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Digging Eternity

October 25, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

People who travel widely and are drawn to exhibitions of ancient art sometimes get the impression that an entire layer of civilization lies under the crust of earth we stand on. For those who survey a map of China in the catalogue for "The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculpture From the People's Republic of China," at the County Museum of Art (through Jan. 3), the impression may solidify into a conviction.

The central provinces of Sichuan, Henan, Shanxi and especially Shaanxi are dotted with archeological digs that have unearthed treasure from extensive tombs and not only fired imaginations but provided invaluable insight into the astonishing sophistication of the world's hoariest continuous civilization.

Diagrams in the catalogue outline examples of mortuary architecture both above and below ground. One imperial tomb at Fengxiang is more than 300 yards long. Other subterranean chambers are distinguished above ground by pyramidal mounds of earth, dry moats, towers and gateways. These multi-roomed tombs--built to accommodate deceased royalty and their possessions--became so elaborate and assumed such importance that in the Han period (206 BC to AD 220) "mausoleum towns" were established near tombs so that residents' taxes would support construction that went on for years.

This would be fascinating if not a single object had been retrieved from excavated tombs. But, as we see in about 160 examples of funerary ceramics displayed in "The Quest for Eternity," the findings are so captivating as artworks and sociological evidence that the complex structures built to hold them fade into a background of mere facts and figures.

What captures immediate attention in the exhibition is an installation of three life-size figures and a horse, in the central court on the lower level of the Ahmanson building. Little wonder, for this sculpture came from a stunning discovery in 1974 of three pits containing an entire earthenware army. It had been buried with Qin Shihuang, the emperor who unified China during his reign from 221 to 207 BC.

Visitors to the site, near Xi'an, see the largest pit, about the size of two end-to-end football fields. When discovered, it contained about 6,000 warriors, lined up in trenches according to military function, and 24 horses arranged in six teams pulling chariots. Walking around the vast pit, over a bridge that spans it and staring down the ranks of individual archers, foot soldiers, charioteers and cavalry men portrayed, only the visually impaired and the hopelessly ignorant can fail to see the enormity of the accomplishment, as well as the depth and range of expression. Exemplifying neither creepy, wax-works realism nor mechanistic repetition, the work of legions of ancient craftsmen comes to light as a living presence.

Many tourists have ogled the army by now, a few figures and horses have gone on tour (twice before in Los Angeles, at LACMA and at Ambassador College) and the dig has excited lively public interest. But one misconception persists: Many people think that the figures are all alike, while in fact there are hundreds if not thousands of variations.

At the grossest level--size, scale, style and degree of abstraction--the somber military men are consistent. But while molds were used for the bodies, there were many different ones, and the heads were individually modeled.

At the dig in Xi'an one sees a striking assortment of ethnic types, profiles, bone structures, mustaches and hair arrangements. With two officers and one warrior separated on a large, low footing at LACMA (and three relatively similar figures, at that), visitors may not absorb the fact that almost nothing is duplicated in the members of this trio. Not their armor, not the flaps and folds of their tunics, not the positions of their hands that once held real bronze weapons, not their neck pieces, not their headdresses and certainly not their faces.

The point of individuality--and the respect for human differences implicit in such an attitude--is well taken as we proceed through the exhibition, handsomely installed by Bernard Kester in terra-cotta-colored galleries with doorways inspired by actual tomb architecture. Far from multiple examples of royal types, we find an imaginative assortment of figures and animals, fit for a full life. Representing about 10,000 years of Chinese civilization and excavated during the last 35 years, all the ceramic pieces are on loan from 14 Chinese institutions.

Except for the Qin tomb foursome, theworks are comparatively small--from a troop of Warring States dancers and musicians about 5 inches tall to a 4-foot Tang dynasty guardian king. Ferociously trampling a demon underfoot, he speaks for the fierce side of Chinese art--much more than dignified members of Qin's army. From this sancai-glazed king and his neighbor, an even scarier, snarling beast with long-tentacled wings, we gather that guarding tombs was extremely serious business.

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