Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty – dark to light

The Minneapolis Institute of Art never ceases to delight me. The Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty was a treat to see, touch and smell. Well, I’m hoping it was meant to be touched; I can definitely tell you I touched it!

The exhibit is 10 rooms containing items from the museum’s collection. It’s an entirely new look at everything old and familiar – or at least familiar to regular visitors. They collaborated with Robert Wilson, international theater and opera director, designer and artist. He set up the rooms in quickly, compelling ways.

The first room is a dark meditation – literally. It’s a ticketed and timed event and so as a cohort a number of us set out into the room for 5 minutes. There are some funny dropping, crashing sound effects – but otherwise it’s dark. Dark like wondering where the rest of the people are. It sets a somber tone – which is immediately broken in the next room focused on prosperity. It’s a collection of items on shelves accompanied by items on the wall paper – some of the same items but not all. (I had some time to double check.) There was an outdoorsy smell and soundtrack that reminded me of Bozo the Clown. It was like party whistles.

The next room contains a series of ceremonial robes – all gorgeous. Again with a soundtrack that synced with lights that left ominous shadows from the robes and a smell of lemongrass that matched the straw on the walls. The next room is dark, bluish with one little bronze man. Strike that, one tiny man in a museum display pedestal. It was very calming. The next room is reminiscent of a Chinese antechamber. There was bed and items that you might find in a bedroom or antechamber. But most striking was the tin foil (OK maybe Mylar) crinkled all over the walls. As a kid I used to make doll houses in shoe boxes, including adding wallpaper to the walls – usually from toilet paper. This was like that – only well done and much cooler.

Branching off that room was a devil-dragon room. Amazing and red with a soundtrack of screams and moans. The dragon’s tail wound around the room. And there were two rooms on either site. One was cool and steel. Steel walls and floors like the inside of a commercial cooler and filled with five Buddhist statutes. They looked like there were floating and running in air. On the other side was three Daoist paintings.

The penultimate room was full of jade and lacquer and an intricate silk tapestry. There was a scene documented the lives of the monks who had reached Nirvana. The colors of the tapestry were woven into the cloth. The jade sculptures were scenes – like from a mountain side and the wallpaper in the room mirrored the mountains except they were urban, not pastoral, in nature. There were like castles from afar but up close more like urban decay.The final room is a blast of bright light.

It was a whole experience.

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