Altair Roelants discovers the terracotta army brought to life at the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition The First Emperor:
China’s Entombed Warriors. I originally encountered the might of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, and his terracotta warriors, among the books of the British Museum’s domed Reading Room in 2007, during the London installment of this record-breaking international traveling exhibition.
Treading a similar path, The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney (2 December 2010 – 13 March 2011) brings to life this fascinating story of one man’s vision to immortalise the body and soul through terracotta, in what can only be described as one of the greatest ceramic collections of all time.
The First Emperor, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE), commissioned a vast underground terracotta army that is said to cover an area of 25,000 sqm and contain 8000 ceramic soldiers (only 1900 have been excavated to date). This includes administrators, acrobats and musicians, along with all their cavalry support and weaponry. The ceramic defence-force was strategically positioned 1.5 km east from the First Emperor’s burial mound under Mount Li, in China’s Shaanxi Province. The sole purpose of this immense undertaking was to create a subterranean army that would protect and support his leadership in the after-life; reflecting the First Emperor’s power, his much documented obsession with immortality and the wider cultural belief that you continued on the same path in death as in life. The ideology and force behind this achievement, and the artistic and technical feat that bought it to fruition, are somewhat overwhelming by both ancient and contemporary standards. The story is made even more fascinating when we learn that these warriors were discovered by chance after farmers unearthed pottery fragments near the city of Xian in the Lintong District in Shaanxi Province in 1974 and much of the First Emperor’s kingdom still remains underground and undiscovered today.
The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors introduces us to this breath-taking narrative via a series of rooms that guide us through the growth of the Qin State and the regional social, political and cultural history that led up to the First Emperor’s reign, with a particular emphasis on the paralleling burial rituals, and artistic and architectural practices of the period. Interestingly, bronze was favored for ceremonial and burial objects, only moving to the cheaper ceramic modes of vessel due to the upheaval caused by war and economic decline. The First Emperor came to power in 221 BCE after defeating enemy states to form a united China under the Qin Dynasty. During his notoriously brutal reign, he successfully enforced widespread reformation to political, economic and architectural infrastructure. This included extensive road and canal networks and the initial framework for the Great Wall of China. As a testament to his vision, many of these reforms remained active up until the early twentieth century. Despite all that is of interest in these initial rooms, it is obvious by the anticipation in people’s hurried steps, that it is the main gallery’s exhibit that everyone has come here to see – the terracotta warriors themselves.
The main gallery’s black walls are illuminated by spotlights placed high on the ceiling, increasing the sense of depth in the room and evoking the atmosphere of a cavernous tomb. Simultaneously, the space is flooded with a mix of haunting sounds, cries and oriental music – and as a result, there is a hushed, almost transcendental, whisper that reverberates amongst the audience. Positioned centrally within the gallery are the ten terracotta warriors and horses, ordered in rank along a corridor that reflects their original positioning in the trench-like pits in China. These figures represent the main types that would be found in the First Emperor’s army – they are the Armored General, Armored Military Officer, Light Infantryman, Armored Infantryman, Standing Archer, Armored Kneeling Archer, Cavalryman, Cavalry Horse, Charioteer and Chariot Horse. Subsequently, it is the terracotta warriors as individual sculpted figures that so successfully bring this story to life and make this exhibition so captivating to the contemporary imagination. Their life-like quality, formidable stance, varying heights, gestures and individual facial expressions are wonderful touches of personalisation. Such details give each figure a commanding presence in the room; it is as if the warriors are waiting to be called to arms and may stride off the gallery stage at any moment to be lost amongst the audience. This sense of authenticity is further emphasised by the finely drawn detail of their armour, neck scarves and shoes, and their elaborate hair arrangements that include extravagant braids, knots, folds, ribbons and cloth.
This attention to detail reflects China’s already long-standing belief in physical preservation in order to capture body and soul beyond the grave. Consequently, the warrior’s life-like appearance was immortalised in ceramic to ensure their place and strength in the afterlife, to uphold and defend The First Emperor’s regime. This is also true of the tens of thousands of genuine weapons and objects that were buried alongside them. For contemporary audiences, these principles and the sheer mastery of the medium, allow us a glimpse into this fascinating period of China’s history. At the Art Gallery of NSW, each spotlighted figure stands in relatively close proximity to the audience and there are no obscuring glass display cases or support structures. This enables the viewer to inspect the exceptional craftsmanship, individual traits, cracks and traces of pigment, first hand and from every possible angle – and people do, and at length. During this busy Monday afternoon, a continual flow of people converge around the terracotta warriors – utterly engaged, transfixed by the figures for far longer than many would normally stand before an art object or museum exhibit.
Given the focus on achieving an individual and realistic appearance, also fascinating is the laborious and factory-like making process that was required to create an army of such size. These essentially mass-produced ceramic figures were crafted by 700,000 artisans and labourers in commissioned networks of workshops. Each warrior took approximately 150 days to complete. The numerous parts of the figures were made separately using a variety of moulds. Some of the components were hollow like the heads, bodies and arms and others, such as the feet and hands, were solid. Features were created by clay detail added to the original casts before firing. This is also true of the now faded lacquers that once shone in hues of pink, red, green, yellow and blue. After being assembled, the warriors were wheeled down to the network of pits that lay 5-7m below ground. There they were arranged in elaborate strategic combat formations before being sealed below wooden frames, with roofs made of reeds, clay and rammed earth. One can’t help but imagine the individual hands that sculpted these meticulously crafted objects, and the stories that were shared thousands of years ago in those workshops, as objects are always deposits of both cultural and personal memory.
However, it is not just the ability to position the terracotta warriors in the past that makes this story so intriguing but also their journey into the present. The figures connect us with a wider historical, cultural and geographic place; a place that seems very distant to contemporary Australia but intrinsically linked today through the nation’s celebrated Chinese communities. Physically, such connections can be made as sculptural works implicate us through the medium’s ability to bring self-awareness to the bodies and spaces we inhabit. At the Art Gallery of NSW, we stand side-by-side with the terracotta warriors, sharing this space in the present, enabling a fleeting translation of time and place to occur. As, too, does the realisation that these ten figures represent only a fraction of the overall army. The sheer enormity of the entire collection seems incomprehensible and it is as if we are on the edge of something quite wonderful, colossal, and even sublime. This response is echoed in the faces of the on-lookers that are illuminated with expressions of amazement, marvel, respect and disbelief. The gallery encourages such connections, as playing on the facing wall is film footage of the entire army alongside detailed maps of the excavated pits, inviting the audience to link the Sydney-based figures to their original place and time of origin in China.
This discovery of The First Emperor’s terracotta dynasty has allowed contemporary archeologists, historians and audiences around the world an insight into a culture’s political, religious and artistic past. Also, as any collection does, the terracotta army represents power and the preservation of a legacy with an authority that contests the words found on the pages of any history book. And while the First Emperor’s burial mound, that covers a staggering 56 sqkm, is slowly being unearthed, the story will surely only grow more remarkable.