Game of Thrones / Project Description
The exhibition “Game of Thrones” dealt with experimental artistic forms for presenting historical artifacts and the possibilities for exhibition architecture, design, and scenography. Three international artists and a designer working alongside each other engaged with an outstanding ensemble from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin. The Chinese imperial throne and its accompanying screen, products of the imperial workshops in the Kangxi era (1662–1722), were at the center of Konstantin Grcic’s, Kirstine Roepstorff’s, Simon Starling’s, and Zhao Zhao’s deliberations. The artistic experiments of “Game of Thrones” moved away from reconstructing architectural palace details toward explicitly substantive spheres of reference. In the context of the Humboldt Lab, the idea was to create modes of access to the exhibits that would facilitate sensuous, associative experience and discursive spaces that reach into our present. These were made accessible as models in an almost absurd-seeming juxtaposition of four throne rooms. The setting for these imaginary throne situations was four abstract, original-size replica throne ensembles. These functioned as placeholders for the actual throne, which could not be moved for conservational reasons. Named after George R.R. Martin’s bestselling fantasy novel “A Game of Thrones,” the project adopted an unusual approach to the insignia of power of a country that has long been reduced to exoticism in Europe, and simultaneously inquired into the potential for scenic interpretation in the museum.
The exhibition was preceded by a research phase that addressed the presentation of Chinese imperial thrones in palaces, museums, and collections. Within the context of the exhibition a selection of textual and image materials documented the architecture and design of imperial palace complexes in China, and their following traditional, canonical models – few of which, however, have been preserved as originals at their original locations.
While palaces in China or big film productions give an ostensibly authentic picture of Chinese throne rooms, it is hardly possible to convey such historical architectural contexts in a museum. Instead, thrones are often presented in bare, neutral approximations to the imperial context. Presenting the Chinese imperial throne at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin, was also not unproblematic, since its architectural surroundings at its original location no longer existed.
The artistic interventions by Konstantin Grcic, Kirstine Roepstorff, Simon Starling, and Zhao Zhao treated precisely this question as the occasion to ponder the possibilities for alternative throne-room architectures and to develop approaches that open up new interpretive and educational possibilities for museums. Each of the artists’ and the designer’s individual proposals created alternative ways of seeing the museological object. Their four distinct approaches – analytic/minimalist, provocative/emotional, poetic/narrative, conceptual/ atmospheric – treated the throne as an insignia of power, as the center of absolute power, or staged it as a symbol of violence and injustice. Focusing on different aspects such as shape, design, setting, history, and symbolism, they facilitated diverse paths of access to the historical object, opening a kaleidoscopic view of history that establishes contact with the present.
Konstantin Grcic is an industrial designer who designs products often described as reduced and minimalist. He combines this formal rigor with humor, acuity, and elegance. His design presentation of the throne consisted of a walk-in labyrinth based on the angular scroll pattern of the throne ensemble. Grcic took this ornamentation often found in Chinese art as his point of departure, to create a kind of “safe space”, referencing the nested structure of Chinese palace architecture. Numerous buildings and courtyards or administrative hurdles had to be passed in order to reach the emperor. The presentation of a throne in a museum is not dissimilar. Grcic’s installation titled “migong” (labyrinth) confronted viewers with an obstacle that signaled authority, created order, decelerated – and emphatically bade them to join the line. The gesture pointed toward the hierarchical structures of the imperial palace no less than the furnishings of public places, not least of museums. It passed ironic and critical comment on the metaphor, often overworked in the museum context, of creating “broad access” to the exhibit.
“Daughters of the Immortal Mother”
The artist Kirstine Roepstorff works with the principle of collage and utilizes wide ranges of source material and reference systems. The light objects in her installation “Daughters of the Immortal Mother” referred to the image program of the Berlin throne ensemble, and brought out the “media” quality of lanterns. Originally invented in China and banned during the Cultural Revolution, lanterns in China are not just decorative in function. Hung outside houses, variously colored and furnished with written characters, they can signal death, birth, or other social events. With a framework of steel, wood, or bamboo, and covered with ribbons or paper, Roepstorff’s objects not only cast light in the room, but also shadows. The artist was inspired by figurative motifs from Chinese mythology – phoenix, dragon, tortoise, and tiger – following the Chinese doctrine of the five elements that explores the laws of dynamic processes such as becoming, transformation, and decay. Roepstorff’s lanterns produced a dramatic interplay of bright light and harsh shadow that not only illuminated the throne ensemble but also animated and complemented the various figures depicted in it.
In his art Simon Starling engages with natural and cultural processes of change. He introduces artifacts from different spheres of science, culture, and art history into unexpected relations with each other. In his video installation “Screen Screen” Starling confronted the throne with its own depiction. The artist showcased its rich inlays and the way they reflect and alter light. His installation also addressed the arrangement of throne and screen, mirroring it in the relation to video projector and projection screen, as well as in the mutual interdependence of their effects. The film sequence explored in close-up the artisanal finesse of tiny details of the throne and screen. Hardly perceptible to the unaided eye, its geometrical structures call to mind the pixels of computer images. The analogy points to surprising correspondences between the historical objet d’art and current media technology, but also between traditional and modern techniques of picture production in China, no less than their worldwide everyday impact. The installation was accompanied by classical Chinese music interpreted and played on the qin, the oldest traditional Chinese string instrument, by the contemporary musician Liang Mingyue.
The thematic, formal, and media variety of Zhao Zhao’s artistic work is an expression of the artist’s critical stance toward Chinese politics. To question the construction of established meanings, he challenges social reality and its ideological conventions no less than cultural stereotypes and the dominance of various, mainly European, art-historical categories. In Zhao Zhao’s installation “Waterfall” the imperial throne was immersed in a torrent of red wax that hardened into picturesque shapes. By concealing the assumedly artistic form of the throne in a gesture suggesting physical violence, the artist simultaneously renders transparent his own and his artistic context’s critique of this relic of the Chinese monarchy. The artist’s thoughts on the subject, along with reactions and commentaries from members of the public in China, were available in the exhibition as string of blog entries, to be read on a monitor. The artist’s blog, partly in English translation, enabled Berlin museum visitors to participate in the lively and controversial debate around the museum artifact and its treatment. The dynamics of this democratic exchange contrasted markedly with the seemingly frozen motion of the red wax, which gestured, on the one hand, at the imperial past and its structures of violence, on the other, at the stagnation besetting the current Chinese regime’s democratic efforts.
A Filmic Approach
A further approach to institutionalized imperial power and the celebration of the emperor was realized by the artist and filmmaker Daniel Kohl. He took samples from historical movies as a starting point, selecting sequences that depicted Chinese throne rooms in the Forbidden City. Deconstructing the narrative flow of the films as well as the spatial settings of the film images, he sampled short sequences and recomposed them to a puzzle-like, virtual 3D-space. Titled “babao suipian” (mixed snippets), his looped collage of moving images made the filmic gaze directed at the potentates on their thrones itself its subject.
In conclusion, the exhibition “Game of Thrones” made strikingly evident, how experimental artistic formats can enrich the presentation of a distinguished collection object, not only formally but also with regards to content. This way the exhibition provided seminal research, in theory and practice, for the conceptualization of the new design for the future throne room at the Humboldt-Forum, which will be designed by the architect Wang Shu.
Angela Rosenberg is an art historian, curator, and writer. A central theme of her work is the structuring of collections and the possibilities for interdisciplinary exhibition projects. She has been publishing regularly for museums, collections, and magazines on contemporary art, in particular the Berlin art scene, since 2000.
In addition, the documentation compiled by Angela Rosenberg for the project “Game of Thrones” as well as the symposium “Remembering as a Constructive Act,” can be downloaded here as PDF. The online publication is also recorded in the German National Library catalog (URN: urn:nbn:de:101:1-201403172737).