Warriors open door to past

Te Papa curator Dr Rebecca Rice takes a look at one of the terracotta warriors being installed in an exhibition at Te Papa. Photo: Supplied
Te Papa curator Dr Rebecca Rice takes a look at one of the terracotta warriors being installed in an exhibition at Te Papa. Photo: Supplied
Former Otago woman Rebecca Rice has always had an interest in China and its culture. She tells Rebecca Fox how that has led to a major project showcasing China’s terracotta warriors.

When Rebecca Rice first saw the terracotta warriors in Xi'an, China, she struggled to comprehend what she saw.

Even though she was a young backpacker in a foreign land, Dr Rice was not prepared for what she was about to see.

''It's really hard to put it into words.

''You walk into the pit and they're all laid out in front of you and it's just quite a mind-boggling experience. Thinking about the scale of the exercise, the creative enterprise, the remarkable craftsmanship that has gone into making everything.

''I think we found it quite hard to comprehend all that on the first trip.''

Heading back to Xi'an, this time as a curator at Te Papa, enabled her to really appreciate the finer details of the First Emperor's Terracotta Army.

The army is located 1.5km east of the Emperor's burial mound in Xi'an, China, in the province of Shaanxi.

There are an estimated 8000 soldiers in total. About 3000 have been excavated to date and this work continues daily.

It is this experience she hopes to bring to people visiting Te Papa's ''Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality'' exhibition.

''I can't ever replicate the sense of spectacle of being on site and that mindset you are in as a traveller where everything is so foreign, but what you can't do as readily there, that we are providing, is a really close-up intimate encounter with the individual figures, so you really can admire the details and again marvel at the fact these are 2300-year-old figures.''

Kneeling archer from the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) on loan from Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. Photo: Getty Images
Kneeling archer from the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) on loan from Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. Photo: Getty Images
Then there are the questions about what led to the leap in culture that took the ancient Chinese from producing exquisite bronzes to producing these life-size statues.

''It raises for me a lot of questions and people have been asking these questions for decades and we still don't know the answers, say, of the impact of Roman and Greek culture on craftsmanship at that moment happening before the Silk Road.''

Under Chinese regulations only 10 figures from the army are released at one time for an exhibition, so Te Papa's exhibition will have two horses and eight full-sized warriors: an armoured general, an unarmoured general, two armoured military officers, a kneeling archer, a standing archer, an unarmoured infantryman and a civil official.

The lifelike soldiers each weigh 100kg-300kg. They vary in height, uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Originally, the figures were painted with bright pigments, but much of the colour has faded over time.

Dr Rice led the team from Te Papa which selected its ''wish list'' of warriors and artefacts on a trip to the ''hotbed of the empire'' the province of Shaanxi.

''Our goal is to showcase this remarkable historical moment and the whole story of the first emperor creating and unifying an empire, but what's quite fabulous is that while you only get 10 figures from the pits out of the country it gives you a wonderful opportunity to build a contextual environment so people can get a little taste of what ancient Chinese culture society was like.''

So they also visited 20 provincial lending institutions looking at the ''remarkable artefacts'' from the period and received the green light to also exhibit about 160 works of ancient Chinese art crafted from gold, jade, and bronze, which date from the Western Zhou through to the Han dynasty (1046BC-220BC) which builds this richer picture of culture at the time.

''We are really happy with where it has landed, and from a Chinese point of view they really value Te Papa as a cultural institution and are very confident this is one of the best calibre exhibitions to have been sent abroad.

''It's a wonderful opportunity to be able to build on the context of the environment of an ancient culture and society.''

The next step was to translate the amazing objects into an exciting visitor journey.

''There are a lot of surprises people won't be expecting to see - that will take your breath away.''

It has been a ''huge logistical exercise'' to bring the exhibition to Wellington - it took a year alone to negotiate the object list.

The warriors and the artefacts were then trucked and flown to New Zealand.

A team of Te Papa installers, conservators, exhibition designers, curators, and technicians, alongside four colleagues from China, have been installing the ancient treasures in their new temporary home.

One of the challenges has been making the bespoke mounts for the pieces to make them doubly safe, given the museum is in an earthquake zone.

''We're really good at solving challenges here at Te Papa. One of the things we do have to do in New Zealand is to create bespoke mounts for all of the objects so they are safe, which is quite challenging to do when they are in China, our mount makers are here, they can take measurements over there, but we have to make mounts here.

''So a lot of our time is making sure they fit really beautifully so the treasures are safe and, of course, Te Papa is one of the safest buildings in case of any emergency, an earthquake as well.''

It is the most significant exhibition Dr Rice has worked on while at Te Papa.

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.  Photo: Robbie Baxter
The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Photo: Robbie Baxter
''Every exhibition is a personal journey, one I learn more about the making of exhibitions. I've learnt a lot more about ancient China - there's a lot you think you know and then I was excited to find material from the Hun Dynasty which followed the Chin dynasty, of smaller scale but equally exquisite soldiers, maids and children.''

Her background is in New Zealand and the wider Pacific in terms of historical encounters and 19th century art.

''Where there are those really interesting moments of contact and negotiation and how that is represented in art works or reflected as well.''

So the terracotta warrior project is a departure for her although, again, it is an interest in a country's history and culture.

''I guess that is why, even though my study in art history is focused more on historical New Zealand art, the same principles are what I bring to these amazing Chinese artefacts we have coming.

''What can these enrich as all understanding about Chinese culture, Chinese history and then in some ways relationships to the past and present moment.''

Dr Rice has always had a deep interest in China, as a country and as a place, since she was a child.

''I've visited quite a few times for personal travel, as well as professional travel.''

It is such a vast territory - the south where she travelled the first time is very lush, with the well-known Chinese hills - and she often did not see any other tourists.

Then, 10 years later, she visited the north, including Xi'an, and discovered a more urbanised country.

''Such a different scale, the cities, the people and development over time.''

Her latest visit revealed a much more outward looking society than the first time she visited.

That interest in history and culture developed as a pupil at Waitaki Girls' High School and at Otago Girls' High School, after her family moved to Dunedin in year 11.

''It's hard when you are in high school to figure out what you absolutely want to do.''

Despite being interested in art, music and dancing - she loved performing in stage shows like Me and My Girl - she was encouraged into a more practical career direction.

Dr Rice studied physiotherapy at the University of Otago.

''In the physio world I was an anomaly, as I was always more interested in the arts than sports.''

It was while working in Wellington and undertaking further study that she was ''seduced'' by the wonderful art history programme.

''The pathway art history offered ... keeping on learning was just too good an opportunity to not keep progressing with.''

Her physiotherapy studies did not go to waste.

''Physio was a very good part-time job to have while one was studying, I'd have to say.

''It was always a double-edged sword juggling those personal interests and a future and career, and in the end I found one that marries them really well.''

For Dr Rice, who gained her PhD in Art History from Victoria University in 2010, the study of art history provides a ''window on the past'' as well as a reflection on how people behave.

''This idea of artworks and cultural artefacts as being almost like mirrors and doors, they both open up a door into history but in doing so you reflect on how we behave and how we are today in society.

''So for me that is the power of art and culture, and the study of the history of it kind of enriches your understanding of where human beings have come from, how cultures have evolved but does increase your awareness of how we are in the present as well.''

She was awarded the VUW Medal for Academic Excellence (2002), received both a VUW Postgraduate and William Georgetti Scholarship for her Masters and a Vice-Chancellor's Strategic Research Scholarship for her PhD study.

Dr Rice was appointed curator, historical New Zealand art, at Te Papa in 2013 and before that she worked as a part-time lecturer in art history at Victoria University and collection officer for the Adam Art Gallery.

Scholars continue to debate the function of Qin's Terracotta Army. Some think that because the soldiers face east, they were intended to protect the First Emperor in the afterlife. Others question the soldiers' readiness for battle, as they are not fully armoured.

As the terracotta warriors involved ancient Chinese practices of death and burial, it also raised connections with Maori and questions of belief in the afterlife.

''Our iwi representatives have been particularly moved by the nature of the treasures that are coming because they are associated with death and burial. They're very excited about the material being here.''

The exhibition's opening ceremony and blessing is being held today and the production team will hand over the baton to the museum's hosts and visitor experience team organising a variety of events to sit alongside the exhibition.

Dr Rice and her family will be heading south during the summer to spend time with her parents in Dunedin.

''Home is Otago for me. We have a bach at Karitane - that is my happy place.''

To see

Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality
December 15-April 22
Toi Art at Te Papa, Level 4, Wellington.

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