Two years ago, Kerry Ann Lee’s father dreamed he was flying over Xi’an, the northern Chinese city famous for its Terracotta Warriors. Though he has never been there, having moved to New Zealand from the south of China when he was 12, he told her he knew it from pictures.
“He doesn’t like travelling that much, but he got very excited about it,” Lee says. “I think it’s the romance of being away.”
Now, as part of the Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition opening at Te Papa on December 15, the Wellington artist is using some of the same pictures that fed her father’s subconscious to create what she calls a “Dreamscape Transit Lounge”. It’s a place for visitors to reacclimatise after taking their own imaginative long hauls to that dry and dusty hillside in Shaanxi province.
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Lee describes herself as a collage artist. In one of her most iconic works, used to promote the recent Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui, she stuck illustrations of jubilant Chinese children into the Wellington cable car. In keeping with this practice, Lee’s installation at Te Papa combines materials from the museum’s archives with publications collected by her family, what she calls, “our taonga as Chinese New Zealanders”.
Her family treasures stretch back to the 1960s, when her dad was working in the kitchen at the Caroline Milk Bar. “He was on his own as a young Cantonese man in Timaru and it was very lonely,” Lee says. “He liked travelling up to Christchurch to a Chinese greengrocer that stocked books. It started his interest in reading, and his reconnection to China, really.”
Lee used these resources to create a wallpaper that’s bursting with Chinese kitsch, as if the lyrics to McDonald’s “Kiwiburger” song were rewritten to sell chao mian. There’s: rosewood furniture, flowers, firecrackers, butterflies, Bruce Lee, coins, ceramics, crickets, 喜喜 (happiness), 福 (fortune), goldfish, dragons and mooncakes – all arranged in a colourful graphic that wouldn’t look out of place at a Cuba Street gift store.
The installation, entitled “Return to Skyland” also includes home furnishings and a video slideshow that sets objects from Te Papa’s collection against backdrops taken from mid-century Chinese postcards and magazines. Accompanying the visuals is text from the poem Looking Over Sian at Night, written by New Zealander Rewi Alley in 1954. (Sian is an old spelling of Xi’an.) The iconic, flat-bottomed Chinese spoon and the word “co-operatives”, for instance, are pasted over an image of smiling workers harvesting lotus pods.
When she discovered the Alley poem, Lee marvelled at the coincidence. “It was just such an amazing thing to find because of my dad’s dream, the Rewi Alley poem, and the warriors coming. It all seems really surreal.”
In Looking Over Sian at Night, Alley laments the hardships Xi’an has endured – “City of so much bitterness, / of bombs, famine, wars everlasting” – but celebrates “Sian today, with bright lights, / level streets, schools, factories, / the Sian that has come to stay.”
It’s blatant propaganda, but then Alley, who was born in Canterbury in 1897, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party for 40 years. He signed up shortly after moving to Shanghai aged 30.
Lee’s work is more complex. Her juxtaposition of objects and images with Alley’s lines brings the weight of reality to bear on both good and bad.
Alley lost his own personal archive of treasures twice, once to Japanese invaders during World War II and once to the Red Guard, who tore up his pictures in front of him during the Cultural Revolution.
While the Terracotta Warriors endured for more than two millennia underground, much of China’s cultural heritage has been taken by foreign invaders, moved to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, or destroyed under Mao. Widespread poverty and a closed economy means there simply wasn’t a lot of excess belongings from the 50s, 60s and 70s for people to hold onto.
During artist’s residencies in Shanghai in 2009 and 2010, Lee says she felt that absence. “Growing up with the mindset of collecting ephemera, it was really tough. I went to some of the flea markets and it was all repro stuff, fake antiques.”
Lee suggests overseas Chinese have played a crucial role guarding 20th century Chinese heritage. “If you go visit my family friends or relatives that are in the States, or in Chinatowns around the Asia Pacific, that for me is home space. We have all the stuff.”
It’s something that her installation really relishes in.
“You go into any Cantonese grandma’s house – especially here, my grandma’s a classic one – and no-one throws anything away,” she continues. “The idea of hoarding and collecting all this stuff, it seems funny, but it’s also a marker of settlement. You’re preserving these things because you’ve worked hard to get them.”
Lee’s dad loved his collection of books so much, Lee says, that “when he decided to gap it from Timaru, he ended up taking his bookshelves with all the books in them, throwing them in his car, and driving up to Wellington”.
Lee, who was born in the capital in 1979, picked up the same love for the printed page. She’s not only a collage artist and a senior lecturer at Massey University College of Creative Arts’ School of Design, but also a maker, distributor and proselytiser for zines, indie publications made more for passion than profit. Her own titles include My Snowman’s Burning, Celebretard, Alternating Currents and Permanent Vacation.
Her interest in zines began at a young age. “I was a teenager in New Zealand in the late 90s feeling like I needed to get connected with the world,” she says – not unlike her dad in the Caroline Milk Bar. “I love that with zine making it can be really nerdy and introspective and about you and your own artist ego, but at the same time it’s about distribution, outlet, context, where these things are found. The zines that I make will get to places that I’ll never ever get to see and people that I’ll never get to meet. I love the bromance in that – the idea of the open letter.”
Zine culture is just now taking off in China, with stores devoted to them opening in some unlikely places: the basement of a Shanghai apartment building, for one, and another camouflaged as a Beijing fruit shop. The stores are secreted away like speakeasies because censorship remains tough under Xi Jinping. In November, a Chinese author named Tianyi was sentenced to over a decade in prison for her self-publishing an erotic novel.
“I think that’s one of the things about growing up away from mainland China with relatives still in China,” Lee says – “just understanding the freedoms we have and the liberties we can take with forms of expression.”
The Terracotta Warriors first visited New Zealand in 1986, when an exhibition entitled The Buried Army of Qin Shihuang showed at museums in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. More than 270,000 people visited, almost a tenth of our population at the time. Then, there was nothing between the audience and the artifacts, but this time the warriors will be behind glass.
“Initially the exhibition design catered for an open showing,” Lee says, “but ever since the Philadelphia incident – when someone snapped a finger off one of the warriors – they can’t do that.”
Nevertheless, the upcoming exhibition looks fantastic. It will feature eight Terracotta Warriors; two Terracotta Horses; two half-size replica bronze chariots, each drawn by four horses; and 160 other objects made of gold, jade and bronze.
While Lee has made several trips to China, visiting family in Guangzhou, and undertaking artist’s residencies in Shanghai and Taipei, she has never seen the warriors on site in Xi’an. “I understand them as being a cultural shorthand for me, being of Chinese descent, to my heritage.” She says: “I don’t think about them every day, but I recall seeing them as a kid in the 80s. I remember them being a pretty big deal when they came through.”
They’re likely to be a pretty big deal again this time around. “I go out to yum cha with my parents and people at neighbouring tables are really excited about the warriors – there’s quite a buzz in the community,” Lee says.
As well as being a source of cultural pride for Kiwis of Chinese descent, the show is being touted as a source of revenue. Te Papa estimates 100,000 people will visit the show, generating $33 million in economic benefit to Wellington, a healthy return on the $2.6m budget. The show will continue well into 2019, helping kickstart the year of China-New Zealand Tourism.
And, as Lee points out, the warriors serve another function. “They’re diplomats!” she says. “They get to travel the world, just like the pandas.”
The Terracotta Warriors aren’t as soft as pandas, but they’re just as integral to Chinese soft power. Talking about its ancient history helps China steer conversation away from problematic aspects of its present politics.
After the Terracotta Warriors, one of Xi’an’s most famous attractions is its Muslim Quarter. Currently, up to one million Uighurs – a Muslim minority largely found in Xinjiang province – are being held indefinitely in “re-education camps” according to the United Nations. Ambassadors of 14 nations including Canada and Australia have signed a letter asking to meet with Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party Secretary who administers the region, over the issue. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who provided a foreword for the Terracotta Warriors exhibition catalogue, reportedly raised the issue with Li Xi, the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, when he visited in September, but New Zealand is not signatory to the letter.
“You’re in an interesting position where you’re exhibiting in the context of a national show that’s got large political ramifications and relationships to uphold,” Lee says. “In some ways it sits alongside the mandate of working as an international artist in residence, say on the behest of the Asia New Zealand Foundation or with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It’s part of a larger conversation about New Zealand’s relationship with China but based on a really healthy, strong, trade and enterprise background. Art is a second tier, following that, but it allows for some really interesting possibilities.”
Charlotte Day, Te Papa’s Head of Art, says: “Presenting a contemporary response to the ancient treasures from Xi’an was important to us, and we knew that Kerry Ann Lee, a Chinese New Zealander, could provide this counterpoint.”
Just as the People’s Republic of China uses the Terracotta Warriors to further its economic and political goals, does Lee feel in any way like Te Papa is using her?
“I’d probably say yes,” she says. “It was very strategic in terms of inviting a local Chinese artist. Granted, New Zealand is very small, so it was mostly on account of the relationship I’ve had with the curators.”
This is the second time Te Papa has commissioned work from Lee. In 2014, she worked with curators Rebecca Rice and Sarah Farrar to install a six metre triptych of collages called Knowledge on a Beam of Starlight in the light boxes at Nga Toi, Te Papa’s art space.
Although they are beautifully wrought, the Terracotta Warriors were not just made to be seen. They had a function. Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, commanded more than 700,000 people to build him an army that he would be able to command in the afterlife. He also had terracotta officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians made to inform and entertain him after he died. To this day, many Chinese burn paper offerings – including hell money, cars and even iPhones – for their dead loved ones to use.
Apart from a belief in the afterlife, though, why make art?
Lee says: “It’s a way of communicating to the world where things like language – like Chinese – fails me in China. The language of art gives me wiggle room and connects me to people and places that I didn’t think I would connect to, or have anything in common with.”
Art can transcend time and space, language and culture, but it can just as easily get lost in its own insular and opaque world. Lee faces an especial challenge in showing contemporary art to such a broad public audience.
“The artistry is in delivering beautiful ideas simply and elegantly and trying to sum up what you do in the least amount of words,” Lee says. “Despite coming from more of an academic or conceptual space, going, ‘Well, what is it?’ If my grandmother doesn’t get it, I feel disingenuous drawing from our materials.”
There’s little worry about that. Lee’s installation celebrates Chinese culture in an immediate, exuberant way, while offering openings for more heated discussion around the Lazy Susan.