An exhibit opening Saturday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is big and brash. But first, it’s quiet.
In small groups, visitors will enter “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty” through a dark room containing a single black vase. Before the doors open — a whole nine minutes later — a meditative piano piece by John Cage plays. People hear the soft drop of a single chopstick.
This museum exhibition has theater at its heart.
Which makes sense, because it was dreamed up by a stage director: the legendary Robert Wilson, known for breaking molds since he made his name with Philip Glass’ five-hour opera “Einstein on the Beach” in 1976. This time, Wilson is reimagining the art show, placing the museum’s ancient Chinese artifacts — sculptures, robes and artworks from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) — in a new light.
But visitors start in the dark.
“In order to see this work, we need to empty our heads,” Wilson explained Thursday, “and get the daily life and activities out of our minds so we can focus on something else.”
Wilson, 76, designed the exhibition around the number 2 — yin and yang, dark and light, point and counterpoint. One gallery is covered in mud, another in gold leaf wallpaper. One is lined with thatch, another with shiny silver Mylar.
After the first room, with its single vase, doors open into a gallery with hundreds of objects, brightly lit. Gold ornaments, lacquer boxes, ornate dishes. On the walls are even more artifacts, re-created as wallpaper. Each gallery gets its own audio score, its own scent. In a deep red gallery meant to represent imperial power, ceremonial bells sound. “Intermittently, there’s a fearsome screech,” Liu Yang, the museum’s curator of Chinese art, told reporters Thursday.
Beside him, Wilson abruptly screeched. “It’s actually Bob’s squeal,” Liu said, smiling.
During an hourlong talk, Wilson sketched on a big pad of paper as he shared stories about his fascination with slowing things down, the power of pairing two dissimilar objects and the ideas that molded his thinking.
He talked of Cage: “I read in 1962 his book ‘Silence’ and my life was forever changed.” He quoted his favorite professor in architecture school: “ ‘Start with light.’ That really opened my mind.” And he finished with a quote from Charles Baudelaire, delivered with a theatrical pause:
“Genius is childhood recovered at will,” Wilson said. “So ... bring the children.”
The exhibition came together in six months — which for the Art Institute is extraordinarily fast. “We’re used to planning four to five years in advance,” said deputy director Matthew Welch.
Wilson also shook up the museum’s stodgy template for staging an exhibition. In August, curators traveled to the Watermill Center, Wilson’s arts “laboratory” on New York’s Long Island, with color copies of Chinese artifacts and “a very set notion of what a narrative could be,” Welch said.
Wilson dismantled that structure “with breathtaking quickness.”
The exhibit favors experience over information. No wall labels explain the artworks.
In most museums, Wilson said, “the first thing people do is bend over and read the label before they look at the work.” He complained about a recent visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, led by a curator. “I felt like I was in high school,” Wilson said. Exhibitions can often feel like lectures, he continued, shaking his head. “Let history books do that.”
If visitors “want to explore more,” curator Liu noted, “there are 15 galleries waiting for them, with lots of labels and didactics to read.” He laughed.
The museum couldn’t make a few of Wilson’s wilder ideas work. The artist wanted to create a kind of upside-down mountain by suspending boulders from the ceiling. “I thought it was brilliant,” Liu said, “but so expensive.”
But there are still plenty of moments of grandeur. In the final gallery, the museum’s beloved jade mountain — a pastoral scene of cliffs and trees carved from a massive chunk of green stone — is surrounded by a series of murals by Yang Yongliang, a contemporary Chinese artist whom Wilson came across in Shanghai.
At a distance, the murals appear to mirror the jade sculpture’s serene scene: mountains in the mist. But get close, and those mountains are made of cityscapes — high-rises, power towers and apartments.
Then comes the 10th and final room in the exhibit, this one brightly lit in contrast with the darkened entrance, with music that Wilson promised will offer “a little surprise.”
He laughed, his eyes crinkling, his smile childlike. “I’m not going to tell you what it is,” he said, “but it should tickle you.”
Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty
What: Objects from the Qing Empire (1644-1912), drawn from the museum’s collection and presented in an immersive exhibit designed by Robert Wilson.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
When: Feb. 3-May 27. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. & Tue.-Wed.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.-Fri.
Tickets: $20. Capacity is limited and tickets are timed, so reservations are recommended. 1-888-642-2787 or new.artsmia.org