The past two years, the Crow Collection of Asian Art has been slowly taking over the plaza around the Trammel Crow Center. That’s the 50-story-tall skyscraper in downtown Dallas. This October 5th, the plaza will officially open as the Crow Collection’s new Sculpture Garden. As the date approaches, KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, the garden is getting some mammoth artworks.
It’s Saturday, and Ross Avenue is partly blocked by trucks and a heavy construction crane crowded around the Trammell Crow Center. Giant sculptures are getting uncrated. In the West, people call these statues “foo dogs” or” temple dogs.” But in China, they’re called shi – meaning lions, not dogs. They’re the pair of fierce-looking stone beasts that traditionally guard doorways in China, and this pair makes for impressive guards. They’re white marble, twelve and half feet tall, each weighs 26 tons — and they’re not that traditional.
Qin Feng is the artist. He speaks through his daughter, Qin Qin: “In Eastern countries, like China, ancient China, lion means power, like wealth. And he decides to cut the lion in half, pretty much cut the power, the wealth, and put his painting on glass in middle.”
That’s right, the marble lions are split in half, vertically, from head to tail. The two halves will be separated by a six-foot wide pane of glass.
In the 1980s, Qin Feng became a leader in the Chinese avant-garde. He specializes in unconventional calligraphy. He mixes his Chinese writing with the bold, splattery effects of painters like Jackson Pollack.
“He’s trying to find a middle point between Western culture and Eastern culture,” Qin explains.
At the Crow, each glass pane will sport a big, abstract swoop that loosely suggests a Chinese character (see completed version below). One work will recall the character, zhong, for “Middle” — meaning China, the Middle Kingdom. The other will resemble mei or “Beauty” — for America, the “Beautiful Country.” Qin Feng calls these glass panes “landscapes” because viewers can see through them to the surrounding environment.
In other words, Qin Feng splits open a traditional symbol of power and inserts his own art in between, making it transparent. He lets viewers see through power, through the ancient lions, to the modern city around them. Perhaps it’s no surprise: Qin Feng has been in trouble with the Chinese government in the past. In 1996, he moved to Berlin. But Beijing has a more moderate government now, so these days, Qin Feng splits his time between Boston and China. Even so, he reports, a Chinese media company bought a pair of his lions. But then they seem to have reconsidered the sculpture’s possible implications. They have never put the work on display.
This morning, Trammell Crow Jr. watches the installation with Qin Feng and Qin Qin. With the crew working the construction crane, the lions fly through the air above us — for a moment. One by one, they’re lifted off the trucks, dangle over the trees and are finally settled on their bases. It takes a while to finagle and nudge the heavy stones into proper position; even Qin Feng wields a long carpenter’s level to see how vertical they are. The tolerances are very tight because each half-lion has a groove cut into its flat side, where the pane of glass must slide in and be held in place.
As is customary, the lions were originally going to flank the entrance of the skyscraper. But Crow says that didn’t work out: “We were so surprised that – they’re so big. They can’t go in front of the door. They’d just ruin the whole traffic flow. You’d have to walk around them. And that’s the kind of thing we found out after we bought it, you know?”
So a complicated solution had to be engineered, one that most people will never see. The sculptures stand on steel grids over what are actually the openings of the Crow Center’s massive air shafts. They provide ventilation for the six floors of underground parking that lie beneath the Sculpture Garden. At ground level, the shaft openings are low, wide granite platforms
Which means the entire Sculpture Garden — and these lions — aren’t built on solid ground. Underneath, it’s more or less hollow. And it certainly can’t support 26 tons. To explain what does support all that weight, Johnny Robertson, the Crow Collection’s special projects manager, heads to the very basement of the garage, six floors down, to the bottom of the ventilation shaft. Robertson opens a steel door in the cinder block wall and points to four girders that run all the way up to the glint of sunlight, seventy feet above us.
It seems improbably but the marble lions stand on these very tall stilts: “These four vertical beams support the entire weight of the sculpture,” Robertson says. “They come down a little over 70 feet. And this is the base of the ventilation shaft. This went to bedrock.”
Next week, the marble lions get their glass panes. Two weeks later, it’s the Crow Collection’s next massive project. The Enlightened One by Chinese artist Liu Yonggang is a steel sculpture — and it’s 18 feet tall.