June 2016

by Julie Ewington

Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road capital
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 10 July 2016

Dragon circa 700s, gilded bronze with an iron core, unearthed from Caochangpo in the southern suburbs of Xi’an, 1975. Shaanxi History Museum

The ancient past has rarely seemed so present. With just 135 ancient objects from museums in China’s western Shaanxi Province, and one piece of advanced contemporary technology from Sydney, Tang: Treasures from the Silk Road capital summons up another world.

Chang’an, capital of the Tang Empire (618–907), sits beneath today’s bustling Xi’an, known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors. Located at the eastern end of the famous Silk Road trade route, the city of “everlasting peace” was the largest in the world – with more than one million inhabitants – and the most advanced. In recent decades, excavation and scholarship have revealed the Tang capital’s extraordinary cultural riches.

Among the objects chosen by AGNSW curator Cao Yin are many treasures not normally allowed to travel. There’s the usual brace of spirited horses (some ridden by officials, one by a burly black-bearded foreigner), splendidly supercilious camels, and a remarkable oversized figure of a kowtowing official. The frolicking gilded dragon unearthed from the residence of the poet and official Zhang Yue (667–730) is surely still able to restore qi, and Princess Li Chui’s dainty mirror inlaid with mother-of-pearl and turquoise remains gloriously luxurious. All this suggests the wealth, glamour and confidence of a Chinese golden age, but often the simplest things make ancient Chang’an seem so real: hairpins, chopsticks, a few tiles decorated with animals and flowers, and porcelain vessels as fresh as the day they were made.

Chang’an was a cosmopolitan, open and tolerant city. Women enjoyed enhanced stature, as seen in mural fragments and figurines. It was there that Buddhism consolidated its place in China, and the exhibition includes refined figures of the Buddha, a brace of graceful bodhisattvas and fine devotional accoutrements.

Tang is a finely wrought exhibition, with thoughtful use of photography, including enlargements of diminutive works, and videos of contemporary Xi’an that explicitly link it with Chang’an. There’s a nice balance between information and sheer pleasure in contemplating the lovely objects. Yet there’s also a certain irony: Tang shows an ancient culture proud of cultural diversity, now situated in a modern nation with certain stubborn resistances to that diversity, to openness.

And the contemporary technology? Academics Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw have used augmented 3D mapping to illuminate the celebrated Buddhist murals inside Cave 220 of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, which was one of the important stops on the Silk Road leading to Chang’an.

This time-travelling is miraculous, but no more so than being in the presence of things used 1300 years ago – still beautiful and still, somehow, tenaciously alive.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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