18th century lacquer work from Quianlong Garden

Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum: The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, on view through January 9 before it moves to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This collection of artifacts, never before seen by the public, is taken from a sanctuary built in the Forbidden City. Quianlong Garden was constructed in the 18th century in a remote corner of the massive complex. Closed up for many years, it is now undergoing an extensive renovation.

Among the furnishings (which generally are of less interest to me) there are a few objects that were quite conversant with our modern sensibilities. Some of the lacquer work suggests the fluidity that was so signatory of late 19th century European Art Nouveau (as seen above). And the found rock sculptures (scholar’s stones), long treasured in Chinese culture, feel right at home with the minimalist tradition in contemporary western art.


Charles Sandison’s re-envisioned East India Marine Hall

Other installations worth seeing: First, the East India Marine Hall, part of the museum before it its major facelift a few years ago, is festooned with wooden figureheads from 18th and 19th century seagoing vessels. Artist Charles Sandison has taken the words of ship captains’ logs and turned an otherwise stodgy room into a lively hive of flashing digitalia referencing the trade routes, politics and personalities that led to the founding of the museum in the seaport of Salem. The play of contrast is engaging and fun.


Purgatoire River, by Mark Ruwedel (Photo: PEM)

Second, unforgettable photographs by Mark Ruwedel. “Imprint” features the tracks of both humans and dinosaurs in remote locations throughout the western US. The photographs make no reference to human life, just the trails that were worn into the stone or desert surface by our ancestors in prehistoric times. The silence and stillness in this body of work is extraordinary. (I wrote about Ruwedel’s show in more detail a few months back here.)

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