening in gold and bronze, with feathery, almost delicate detail. Unlike in Western mythology, the dragon was seen by the Chinese as benevolent and divine, and its image was reserved for use exclusively by royalty. The painting of two polo players, a masterly work of swirling movements in pigment on plaster, looks as though it might come to life through movie projector at any moment. Follow the line of the painter's brush from raised hoof of the horse on the left, around his leaping frame, to the raised mallet of the first player, who eyes the ball below as his opponent grits his teeth and tries to snare the same prize, and around the second horse to the far border of the canvas. It is a perfect motion-induced composition, that predates the more famous Renaissance painters of Europe like Carravagio and Titian by thousands of years.
The exhibit actually begins off the main entry lobby, but visitors should first pass into the hallway that links the museum's two wings to peruse the life-sized photographs that demonstrate new conservation techniques that have made it possible for archaeologists to preserve the actual paint that once covered all the burial figures. Instead of dusty terra cotta, we are now treated to glimpses of crimson and jade, gold and ivory. Two video monitors play film footage of the actual excavation and conservation. It's a shame that there's nowhere to sit, however, and the blustery, noisy hall makes it difficult to hear the narration. Surely Bowers curators can devise a better solution next time.
WHAT: Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy
WHERE: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main Street, Santa Ana. (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org
WHEN: Now through March 12, 2012
HOURS and TICKETS: Tues.-Thurs.: Adults $21; Seniors (62+) and students (with valid I.D.) $19; Children ages 6-17 $14; Children under 6 free. Purchase at www.museumtix.com or call Ticketmaster (877) 250-8999