Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands

Five spectacular shows kick off the Holter Museum of Art’s 25th anniversary year, including a centerpiece exhibit “Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.”

Crafted by artisans of the Asian steppes, the 85 ancient bronzes on display were once used by horsemen, chieftains and shamans as far back as 3,400 years ago.
An opening reception for all five exhibits (see related articles) is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at the Holter. And a talk by the curator of the Sackler Foundation, Trudy Kawami, is at 5:30 p.m. across the street from the Holter at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.

The Asian steppes, encompassing a vast region stretching from east of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to the far western grasslands of Kazakhstan beyond the Caspian Sea, are home to nomadic tribes with a rich and ancient culture. Skilled herders and animal breeders, they were the first to domesticate the wild horse, said Holter Curator Yvonne Seng. It was these nomadic herdsmen and horsemen who guided trade caravans along the famous Silk Road linking Asia to Europe. “They controlled transportation of goods, but also transportation of information,” she said. It was a major route of cultural exchange. Among the exhibit items are cauldrons used by shamans for mixing mind-altering herbs, which would later gave rise to European legends of magic cauldrons. The shamans inhaled the fumes of the drugs and entered ecstatic, trance-like states to contact animal and human spirits and the forces of nature. There’s also a spoon, adorned with graceful bird-shapes, used for measuring sacred herbs; decorative belt buckles in the form of yaks or felines attacking deer; ornate knives; and a sword with an ibex handle. “Some of the items would have belonged to chieftains and were buried ceremonially,” said Seng. “Some were used for personal adornment.” Accompanying the exhibit is a slideshow of faces and places of the Asian grasslands. “The topography is very similar to Montana,” said Seng, as is their love for horses. “I think it’s a perfect fit,” said Seng of the show, “both culturally and artistically. There’s an affinity with what we have here.” In fact, in the languages of the Asian steppes, the word for God, “Tangri,” translates as “the great blue sky,” said Seng. And the Mongolian word for horse, “Takh,” means holy. “Montana and the Asian steppes share a passion for horse culture and a love of the wide open sky.... These two passions — horses and the wide open — link the work of ancient horsemen to contemporary regional artists.” The other Holter exhibits include: life-size clay sculptures by Wanxin Zhang, “A Ten Year Survey”; “Horse and Rider” a joint exhibit by Montana artists John Buck and Deborah Butterfield; “Shifting Perspectives,” a photo-and-essay exhibit of China by Missoula photographer Dudley Dana and writer Candace Crosby; and “Invite Your Demons to Tea,” a series of Tibetan-inspired ceramic works by Helena artist Valerie Hellermann. The Holter show of the Ancient Bronzes is a rare opportunity for not only Helenans but people of the whole Western region to see these artworks, most of which date from 1300 B.C. to 200 A.D., said Seng. The exhibit made only one previous trip West, and this is its first visit to the Rocky Mountain region. It’s also traveled to Greece, Poland, Europe and the East Coast. “These pieces were collected by four missionary families in the early 20th century,” said Seng. Sackler, a research psychiatrist and art collector, purchased them, bringing together over 1,000 pieces of art. He also established a foundation to make his art collection available to the general public. He once said, “Great art, like science and the humanities, can never remain as the possession of one individual, creator or collector. ... great art and all culture belongs to all humankind.” “It’s a huge honor,” said Seng, to host the exhibit. It’s also a huge gift. The foundation has waived the typical $45,000 exhibit fee because of its commitment to show the items in rural areas where people might not otherwise have an opportunity to see them. The Holter paid for transportation and the cost of building its own exhibit cases, which are specially designed to allow air to circulate freely. This protects the bronzes from “off-gassing” that produces moisture, causing the beautiful but damaging blue-green patina on bronze. “It’s exciting, it’s really exciting to have all these exhibits together,” Seng said. They speak powerfully of Asia’s historic influence on art, but also provide fresh inspiration for contemporary artists. “What more can I say. It will be a feast for the eye. I think it will be a great celebration for the 25th.”

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