A huge new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art aims to immerse visitors in four centuries of Chinese culture. The show, designed by celebrated theater artist Robert Wilson, uses sound, lighting and seeming acres of gold leaf, thatch and mud to explore the treasures of the Qing Dynasty.
Visitors arriving at "Power and Beauty in China's Last Dynasty" enter a black room, containing just one black object. They'll need to make themselves comfortable. Wilson says that room is a preparation for what is to come.
"In order to see this work we need to empty our heads and get the daily life and activity out of our minds so we can focus on something else," he said.
So visitors, in groups of up to 30, will wait for nine minutes, until the doors open. As they wait they will hear a meditative piano piece by John Cage, again to help them empty their minds. When the doors do open, the visitors will plunge into a brightly lit room filled with more than 100 objects. Their journey has only just begun.
This is a sensual, experiential show. It's pure Robert Wilson. He's been designing and producing theater since the 1960s, including the now-legendary five-hour Phillip Glass opera "Einstein on the Beach." He is also a collector of Asian art himself. He says to design this exhibit, he used the axioms that guide his theater-making.
"Can what I see help me hear better, and what I hear help me see better?" he asked.
He built the show around the number 2 and its permutations: yin and yang, left brain/right brain, symmetry of physical spaces and symmetry of themes.
Each room in the show contains items from the institute's huge collection of Chinese art, carefully lit and displayed on what amount to stage sets. The Qing Dynasty, which produced these works, lasted for 400 years until the early 20th century. There are imperial robes, carved jade, ornate furniture, ceramics and lacquer boxes.
As they see the art, visitors also hear a soundscape designed for each of the exhibit's 10 rooms. Some are music, others are collages. Sitting by Wilson, whom the staff now call Bob, the institute's curator of Chinese art Liu Yang said that one room, designed to represent imperial power, is filled with the sound of ceremonial bells.
"But intermittently there's a fearsome screech," he laughed. Sitting beside him, Wilson suddenly shrieked. "It's actually Bob's squeal," the curator said.
Wilson doesn't stop at sight, sound and screeching: Each of the show's 10 rooms has a specific smell. Some rooms have special coverings: There's a thatched room, a room covered in mud, and another in gold leaf. A room dedicated to the women of the court is covered in crinkled silver Mylar film. There is a throne room with an enormous dragon painted across all four walls.
Minneapolis Institute of Art Deputy Director Matthew Welch said the show is an effort to get away from traditional exhibition presentations. Usually exhibits like this can be in the works for four or five years. For this show, organizers only decided to approach Wilson about a year ago. Welch traveled with Liu Yang to Wilson's New York state studio. They took pictures of pieces they wanted to show, and, as he admits, a fairly traditional art museum narrative on the Qing Dynasty.
"When he came finally to our area, that narrative was deconstructed with breathtaking quickness," said Welch.
Not surprisingly, given the short planning period, the show, which opens Saturday, is coming together at the very last minute. Journalists at the media preview had to be ushered around ladders and power-tool-wielding exhibition staff. Even so, it was clear this is a very different kind of a show, and that is exactly what Robert Wilson wants.
"And as Susan Sontag said, 'To experience something, is a way of thinking,'" Wilson said.
And Wilson wants you to think.