The Clark Unearths Rare Artifacts and Sterling Clark’s Adventures in China
Sandstone sarcophagus, Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE), tomb of Song Shaozu, dated 477 CE, Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan.
In 2000 in Shanxi Province, a nine-ton stone sarcophagus dating back to China’s Northern Wei dynasty (386-535 CE) was unearthed. Ironically, the “mini house,” which was once displayed in bits and pieces at the Shanxi Museum, now sits regally – fully assembled – at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the centerpiece to the museum’s exhibit Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China.
As spectacular as it is, the sarcophagus is not alone. Within the Clark’s cozy exhibit hall, fierce-looking tomb guardians snarl at visitors and Buddhist steles offer a glimpse of the afterlife. For Assistant Deputy Director Tom Loughman, the contrast is perfect.
“This combination of objects would not realistically be together in the same space at any other time. It’s definitely not Picasso thinking about Degas,” he said, referring to the Clark’s previous blockbuster exhibit, Rembrandt and Degas. “And the pieces definitely challenge the wisdom of China being one, pure hegemonic people and government.”
The burial artifacts hail from Shanxi and Gansu provinces in Northern China, and have never, until now, been seen outside of the People’s Republic. The aesthetic of each artifact reflects both China’s traditional Confucian culture and other cultures that found their way East as a result of the well-traveled Silk Road. Loughman hovers next to the two statues at the helm of the exhibit, which appear at first glance to be a husband and wife. Not so he says, pointing to the fine whiskers on both figures; one with a burly build and wide face, the other poised gracefully in his scholar’s robes.
“This really demonstrates the ethnic diversity of the time. The Silk Road brought in foreign influences. Turkic people were cousins to the Chinese. At some point the bloodlines met.”
The “orphaned objects,” these artifacts that betray a range of geographic and cultural influences, display a mash of wildly different characteristics—a bulky terra cotta water buffalo, a chicken-headed ewer (vase) — each carrying a trace of culture as far west as Iran.
Just as cultures subtly intersect in the exhibit, so too does Sterling Clark’s experience in Northern China. In conjunction with Unearthed, the museum is also exhibiting Through Shen-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in Northern China in its Stone Hill Center, marking the centennial anniversary of Clark’s publication by the same name which documents his 480-day, 2,000-mile scientific expedition from Shanxi to Gansu province in 1908-09.
“The first half of the book is a travelogue, very stuffy and Edwardian,” Loughman said. “The second half is extremely detailed, comprehensive, and fantastic.”
Survey equipment, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Archives, © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, photo by Michael Agee
The rooms at the Stone Hill Center resemble more of a brightly lit man-cave than a museum space, with guns, military paraphernalia, weathered correspondences and, of course, a fair amount of taxidermy, each object evidence of Clark’s 17-month mapping trek across the region. You won’t find any invaluable ceramics or Buddhist idols. Unlike other explorers of his era, Clark did not remove a single man-made artifact on his journey. Clark’s restraint earned him the eternal gratitude of the Chinese people and is one of the factors that enabled the Clark to assemble the Unearthed exhibition, which is unlikely to ever be assembled in another venue. However, Clark did amass a near zoo of the “humble beasts” of Northern China—rats, bats, even a surprisingly small Bengal cat—each stuffed somewhat crudely for easy transport. He assembled this biological menagerie long before purchasing his first Renoir painting.
In an unassuming side gallery filled with tables and chairs, the third leg of the exhibitions requires a closer look. Then & Now: Photographs of Northern China presents a series of images taken by contemporary Chinese photographer Li Ju juxtaposed with the same scenes photographed during the Clark expedition. The effect of the coupling is both melancholy and beautiful, the most striking changes seen mostly through the people; in one pair, noodle vendors in traditional quilted garb give way to scruffy teens hawking pre-made trinkets and cigarettes. The landscape, too, has changed; grass now blankets many places that used to be covered in rich, red earth.
Loughman, who has been to China five times since the exhibits were made official, said that these three exhibitions are part of The Clark’s very nuanced mission. “We don’t do packaged shows. In fact, most of what happens here will never be seen again the way it is now. We needed to craft something that would give people insight into the history of art, the decisions people make, agency and aesthetic.”