Preface to the book
The Terracotta Woman
Art Critic Wang Baoju
Art Director of Today Art Museum, Beijing
Beijing, April 2007
I am a Terracotta Woman
A sculpture project by Marian Heyerdahl
Named "the Eighth Wonder of the World," the Terra-cotta Warriors are a symbol of Chinese culture. After the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259-210 B.C.), unified China within 26 years of beginning his reign, he ended feudalism, set up a system of commanderies and established the absolute power of the central government; he also codified the legal systems, Chinese writing, currency and units of measurements. At the same time, the Qin emperor continued to wage war on enemy states, driving the minority ethnic group, the Xiongnu (ancestor´s of current-day Mongolians), north. He started building the Great Wall, the royal palace (named E Fang) and his mausoleum. Therefore, the magnificent underground army, the Terra-cotta Warriors, are the reflection of the formidable Qin Army and a symbol of male supremacy and his majestic, unparalleled power in China´s history.
The Norwegian female artist Marian Heyerdahl, utilizing her special artistic vocabulary, re-conceptualizes the Terra-cotta Warriors by duplicating them in their original scale but changing their gender from male to female. Seen from the front, they are a group of women with a variety of expressions, clothes, hair-styles and breast size. Some wear rings, one holds the hand of her young child, another has lost her beautiful hair due to the chemical war, still another prays with her fingers crossed. There is one woman who reads a book about men written by a man, one who is pregnant with her husband´s or an enemy soldier´s child, one who wants to be a "suicide bomber," and a woman who has had to cut off her breasts in order to shoot.
They are experiencing agony, serenity, screaming, happiness, or sadness, but they are still strong, robust, yet full of pride. Everyday, history is repeating itself and wars are still going on, but the women are still standing with dignity and composure despite the pain.
In the piece Women´s Heritage- Streams of Pain, blood oozes out the woman´s left chest through a tube into a container. The flow of blood symbolizes the black egg that produces humanity´s birth, generation after generation, and the ever-lasting agony that accompanies this existence. The suffering and misery passes down from one generation to the next just as if it were the seed of life. When history repeats itself, the new generation has to suffer the pain inherited from older generations.
In the piece Frida Kahlo´s Horse, the artist merges the bodies of a woman and an animal, creating a horse with the face of a woman wearing a long braid. Many arrows have been shot into her body. The work references Frida Kahol´s 1946 painting "The Little Deer." It is a metaphor for women´s suffering yet also represents the power of the nature.
Besides women, Marian Heyerdahl has also created children clad in the same military uniforms; this is both shocking and moving. Different from the female warriors, the children´s faces show the sadness and hopelessness of losing their homes, parents and hopes, revealing the wounds of wars. This hopelessness and these wounds demand that hard questions be asked: What lies in store for them? Are they to be the future pawns of war?
For a long time, Marian Heyerdahl has used her personal feminist approach, including use of the four basic elements in the ancient Greek philosophy--earth, water, air and fire--as central characteristics of her artistic practice. She employs many different natural materials such as glass, concrete, sand, clay and eggshells to strengthen the visual expressions and metaphors. The clay she uses is completely natural, with the qualities of being both hard and soft, strong and fragile; it´s a metaphor for female frailty and strength. Ms. Heyerdahl gives these women masculine, muscular bodies, as well as a strong heart-tranquility within sorrow, pride within persistence and inner strength.
With the borrowing and the transformation of the readymade Terra-cotta Warriors, Ms. Heyerdahl combines the concepts of sculpture and installation, as well as those of sculpture and image. Her conceptual art merges low-tech material such as clay with advanced image technology of post-modern society, thereby expanding the conceptual space and edge of her work.
Using women to replace men, in a sense, is to reveal the suffering and the pain a woman goes through in a symbolic and metaphoric way. The pain comes from two sources: one, the suffering brought by war; the other, the destiny of women throughout history. It pinpoints the issue of human existence in today´s society, especially the issues concerning women. Contemporary women are faced with displacement, abuse and neglect coming from many fronts, including their families, their jobs or war.
In another sense, the reversal of gender from male to female also reveals a more important and fundamental issue: The historical role and status of women, as well as issues of unrecognized dominant aspects of women in society. Women are the bearers of sorrow and the remedy to this sorrow and also the creators of history. The rear side of the pieces face the audience, emphasizing that the history of women has never been written. History records only the shadowy images of their backs. Here, Ms. Heyerdahl transforms this unique Chinese "cultural symbol" into a "symbol of life." She questions the status of women in history, while placing women and even the fate of humanity into a wider social context, questioning and pondering in depth the value and meaning of life.
As a Western artist, Ms. Heyerdahl chose the Terra-cotta Warriors, an important symbol of Chinese culture. Therefore, her work forms a two-way exchange with Chinese culture. She doesn´t utilize her Western aesthetic ideology to transform this Chinese symbol to satisfy consumer culture; her work is not simply a replacement or a consumption of the local culture. Rather, her work depicts an in-depth exploration in an innovative manner. Her work also carries on conversations with Chinese culture on an equal level. She uses clay from the region as well as Chinese traditional techniques and Chinese skilled workers to create her work. However, her concept is completely contemporary. Her work shows expressions of contrast, accuracy, directness and freedom from limits.
The exchange and replacement of identity, gender and time combines the "outer representation" and the "inner spirit" and establishes a definite multiple conversational relationship--conversations between East and West, between contemporary culture and ancient times, between men and women, between humanity and fate, between fate and history. In a sense, Marian Heyerdahl´s work is more than a discussion on culture and the multiplicity of culture. Her work is a discussion on life and its value and meaning.