Research / Blogs

Archiving Architectures [On Zhang Huan's "Semele", Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Angkor]


The production of Handel's "Semele", directed by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan (and recently presented at the BAM), became an inspiring starting point for a paper I wrote for the session "Eco Art Histories" organized by Hannah Baader and Gerhard Wolf at the Renaissance Society of America (Berlin, March, 28, 2015). Huan's experiments on monuments, space and time prompted me to return to some pages of the Early Modern Iberian archive devoted to architecture, with a new perspective. Bartolomé de Las Casas's chapters on the temples of the Ancient and New Worlds, and the Iberian texts written in the 16th and 17th centuries on the discovering of the Cambodian city of Angkor are discussed here in dialogue with Zhang Huan's "Semele".

[excerpt from the paper]

“In March 2015, the Brooklyn Academy of Music of New York (BAM) presented an impressive production of George Friedrich Handel’s Semele. The Baroque opera based on Ovid’s version of the Greek myth was staged inside, around and above a Ming Dynasty temple. But the Chinese shrine was not a fake. The artist Zhang Huan, who had been invited to direct the opera, had disassembled an original Buddhist family temple, piece by piece, and transported it from the region of Quzhou, west of Shanghai. A video, played at the beginning of the opera, retells the story of the ancient building, transformed during the Chinese Revolution into a rural storage. The video shows how meticulously the shrine was dismounted and rebuilt in the artist’s studio. The monument was given a new life and will travel the world with Semele. But to do so, each piece of the building had to be archived, transported, cleaned; the posters of the Chinese revolution had to be unpinned from the walls; recent history had to be erased so the temple could be reverted into its supposedly original structure. Only in this way, it could eventually become a new container –of Greek and Roman mythology, of Baroque opera …

A broader discussion of Zhang Huan’s oeuvre could perfectly fit in this panel: his creative reflections on how to transform and (re) inhabit space and monument are extremely stimulating to think in terms of “eco art history”. Let’s just recall the heads of the Buddha that the Chinese artist installs in the most unexpected territories, like this Long Island Buddha that seems to have rather fallen as an Asian meteorite, or naturally grown on the American soil.

Or let’s recall the intriguing series of the performance entitled My Rome. Here, Zhang Huan nestled in myriad ways several iconic Classic sculptures of the Musei Capitolini, achieving a sort of poetic coherence between forms, gestures, and situations distant in time and space. In this case, he did the opposite than in Semele: instead of using a Buddhist shrine to stage a Greek myth, here Roman or Greek sculpture became the perfect stage for Buddhist meditation. But, ultimately, the procedure is the same.

It would be tempting to devote a paper on Zhang Huan’s “eco art history”… But, for this Renaissance gathering, his contemporary perspective can also help thinking about Early modern experiences of monuments, spaces and architectures.

The story of the Ming Dynasty temple disassembled, transported, and rebuilt to stage Handel’s Semele exemplifies quite well what I mean by “Archiving Architectures”. Zhang Huan did not only reuse the Chinese temple to perform a Buddhist ceremony. He transformed it into the shrine of both a Greek myth and a Baroque opera, reenacting the architecture. He reinhabited it. This procedure is quite similar to what happened, in the Early Modern times when a variety of authors described in highly dynamic ways the myriad constructions they were encountering in the process of the Iberian expansion. The process or archiving these spaces was closely tied to (literary) reenactments of the buildings, paired, connected, contrasted, with situations in principle far in time and space. In this process, they acquired a double status: they entered in a dynamic relationship with canonic buildings of Old World “antiquity” (Memphis, Rome, Athens), and they were considered as totally “modern” —their originality could say something to the contemporary world. […]“ [paper continues]

The ideas presented in this paper are further developed in my book A New Antiquity. Theories of the Art and Iberian Expansion (1400-1600) (in progress).

Last Updated 3 years ago


Alessandra Russo, « Archiving Architectures [On Zhang Huan's "Semele", Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Angkor] », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on March 28, 2015. Full URL for this article

Join the conversation