Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Emperors and Shibboleths

I visited two very different art exhibitions today. The first was The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army at the British Museum. Of course, the terracotta army is so well known that it needs no explaining from me here. Suffice to say, this was the first chance we've had to view some of the figures up close without travelling to China. The figures themselves are absolutely amazing. They are life-sized, beautifully detailed (even down to the nails in the soles of their hobnailed boots) and every single one is different. These photographs, sadly, are not from the exhibition as no photography was allowed. I have no idea why ... you can take photos all you like at the dig site in China. I assume it's so that we can all be ripped off by the hugely inflated prices for postcards and such like in the museum souvenir shop.

Apart from the various crossbowmen, infantry, generals and horses, there are strongmen, acrobats and musicians and wonderfully rendered bronze birds. They are extraordinary in themselves but all the more so when you realise that when the army was first discovered, almost all of the figures were in pieces, many in 80 or more. For several years they were the world's biggest 3D jigsaw puzzle. That must make them even more fragile than when they were made some 2300 years ago. And maybe that's why so few figures have been shipped over. This does lessen the impact of the find - you've doubtless seen the photographs of them lined up in their hundreds as if about to march to war. Having just a dozen of them simply wasn't as impressive as I wanted it to be. But well worth a visit if you can get there. The exhibition is on until 6th April 2008.

One curious little piece of info I gleaned from the show is that the Emperor's tomb itself has not yet been opened. No one quite knows what to expect but a near-contemporary description states that there are loaded crossbows that will kill any who defile it. It also states that the tomb has untold treasures buried within including a copy of the imperial palace complete with rivers of mercury. Probes at the site have already detected high concentrations of that metal ... so watch this space.

From Bloomsbury, I then travelled to Tate Modern to have a look at the new Unilever Series installation - Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth. It's a monstrous crack in the concrete floor of the gigantic Turbine Hall that runs the entire length of the building. At times the crack is a hair's width; at others, it's big enough to trap an unwary ankle and shin (and quite a few people seemed to delight in shoving their legs inside). The crack has been dug into the very foundations of the building but as you peer into it you see a strange amalgam of cement and chain-link fence. I'm told that this represents the fences that exist between people and also the shackles and chains of slavery and racism. Salcedo's intention is make us 'confront discomforting truths about our world and about ourselves with absolute candidness and without self-deception'. Her work is all about division and the tension it causes.

Even the name - Shibboleth - is about division. A 'shibboleth' is a word that cannot be easily pronounced by a person from a different culture from your own. Therefore it identifies them as 'different'. It originates in a Bible story. In the Book of Judges, the Ephraimites flee across the River Jordan but are stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. The Gileadites ask each Ephraimite to say the word 'shibboleth' in order to pass. But as the Ephraimites had no 'sh' sound in their language, they could not pronounce it and were identified, captured and executed.

It's an interesting piece (although how the Health and Safety people allowed it I have no idea - I can't see the exhibit ending without at least one broken ankle or toppled wheelchair). And visiting the Tate gave me an excuse to go and ogle at some of my favourite pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Constantin Brancussi, Karel Appel and the always wonderful Anish Kapoor. And spend too much time and money in the book shop.

I just missed the new Marcel Duchamp exhibition as it starts tomorrow. Bugger. Still, that gives me an excuse to go back soon I guess.

And there are always other urinals to visit.

Shibboleth photos by me
Terracotta Army photos by Galen R Frysinger (we weren't allowed to take any)


Me said...

Urinals? Your mad!

Stevyn Colgan said...

I'm sure you know this already but one of Duchamp's most controversial pieces is called 'Fountain' - a plain white urinal with the name 'R.Mutt 1917' painted on the side. I found four potential Duchamp fountains in the Tate Modern loos ... and very clean they were too.

Michele said...

How cool! I didn't realize an exhibit of the Terracotta Army was at the British Museum. I'm bummed the exhibit will be gone by the time we arrive in London in June, though.

One day, I'll see them in person...

Thanks for all the great posts, Stevyn!

(I do read them all.)

Stevyn Colgan said...

And thanks for the comments Michele! Always welcome! And, if you need any help planning your trip to London, email me ... as you've probably read, apart from my writing career,I have the dubious honour of having walked London's streets as a police officer for nearly 30 years. I know it pretty well!