If you’ve had the good fortune to experience the immersive exhibition environments created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, best known for radically altering our sensory experience of art with “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and “China: Through the Looking Glass,” then you know the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s (Mia) Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty is the must-see event of the season.
The exhibition, which opens Saturday, February 3, has been curated and designed by avant-garde opera and theater director Robert Wilson (“Einstein on the Beach”), whose contemporaries range from the late Merce Cunningham and Lou Reed to Phillip Glass and Lady Gaga. Wilson is also an avid collector of Chinese art. Perhaps in an effort to create an immersive exhibition experience on par with that of the Costume Institute, Mia invited Wilson to help create 10 galleries that explore an aspect of life within China’s imperial palace during the Qing dynasty, which ruled for more than 250 years.
Visitors will not only look at objects drawn from Mia’s vast collection, but also listen (Rodrigo Gava did the sound design), feel (A.J. Weissbard created the dramatic lighting design), and according to Mia, experience “objects as emotion.” As Wilson told Mia, “The reason we work in the theater is to ask, ‘What is it?’ not to say what it is.” This approach to exhibition not as explanation, but as experience is Wilson’s profound contribution. Visitors will enter galleries that bring the objects displayed into psychological, cultural, and political relief.
The exhibition begins as visitors enter a small, dark gallery in which a single object is illuminated. The concept is similar to a theater darkening before the curtain opens. Here, visitors are encouraged to leave their 21st century concerns and responsibilities behind as they’re ushered into emperor’s opulent world. Conversely, the second gallery will be brightly lit and include more than 200 objects, including lacquer boxes, bronze pieces, porcelains and furniture that reflect a range of artistic creation throughout China’s history.
A room with gold-leaf walls is next, an appropriate setting (along with a soundscape of ceremonial music) for the imperial throne. In another gallery lined with aluminum-foil wallpaper the court life of noblewomen is the focus, with a soundscape of giggles and melodious yet melancholy music in striking contrast to the extravagant objects—from robes to furnishings—on display. Wilson reportedly created a mockup of Mia’s Target Gallery on his property on Long Island, to examine the placement of every object before finalizing the exhibition.
An innovative merging of theater and art, the exhibition aims to create a rare spectacle: a sensory, immersive environment that reflects the opulence, power and pleasure of China’s Qing dynasty. It’s also a rare opportunity to gaze upon objects from Mia’s collection that may not otherwise be seen, especially not within such a dynamic, revelatory context. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. For more information call (612) 870-3000.