Thursday, November 19, 2009

National Geographic Museum: Terra Cotta Warriors

This week, the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC opens a wonderful show centered on the fantastic Ceramic Warriors found in China in the grave of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, 35 years ago. These objects date to the 3rd century BC, and of that army of soldiers, 15 warriors and related artifacts including a full size horse are now installed in the newly designed Museum space. It's a dramatic history lesson in clay of a buried past by an ancient culture a hemisphere and 2 millennium away. It's accidental discovery by local farmers sounds more like fiction than history, a story better suited for movies than museums. The Washington Post has a photo essay here and an article here. Looking at the figures outside their context, with little understanding of their original intention, Art and sculpture are among the only words to describe them.

I was honored to be involved in the installation. This is an ultimate project. How do you prepare or train for something like this? For an Artist/ Art Handler it's the mountain top. As a stone carver much of my own inspiration comes from what remains of Antiquity. I was eager to meet the Warriors. To be able to practice in public the work you do in private is a privilege. Friends who run a local Art Handling Company asked if I would want to be considered as the rigger for the project. The Warriors are fragile, heavy and difficult to handle. The project scope required a rigging/ sculpture specialist. They could provide an introduction. Our initial meeting with the Museum's staff in charge of the installation went well, I left with a folder of pictures, crate sizes and floor plans which I promised not to lose. Months later I found myself bringing my gantry, slings and misc. rigging tools in my pickup to the museum. This level of anxiety is fuel and I enjoyed the preparation. The degree of complexity required a commensurate response. I was warned ahead of time that there would be an official group of Chinese specialists responsible for the installation and although an interpreter would be involved, I should expect a language barrier. I looked forward to this point, I would have to speak through the quality of my presentation, tool choices and anticipation of their motives. When the first day arrived, on our introduction, I knew immediately who the Master was. I bowed and said I was in their service. After our hellos and a few unsure words I took them outside to show them the unassembled parts of the gantry. The Master nodded.

Opening the first crates felt like releasing a message in a bottle. I was unprepared for the figures individual expression and physical presence...We were asked to float each Warrior from their padded protected case to their display destination. The Chinese specialists spoke in hieroglyphs and gesture. It was like music, someone would count and on 4 we all would assist on the beat to the spot.

Some mornings I would arrive on-site ahead of the crew, meet with the museum staff, discuss objectives for the day and study the next challenge. When the crew arrived I would install the gantry in the way I saw resolved any technical problem or with everybody involved, discuss and create an alternative install solution. The Chinese Master would see immediately how much I/we understood and perhaps could not explain. Even though we had never met, we had to be great partners: the work, Art and venue deserved it. I believed the distance and difference between us in technique and troubleshooting should translate visually and we could build on that. The first break came in the middle of the project. We took the weekend off. I had a couple days to understand the scope, technical and personal, objectively. I gathered additional tools for the next week and thought they don't even know my name or who I am. If I wanted them to trust me and my approach to an International treasure in their care, they should know that. I looked up google translator and wrote out the information on my business card in Chinese. On Monday I presented them the card and each of them took the time to read the characters I couldn't. They smiled and we all nodded:

困難的項目是我們的特色:安裝 /解除安裝,索具,包裝 /裝箱