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Sunday, 5 December 2010

You can take photos yourself at the Art Gallery of New South Wales' exhibition The First Emperor - as long as you don't use a flash; turn it off or else the attendants will immediately approach you and deliver a verbal warning. Probably better named 'The Terracotta Warriors' - because that's a label many will already recognise from their cultural wanderings - the exhibition features artefacts dating from about 500BCE many of which were accidentally discovered one day by some farmers in Gansu Province. That was in 1974. Since then, the vast burial mound of China's "first emperor", Qin Shihuang, was found to have been accompanied by a massive stony phalanx of armed soldiers, clearly designed to follow their leader into the afterlife where they could (presumably) enjoy the advantage of numbers in ghostly battles against other dead kings.

Gallery director Edmund Capon was involved in the historic discovery at an early stage - excavations are still ongoing and will probably take several more decades to complete - and has now secured for the temporary enjoyment of Sydney's chattering classes (and others: the clientele at the exhibition when I visited was fairly diverse in a socioeconomic sense; this is a marquee event after all) a small set of the baked clay figures and placed them on view in a number of the gallery's basement rooms.


Here's me standing in front of a few of the loaned 2500-year-old life-size figures from western China that are currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. In all, there are about a dozen figures on display.

There's more than the warriors, too. In an effort to illustrate for visitors how the powerful Qin managed to achieve his fabulous vision, curators have also brought out a collection of other artefacts: they are variously made of clay, bronze, and gold. These items serve to show the technological level available at the time and in that place. Qin conscripted thousands of artesans into his vast manufacturing project so that the frozen army would be ready by the time of his death.

The warriors' site was placed so that it faces east, probably considered an auspicious orientation due to that being where the sun rises. The emperor's burial site, which is located about 1 kilometre to the west of it, is still largely unexplored. There are some items that have been found in that site, including a number of gorgeous bronze birds that are on display. They were taken from a "retiring ground" where the dead emperor could go to rest from his unearthly labours.

In sum, the exhibition (which costs $20 on entry) is worthwhile viewing if you happen to be in the area. I went on a Thursday, which was probably a good idea as the viewing rooms are quite small and weekend crowds could impede enjoyment of the exhibits.

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