WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- The days of antiquity art and craft being defined either in historical terms or in atheistic terms is long buried. So the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's current exhibitions -- all based on the past and present of Northern China -- seems perfectly at home in what is generally considered to be one of the nations premiere arts organizations.
The exhibit includes recently unearthed Chinese burial objects, the story and artifacts of an expedition by Sterling Clark and naturalist Arthur deCarle Sowerby to Northern China in 1908-9, and a "then and now" photographic exhibit that contrasts photos taken by the Clark/Sowerby team with those taken by modern Chinese photographer Li Ju.
The exhibition was organized by the Clark's curatorial team, working in collaboration with guest curator Annette Juliano of Rutgers University, an authority on recent archaeology in China.
All of the exhibits show the "intersection" of art and history, both obvious and subtle.
"We tend to think of (art and archeological) objects in isolation, but is important to give them context and still not diminish their atheistic value," Juliano said Monday, during a tour of the exhibitions. "You have to look at things that come out of the ground and understand them in relation to the tradition of mainstream Chinese art.
"I think of it as an intersection now, an emphasis that has shifted a little
The exhibitions are highlighted by "Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China," rare Chinese burial objects recently excavated from sites in the Shanxi and Gansu provinces and never before seen outside of China, including a full-size stone sarcophagus discovered intact in 2004. It is on display at Clark's Manton Research Center and runs through Oct. 21.
Also, "Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China," explores the little-known story of Clark's expedition with artifacts, objects, and historic documents and photographs from the expedition at the Clark's Stone Hill Center through Sept. 16.
But one of the most telling intersections of art and history is a small photographic installation "Then & Now: Photographs of Northern China" which juxtaposes historic images taken during the Clark expedition with modern views of the same sites by Li, also at Stone Hill Center through Sept. 16.
According to supplied information, Li first viewed the Clark expedition photographs on the Institute's website -- an adjunct presentation of an exhibition organized by the Clark and presented at three Chinese museums in 2008. Inspired by the account of this early exploration of his homeland, Li undertook a photographic mission to rephotograph the same sites as a personal challenge, eventually capturing the interest of Chinese national television and Chinese National Geographic magazine, both of which have featured his work in major presentations.
The historical context of his photos given by the Clark photos is remarkable.
"Context is really important," Juliano said. "Some of the photographs have extraordinary quality, and others are not -- they are just documentary. So, I think there has been a trend in art in general, and particularly archeologically, with trying to provide context. ... These do so."
The two men most involved in the Clark exhibitions agree.
"Some are well known locations, others required quite a lot of work (by Li) to find out where Clark's team set up their cameras in 1908 and 1909," Clark senior curator Richard Rand said Monday. "It was a remarkable way to record changes that have occurred over the last century. In the cities, at cultural sites that Clark explored and the more remote regions along the Great Wall, the rivers ... We showed comparisons (Li) selected in his book, 16 pairs of photos."
Clark's assistant deputy director Thomas J. Loughman sees the photographic exhibit as part of a whole series of intersections of art and history that is the show.
"I think it is a wonderful tension throughout all the presentations," Loughman said. "If you look in the expeditions show, you see a beautiful crafted book and you see objects where the craftsmanship offers an atheistic value, even to all those scientific instruments, no doubt.
"In the case of the photographs, we know they were taken as the expedition record, so they are quite vernacular but there is an undoubted aesthetic to them. Someone cared about how they looked. ... Mr. Le ... would not consider himself a fine art photographer, but he comes to them understanding the beauty of them. There is a (artistic) voice in his body of work."
In addition to the exhibits in Williamstown, in New York City, the Clark has commissioned artist Mark Dion to create an installation, "Phantoms of the Clark Expedition," on view at the Explorers Club through Aug, 3.
The exhibits are the result of a series of cultural exchanges with China inspired by a scientific expedition to Northern China undertaken by the Institute's founder in 1908 to document the region's terrain, ecology, and meteorological conditions. In 2008, the Clark initiated a series of cultural exchange programs through China's Ministry of Culture to connect Sterling Clark's work in China with contemporary audiences. The result is that the Chinese government gave special permission to allow these rare archaeological objects to travel to America.
Contact K.D. Norris at email@example.com.
The Clark is located at 225 South St., Williamstown. The Explorers Club is located at 46 East 70th St., New York City. For information call 413-458-2303 or visit clarkart.edu.