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5 July 2019—The exhibition “Select Court Stands from the Palace Museum Collection” is now open after a year of cooperative planning and curatorial design between the Palace Museum and Guardian Art Center. Deputy-Director Lou Wei of the Palace Museum attended the opening ceremony and shared comments for the important occasion.
Hosted by Guardian Art Center, the exhibition presents 132 pieces (or sets) of Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasty stands and related items from the Palace Museum collection. In contrast to typical exhibitions, the galleries primarily display stands, plinths, pedestals, and other bases used to hold various articles and works of art from the imperial palace. With an emphasis on the materials used to craft the stands, the curators have employed the latest technology to showcase the meticulous design of these often-overlooked pieces.
Among the over 1.86 million works in the Palace Museum’s collection, stands are often listed as an accessory to other articles, which are often considered more significant than the humble bases used to display them. Unobtrusively supporting brilliantly-lit objects, which are under most circumstances the focus of attention, stands may be completely unnoticed by museumgoers. Meanwhile, these seemingly diminutive bases play an vital role in balancing the world of art. Without a matching stand, many pieces of art would lose their grandeur. During dynastic times, the masters of the Forbidden City were well aware of this fact and often instructed the imperial workshops to craft suitable stands for their most beloved items.
In the history of the Museum’s multifarious exhibitions, an exhibition of court stands has never before been curated. However, recognizing that stands should not be undervalued, the organizers have selected the finest examples from the collection for display. Crafted from materials such as gold, silver, sandalwood (zitan), ivory, jade, and crystal, these foundational items were embellished with gilding, inlay, enamel, and openwork with precious materials such as kingfisher feathers and mother of pearl. The various works of art they hold include large-scale works including potted landscapes (penjing) and strange rocks and minute pieces such as a boat carved from an olive stone. Each item on view shows that nothing is impossible, but many feats have never been imagined.
Visitors may enjoy extraordinary gallery displays of various works, such as a ritual vessel carved from a human skull (called a kapala) inlaid with 432 pearls. Other impressive artworks include a large lotus plinth carved from sandalwood that stands at nearly a meter in height inside the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian) or a tiny sandalwood stand measuring less than one centimeter high and two centimeters wide engraved with a water design used to support a small boat carved from an olive stone. Also among the exquisitely crafted works is a matching stand for a three-tiered box with a gold-lacquered pattern of the Three Abundances (sanduo wen, a trio invoking a profusion of fortune, longevity, and sons) and interior fitted-containers. While some stands are displayed with their featured artwork, many bases are shown independently, causing visitors to imagine what they may have supported. Each item on view exhibits the ingenuity behind its creation.
An additional noteworthy aspect is the latest technology used to preserve and restore many of the items on display. Since stands have not been considered as important as the articles which they display, many have been stored in less than ideal conditions. Over the decades, as the Museum’s personnel have organized the collection, some stands have been found in damaged condition. However, as an important part of China’s cultural heritage, the “doctors” in the Museum’s “Hospital for Cultural Relics” (Wenwu yiyuan) have worked tirelessly to restore and preserve these pieces. Their diligence laid important groundwork for this exhibition. Accordingly, the Palace Museum and Guardian Art Center have made the restored works an important part of the galleries. During the exhibition period, visitors will have a chance to see demonstrations of traditional techniques used in art restoration and attend lectures on topics related to the exhibition theme as a way to better understanding the critical role these humble stands play in the world of art.
Guardian Art Center has become a dynamic force in the cultural industry over the past few years. The Center’s innovative approach and the Palace Museum’s traditional culture are brought together in this unique exhibition. Modern design and curatorial methods deliver visitors with new experiences and impressions as they encounter the tradition and craftsmanship of these court stands.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying