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Indepth Arts News:

"Masks of Mystery: Unique Treasurers from Ancient China"
2000-12-22 until 2001-03-18
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Sydney, , AU Australia

Nothing like this has ever been found in all the vast panorama of early Chinese art. Edmund Capon Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales China reveals another dimension to its amazing and distant past in a remarkable exhibition of Bronze Masks from the Sacrificial Pits of the Ancient Shu Kingdom. In Australia for the first time, Masks of Mystery will only be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In July 1986, while digging for earth to make bricks at Sanxingdui, a village in Sichuan in southwest China (part of the ancient Shu Kingdom), the workers of a local brick factory discovered by accident two pits dating from the Bronze Age, over 3,000 years ago. Buried inside the pits, beneath a layer of elephant tusks and charred animal bones, were more than 1,000 objects in bronze, gold, jade and pottery. What most astonished the world among the finds was a group of over 100 bronze human and semi-human images.

All showed fantastic features with large dramatic eyes framed by bold outlines, strongly curled nostrils and tight-lipped mouths. Some had long pupils projecting from their eyes, or had faces covered with gold leaf.

Coming to the Art Gallery of New South Wales are some of the most outstanding finds - the 2.6 metre high figure of a standing official or shaman; the monumental and stunningly futuristic bronze mask with vast protruding eyes that is nearly 1.5 metres wide; another 10 quasi-human face masks - one with gilding; as well as ceremonial and symbolic bronzes and jades.

What is so extraordinary about these pieces is the manipulation of a kind of realism; basically human in inspiration, these masks are nonetheless manifestations of the imagination, said Mr Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Sangxingdui is located about 40 kilometres north of the city of Chengdu, and during the Shang dynasty (around 1600BCE to 1027BCE) the region was part of the Kingdom of Shu. It is clear that the excavated pits were associated with the burials of the rulers of this ancient kingdom; the power, imagination and sheer artistry of these bronzes determines they must have been made for the very highest levels of the hierarchy.

The Shang dynasty was centred in the Yellow River valley, the traditional home of early Chinese civilisation. However, it was always known that the spread and influence of early Chinese culture and even of the centralised city-state of Shang, extended far beyond the confines of the Yellow River Valley. These finds, in the southwest province of Sichuan, confirm that the bronze culture of the Shang dynasty did indeed spread to more distant areas of the empire.

They are sophisticated in their embrace of a symbolic role and in their abstracted realism; they are technologically advanced and equal to the finest of Shang bronze vessels from the traditional heartlands on the north, and they are above all harbingers of a mysterious and ominous future. Nothing like these has ever been found in all the vast panorama of early Chinese art, said Mr Capon.

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