Han Dynasty Tomb figures at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE. During this time China was a country at peace with its neighbours. With secure borders and trade along the two Silk Roads, one overland and the other maritime, the economy prospered. Silk was traded along with spices, teas, and ceramics. While contemporary literature talks about the growth of cities and domestic architecture, there are no extant examples. Archaeologists study the ceramics that have been discovered in tombs to understand what the local buildings and lives of the Han were like. The Chinese believed in an afterlife, and they provided for this by placing burial goods in with the deceased. By the time of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was well in place, and the former practice of burying living family members and entire armies with the dead is replaced by ceramic objects. Most of you are probably familiar with the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin. Here life-size (a few larger than life) clay statues wear their armour in all its detail ready to defend their emperor. More than 8000 have been unearthed including charioteers and horses. They were masterfully created.

The burial figures of the Han are smaller, contain more variety, and are more animated. To date, no life-size figures made during the Han dynasty have been found. The range that has been found include palace or courtyard style dwellings along with farm animals such as pigs and oxen. There are dancers and musicians, small armies along with a myriad of non-military statues. There are tall towers with high walls. It is believed that the animals lived on the ground floor while the family lived in the upper stories. Roofs made of bamboo covered with clay tiles are supported by brackets, wooden beams that project from the wall. The tombs unearthed in Sichuan province have even more variety in terms of small figurines representing the daily life of the deceased. These included farming scenes, people working with farm animals, doghouses, dancers, acrobats, women spinning, and people dancing. The figures were painted and arranged to form a narrative.


It is during this time that we fully see the emergence of low fired lead-glazed earthenware. The temperature of the firing was between 750-900 degrees C. From the evidence, it appears that the pieces were single fired as opposed to the clay drying, having a bisque firing at a lower temperate, and then a final glaze firing. The potters had, by the Han dynasty, discovered the difference between a reducing atmosphere and an oxidising one. If they wanted bright lead colours, an oxidation firing, where there is sufficient oxygen introduced into the kiln for the fire to burn clean, was used. To obtain the green colour seen on the Han dynasty figures in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the artists used copper. To get brown or a red-brown, they would use iron. Lapis lazuli or cobalt was used to obtain blue. The only colours used by the Han dynasty potters appear to be a range of greens and brown, russet to an almost espresso. The glazed earthenware pieces use red clay although a number appear to use a grey clay body. These pieces are fired so low that they are relatively soft and as a consequence the rubbing of their surface causes the glaze and the clay to disintegrate.

The collection of tomb figurines in the ROM show a funeral parade, large courtyard style compounds, chairs known as Horsehoof style, elaborate family altars, and medicine cabinets.

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Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken is coming to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum

The Gardiner Museum in Toronto will be hosting Ai WeiWei’s Unbroken this spring.  The exhibition opens on 28 February and continues until 9 June. Today, all that was visible was a sign saying ‘Installation in Progress’.


This is not the first time that Ai’s work has been shown in Toronto.  In 2013, the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited Ai WeiWei:  According to What? .  For me, the most moving section of this large exhibition was Remembering.  If you did not know the work of Ai, you might just walk past the stack of children’s backpacks.  For Ai, this was the singular work that landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities.  The story is one of unnecessary tragedy.  In 2008, a earthquake destroyed a school in Sichuan Province.  Parents asked why the relative new building should collapse so easily.  The answer that they came to was that it was due to government negligence, a lack of building codes and regulations.  Ai could not shake the scenes of devastation from his mind and he searched for information on how many had been killed.  Months and months he spent collecting the names of the 5219 children who died that day.  A year later, Remembering opened in Munich.  Ai covered the  facade of Haus der Kunst’s with a quote from one of the children’s mothers spelled out using children’s backpacks.  The design he used and the colours were inspired by the Toys R Us logo. On his return to PRC, Ai was jailed for being a dissident for eighty-one days.  In 2015 he was allowed to leave China.  Ai does not know if he will ever return.  The authorities tell him that he is free but he doesn’t trust them.  He first relocated to Berlin with his family; he has his studio there.  Today, he still works at his studio in Munich but lives in Connecticut.  One of the biggest questions I have is:  Will Ai take on the humanitarian issues related to immigration and the United States now that he is living in that country again?

Unbroken contains elements of several previous shows.  In fact, his performance, caught in photographs, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, is probably one of his most iconic.  Others included at the Gardiner will be Sunflower Seeds and Coca Cola.  Sunflowers was first shown at the Tate Modern in 2010.  It was part of the Unilever Series and consisted of  100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seed husks spread over the floor of Turbine Hall.  Viewers were initially invited to walk across the installation but the ensuing amount of dust laden with silica caused the Tate Modern to rope off the exhibition for the health and safety of its staff and those coming to view the work.  Much of the significance of the piece was, thus, lost.

Porcelain is synonymous with China.  Indeed, many of you might have used the term ‘China’ to refer to the porcelain dinnerware belonging to your grandmothers.  The 100 million husks were made by hand and painted individually by individuals working in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.  Many saw the work as a comment on the global politicsl of cultural and economic exchange while others look to the significance of the symbolism of the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Sunflower’ in reference to Mao and his followers. Others see this as a comment on the individual within mass society; each of the individual seeds is part of the greater whole.  For those working within the field of ceramics, it is easy to ponder the working conditions of masses of individuals producing porcelain that boasts the economy of the country while all make very little income.

In 1995, Ai began painting Han Dynasty urns with the recognizable emblem of the American soft drink maker, Coca-Cola.  It should be noted that he has not stopped painting them since he began.  Sotheby’s has the occasional one in a sale.  These pieces are terribly subversive.  They immediately imply the destruction of China’s traditional culture!   At their first showings, visitors wondered if the vases that Ai had so boldly painted with the bright red lettering, Coca Cola, were actually fakes.  Anyone who has visited the Saturday Dirt Market in Beijing knows precisely how well ceramic fakes are constructed in PRC.  Han vases and tiny clay figurines from the same era are offered alongside ‘original’ Song dynasty yellow porcelain cups for a few dollars.  On the one hand, the act of defacing the Han vase is an iconoclasm no different than when the Muslims capturing Constantinople destroyed the mosaics in the Haiga Sophia.  Ai assures everyone that the vases are authentic and so plentiful that their monetary and cultural value is negligible.  Still, for those who do not know this, the act of dropping an ancient piece of art is unthinkable and, as with any other art work, raises both alarm and questions.  It is interesting to note that Coke was being sold in China in 1920.  It is one of the oldest American firms trading in the country and in 2009 accounted for half of the soft drink sales in the country.  Some argue that the shared imagery – that of a traditional ceramic urn made by anyone covered with a bright red American logo, is a fitting allegory for twenty-first century Chinese culture as the country grows into the number one consumer culture in the world (set in 2019 to be the leading purchaser of luxury goods).

It is an exciting time for anyone interested in the work of this contemporary artist.  And a big round of applause goes to the Gardiner.  Their director and curators have worked hard to keep ceramics relevant.  As such, they have brought world-class speakers and exhibitions to Toronto.  Not long ago there was a conversation with Garth Clarke, another was the co-sponsorship with the AGO of Edmund de Waal’s talk on the history of porcelain coinciding with the launch of his book, The White Road.  Last year, Yoko Ono’s Riverbed came to the City.  I only wish I lived closer……