By Sarah Hammond, Special Projects Assistant at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
The dog days of summer—all things considered, we don’t have it so bad here in the Berkshires. Sun-dappled hills roll beneath blue skies, yielding to brilliant stars once the cool evening closes in. A late-afternoon walk past the Clark’s lily pond is accompanied by a serenade of twittering birds and gulping frogs. It really doesn’t get much better.
Our galleries, however, conjure up visions of a completely different landscape.
This mural greets visitors in the introductory gallery of Unearthed, our special exhibition on view in the Manton Research Center. At the base of a craggy rise, a lone rider, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, slouches atop his pony. A white cloth is tucked under the brim of his hat to reflect the blazing sun. The overgrown ruins of a massive, stone tower loom over man and steed, dominating the rough, light-blasted terrain. In the distance, unfocused peaks rise through the haze into the stark sky. Heat seems to quiver over the scene and radiate into the gallery.
The photograph was taken in northwestern China, probably during the summer of 1909. The rider appears to be Arthur de Carle Sowerby, one member of a team of explorers led by our founder Sterling Clark across the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu. Our shows this summer transport visitors to this remote terrain, commemorating the Clark expedition and the centennial of Clark and Sowerby’s joint publication of Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908–9 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912).
Sowerby, no doubt sweaty, grimy, and exhausted, gamely poses for the camera. His posture is uncannily similar to that of the silhouetted miniature rider who enlivens the front cover of Through Shên-kan.
This same figure sits squarely in the center of the “official” Clark expedition flag designed by artist Mark Dion for his installation Phantoms of the Clark Expedition.
Meant to mimic the official flag of The Explorers Club in New York City—where the Phantoms installation, commissioned by the Clark, is installed—Dion’s monochrome pennant is the ghostly double of the Through Shên-kan cover and, perhaps, of the photo of Sowerby. For his project, Dion recreated the material remnants of the Clark expedition in papier-mâché; it is as though the artist has summoned these pale “phantoms” from the mists of time to haunt the halls of the Club.
These “sun-bleached bones of . . . expeditions past,” as Dion calls them, act as relics of the expedition, encouraging us to investigate and interrogate Sterling Clark’s reasons for organizing such an ambitious journey, and to consider the expedition’s lasting legacy.
During these dog days of summer, we can contemplate these burning questions—from the luxury of the Clark’s cool galleries!