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As always Toronto’s first-rate world-class museums excel themselves when it comes to “staging” these exhibition.
After the marvellously evocative King Tut exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), we have the Terracotta Warriors stopping by – well about 10 of them actually – at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), as well as a selection of other artifacts from Xian making it the largest ever “Warriors” exhibit in North America.
Having spent a month travelling through China in 1982 a few years after it first threw open its borders and allowed limited groups of foreign tourists to visit limited cities and cultural sites. I didn’t have the opportunity to see the Warriors exhibit in Xian as it had only been discovered in 1974 and was not a widely publicized attraction if open at all.
The Terracotta Warriors on display in XIAN represent only a small portion of the eight thousand strong underground army buried in front of the Emperor Qinshihuang’s tomb (r. 221-207 BC) to defend him in the afterlife. The most gruesome revelation in this exhibition was the horrifying thought that 700,000 forced laborers were sacrificed to construct his tomb which was begun as soon as he ascended the throne. All workers and childless concubines were interred with him to safeguard its secrets.
Qinshihuangdi was probably the most influential leader in Chinese history. Made King of the state of Qin at the age of thirteen, by the time he was thirty-eight he had acquired six neighboring states unifying China for the first time. To put things in perspective historically at about the same time, Rome annexed Sicily and Corsica to become the most important power in the western Mediterranean and the “Pharos of Alexandria” was built in Egypt (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).
Back to Qinshihuangdi (don’t ask me to pronounce this) – on the one hand whilst many of his policies were questionable morally i.e. he sacrificed thousands of Chinese laborers in the quest to realise his visionary projects; many other of his contributions to the “modern state” were incorporated d into Chinese culture during subsequent dynasties
He standardized a common script and established a common measurement and monetary system throughout the seven states
For effective government, he codified a legal system and replaced hereditary rulers with a centrally appointed administrative system.
To improve industrial productivity he encouraged agricultural reforms and constructed many roads. to limit the inroads of barbarian tribes.
In a bid to blockade the barbarians of the north he supervised the construction of a defence fortification along the northern frontier, The first Great Wall.
One of my favourite insights into the ingenuity of the craftsmen of this era, was the revelation that to this day scientists have still not worked out how the clay used for the warriors was processed to the extent where thousands of years later, many of the models remain entirely intact and devoid of cracking.
As usual the ROM have made the most of a limited collection; the story boards accompanying the exhibition are succinct and informative, the best being the “timelines” section positioning the “powers” in the rest of the world at that time.
Following several hours spent marveling at the Warriors exhibit, I felt I had the “band – width” to take in just one more exhibit. I chose to visit the powerful “House Calls with my Camera” exhibition
This relatively small exhibit comprises a series of 36 photos taken by Toronto physician Dr. Mark Nowaczynski and captures the invisible world of some of his “at-risk “senior” patients. Incisive and startling, the realization that – with future demographics and our move away from the nuclear family model – this fate may not be limited to just “someone else is well and truly driven home.
Be prepared to be “can’t tear yourself away” fascinated as images of elderly liver spotted characters stare out of the 36 beautifully composed black and white photographs. Taken with a 4×5 large format camera, and printed traditionally on silver gelatin fibre-based paper, the sympathetic portrayal of the subjects chosen, their expressions captured against the backdrop of their surroundings (some show the before and after), conveys the very essence of vulnerability of this sector of the population. The commonality of these images is not restricted to the fact that each are house-bound. Each and every image – with its accompanying bio – projects a heart-wrenching and quietly determined attempt to hang onto the last shred of independence and dignity; the echos of a life lived on the very margins of our care system literally resonate from the walls.
Not only was “House Calls” the subject of a Gemini Award winning National Film Board of Canada documentary; Dr. Nowaczynski’s photographs have raised awareness about the many complex issues related to aging. To the extent that in 2009 the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care announced the funding of the House Calls team through the Aging at Home Strategy. This team is an interdisciplinary community-based group led by the Dr. that assists “aging in place” and improves the quality of life of seniors by providing on-going integrated home-based care.
I have the utmost admiration for Doctors in general – in my opinion they represent the utmost gift one human can give to another – the gift of life. To be able to use your camera as an extension of your gift, to cause a policy making change that significantly improves the quality of life of a faction of society – that’s really something.
If there is just one thing to take away from this display, it is that photography has the power to affect policy and a change for the better.
Click on http://www.rom.on.ca/exhibitions/current.php to view current exhibitions at the ROM. The Terracotta Warriors are with us till January 2 2011.