Objects of Contemplation: Natural sculptures from the Qing dynasty
12th December 2009 - 7th March 2010
Lingbi stone on old hardwood stand
China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Image courtesy Brian Harkins Ltd
Dubbed 'the most mysterious show in Britain' by the Independent (Tom Lubbock's review 05/01/10) this small but exquisite exhibition is concerned with the remarkable rocks collected in 17th-century China, and asks important questions about them: when does a rock become a sculpture, for example? How important is the role of the person who notices the rock in the first place; the person who finds it, cleans it, polishes it and places it on a pedestal?
In recent years these objects have come to be known as ‘scholars’ rocks’, making a claim for them as artefacts appreciated by men of learning – objects which sat on their desk and inspired their work. In his accompanying essay, Professor Craig Clunas questions this category as one of recent invention.
With fascinating loans from the British Museum, the Bath Museum of East Asian Art and a private collection, this small exhibition raises some large questions. How do we date such pieces, when it’s impossible to be certain of their origins? Rocks are millions of years old, and only their plinths, often minutely carved to support the rock at its most attractive, can be dated with any kind of confidence. Rocks change plinths, and plinths change rocks. Like any sculpture, some of these rocks were appreciated for their abstract qualities, while others were treasured because they looked like certain animals, birds or natural formations. Some rocks were left as found, others were surreptitiously altered to enhance their natural features.