Terracotta Warriors in the Living Room: Levels of authenticity in four exhibitions.
I have been familiar with the Chinese army of Terracotta Warriors for the past twenty years, because my father was so moved by them after seeing an exhibition in 1987, that he modelled his own versions. Dad was the Chief Executive of the local Area Health Authority in East Kent. To reduce the stress, he took pottery classes and, because the wheels were always fully booked, built clay figures. He made amphora, elephants, hands. Details caught his eye; the way frogs squatted, the curve of their backs of the ducks he could see on the pond from his office window.
The warriors were built approx. 2000 years ago by emperor Qin Shi Huang to escort him into the afterlife and rescued from the underworld by surprised farmers and then archaeologists. When Dad encountered them, he was fascinated, not by the overwhelming conceit of their creator and the image of their mass immobilisation in formation in China, but by their individuality and human postures; the bent knee, the forearm and clenched hand holding a spear. I knew about the warriors, not simply because of the tourist legend, but because we had smaller versions of them in our living room. At one stage, a Magritte-style surreal body had an apple for a head, while dad worked out the correct proportions.
Twenty years later, on a student field trip to Valletta, the capital city of Malta, I heard that the terracotta army had invaded and there was an exhibition at the National Archaeology Museum. I pottered around with another lecturer, the two of us the only visitors, unprepared for the uncanny poignancy of coming face to face with these almost-life-size bodies against dark curtains in the silence, gazing back at me. Contained. This was not a living room, but living terracotta history; quiet and emptiness allowing us the space to interpret for ourselves. The personality stamps of the frozen figures were clearly delineated on their features, modelled on the expressions of friends and relations of the sculptors, like the gargoyles we never see above our eyelines on cathedrals. We took our time. I called dad, thrilled that I could tell him that I had seen his warriors in the clay flesh and that I understood.
Later that year, I bought tickets for my lecturer friend and I to see the warriors in a different situation, at the British Museum on their return to the UK after twenty years. This was the full spectacular triumph, with all the trimmings. Interactive films, recreations, even the paint of their original decoration, garishly restored to modern eyes. The scale of the warriors was both reduced and exaggerated in this setting. No effort of virtual reality and magic lantern was spared to reanimate the still. We hurried, conscious of our timed tickets; we jostled, were elbowed, peered and queued again, then bought the guide, the fridge magnets and the myth. Our gaze was different. We felt small. Made to feel as if we had experienced a privileged glimpse of entities who hefted their weight of a significant international cultural exchange on their pottery shoulders; embodying power, in an impressive Greek temple in London (ironic revival architecture, given the repatriation discussions about the Elgin marbles). It is not that the spectacle was inauthentic, or detracted from the meaning; in fact, this recreation may have come closer to the extravagant illusion and pomp of the ‘more is more’ original court. We visit the British Museum for contemplation among the crowds in a ziggurat and for its cake and mass-produced mummy pencil cases and to wander round the Great Court with a crick in the neck. Not to find ourselves alone with the exhibits.
As dad’s warriors show, exhibitions have lasting impacts on people. Now the army has travelled to the World Museum in Liverpool. This will be the fourth exhibition for our family. Dad is too infirm, but I will see them and overlay a different level of meaning and memory on the show. Liverpool is a special place; the city made the giant puppets of Royale de Luxe its own and it will embrace these quiet forms. Valletta is European City of Culture this year, hosting a range of remarkable events, but my no-frills contemplation of the warriors eleven years ago contained a simple, personal, terracotta truth.
I now have my own pottery wheel and my father is 93 (or as he says, “nearly 94”). As his mobility and manual dexterity dwindle, his warriors stand guard.