Look to the East: Jacob's Pillow and the Clark Art Institute tap Chinese creativity


When the Clark Art Institute re-opens this summer, after an extensive 10-year renovation, it will reach from from 1600 BCE to 1965.

In one of the most public of the new galleries, beside a new stretch of water, natural light will fall on 40 bronzes from the Shanghai Museum. A visitor can stand at the windows and look through the trees toward the Stone Hill Center -- where a contemporary David Smith sculpture will stand on the terrace.

High on another mountainside, Jacob's Pillow will open the 2014 season with a similar blend of contemporary, international and traditional.

Hong Kong Ballet will perform a pas de trois, a work for three dancers, by Fei Bo, resident choreographer of the National Ballet of China.

Fei has called the work "A Room of Her Own," suggesting Virginia Woolf's call for women to find independence and space. Baff feels in it an "impeccible classical technique with a capacity for narrative and emotional expression."

It holds a physical narrative, she said. Unlike most carefully formal ballet, Fei's work tells a clear story, in looks, in body language. It follows the taut relationship between a choreographer and his wife.

Western Ballet reached China fairly recently, less than 100 years ago, Baff said, but contemporary ballet in China is part of the international world, Baff said. It's a new form, and Fei is a young man, in his 30s.

His first full-length work, "The Peony Pavilion," blends Western and Eastern dance with a symphonic score, a story from a 400-year-old Kunqu opera and traditional Chinese instruments. A young girl who clings to a lover she has met in a dream -- until he crosses the borders of life and death to find her.

"You have to be brave to take on something with that length and heft of tradition," Baff said

The Clark's second show of Chinese art on recent years will reach back 3,000 years and into the afterlife. These bronze vessels, carved containers and bells played a role in ceremonies and have come to light from tombs.

Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art and head of the department of Asian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, has co-curated the show. Liu was born in China, trained in London, and began his career in Australia, said Thomas J. Loughman, assistant deputy director at the Clark. The pieces Liu has helped to select are among the rarest and the most complete in the Shanghai Museum's collection of 6,000 to 7,000.

They were made before the land became China, before the unification of the empire.

Some bear the names of the people who made them or who had them made as gifts. Their inscriptions are some of the oldest known writing in China -- in characters that no longer exist in modern Chinese.

Some still show traces of soot from the fire, and of what heated or cooked in them. They give glimpses of the way their maker thought about the afterlife, faith and and family.

Many of these vessels warmed ceremonial wine or cooked sacrificial meat, Loughman said. They were meant to harness the power of the animistic spirits carved or sculpted in them -- birds, snakes, buffalo, rams, phoenixes, fantastic birds and otherworldly creatures -- in heaven-sent gleaming and steaming bronze.

Loughman finds the artwork, the sculptures, strongly three-dimensional and yet abstract.

He once asked Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, how to find the line between natural and abstract in works like these. Xu told him the people who made these pieces did not make that distinction.

"None of these animals are naturalistic, because none exist in the real world," Loughman said. "How do you capture the essence of an owl or a dragon when it (stands in for) the eyes of the underworld?"

An animal may show a trait like strength, he said. Sculptors would often give a vessel an elephant's trunk or legs.

"It's often a composite," he said. "It's not meant to be a chicken but the quality of a chicken."

He describes their shapes, moving betweek fabulous and sleekly muscular, very much as Baff describes Fei Bo's choreography -- abstract movement, beautiful in itself, and also communicating an inner storyline.

And he finds words for the bronze water buffalo shoulder to shoulder on a cowry shell containter like the ones Baff calls up for Fei's three dancers: "formal, pristine, gorgeous -- and emotional."


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