Monday, November 9, 2009

A museum well worth seeing

The Shanghai museum, on the South side of People's Square, is hard to miss. Designed by a Chinese architect it is supposed to resemble an ancient 'ding', a bronze cooking pot either round or square on three or four short chubby legs, used throughout Chinese ancient history often for sacrificial offerings and buried with its owner as a spiritual utensil.

The number of 'ding' in a tomb can be considered an indication of the rank or importance of the inhabitant. The specific 'ding' the museum was designed after is inside one of the museums ten galleries.

Outside the building appears square at the bottom with a circular open top. Inside this translates to a huge three storey high central atrium topped by a large round skylight with the galleries, arranged by theme rather than dynasty, on mezzanine floors facing inward.

We wandered the darkened sculpture room first inspecting the old, the very old and the almost unimaginably old (or about 475 B.C.E to 1644 C.E for those needing a bit more accuracy)...wood

...bronze and stone...the quirky, the serious and the downright sour...then the ancient Bronze galleries collection of 400 odd vessels (18th to the 3rd centuries B.C.E) including THE three legged 'ding'. Most things were labelled in both Chinese and English with general information on larger wall plaques,, also in both scripts, and on the left of each gallery entrance there is even more information in takeaway leaflet form should you need it. We picked one up at each gallery we explored but ended up recycling most back to their piles after walking around.

We raced through the ceramics gallery stopping to linger longer at the few bits that stood out from the rest of the largely bowls and plates then after a brief team discussion headed to thGallery of Calligraphy. Often described as the 'art' of writing, Chinese calligraphy is, truely, an art. Not only does it perform the practical task of communicating in recognisable symbols, in a similar way as our romanised characters do, but it's form also conveys the character, emotion, culture and even moral integrity of the artist to the reader and has the power to provoke feeling in the viewer the same way a painting might. Created about 4500 years ago Chinese written communication, in pictorial form, evolved from a much more simple set of rather more recognisable figures to the sophisticated medium it is today.

Here's an example of running characters

The final room we saw was the Seal Gallery. I had no idea there were so many shapes, sizes and roles of seals. Seals have been and are still used as official and private identification monikers but did you know that they are magic too? According to one tale, a yellow dragon gave the first seal to the Yellow Emperor during the Han Dynasty. Another story claims it was a phoenix who gave it to Emperor Yao. It is said that he who possess the seal has the Mandate of Heaven and as such the right to rule the empire. In Taoism seals can be used to stamp a protective circle or line that wild animals can not cross (did anyone see the Spiderwick Chronicles?).

Private seals are unregulated in size, material and shape so can be pretty different. The seals above look more like game pieces from a monopoly set than signature stamps. Some of these, called 'leisure seals', can include a short quote or inscription that the owner finds meaningful a bit like the modern day use of imbedded quotes at the bottom of a persons email.

I love the press printing effect and have spent many hours carving and turning the wheel on an old printing press at the art centre in Apia working in positives and negatives, knowing just how much to slick the roller and reworking the tension to get the perfect image. The balance and line of the resulting images of the various seals are delicate and beautiful. What a great way to leave your mark.

This last one is a whole story complete with picture like a tribal tattoo that has been passed down from generation to generation added to as the family history grows in years and experience forever etched in stone.


Shalini said...

Sound very interesting.

Natalie said...

Those are absolutely beautiful! I would love to have a seal like that for myself.