National Geographic offers look at ancient China with terra cotta warriors

"Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. The exhibition offers the public the rare chance to examine these lifelike figures up close, each sculpted by hand, no two faces alike. The 15 warriors that will be on exhibit at National Geographic are the largest group of them to tour the United States.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Over Thanksgiving week, something like 16,350 people headed to "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," at the National Geographic Museum downtown. The show was sold out for all seven days.

I was part of that crowd, happily keeping company with family in town for the holidays.

Halfway through the show, a strange fact struck me about the treasures on display: Most of the time, most of us had our backs to them. Visitors were spending more time on the texts that line the galleries' walls than on the statues displayed across their floors. It was often easier to get face time with a 2,000-year-old terra cotta warrior than an unjostled view of the text panel that explained him.

Given that the objects themselves had so little leverage on us, a question came to mind that I bet few of us were asking: What had brought us to the show, and why, afterward, were we so pleased to have been there?

We couldn't have been there for an important artistic experience, though the show's larger-than-life ceramic warriors (and musicians, grooms and other retainers) are certainly important art. They're strikingly lifelike, and they were pioneering in their detailing and size. A thick slab of clay brilliantly does double duty as a high official's heavy robes; clever changes to a single prototype make a figure stand out from its neighbors.

For the art-loving visitor, however, there's one major problem. The most important aesthetic fact about these statues is the extravagant number of them that were made, and that's what this exhibition can't deliver. Its 15 figures are elegantly spaced across eight galleries, and that solves the crowding problem that afflicts blockbuster shows. But seeing a few statues scattered here and there has nothing to do with seeing rank upon rank of them tightly packed into underground chambers, as they would have been at the time of their patron's funeral. (They were made to accompany Qin Shihuangdi, first emperor of China, into the afterlife in 210 B.C. About 1,000 have been recovered from his tomb complex; there are thought to be 6,000 more waiting to be found.) Quantity is the central point and message of these works of art. Looking at one terra cotta warrior is like taking in a single line by Sol LeWitt, in a wall drawing that's built from thousands of marks. The LeWitt reveals an artist marshaling his lines, just as the tomb figures are all about a ruler who commanded thousands, and could get statues made of as many subjects as he pleased.

For a strong sense of the aesthetic drama of these terra cotta figures, you're better off with the photographic banners hanging near you as you line up to get in. Looking at those photos of the statues in situ, there's a lovely eureka moment when you make the link between the crowd you're with, waiting sheeplike for admission, and the crowd of servants who attended to their emperor. Short of going to the dig site itself, the best way to truly understand this art is probably through photos and TV.

Of course, not many people, myself included, went to the Washington show imagining that understanding art is what it is about. National Geographic isn't an art institution, and it's careful not to go aesthetic in the exhibition's publicity or wall texts. The show's historic artifacts -- about 100 of them, including a sewer pipe, building supplies, weapon blades and a wall of early Chinese coins -- outnumber its 21 works of art. (On top of the complete clay figures, there are fragments of a few others as well as two life-size bronze birds that are among the show's least touted gems.) It seems all the objects are in this show as effective illustrations for a history lesson, not because they're worth looking at in their own right.

Overall, visiting this exhibition feels like walking through a pop-up version of a fascinating article in National Geographic magazine -- one of those photo spreads that have more sidebars than text. Organizers say a decent visit to the show demands about an hour. Not much of that is likely to be spent coming up with a personal take on the objects on view, as you might in a visit to an art museum. The bulk of that hour will probably be spent absorbing the show's prepackaged story. Of course, in terms of raw knowledge gained, you could learn far more about Qin Shihuangdi and his grave goods by reading about them for that hour, or even through surfing the Net.

So why, again, were we so happy to be there? It has something to do with an almost primal need for evidence, authenticity and aura. We can read at length about the things we care about -- we often do, for much longer than we'd ever spend in a museum -- but there comes a moment when we want to confront the evidence behind that knowledge, even if we've barely got the skills or time to decipher it. We struggle to get close to the "Mona Lisa," even though she's much easier to get to know in a good photograph than at the Louvre behind bulletproof glass. We throng to the Smithsonian to witness the world's largest blue diamond, Lincoln's hat, a true moon rock -- even though we'd never know it if someone switched them out for colored glass, a different topper, a piece of Utah stone.

In 1935, writing one of the most famous essays of the 20th century, the German critic Walter Benjamin claimed that we'd arrived at a new, modern age of mechanical reproduction, when images and photographs and films could spread around the world in flawless replica. Because of that, he said, the "aura" that once surrounded unique, authentic works of art would slowly fade out of our visual culture. The infinitely reproducible image would sweep away the last vestiges of the medieval relic, the archetype of the precious, irreplaceable, miraculously singular object. Benjamin was right about the multiplication of images. We're drowning in them, more than he could ever have imagined. What he didn't predict was that, as we get swamped, we'd long for authentic objects to cling to.

It could be that we aren't interested in the artifacts in "Terra Cotta Warriors" only as relics of ancient China. They also may stand as relics of a more universal past, when the magic of images came firmly attached to unique and notable objects. They remind us of a time when, if you had the might to make it happen, you could order 7,000 statues to keep you company in death -- while making sure that each was different from the others.

We don't need to see all 7,000. We don't even need to look too long at any one of them. We just need to know they're there.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor

run through March 31 at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. Tickets are $12, $10 for students, seniors and the military and $6 for children. Holiday weekends are already selling out. Call 202-857-7588 or visit http://www.nationalgeographic.com.

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