You enter through darkness. The room is pitch-black, except for a single light on a single vase. For five minutes you and a small group of other visitors will sit in the dark, as if waiting for a play to begin.
You’re either consumed by your thoughts or trying to rid yourself of them. Maybe you will meditate. Maybe you don’t know how to meditate. Maybe you will sit on the rough wooden bench and wish you knew how to meditate. Or you can just stand in the dark for five minutes and decide not to care.
Whatever you do, you won’t have long to revel in “Darkness,” the first of 10 mini-installations/theatrical experiences that make up “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through May 27. This is the kind of show that, like improv, is best experienced live and in the moment.
The exhibition was conceived by designer/director Robert Wilson, known for such experimental theater works as “Einstein on the Beach.” In this case, Wilson is staging artifacts of the Qing Dynasty (pronounced “ching”) rather than actors and singers. Each room is its own production, further heightened by olfactory and auditory experiences that add visceral depth to the exhibition.
Wilson said he designed the show around the numeral 2, with the aim of using “counterpoint” to highlight dualities throughout. Indeed, the exhibit ends with “Lightness.” It all suggests yin/yang, a Chinese notion that’s been appropriated by American pop culture (and stoner culture).
So it is somewhat awkward, in this political moment, to see a cis white man staging a reimagined idea of Chinese life. It also feels disingenuous, and potentially patronizing, to apply broad, vague labels such as “Prosperity” to a room’s worth of objects that hold many other deeper, intrinsic meanings. That said, the exhibit is a collaboration with the institute’s curator of Chinese art, Liu Yang, so at least there’s some “yin” to what could have been a very problematic “yang.”
There’s some history to this weird imagined journey through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912): It was China’s last imperial dynasty, ending with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, and a new nationalist government. But you wouldn’t know any of that from the exhibition itself — this is information you’ll have to google later on.
Case in point: the “Prosperity” room, which is the first thing you see after emerging from “Darkness.” It reminded me of a fancy high-end shop in SoHo. A green vase, an ornate blue-and-white patterned plate, bright red sculptures and many other objects are encased in a grid-like display case behind glass and steel mesh, and lit with fluorescent lights. A goofy soundtrack of a honking-sorta-noise, interrupted by shattering, plays on a loop.
There are no wall labels, as you’d see in a conventional museum show. Visitors browse the space as if they’re shopping. It’s all about “the experience,” as Wilson says.
While this approach is fascinating, the lack of historical context and interpretation does get old. In a room called “Fearsome Authority,” a single imperial throne from the 1700s sits atop a red platform in a red-lit room. A painting of a dragon covers the walls, communicating to viewers that they should approach only if they dare. It’s unclear what this is communicating — the emperor has no clothes? imperial rule is “bad”? — other than the creation of a very cool dramatic moment.
Despite all of these knocks, “Power and Beauty” is amazing as a theatrical and experiential experiment. Normally, a show like this would be a boring journey through a bunch of objects behind glass, forcing the viewer to look for a few moments, learn some stuff from a wall label and move on. Wilson brilliantly challenges the different ways people gain knowledge. I left feeling like I’d just been to another fantastical universe — which is, of course, the goal of great theater and comedy.
The final room, “Lightness,” mentally took me to a beach in a country far, far, away, away from this arctic-ice-maze land. Was this a breath of not-imperial fresh air suggesting the end of the Qing Dynasty? Not sure.
As I exited, a friendly employee handed me a pamphlet that gave me some vague information about what I had just experienced. By that point I didn’t seem to care much about information. Wilson’s job was done. If I wanted to learn more, that would be on me.