Treasures of Dai Gum San at Bendigo Art Gallery showcase traditional Chinese art

While many visitors to Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum over the years will have been delighted by its large collection of Chinese artifacts and costumes, there’s nothing quite like seeing these treasures – literally – in a new light.

Treasures of Dai Gum San transports a selection from the museum’s collection, chosen from over 30,000 objects amassed since the 1880s, to the nearby Bendigo Art Gallery.

There, in an artist’s space, the objects were set up and lit to their best advantage, opened to see the many layers of craftsmanship and symbolism of Chinese tradition.

For the general director of the museum, Hugo Leschen, this is a special opportunity which he hopes will be seized by all.

This image shows a man dressed in a Cantonese opera-style military costume.(Provided: Golden Dragon Museum)

“It’s great to see space, because at the Golden Dragon Museum it’s very tight…the curators have done a great job of selecting and researching the objects to really make them stand out,” he said. declared.

“We show [the objects] from a social history perspective, but here we have some of the same objects in a completely different context…looking at them as works of art.”

It is in this new light and context that the exhibition’s research curator, Sophie Couchman, has discovered new and wonderful moments in the pieces she and gallery curator Clare Needham have chosen for their unique processes of artistic creation.

Back view of a child-sized tunic in silk, gold thread, brass, glass, rabbit fur and hand-cut mirrors.
Child’s warrior costume made with rabbit fur, hand-cut mirrors and an embroidered bat image.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

“The thing about these objects is that they’re designed to be showy, they’re designed to be on parade or on stage, to be seen from afar…by seeing them again and up close, you can really dig in and look at that detail,” Dr. Couchman said.

“This material is very important globally, as there are very few collections that have material from this age that has survived, and certainly on the scale of the Golden Dragon Museum.

“Every time I look at these pieces, I see something else…and [each symbol or design] has meaning and together they mean things together.”

Dr Sophie Couchman standing next to a hand carved white jade ornament at the Bendigo Art Gallery.
Research curator Sophie Couchman.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

From a carved white jade ornament on a wooden stand, Dr. Couchman points out that in this new lighting and gallery space, hues of green can be seen for the first time.

It has intricately hand-carved spring flowers and pine rats (squirrels) sitting in a pine tree next to a bunch of grapes and possibly a peach, all of which signify longevity.

“So you have this reinforcement of all this symbolism.”

A white jade ornament with green highlights, with flowers, grapes and squirrels sculpted in the mass.
This hand carved white jade ornament features Chinese symbols of longevity.(Provided: Bendigo Art Gallery)

Dr. Couchman also became fascinated with the processes of the artists and makers behind the objects, the mastery required to understand the materials used, and the traditions of Chinese cultural and artistic expression.

A series of Chinese opera headdresses in the exhibition are a prime example.

“These are modeled after Cantonese opera headdresses, but would have been worn as part of [Bendigo’s] Easter Parade,” Dr Couchman said.

“We don’t think they were used for opera performances, but we know there were opera troupes that toured Australia during the gold rush, and we do know that the local Chinese staged opera performances.”

For gallery curator Clare Needham, bringing museum objects into the gallery and installing them specifically as objects of art and design, “allows them to sing”.

A short jacket in golden orange silk and embellished.
This Qing dynasty jacket is made of silk, gold thread, brass buttons and hessian lining.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

Next to the main room dedicated to textiles, a space is reserved for examples of Chinese cloisonné, an ancient technique of decorating metalwork with colored materials (enamel, precious stones, colored glass) held in place or separated by bands or metal wires.

There are two large blue Jingtai guardian lions wearing crane and lotus flower patterned saddles in copper, bronze and enamel, with an epic tripod-shaped urn supported by three cranes standing on the “Mountain of Immortals” as a base. .

A blue, embellished urn, larger than an adult human, supported by three standing cranes (birds) on a wooden base.
A large partitioned urn supported by three standing cranes.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

But it is a simple and ornate, internally lit octagonal lantern that brings the intricate and colorful art to life.

“It’s a very long process; it would have taken months and months to do, with an amazing result at the end,” Ms Needham said.

She said it was difficult to choose which objects to showcase from the museum’s collection in this exhibit.

“We had a very large spreadsheet with many tabs, but wanted to look at the collection from the art-making process and the embellishment processes.

“[We] chose areas that had many fine examples of that particular tradition and then refined those elements.”

A woman standing next to a display containing six small vases in various stages of the cloisonné technique.
Curator Clare Needham with a set of cloisonné samples.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

Curators want visitors to look for the symbols and patterns in the designs of these pieces, but also reflect on the layers of craftsmanship and tradition that went into their creation.

“Each piece has so many layers, so there’s obviously the story of how the piece came about, how it also came about in Bendigo… layers and layers of symbolism in each of the works, artistry amazing in the way they are made,” Ms Needham said.

“Just think of the incredible attention to detail and precision, rigor and time that goes into crafting these pieces, which make them absolute treasures.”

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