Archive for August, 2008

On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Traveling Monk sutra, colored inks on paper, 10th century CE,

Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. (courtesy British Museum) 

In July, 1900, Marc Aurel Stein stood amidst the high glaciers of the Pamir Mountains at the source of the Oxus River (now the Amu Dayra). As a young student in Dresden in the 1870s, Hungarian-born Stein was captivated by the military campaigns of Alexander, who marched his sizable armies from Greece through the steppes of Central Asian all the way to the Indus River valley, some 3000 miles as the crow flies.   Stein must have had a sense of what Alexander felt when he arrived at this place, the edge of the known world for the Greeks.  Although Stein couldn’t have known it then, this spot carried additional import. He was more or less at the midpoint of the famed “Silk Route,” the vast and shifting network of trade routes, which for centuries had connected China with the Mediterranean. Rediscovery of the civilizations along the Silk Route would make Stein’s reputation in his day.  And yet, today,  Aurel Stein is one of the least known explorers and archeologists of the 20th century.

Aurel Stein, Mogao Cave Grotto, Dunhuang, 1907,
photograph (courtesy Digital Archive, Toyo Bunko Rare Books)

Stein’s side trip to the Oxus was part of but one of 11 archeological expeditions he mounted during his lifetime, eight alone through the treacherous Tarim Basin in the heart of Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uigher Automous and Gansu Provinces).   Altogether these expeditions lasted 7 years and covered some 40,000 kilometers over the most inhospitable terrains on camel, horse-back, and, when the going got rough, by foot.  The teams endured hurricanes of sand, frostbite, blindness and death in pursuit of Stein’s singleminded quest for ancient secrets buried in the sand.  Quite simply, Aurel Stein was able to see beyond the absolute desolation of the Central Asian landscape, beyond the acute physical pain he and members of his party often endured, to the cultural promise that a thousand years of history had bestowed on this part of the world.

Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti, ink and colours on paper, mid 10th c. CE,
Five Dynasties
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China (courtesy British Museum).

Stein’s enduring legacy is his 1907 “discovery” of the Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang, a network of thousands of caves that once housed pilgrims and monks as they made their way along the northern and southern routes that skirted the large and formidable Takla Makan desert. The import of his find cannot be overestimated, for in the caves were tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures and artifacts, undoubtedly the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.  In the tradition of the day, Stein carted off as much as his camels could carry—literally tons—but not for himself.

The booty from Stein’s excavations was split among the governments of Britain, India, and Hungary. Portions of it are on view at the British Museum, the British Library, Srinagar (Kashmir) Museum, and the National Museum in New Delhi.  Some of it has been digitalized, but most lies in the basements.

In addition, see Venetian Red posts on elements of the Stein collections—Talisman of the Pole Star; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

The Dunhuang discovery in particular provided invaluable documentation of life along the Silk Route. Much of it dated from the Tang Dynasty, a period more than 1000 years ago of particular prosperity along the Silk Route. Stein’s most important find was the “Diamond Sutra”— dated at 868 AD, it is the world’s earliest known printed book. In an interesting side note, the collection also provided scholars with the data necessary to connect the path of Buddhism from India to China.

Although Stein has been dead for over 65 years, the Chinese haven’t forgiven this “imperialist villian” for purloining a part of their national heritage.  Today, mostly due to vandalism in the 20th century, fewer than five hundred caves survive intact. We’ll never know what the Chinese would have done with the pieces that Stein took.  The way things are going in the museum world, they may get some of them back.

Wider Connections

Today in the Takla Makan desert

Foreign Devils on the Silk Route —Peter Hopkirk’s engaging overview of the early 20th c. archeological “raiders”  in this corner of Central Asia.

The Thousand Buddhas (digital copy of 1921 original book)

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk RoadAnnabel Walker’s informative and highly-readable biography of Stein (now out of print)

Aurel Stein at the British Museum

“I’m Only Ugly on the Inside”—Look Down!:IWP, SF#12

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on August 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/29/08

Time: 8:41 am

Location: Fillmore, between Waller & Haight, East pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  It took a strong egoist with a heightened sense of sarcasm to lay this down on the pavement.

Fake Takes: Photography & the Doctoring of War

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O’Sullivan, Battlefield of Gettysburg—Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top, photographed 1863, printed later
Albumen print
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

During the first great flowering of the photographic medium, Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) began his career as an apprentice in Matthew Brady’s studio, capturing field images of the Civil War.  Brady is reputed to have once said, “the camera is the eye of history.”  Certainly, the public has colluded with this view, although the only one it deceives is us.   Since the invention of the camera, we have had difficulty distancing ourselves from the veracity promised by the instrument.  If a picture does not accurately portray events as they happened, we’ve been quick to label it a “fake.”  Curiously, however, photographers have held themselves to no such standard.

It is now common knowledge that O’Sullivan (and perhaps accomplices) relocated a dead Confederate soldier from where he had fallen on a battlefield to the empty cove pictured above. In death he became an actor in scene—no doubt this scene replicated many real occurrences, but it was staged for the purposes of this photograph.  What ultimately gave it away?  Apparently, O’Sullivan either didn’t know or didn’t care that the rifle he added as a prop was not a variety used by Confederate sharpshooters.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 1945 (©Joe Rosenthal/AP)

In her 2003 essay on the visual representation of violence, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag discusses a number staged photographs taken since the Civil War, including the above Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, possibly the most widely-reproduced war photograph. As a footnote, I must add that what is actually fake about the picture was still disputed during Rosenthal’s life. (For more on that, see linkage below.)  Sontag is quick to add that this was NOT a feature of Vietnam-era photographs, or of subsequent wars, opining that the ubiquity of  TV crews make it virtually impossible for the photographer to operate as a solitary chronicler, inventing dramatic news.

Soon she dives into the crux of the matter:

What is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed. . . We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death. . .No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer. 

Why should “fake takes” be any less evocative or important in the photographic lexicon? One might, convincingly argue that, before the advent of the camera, artists always took license with depiction of real events. Not normally on the scene at the moment of occurrance, painters created a synthesis of images to represent an event. Today, no one seriously believes that Théodore Géricault’s monumental canvas “The Raft of the Medusa” is the actual depiction of the survivors of the historic shipwreck. Further, in a contemporary world drowning in photographic images, one would argue without much opposition that image makers must resort to shock value to get the public’s attention. And shock value doesn’t always turn up under deadline. Thus, in some manner—whether through placement of elements or through the wizardry of Photoshop—it must be staged.

Despite mounting daily evidence to the contrary we persist in categorizing the camera as an instrument of veracity and dismissing outright those images that are fabricated creatively.

One thing seems certain to me—if photography is to mature as an artistic medium, it will need to convince us that embracing artistry doesn’t necessarily leave the truth behind.

Wider Connections

For more on the photography of war, see Venetian Red post “Into the Valley of Death
Susan Sontag—Regarding the Pain of Others
Joe Rosenthal’s version of the “Iwo Jima moment”

“Arboresque”—Look Down!:IWP, SF#11

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , on August 20, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/20/08

Time: 8:33 am

Location: Octavia between Linden & Hayes, W Pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: This graphic tree lies at the base of a real tree planted not so long ago along the redeveloped Octavia Boulevard. Art imitating life, the most sincere flattery. OR maybe it’s a protective talisman—as Friends of the Urban Forest can attest, a good number or urban trees don’t make it to maturity.

No River Runs Through It: Andy Goldsworthy’s “Stone River” at Stanford

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Site Work with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
goldsworthy-stone-river

Andy Goldsworthy, Stone River, 2002, 128 tons of sandstone, 320 feet (photo ©Andrew Alden)

An heir to the legacy of earthwork artists Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, Goldsworthy employs the materials of nature to create works that are all about the aesthetics of the natural world. Like Monet and his haystacks, Goldsworthy has returned to the Serpentine wall motif numerous times in an effort, like Monet I suppose, to uncover different “realities” in the form. “Stone River” has been fashioned from the sandstone blocks of buildings that toppled in the 1906/89 earthquakes. In his choice of materials, Goldsworthy has created a piece that compliments the dusty, arid field. The pattern created by the closely stacked blocks adds a pleasing tactile quality to site.   Goldsworthy has set the wall into a trench as if to emulate a riverbed. (Although it might be a dry one in this corner of the world.)  It’s a clever conceit that also serves to help the eyes follow the movement of the piece.   From a vantage point above the wall, one can plainly see both the pleasing undulation of the wall and the less pleasant slithering of a snake.

All of these elements conspire to push the piece from an architectural to a sculptural element. As a sculpture, it is beautifuly emblematic—one natural form (sandstone blocks) becomes another (a snake). Although not visible in the picture above, the wall has a “tail,” which descends into the earth. This provides a literal and metaphoric “grounding” for the piece, but it’s also a whimsical detail that keeps the work from becoming too self-consciously “artsy.”

The real point of the piece, I think, lies in Goldsworthy’s choice of material.  With these “building blocks” he has tapped into the powerful cycle of destruction and rebirth—the blocks, originally hewn by man from natural elements, will disintegrate over time.   Thus, the wall in its trench becomes an archeological site, reminding us that the human hand, though ever present in the landscape, emerges and submerges at the will of nature.

Wider Connections

Goldsworthy at Cass Sculpture Foundation

Venetian Red—“Mighty Impermanence in the Presidio—Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire”

Storm King wall

Andy Goldsworthy in Smithsonian Magazine

“The Morning After”—Look Down!: IWP, SF#10

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on August 16, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/16/08

Time: 11:16 am

Location: Duboce, corner of Valencia. NW pavement.

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: This bear is lying on the pavement not too far from the corner bar. An apt warning to habitués I say. 

“Buy Art Save Lives”—Look Down!:IWP, SF#9

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on August 15, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/15/08

Time: 9:01 am

Location: Laguna, corner of Linden. SE pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: An urgent message—the life you save may be your own.

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