A couple of weekends ago, I went to the exhibit “Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It was somewhat reminiscent of the last exhibit of Chinese art I saw at MIA, “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” which placed Qing dynasty artwork amid various roomscapes, some dark, some brightly lit, and many with music or a soundtrack. “Eternal Offerings” featured painted scenes on the walls of some galleries, music or sounds of activity in the background, artifacts resting on mirrored sufaces, and dramatic contrasts of darkness and light. As the subtitle suggests, the exhibit was of bronze vessels and other items from Ancient China, all of which came from the museum’s own collection. There were no labels to read alongside the objects on display, so the focus was entirely on the bronzes themselves. The show was conceived and designed by Liu Yang, the curator of Chinese art at MIA, and Tim Yip, the art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In the first room, pale models of fragments of bronze artifacts were suspended from the ceiling over a horizontal mirror. Next was a sort of anteroom featuring a single, Shang dynasty wine vessel in the shape of an owl, standing atop a pedestal on a round mirror. The vessel dates from the 13th or 12th century BCE, which means it’s over 3,000 years old. It’s an amazing piece, and it’s incredible to think that someone crafted this finely worked object over three millenia ago and it’s still here for us to look at.
Beyond the wide strips of mottled gray cloth that hung behind the owl stood several display cases of small bronze animals, including tigers, water buffalos, a bird chariot finial, winged dragons, and what looked like a pair of doorknockers (but were probably just handles?), the rings held in the beaks of bird- or dragon-like masks. Many of the items further on in the exhibit also incorporated decorative elements depicting animals.
The next gallery contained a variety of wine vessels (and the occasional food vessel) in different shapes and styles. Some were like vases, others like three-legged pots, and still others like decorative boxes with over-the-top handles. On the side walls were bronze spearheads and dagger-axes, some with jade blades and turquoise inlay.
The next two rooms were large, with many vessels on display. The first room’s walls were painted with mountains while the second room’s showed men and women seated indoors at a banquet (I think). In the second room, the floors and opaque walls of the display cases were red, and there was a soundtrack of clinking dishes and utensils. Some of the objects in these galleries had inscriptions in an early Chinese script.
The next gallery was also large. In the center was a display of a large horse, several vessels, a goose-shaped wine vessel, and a few human figures, including a farmer, an ox, and a cart, all of bronze, made for a Han dynasty tomb and found in Sichuan Province. Also in this room were five bronze bells of varying sizes, placed on high shelves on the wall behind the horse, a series of gilt bronze belt hooks with glass, jade, or crystal inlay, a series of round mirrors with varied decorations and inscriptions, and assorted other objects, including mountain-shaped censers for burning incense.
The last room contained one display case with a mirrored floor. Inside were many different types of vessels, including a double-owl wine vessel (back-to-back owls), a large, round, Eastern Zhou wine vessel with gold, silver, and copper inlay, and a vase-shaped wine vessel depicting hunting scenes. Against one wall, a video projection showed slowly rotating close-up views of some of the objects in the gallery.
All in all, the exhibit was a fascinating opportunity to see pieces from the museum’s collection that often aren’t on view and to admire the intricate craftsmanship of Chinese bronzes made thousands of years ago.