Category Archives: Museum Collections

A Revolution in Shadows

Even though shadow puppetry was widely banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), performances still took place. Most of these were pre-approved stories and dramas that towed the line for the New Republic of China, replacing stories of warlords and emperors and other eradicated roles in society.

Many troupes preferred to lay down their shadows all together, rather than take up this new directive. Some troupes weren’t given the choice. Since the 1980s, these shows have not been performed much, if at all. And, when asked about them, I usually get a muttered and incomprehensible answer. Probably, it’s a subject most would like to forget.

Still, I love what few Communist-era shadow puppets I have been able to glimpse. The aesthetic is so different, so modern and simplified – and still so striking. Politics do nothing to sway me here – the puppets are beautiful. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading and looking~

These puppets are all housed in the Luanzhou Shadow Puppet Museum in Hebei Province.

Note: The soldiers in green are Communist soldiers; soldiers in gold/yellow are Guomindang (Kuomintang) or the National Revolutionary’s Army soldiers.

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If you Build It, They Might Not Come

I last visited the small city of Luanzhou in 2012 (previously known as Luanxian). I was taken by Tianxiang Lu who graciously introduced me to Mrs. Guo, a longtime fan of his family’s shadow puppets, and a host of other incredible Luanzhou shadow puppet artists. It was a bonus at the time. I hadn’t done any of my own legwork to prepare for the trip – I just showed up and was given a beautifully curated tour of all that Luanzhou shadow puppetry had to offer along with a few formal meals. This kind of ceremony is usually only reserved for those who hold some official standing, public office, purse-strings of some kind, etc. My status as a freelance artist/novice fieldworker rarely gets any fanfare – which is usually to my benefit – but Luanzhou city clearly had an abundance of enthusiasm, resources and overt desire to push their local brand of shadow puppetry.

Like so many of the small fourth and fifth tiered cities in China, Luanzhou is constantly competing for government funding and recognition. They vie for the ‘if you build it, they will come’ money, raising new apartment complexes, ‘old’ towns, river walks and anything else they think can entice the next wave of rural immigrants. Much of the time, these small cities’ best bet to prove themselves distinct from the other hundreds of small cities is to brand themselves culturally. Much folk art is preserved this way. In my travels, the three best regions for shadow puppetry continuance in the country is in the three regions where a small town has chosen to place their shadow puppetry as the keystone in their cultural portfolio: Bazhong, Sichuan Province, Huanxian, Gansu Province and Luanzhou, Hebei Province.

Of course, this has downsides too. I’m sure the artists practicing the other art forms that weren’t chosen aren’t too happy about the singular focus. But, in the game of safeguarding and preservation triage, some things have to die so that something else can live.

Luanzhou has been aggressively expanding their city and utilizing shadow puppetry as a star player since about 2010. When we were there in 2012, the city had already built an out-of-scale mainstreet, which dwarfed the modest housing on either side. Their new river walk was approximately the width of Shanghai’s bund, but laid empty much of the time. The city had even just erected a monstrous new ‘old town’, which was aimed at attracting local tourism. And even though the ‘old town’ was then only populated by eager locals, capitalizing on the early promise of new commerce, there seemed an optimistic energy in the city’s future. For me, the most exciting news was the plan to create a shadow puppet museum. I would have to return in 2016.

I went back just a few weeks ago, again accompanied by Tianxiang, to check in on Luanzhou and their museum. We took the new high-speed train from Tangshan and were there in 17 minutes, instead of the usual hour. Mrs. Guo greeted us with a car and a banquet. Then, we went to the museum.

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It’s gorgeous. It’s huge and thorough and presented better than any other shadow puppet museum exhibit I’ve seen in China. There are rows and rows of beautiful pieces, videos with headphones that accompany many of the 2D dioramas and even a 3D diorama section that features a realistic wax-figured shadow puppeteer. At the end of the exhibit, you can even try the puppets for yourself!

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Only trouble is, no one is ever there. The museum is, ostensibly, closed. All the time. No funding to keep it staffed and probably no reason to. Luanzhou’s population hasn’t take off like the city thought it would. With a small local citizenry and no tourists, who would come to this beautiful museum more than once? Sure, if you have a good reason, you can call the people who know the right people and they’ll open it for you. But otherwise, the place remains a secret garden – a treasure unseen.

Rest assured, I snapped a picture of every single thing in that collection. No telling when the officials will get wind of this and turn it into something I’ll love a lot less.

Thanks for reading~

 

Some extra pictures of the two, 20-foot-long leather ‘shadow puppet style’ mural

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Small is Beautiful

The unimaginable has happened.

In the past few weeks, a strange and lucky set of events have led me to the smallest accomplishment of my life. I have just cut a set of 1”-scale traditional leather Chinese shadow puppets for display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms.

I first saw the Thorne Miniature Rooms when I was a young teen. I’m not sure how or why I was in Chicago, or even how we made our way to the legendary Institute, but the one thing I have never forgotten about were the miniature rooms: glowing boxes of exquisite smallness along mazes of darkened hallways. Once captured in their impossibility, I didn’t want to be let go.

Georgian Dining RoomThe Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms: English Dining Room of the Georgian Period, 1770-90, c. 1937

Part of the spell is their natural beauty, but much of it stems from the perfect comprehensibility of, say, a 1700 Georgian Dining room the size of a shoebox. The observer feels both godlike and humbled by the sheer reducibility of that which seems irreducible. And they are beautiful. All of these rooms are handmade by master craftsman according to the particular specifications of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. All 68 of them. Certainly, seeing these rooms so early on was instrumental in my developing fascination with all things handmade, representative and miniature.

Fast-forward some 20-odd years later and on an unsuspecting morning in October, I received an email from the keeper of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. She was looking for information about Chinese shadow puppetry! With plans to highlight their miniature Chinese room this year, they had hoped to place some traditional shadow puppets within.

My mind reeled. My eyes were wide. I might have been drooling.

What a convergence of wonderful, impossible things.

Instantly, we were in a flurry of exchanges: discussing performances, regional styles and cutting techniques. I offered to give the miniatures a try; wisely giving myself an out if the 1” scale bested me. But of course, I had to try.

{Now, in case you’re not sure, 1” scale means every foot is reduced to 1”. Or 1’=1”. For reference, this means that your laptop computer would be reduced to about 1” or 1.5” wide.}

My first attempt was, well, awful. It seemed as though my monstrously large blade miss-cut the paper-thin leather on nearly every single pass – but I couldn’t even see well enough to tell. My neck ached from crouching eye-level to the table and I was barely holding onto the cut piece with a needle tool. Impossible. Even my first attempt at painting the mangled piece of leather was hideous.

My obsession with the miniature rooms and the knowledge that someone could make those meant I had to be able to make these – this is what pushed me forward. I tried and tried again: smaller, closer, better. Or, more accurately: achier, blinder, worse. In case you’re wondering, there is no god-complex inherent in making minis. More so, the opposite is true: you simply feel like a bumbling, mitten-handed oaf, swearing to yourself the entire time.

At some point, the zen set in. The beauty of working on something so small is that time stands still. In order to work at that scale, everything else must recede. You must forget about your own size, your own weight and volume and become a smaller, quieter, more immaterial conduit for miniature to pass through you. And, somehow it did.

IMG_8548Lady White Snake, 1 1/2″ tall: cowhide, string, paint

IMG_8637Lady White Snake in Shadow

IMG_8643Lady White Snake in scale with the gigantic shadow-hand!

IMG_8560A bridge, 1″ tall: leather, paint

IMG_8610The bridge in shadow

IMG_8612In perspective…such a little bridge!

XuxianLady White Snake’s lover, Xuxian, 1  1/2″ scale: leather, string, paint.

Xuxian ShadowXuxian in Shadow

Now, as I return to the real world back from the small, everything seems large, inexact and – well – lacking exquisiteness. It’s true what they say: small is beautiful.

Thanks for reading~

(PS: The shadow puppets should be up sometime this winter)

The Little Museum That Could

Along the one mile stretch of main street that anchors the small Northwestern town of Huanxian in Gansu province, you’ll find their cultural center. Painted a light peachy pink, the building stands out amongst the rest of the concrete. At the top floor of this modest building jutted along the west side of their central square is one of the nicest museum collections of shadow puppetry I’ve been able to take my time with.

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The three times I visited during my residency in Huanxian, the building was like a ghost town. I had to hunt down the ‘guy with the key’ twice, in order to access the exhibition. I suppose in a town this small, everyone has seen the exhibition already. Once the room was opened, it was just me in those three rooms. I could just sit and stare and take it all in for as long as I darn well pleased.

Sure, the fact that all the pieces are being held up by packaging tape? Absolutely grimace inducing. But, other than that – there are some unforgettably unique designs that are beautifully posed, well lit and exquisite in their artistry.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may notice that the Gansu shadow puppet style strongly resembles the Shaanxi aesthetic. This is most likely because, back in the day, shadow puppetry made its way Northwest from Shaanxi. Along the way, the singing method and cutting method shifted, but the aesthetic remained largely intact.

I wish I could post all the pictures for you. Or, better yet, teleport you there to witness them first hand. It’s hard to describe just how you feel when standing in front of a master cut piece worn from its life on the screen. How I wish I could have seen them in action.

Thanks for reading & looking ~

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IMG_7807A Water Monster (Crab) from the White Snake Story 

IMG_7812Another Water Monster  (Turtle) from the White Snake Story

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IMG_7858The sun!

Princeton’s Gest Collection of Chinese Shadow Puppet Figures now Online!

For any of you who are interested in a thorough catalogue of shadow puppet types, I’ve got some good news for you! Princeton has just made their online catalogue of Chinese Shadow Puppets public and ready for your viewing! The Gest collection is of the Luanzhou 灤州 or Leting 樂亭 style, particular to China’s northeast region.  Thanks to Mary Hirsch and her work cataloguing and identifying the collection in 2006, the photos are well labeled and easily searchable.

http://gest.princeton.edu/shadowfigures.php

This link will be permanently linked on the Links tab.

I can’t wait to dive in.

Thanks for reading~

Fake It Till You Make It

For any of you who have been following this blog for awhile, you already know the issue of machine-made puppets within the world of Chinese shadow puppetry.  Two years ago, I wrote specifically about their growing dominance of shadow puppet market and how this newer/faster/cheaper specimen is hard e to distinguish from the real thing, and more urgently, how it is rapidly depleting whatever market was left for handmade puppets.

I’ve stated this before and I’ll state it again: I have no problem with machine-made objects or mass-produced copies of an original.  What I do have a problem with is the exploitation of a public’s lack of expertise and knowledge in order to sell these mass-produced machine-made objects as something else; in this case, a hand-cut shadow puppet.

This machine-made issue continues to be a problem wherever shadow puppets are sold.  A fellow puppeteer recently told me he bought some puppets off eBay.  Without even asking him about it, I knew they had to be laser cut.  With a cursory search, I turned up a number of options labeling themselves as ‘Chinese Handicrafts’, even ‘Vintage Chinese Shadow Puppet’ although – at anywhere from $9.99-$29.99, I’d bet my shorts there is nothing handmade or vintage about the thing.  And they’re not.  Just hold your cursor over the photos for magnification and you’ll see the tell tale sign of the laser cut (covered in this earlier post).

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.19 PMFind it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.50 PM Find it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.17.33 PMFind it here.

And as crabby as that makes me, a newer, more complicated threat has been creeping in on the shadow puppet horizon as of late.  It’s a sneakier, smarter knock-off that’s been duping the best of them.  China is now beginning to create hand-cut faux antique pieces.

I first encountered these when I went to visit a dealer friend of mine at the legendary Pangjiayuan ‘Antique Market’ in Beijing during my Fulbright year (2011).  I’d met him earlier on the shadow puppet circuit, most memorably at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu province.  I contacted him to do a bit more research on the going prices for shadow puppets from different regions (as the market has jumped notably in the last 5 years or so) and he gave me much more of an education than I bargained for.

After we were done chatting about regional styles, going prices, and machine-made puppets (of which he had a few), he took a long pause and gave me a sideways glance.  “See that puppet up there?” he asked.  “The small Northeastern style male figure?” I asked.  He nodded.  “What do you think?” he asked coyly.  I walked over to the small Eastern Beijing style puppet hanging on the line and looked a little closer.  It was hand cut.  Ok.  I looked closer.  It had a dark patina on it, which usually indicates usage/wear/age as smoke lanterns and oil from human hands darkens the leather, but this one was different.  It looked slightly dusty and crusty, instead of well worn.  Upon even closer inspection I could see that there was no additional wear marks on any of the control rod connections or joints.  This really piqued my curiosity.

“What is this?” I asked.  Not wanted to make a claim I would be too embarrassed to retract.  Again, he paused for a long time.  I wasn’t sure he was going to tell me.  “They’re fake old puppets.”

Sh*t.

We spent the next 30 minutes or so going over the details, the things to note, the sensorial features of faked antique puppets and at some point I threw up my hands.  It was hard to tell on some of them.  “How will I, can I, ever be sure?”  He reminded me that now, after seeing so many machine-made puppets, I could pick them out of a lineup.  Well, that’s what it would be like with fakes once I got more experience.  It’s simple connoisseurship.  I bought a few fake samples to take home with me, just in case.  I thanked him, deeply, and said my goodbyes.

Faux Antique

Faux Antique 2My fake-antique samples.  Look pretty good, don’t they?

Although it’s a few years back, I remember this day and this meeting with such clarity.  Probably because it gave me such a royal shakedown.  After a day or two of feeling defeated, I tried hard to revive my spirits.  I reminded myself that there wouldn’t be fake-antiqued puppets if there wasn’t money to be made from them.  China has been knocking off their antique jade and porcelain for decades, successfully selling their wares to local and foreign museums and collectors.  Shouldn’t I feel happy that shadow puppetry has achieved the honor of being forged?

Over the last few years, those wishy-washy feelings of forced optimism have faded completely.  The fake issue within the shadow puppet market of China needs to be controlled.  The best way to do this is to devise an easy method(s) to identify fakes and transmit this knowledge to those who need it.  In my initial research, I’ve secured a wonderful museum with a solid Chinese shadow puppet collection – who I believe has a few fakes – to allow some testing and further experimentation to be done.  With some cooperation from a few puppet cutters in China who have sourced a few possible chemicals used for the shadow puppet patinas and some connections in North America from museum archivists on how to go about devising a test, I believe we have a starting point.

Since my first encounter with a faked-antique, I’ve seen thousands more puppets in numerous collections and museums on both sides of the globe.  My connoisseurship is far above what it was 3 years ago.   Seeing the real and the fake, the old and the new old, has repeatedly set me on course.  We owe it to the incredible masters who have given their life to doing it the hard way, every day.

Thanks, so much, for reading~

Additional reading on museum fakes and China:

A Hebei Province museum closes when it’s discovered that most of its artifacts are fake:                          http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/jul/17/jibaozhai-museum-closed-fakes-china

Forging and Art Market in China/NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/china-art-fraud/

Bloomberg weighs in on China’s growing global antique market and the number of fakes:                                                        http://www.bloomberg.com/video/89827873-growing-number-of-fake-antiques-in-china.html

Feeling Minnesota

Pardon my relative silence on this blog, but these last couple months have been a swirl of personal and professional goings on.  The catalyst of this particular swirl is my big move northward to Montreal.  The very thought of relocating oneself geographically has always triggered in me a deeper examination of the now, a reminder to take stock in absolutely everything.

I’ve moved away from my beloved hometown for love and study.  In the fall, I’ll begin an interdisciplinary PhD in the Humanities at Concordia University in Montreal.  The thesis proposed is continued research and apprenticeship with the traditional Chinese shadow puppet makers remaining in hopes or validating their work in a broader context of China, folk arts and inherited practices as well as working towards a best practices for a living archive of their process.  It’s a five-year program.  You’re probably thinking I’m bonkers right about now.  You’re probably right.

But, these giant leaps of faith towards love and passion become a necessity instead of a choice at some point in one’s life.

So, off I went – northward into the land of maple syrup and socialized medicine.

As a little treat to myself, knowing I would be leaving so soon, I spent my last few months in Minnesota following up on a trail of Chinese shadow puppets right in my beloved hometown of Minneapolis.  Partially, to satisfy my curiosity and partially to establish a relationship should I ever be in need of a collection to study.

I contacted the new curator of Asian art, Yang Liu, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art awhile back letting him know I was the local Chinese shadow puppet hunter and I’d heard a few old rumors that the MIA might be in possession of some.  He said he wasn’t sure, but would I like to come chat with him?  Of course I would.

Yang’s office is tucked into a cozy corner of the MIA’s back offices.  His office is small, neatly kept and predictably stuffed with Asian art books.  Yang is a warm and attentive art enthusiast with nothing but helpful ideas and generosity to share with a young puppet hunter.  Within an hour of sharing stories, we confirmed that there were some puppets in their vaults and I was welcome to come take a look.

I returned on an otherwise depressing day of April snowstorms and was whisked straight away to the collections’ holding room by Ken Krenz who somehow manages to keep track of the museums countless objects.  Just being in the back halls of the museum had me breathless.  Without hesitation, he brought out a small package of shadow puppet heads wrapped in tissue paper.

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IMG_2200The imbedded hair follicle pattern in this leather tells you it’s most likely Donkey hide.

The collection is miniature in comparison to some I’ve seen; a hundred or so shadow puppet heads from the Northeast region of China.  They’re most likely from the 1900s, perhaps even from after the Revolution.  But, still.  They’re always beautiful, always educational, always motivating.  I poured through them carefully, taking more nuanced notes and feeling giddy at their touch.  I also marveled at the difference in my work and level of connoisseurship compared to even six months ago.  I knew what I was looking for, what notes to take and what to snap photos of.

Because the museum has known so little about these objects, not even sure if they were Chinese in origin, I’ve offered my services in exchange for a relationship with them.  I’ll come back and check on them every now and then and offer additional information when it arises.  There is something comforting about having a place to return to and a collection to familiarize myself with in the place I have always considered my home.  If nothing else, it’s helping to preserve the things I love in the places I love.

Someday, Minneapolis, I hope I can share these and so many others with you.  You’d love ‘um.

Thanks for reading~