China unearths its past

Sunday June 17, 2012


The Clark Art Institute is facing East. A cluster of exhibitions opening this weekend on contemporary Chinese archaeology signal what Assistant Deputy Director Thomas J. Loughman described as a move by the institute to "be on the cutting edge of what’s known about China’s past."

The potential for new art and archaeological discoveries has made China, which has so far unearthed less than 1 percent of its cultural heritage, a world magnet for art scholarship and for museums with a global reach, like the Clark, Loughman said in an interview last week.

The institute made overtures nearly five years ago and the new exhibitions -- "Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries From Northern China" in the Manton Research Center, and "Through Shên-Kan: Sterling Clark in China" and "Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China." both at the Stone Hill Center -- suggest what visitors might expect in years ahead. They will be on view through Oct. 21.

Annette Juliano of Rutgers University, guest curator of "Unearthed" will talk about the state of modern archaeology in China and how recent discoveries have influenced China’s sense of its cultural identity in a lecture at the museum today at 3 p.m.

She will focus on burial practices in the 5th century that involved creating an underground residence for the deceased, with stone furniture and other domestic objects to accompany the dead in the afterlife.

The region from which the exhibition objects were unearthed is one to which the institute’s founder, Sterling Clark, who trained as a civil engineer, organized and led a geographical expedition in 1908.

Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, financed and assembled a professional team, that included a surveyor, doctor, meteorologist, artist and naturalist, to trek 2,000 miles on horses and mules through the northern provinces of Shanxi and Gansun -- an area called the Shên-kan.

They made a detailed map survey of the region; collected weather data, plants and animal specimens; and took photographs of people and the landscape, most of which they turned over to Smithsonian Institution.

In 1912, the team documented the journey in a book titled "Through Shên-kan: An Account of the Clark Expedition in Northern China, 1908-09." It was this book and a conference at the Clark in 2007 on Asian art history in the 21st century, that spurred the Clark’s overtures to China in 2008 and resulted in the current exhibitions.

Loughman, whose expertise is actually early Italian art, became point man for the cultural exchange. He researched Sterling Clark’s 1908 expedition and led the institute’s efforts to have the 1912 account, along with digitized photos of people and landscapes, made available to communities along the route Clark’s team traveled.

The information, translated into Mandarin, was new to many in China and drew wide attention there. The good will it created led to talks with top Chinese cultural officials about an exchange to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1912 publication.

The Clark offered to share masterpieces from its collection of French Impressionists, which are presently touring museums in Beijing and Shan ghai, and the Chinese offered to send to Williamstown newly excavated antiquities from ancient tombs in the Shên-kan area that have not been exhibited outside China.

Loughman visited China three times to negotiate the loan.

The objects on view in "Unearthed," found in three separate tombs within recent years, include a 10-ton, 5th-century sarcophagus, in the shape of a traditional Chinese house.

It and other items, like four terra cotta tomb guardians more than 4 feet high, and what Loughman described as a "wonderfully magical life-like" terra cotta water buffalo, a personal favorite, illustrate, he said, how the ancient Chinese actually looked and lived, information scholars have gathered until now mostly through Chinese literature.

Sterling Clark would have been unaware of these objects in 1908, Loughman said, since all lay buried. And his mission was to collect scientific specimens rather than art. It was only after Clark moved to Paris in 1910 and met and married his wife, Francine, that he began to build an art collection, Loughman said.

"Mr. Clark liked art of all kinds," Loughman said, when asked if Asian exhibition programming was a departure from the institute’s core mission. "He had an openness to bucking trends and refused to be pigeon-holed. I think we are really getting serious about openness."

The two Stone Hill exhibitions will give historical context to the "Unearthed" show.

"Through Shên-kan: Ster ling Clark in China," organized by Loughman, tells the story of the 1908 expedition through photos, documents and equipment the team used. The other, "Then and Now: Photo graphs of Northern Chi na," juxtaposes images taken by contemporary Chi nese photographer Li Ju with the same scenes photographed by the Clark team in 1908."

A fourth exhibition, "Phan toms of the Clark Exped ition," an installation by artist Mark Dion that looks at the expedition with a contemporary eye, is on view through Aug. 3 at the Explorers Club, the former townhouse of Sterling Clark’s brother, Ste phen, at 46 E. 70th St. in New York.

It was organized by former Williams College Museum of Art Direc tor Lisa Corrin.

To reach Charles Bonenti:,
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles


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