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China, Qing dynasty, (1644–1911) Manchu Emperor’s Ceremonial Twelve-symbol jifu Court Robe, 1723–1735, Silk tapestry (kesi) (image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

MINNEAPOLIS — For an exhibition highlighting the Great Qing, Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) took the unusual step of bringing avant-garde theater designer and director Robert Wilson to provide a conceptual framework. Known for his experimental works such as “Einstein on the Beach,” in which he collaborated with Philip Glass, Wilson’s approach to designing the exhibit is both brilliant and infuriating.

According to Mia’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator Matthew Welch, the curatorial team, including the vision of Chinese art curator Liu Yang, had originally considered a Chinese set designer for the exhibition. “But as Yang pointed out, there is this Robert Wilson who also happened to collect Chinese art, so we might consider him,” Welch said at a Q & A event with himself, Liu, and Wilson.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Court Ladies and Noblewomen” room. Objects include Empress Formal Court Robe, Qing dynasty, Daoguang period (1821-1850). Installation design by Robert Wilson

The tenor of this public discussion marks a strange moment for the institution. By bringing in Wilson, Mia is boldly moving away from an academic approach to curation, which has defined most of its history. The gesture to expand the skill sets expected from curators has elements of what might have been an important move towards enlivening the tried, tested, and tired exhibition models used for art historical exhibitions.

With this in mind, last August, a group of curators from Mia visited Wilson’s art center, The Watermill, and participated in a workshop, where they brought with them ideas about what they wanted to impart in the exhibit. “We arrived as curators at what a narrative could be,” Welch said. Later, when Wilson visited Mia, “that narrative was deconstructed with breathtaking quickness,” he recalled.

China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Pillow, 17th–18thcentury, Greenish-white nephrite, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of the Thomas Barlow Walker Foundation 92.103.8 (image courtesy Mia)

Wilson likens his role to that of an architect. “I never could curate this amazing collection properly because I don’t have the background or the knowledge,” he said. Funnily, the specificities of the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644–1912, a period when the arts flourished, never quite made it into the exhibition design. The period is characterized by the rise of literacy, the Confucian tenets of self-cultivation, and a prosperous economy. These traits supported numerous artistic movements during the period, where decadent court costumes made of fine embroideries, magnificent paintings, sculptures, ceramic works, and glassware were enjoyed by the elites. While the historical information and context was not clearly laid out in the show, the material quality of the period was amplified. “I provided a megastructure,” resounded Wilson. “I know something about the light, I know something about the material of the room, the smell of the room, I can work with other people— curators, to make decisions as to what the place is.”

There’s a strong emphasis on experience in Wilson’s design. The ten rooms that make up the exhibition each stimulate the viewer, with sound and even smell activating the space. There are almost no didactics, and none of the ancient objects are labeled. Rather, the focus is on interacting with the art through the body. Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is expected to change pace, slow down, and shift perspective. It is unclear at this point what change is meant to transpire. The first gallery is dimly lit, with a singular nineteenth century vase placed up high, in a corner. Visitors are asked to stay there for five minutes, as a kind of palate cleanser before entering the show.

China, Warring States period (575–221 BCE), Standing Figure, 5th–4th centuries BCE, Bronze with gold inlay, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2003.140.3 (image courtesy Mia)

“In order to see this work, we need to empty our heads,” Wilson reflected. “Get the daily life and activities out of our minds so we can focus on something else.” Piano music plays, but it is barely perceptible, the volume is so low, and, in competition with the cacophonous sounds coming from the other rooms and bleeding through the wall. One is reminded of John Cage’s seminal piece, “4’33”, where the coughs and adjustments made by the audience became the music. “John had a great influence on my thinking,” Wilson said. “He was one of the Western people that brought us closer to Eastern ideas.” After having read Cage’s book on silence, “my life was forever changed,” he added.

Wilson was thinking about even numbers when he was putting together his plan for the exhibition, and “primarily about the number two,” he said. “Number two, to me, has something to do with an Asian aesthetic — the yin and yang.” The show captures this sense of opposites in the way Wilson has it constructed. Points of contrast are legible. The first dim quiet room, where we are asked to remain for the five minutes, in order to cleanse our mind, is a persistent feeling that rears its head. When we reach the last room, we find another single vase that almost glows from its white shelf. Once you get to the end of the exhibit and receive the handout, you find out it’s a vase that features Indian Mughal design. The Qianlong Emperor was apparently fascinated by Mughal jade pieces, and even brought in Muslim jade carvers to work at the palace, though the show doesn’t give any of that contextual information. Instead, the curatorial emphasis was expressed through an uncanny soundscape, that oscillates from ocean sounds to the chipper song “The Happy Chappie,” by Paul Reeves. The effect is straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Prosperity” room. Among the objects: Nine Dragon Box, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Installation design by Robert Wilson.

The mega-structure that curates this exhibition relies heavily on contrast. Leaving the first darkened and spare gallery, you hear the discordant noise of the second room. Called “Prosperity,” this room acts as a counterpoint to the second last room, “Mountains of the Mind”, which is dimly lit, and contains jade mountains and other elaborate spiritual objects Qing noblemen might have had in their chambers.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Mountains of the Mind” room. Objects include: China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911); “Five Hundred Luohans”, Qianlong period (1736–1795); “K’ossu”, (silk brocade) with traces of pigment. Installation design by Robert Wilson

The room “Prosperity,” displays around one hundred objects from the Qing dynasty in a large fenced-in case. Gorgeous vases, decorative plates, and pristine statues of religious figures speak to the decadence and high artistry of the era. On the walls, additional images of Qing objects are displayed as wallpaper. In contrast to the first room’s barely perceptible piano music, the second room has an almost unnervingly cheerful soundtrack, filled with animal sounds, police whistles, lion roars, and whipping sounds. Our sense of time is tickled with the inclusion on the walls of a digital print by contemporary Chinese artist Yang Yongliang. Yang evokes traditional Chinese landscape paintings of mountains, that on closer look reveal mountain shapes filled with details of an urban landscape.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Mountains of the Mind” room. Wall paper made by contemporary artist Yang Yongliang. Installation design by Robert Wilson

Throughout the rest of the rooms, the narrative about the Qing Dynasty unfolds with drama. In the “Order and Hierarchy” room, imperial ceremonial robes are hung stiffly, by order of rank, in contrast to walls lined with thatched hay. The “Fearsome Authority” room posts an eighteenth-century polychrome lacquered throne from the Quianlong period, while behind it a giant dragon is painted on the walls. Frankincense wafts through the space, while screeching dragon sounds can be heard intermittently between the soundscape of ceremonial music. Other rooms feature Buddhist sculptures and Daoist paintings, respectively, and there’s a “Common Man” room featuring one single standing figure in a glass case, dated to the 4th–5th century CE.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Order and Hierarchy” room. Objects include: Dragon Robe (1736-1795); unknown artist, China; Manchu Empress’ Semiformal Court Robe (1821-1850); unknown artist, China; Manchu Emperor’s Ceremonial Twelve-symbol jifu Court Robe (3), (1723–1735). Installation design by Robert Wilson

There’s a tension that exists between the beauty of Mia’s collection and Wilson’s astonishing design. The two qualities are at war. The objects — whether statues, sculptures, ancient scrolls, an emperor’s throne, ghostly textiles or imperial robes, demand attention and respect in their own right. Wilson’s heavy-handed treatment of the world in which these objects lived doesn’t diminish their glory, but instead seems to create an alternate universe for them to have been created in.

Installation view of Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, from “Fearsome Authority” room. Objects include: Throne: China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911); Imperial Throne, Qianlong period (1736–1795); Polychrome lacquer over a softwood frame; Dragon: Infinite Scenic, from a New Jersey-based scenic paint shop. Installation design by Robert Wilson

There are moments when Western Imperialism seeps into the show. The most egregious example is a room filled with elegant women’s clothing, splendid furniture including an elaborate canopied bed frame, lovely draperies and other domestic objects, all clustered vibrantly as if in a dance. Upon entering the room, which is lined with scrunched up mylar, we hear an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, and smell jasmine. Turandot doesn’t have the same racist connotations as Puccini’s other opera, “Madame Butterly,” that is about a Japanese woman who kills herself so that her child with an American Naval officer can be adopted by his white wife, but still, Wilson’s decision to include Puccini here baffles.

Oddly, at the Q & A, Wilson declared he hates Puccini, despite having directed Madame Butterfly to much acclaim. “Sometimes we do things in our work that we don’t like,” he said. Perhaps his inclusion of Puccini’s music is a comment on the history of Orientalism Western artists have long engaged in, but if so, the statement wasn’t made clear enough. The Western bias, this time anchored in sentiment rather than scholarship, is noteworthy. And, yet, when all is said and done, we must keep in mind, as Wilson makes clear, he wasn’t working alone in creating the show. Liu, Mia’s curator of Chinese art and head of the museum’s Department of Chinese, South, and Southeast Asian Art, was a close collaborator and brings his wealth of experience and training to this project. While together, these creative, intellectual minds framed and delivered the majesty of the Great Qing, the show lacks a rigorous examination of the Western gaze. That dampens the thrilling experiential quality of the exhibition that relies so heavily on contrasting through our senses the tensions between East and West.

Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty is on view at Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis) until June 10.

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Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist and critic. She has written for Bomb, Artnet News, The Lily, Broadly, American Theatre, and contributes dance reviews for the Star Tribune.