In the ornate ballroom of the venerable Crocker Museum in Sacramento, California, an army of clay soldiers stands in formation, 210 strong. Most of these soldiers are replicas of the famous terra cotta warriors that were discovered by a Chinese farmer in 1947 in a field. Those ancient warriors -- 8000 have been unearthed so far -- have drawn crowds in China and on tours around the world. Scholars say they were buried with China's first emperor, to protect him in the afterlife. As beautiful as they are, they were never meant to be seen, deep in the ground.
The warriors in Sacramento serve a different purpose. They are a project by Chinese-born artist Gong Yuebin, who moved to the U.S. from China in 2004. Gong, 52, grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when his family was forced to move from the city to the countryside. The government controlled their lives, which were filled with fear and sacrifice. Those memories have been etched indelibly into his psyche, and, he says, his massive work, Site 2801, is a result of those years. The title refers to a time nearly 800 years from now, when archeologists might dig up his terra cotta soldiers to learn about the past -- our present.
Site 2801, Gong Yuebin, 2011.
What they will find are 200 warriors lined up in rows, looking very much like the original group. But interspersed with them are 10 modern soldiers, with helmets and uniforms, who seem to indicate that war and militarism haven't changed much in two thousand years. But there's more: Gong's warriors are carrying dilapidated nuclear missiles, each of which contains a baby -- a symbol of hope. There's an anti-war, anti-militarism theme to Site 2801, but there is a beauty as well, and a harkening back to the past.
Gong has done large projects before; he's gathered large trees burned black by a forest fire, and displayed them as living beings and environmental symbols. That project was called Life's Crossroad. And he has put together a show called Nations using driftwood collected off the Pacific Northwest coast. He sees the wood as "white bones among the shore debris; their eyes staring with flickering life."
Gong was trained in classical Chinese art, painting staid figures on silk. He remains proud of his early efforts in the art academy. Just the fact that he could go to art school was an achievement, after the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution. But he has moved beyond that style, to what the curator at the Crocker Museum, Scott Shields, calls conceptual art. Shields was taken with the size of the project, when Gong first proposed it to him: "I think that the first thing that really interested me in this piece was the sheer scale of it. The ambition behind it. It's a huge undertaking. For one person to take it on was really inspiring to me, because I love an artist that works really hard, and he does."
Shields believes that by including the contemporary soldiers amidst the historic warriors, "he's really making us look at ourselves."
The warriors are made from clay taken from the same mountain that the ancient warriors were made from. Gong made the mold for the soldiers, but they were actually manufactured in China and shipped to Sacramento in crates. He assembled them in his studio, where he still works on them. The exhibit is spectacular -- in a soft-lighted way. There they are: two hundred ten terra cotta soldiers, gathered in a stately ballroom, next to a room featuring works by Judy Chicago, in a museum displaying exciting California art from the likes of Wayne Thiebaud and Mel Ramos. It's quite a sight, and figuring out what it all means and how history and art work together, are part of this fascinating exhibit.
Gong Yuebin: Site 2801 is on view through April 29, 2012 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA. For more information visit crockerartmuseum.org.