On Thursday’s NewsHour: China’s Terra Cotta Warriors, Reimagined

BY Spencer Michels  April 19, 2012 at 4:03 PM EDT

'Site 2801' by Gong Yuebin
“Site 2801″ by Gong Yuebin is on display at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by Spencer Michels.

In the ornate ballroom of the venerable Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., a 210-strong army of clay soldiers stands in formation. Most soldiers are replicas of the famous terra-cotta warriors that were discovered by a farmer in 1947 in a field in Xian, China. Those ancient warriors — 8,000 have been unearthed so far — have drawn crowds in China and on tours around the world. Scholars say they were buried with China’s first emperor to protect him in the afterlife. As beautiful as they are, they were never meant to be seen.

The warriors in Sacramento serve a different purpose. They are a project by artist Gong Yuebin, who moved to the United States from China in 2004. Gong, 52, grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, when his family was forced to move from the city to the countryside. The government controlled their lives, which were filled with fear and sacrifice. Those memories have been etched indelibly into his psyche and his artwork.

“Site 2801,” a massive sculpture, is a result of those years, Gong said. The title refers to a time nearly 800 years from now, when archaeologists might dig up his terra-cotta soldiers to learn about the past — our present.

What they will find are 200 warriors lined up in rows and looking very much like the original discovery. But interspersed with them are 10 modern soldiers with distinct helmets and uniforms who seem to indicate that war and militarism haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Gong’s warriors also carry dilapidated nuclear missiles, each of which contains a baby — a symbol of hope. There’s an anti-war, anti-militarism theme to “Site 2801,” but there’s also beauty and a harkening back to the past.

Gong was trained in classical Chinese art, which centers on painting staid figures on silk. After the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution, the fact that he could attend art school was an achievement. Gong remains proud of his early efforts in art academy, but he has moved beyond that style to conceptual art and has completed several large-scale projects.

Gong Yuebin and a terra cotta soldier

In “Life’s Crossroad,” he gathered large trees burned black by a forest fire and displayed them as living beings and environmental symbols. In “Nations,” he used driftwood collected off the Pacific Northwest coast to depict “white bones among the shore debris — their eyes staring with flickering life,” he said.

Crocker Art Museum curator Scott Shields said was taken with Gong’s ambition in his vision for “Site 2801.” “I think that the first thing that really interested me in this piece was the sheer scale of it. … It’s a huge undertaking. For one person to take it on was really inspiring to me because I love an artist that works really hard, and he does,” he said. Shields said that by including the contemporary soldiers amid the historic warriors, Gong forces us to look at ourselves.

Gong’s warriors are made the same mountain’s clay used to create the ancient warriors. Gong created the mold for the soldiers, but the soldiers were manufactured in China and shipped to Sacramento in crates. He assembled them in his studio, where he still works on them.

The exhibit is spectacular — in a soft-lighted way. There they are: 210 terra-cotta soldiers gathered in a stately ballroom next to a room featuring works by Judy Chicago and in a museum displaying featuring exciting California artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and Mel Ramos. It’s quite a sight, and figuring out what it all means and how history and art work together are part of this fascinating exhibit.

Spencer Michels’ report from Thursday’s NewsHour will be posted here soon. “Site 2801″ will remain on display at Crocker Art Museum through April 29.