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.