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Archive for the ‘Through Shen-Kan: Sterling Clark in China’ Category

By Tad Bennicoff (Assistant Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives.)
This post originally appeared in “The Bigger Picture,” the official blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and is excerpted on this site.

Similar to a good book, a photograph tells a story; moreover, a photograph forever captures a particular moment in time, and conveys that moment to all who view it.

The Arthur de Carle Sowerby Papers, 1904-1954 and undated, include stunning photographs taken by Sowerby during his career as a naturalist, explorer, artist, and editor. The son of a British missionary to China, Arthur de Carle Sowerby (8 July 1885-16 August 1954) was born in Tai-yuan Fu, Shansi province. In 1908, Sowerby was invited by Robert Stirling Clark, (adventurer, art collector, and heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune) to serve as naturalist during Clark’s 1908 scientific expedition into Shansi and Kansu provinces of north China.

The expedition, which lasted more than a year and produced the first known map of the region, is recounted in Through Shên-kan : The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908-9, by Robert Sterling Clark and Arthur de C. Sowerby, ed. by Major C. H. Chepmell. This volume may be reviewed online through the digital collections of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The images from the Clark Expedition include landscapes, staged portraits, and impromptu local scenes. It is the latter which I find most intriguing, as such images document the people of a particular area merely going about their lives. There is, for instance, an image of a man spinning silk, perhaps his occupation, perhaps a hobby.

Spinning silk at Sanyuan, Shaanxi, by Arthur de Carle Sowerby, Record Unit 7263, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #2008-3003

One of my personal favorites is an image of men pulling rickshaws through the streets in what appears to be a competitive manner.

Chinese men pulling rickshaws down the street, by Arthur de Carle Sowerby, Record Unit 7263, Smithsonian Institution Archive, Image # 2008-2938

There is also an image of a street food vendor, a common site evident in many towns and cities still, and a testament that although many years may pass, some things remain unchanged.

The introduction of the digital camera and its incorporation into smart phones, tablets, and laptops permit us to freeze time almost without thought. Such technology is remarkable, as it permits us to click away without the limit of numbered frames on a roll of film. Our digital devices are, in most cases, lightweight, discreet, and require little in the way of formal training to operate; simply point and shoot. I wonder what future generations will think of our moments, frozen, somewhere, on a cloud.

One final item of note, in 2009, Li Ju, a Chinese freelance photographer, retraced the path of the Clark Expedition to mark its centennial. Using original images from the expedition as a guide, Li Ju digitally photographed many of the sites visited by Clark and Sowerby in 1908-1909. The resulting images may be viewed in Through Shen-Kan: Revisiting Loess Plateau, China Intercontinental Press, 2012, a truly beautiful book in which original images from the Clark Expedition are displayed adjacent to the modern images Li Ju captured during his journey. These contrasting images are striking, for they show the changes that have occurred across a century, as well as the resilience of the landscape and the people who inhabit the region. The volume serves as an intriguing view into the past, through modern eyes.

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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.

View of the Clark’s original 1955 building from the lily pond.

Our galleries, however, conjure up visions of a completely different landscape.

Ruin with horse and rider in foreground, possibly Clark expedition member Arthur de Carle Sowerby, summer 1909 (Smithsonian Institution Archives, image #2008-3086)

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).

Zhenmushou (Tomb Guardian Beast), Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Lingtai County Museum, Pingliang.

Members of the Clark expedition at Yulin, Shaanxi province, December 1908 (from left to right: Sowerby, Clark, Cobb, Grant, Douglas) (Smithsonian Institution Archives, image #2008-3140

Ten Thousand Buddhas caves, Yan’an, Shaanxi province, January 2009 (top) and December 1908 (bottom) (2009 photo courtesy of Li Ju; 1908 photo Smithsonian Institution Archives, image #2008-3130)

(Learn more about each show—and the Clark expedition—from our special exhibition websites, accessed via clarkart.edu.)

Detail of Arthur de Carle Sowerby on horseback.

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.

Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908–9 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912)

Detail from the 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.

Mark Dion (American, b. 1961), Shên-kan Expedition Flag—Clark Expedition, 2012. Felt and grommets, 36 x 48 in. © Mark Dion Studio, courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Photo by Art Evans © 2012 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts and Mark Dion

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.

Mark Dion (American, b. 1961), Campfire—Clark Expedition, 2012. Papier-mâché, dimensions variable. © Mark Dion Studio, courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Photo by Art Evans © 2012 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts and Mark Dion

Mark Dion (American, b. 1961), Provisions and Equipment—Clark Expedition (rear left) and Equipment—Clark Expedition (on table), 2012. Papier-mâché, dimensions variable. © Mark Dion Studio, courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Photo by Art Evans © 2012 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts and Mark Dion

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!

Surveying equipment from the expedition (including a scale and weights, survey’s transit and tripod, precision stopwatches, measuring tape, trunks, and a level rod), displayed at Stone Hill Center, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., summer 2012. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., photo by Michael Agee.

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