This spring, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is showcasing its fantastic collection of ancient Chinese ritual bronzes in Eternal Offerings, a bold, fresh exhibition that sheds new light on these objects and the rituals in which they were used thousands of years ago. Like Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty (2018), in which Mia worked with artist and director Robert Wilson to create a show that reimagined traditional exhibition models, Eternal Offerings presents a similarly unique and creative experience for visitors. This time, curator Dr Liu Yang has collaborated with renowned artist and Academy Award-winning film set and production designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to design innovative galleries featuring Mia’s bronzes within an artistic conception of the spiritual world of Bronze Age China. These galleries are not organised in chronological order, but rather divided into key facets of these ancient ceremonies. Each room features evocative lighting by renowned designer A J Weissbard along with eerie soundscapes and theatrical effects that create an immersive, otherworldly experience.
All ancient bronzes from China featured in Eternal Offerings are part of Mia’s vast and exemplary collection of Chinese bronzes. Some 140 of these objects were bequeathed by Alfred Pillsbury (1827-1901). Other significant donors have added to this number, resulting in a collection of over 200 bronze objects of exceptional rarity and aesthetic value.
Bronze Age China
The exhibition highlights the sacred power held by bronzes in Bronze Age China. Used during ancestral ceremonies, they were believed to facilitate communication between our earthly domain and the spiritual realm. Different utensils and vessel shapes held different ritual purposes, and they were often decorated with beautiful and symbolic motifs that evolved across the Bronze Age as tastes changed. Ranging in date from the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1050 BC) to the Han (206 BC- AD 220), Mia’s collection features an enormous array of different types of bronzes, including food and wine vessels, utensils, weapons, figures, musical instruments, and ornaments. This broad range has allowed Liu and Yip to create a show that presents a full picture of the complexity and mystery of these ceremonies and the importance of bronze in the material culture of the ancient world. Visitors will also discover the enormous amount of innovation, artistry, and technical skills that were used to produce these objects.
The rituals artistically recreated in Eternal Offerings were a primary element of society in Bronze Age China. Meant to honour and communicate with deities and ancestral spirits, they were also used to maintain the strict hierarchical order that passed from ancestors down to kings, and from the courts to the people. The ceremonies centred around the general belief that honouring heavenly ancestral deities would thereby ensure communal well-being. When conceptualising the exhibition, Liu selected six main themes of these concepts to highlight: Wildness, Temple, Ritual, Banquet, Li (rules of propriety), and Ornaments. Each room in the exhibition encompasses one of these ideas to give the visitor a full ceremonial experience.
To begin, visitors first enter a transitional space that is meant to shift their mind in preparation for the journey ahead. The space includes fabricated bronze shards that suspend above the visitor, illuminated by flickering lights to represent a fragmented, shadowy understanding of the ancient past. The exhibition intends to complete these murky, fragmented memories as the visitor moves through the galleries.
Animals in Ancient Bronzes of China
The second room of ancient bronzes from China encompasses the idea of wildness, a space in which animals and spirits dominate. The walls are mounted with painted images, taken from ancient bronzes, that depict mountainous scenery dominated by animals, with no humans in sight. Animals were assigned numerous traits and positions within the beliefs and myths of ancient China, from deities to monsters. The bronze figures featured in this gallery amid a mysterious, wild environment evokes these ideas, conveying a world in which the divine and animal realms are intertwined (Fig 1).
Visitors are then led into an ancestral temple (Fig 2). Bronze ritual weapons line the walls, and ritual vessels used to hold sacrificial meat and wine are placed on altars. This solemn, serene space is meant to express the unbreakable link between the temple and the ritual objects within, all of which synthesize into a setting for communication with the spiritual world.
Next is the ritual itself: a space that represents the ceremonial performances of ancestral worship. At the centre of the space is a simulated cross-shaped altar that resembles the Chinese character ya , the typical structure of rulers’ tombs. Ritual vessels are placed upon the altar including a large ding (a tripod cauldron). The mountainous scenery decorating the walls – also taken from bronze vessels – includes images of humans fighting with animals as they begin to gain dominance, consistent with Bronze Age societies’ evolving conception of their status within the world.
Visitors next encounter a fantastic banquet. Feasts and banquets were enjoyed after the solemn rituals and involved the consumption of the meat and wine that was offered to ancestors during the ceremony. The food was eaten directly from the bronze vessels themselves, thus affirming the participants’ sense of proximity to the spiritual world. These occasions were celebratory and boisterous, evoked here by warm, fire-like lighting. Animated impressions of lively figures enjoying the feast are overlaid upon images of lavish halls, and bronze food and wine vessels are scattered throughout.
The Rules of Propriety
Next is Li (), or rules of propriety. This term came to embody many ideas during the Bronze Age, indicating the ethical norms, social etiquette, and sense of morality that permeated Bronze Age society and culture as a code of conduct. This gallery artistically displays thematically grouped bronze objects that demonstrate li’s effect on all aspects of life, including politics, dress codes, and music (Fig 3).
The final gallery of ancient bronzes from China embodies the idea of ornamentation in Bronze Age China. Here, visitors discover the bronze vessels whose fabricated fragments and shards were seen in the first gallery (Fig 4). These ornately decorated vessels are placed on a rectangular mirror upon a table, while another rectangular mirror is suspended above. These mirrors create a visual effect that causes the objects to appear as though they are in a space below the table, so the viewer can look down upon them as though they are buried in a tomb underground. The intention is to create a metaphorical visual that completes the fragmented memories with which the viewer began the journey. This visual also highlights the importance of archaeology in forming our understanding of the ancient world. Other visuals, such as three-dimensional, rotating images of bronzes from the collection that are projected onto the wall, are present for viewers to take a closer look at the objects’ ornamentation.
The descriptions above are merely a small taste of the fantastic, multisensory journey that visitors will traverse. In Eternal Offerings, visitors are invited to leave the real world behind to engage with this fully immersive experience. Therefore, the exhibition will not feature didactics or labels for the objects on display. However, a paper pamphlet with brief introductions to each room are given to each visitor, and a full list of the works on view is available online for those who want to learn even more.
Liu and Yip’s creative approach to displaying Mia’s significant collection of Chinese bronzes is meant to shift the perspectives of visitors and the museum world alike by showing that innovative, sensory exhibition designs are a bold and exciting move away from typical academic approaches. Thanks to Mia’s Director Katie Luber and Deputy Director Matthew Welch’s support that has allowed for the undertaking of this daring approach, Mia is once again challenging preconceptions of what an exhibition should look like.
BY COCO BANKS
Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes, from 4 March to 21 May, 2023, Minneapolis Institute of Art, new.artsmia.org