The museum cannot offer accurate answers to the artifact, you may need a  documentary

The museum cannot offer accurate answers to the artifact, you may need a  documentary

(Original Chinese/ Translation English)



“Standing on the field, it’s 6: 20 p.m.; on the other side of the world, the Pennsylvania Museum is about to start a new day’s exhibition in four hours; British antique dealers seem to have just poured out their coffee and turned on their computers to read the day’s delivery messages; the Japanese Chamber of Commerce has finished a day’s work and sent off the last batch of guests. When this cultural relic walked through 11,565km, the exhibition label spoke instead of it, what happened to the cultural relic. ”


It is very possible that standing in front of a cultural relic thousands of years away from us, carefully speculate and understand the official sign posted in the corner, perhaps some of the contents are vague or erased, then what is its original truth?


Independent director and photographer Zhang Beichen tries to reconstruct the flow and transfer of a cultural relic from Shandong Province (China) to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (USA) in his “11565 Kilometer” project. It depicts the long-term migration of Han Dynasty tomb fragments called Object#40-35-4 from China, its historical and colonial background and the power dynamics of American museum institutions.


His work won the best documentary short film award at the Asian Film Festival in 2019 and was shortlisted for the 37th Miami Independent Film Festival, the 15th Spanish Galicia International Anthropological Film Festival and the 5th Czech Prague Independent Film Festival.


01 Uncertainty of museum labels


Zhang Beichen’s work “11565 Kilometer” comes from a casual visit.


[Picture: “Objective # 40-35-4, 206-220, Han Dynasty, Tomb fragments, Shandong Peninsula, purchased from Yamanaka Company in 1955.”]


The blue sign caught his attention in front of the “coffin fragments” in the Asian Exhibition Hall of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

The regional environment and historical background of the cultural relics outlined by the textual narration of the museum have a certain sense of time and space dislocation and distance from Zhang Beichen’s life experience who grew up in Shandong. This secret and interesting connection drove him to investigate the unknown history of this cultural relic. “In the course of the investigation, the search for its hometown 11565 kilometers away is also a process for me to re-establish my understanding of my hometown.”


Through a conversation with the curators of the museum, Zhang Beichen further thought about the dynamics of power behind the cultural relics. “From my personal point of view, not the museum, its label may not be accurate.” the curator said. This made Zhang Beichen realize that there were many limitations in the description of the organization and the form of collecting and accepting cultural relics.


“To some extent, the goal of early American museums was to put cultural relics from all over the world in one building, which was their vision and blueprint for great museums. The institution also influenced and controlled the audience’s right to understand the ‘cultural relics’ itself.

For a long time, our understanding of the cultural form and art form of an area in the museum is based on an official explanation given by the museum.” Zhang Beichen added.


02 Personal narrative cultural relics exhibition


For 17 months, starting in June 2018, Zhang Beichen traced his way back from the Philadelphia Museum to villages on the east coast of China, rearranging the migration and circulation of cultural relics. Through fieldwork, reproduction of cultural relics, study of historical texts and criticism of museum institutions and other dimensions, he completed the excavation and image transcription of an unknown story of a cultural relic.


The “11565 Kilometer” art project consists of a 31-minute prose film, which is also a biographical documentary with a large number of fixed shots, showing many details at a slow pace and creating a sense of vision witnessed on the spot. Viewers can’t help thinking of the hidden history behind it.


[Picture: Screenshot of “11,565 Kilometers”]


[Picture: Screenshot of “11,565 Kilometers”]


Along the Shandong Peninsula from the coastline to the inland, the film can still see the contrast and connection between the historical landscape and the real scene. Those ports, docks, rivers, squares, fishing villages, cultural relics markets, archaeological sites. To and fro tower crane containers, shrewd cultural relics merchants, silent Jiaoji railway and so on are actively or passively involved in the transfer of cultural relics.


Zhang Beichen regards the exploration of complex and secret historical images as a process of shaping his personal view of history. “In the 11565 Project, I prefer to create a rich space (including the landscape and the intricate historical clues behind it).” he said. “I prefer to present one for continuous thinking. Replace myself and the audience into that time and space.”


[Picture: Exhibition Site of “11,565 Kilometers”]


The work is not limited to a single medium. Zhang Beichen also made a set of photographic installations for this purpose. He collected precious images from 1890 to World War I, as well as related objects of historical sites, to analyze and re-sort the clues of historical sites, and to reshape them by modeling, so as to have a more intuitive understanding of the path and background of the circulation of cultural relics.


[Picture: Photographic installation “11,565 Kilometers”]


[Picture: Photographic installation “11,565 Kilometers”]


In addition, it includes a 3D printed sample of cultural relics, a photography book and an exhibition in a special field (a fictional museum context).


[Picture: 3D printing sample “11,565 Kilometers”]


“The same cultural relic will certainly be presented, perceived and affected in different ways in different environments.” Zhang Beichen transformed the story completely into the museum space, making it an exhibition of cultural relics with narration rather than institutional narration.


In order to create a contrast effect and let the audience feel the possible dangers of this kind of museum institutional narration, Zhang Beichen also borrowed a cabinet for real museums to display cultural relics from gallery in Baltimore. Zhang Beichen explained, “When I use this cabinet, I give my investigation notes or objects a kind of ‘light charm’ to make it more appropriate to the means used in museum institutions, and then achieve the ‘cultural relic exhibition’ of my personal narrative.”


03 Exploration of diversified media


Time and space, history and events have always been the creative clues of Zhang Beichen. He is good at constructing a metaphorical and poetic visual experience through personal narrative, based on image narrative structure and historical investigation.


For example, the film traces back to the past of cultural relics and clarifies its path, while the text annotated by Zhang Beichen alone is like an investigation note, leading the viewer into his personal perspective and helping the audience to construct the imagination of a path to make up for some lack of translation in the official interpretation.

Archaeology, anthropology, history, art and other interdisciplinary research, audio, installation, photography, books and other media exploration, make his artistic expression have more possibilities.


At first, Zhang Beichen tried to build a personal perspective file for cultural relics. According to the collected text materials, he used sound to create a story, and successively produced sound works from the perspective of curators and a Chinese archaeologist. However, he is not satisfied with this and does not want to confine it to the history of an object, but to interpret it from a broader perspective. Understand the transshipment story behind it, investigate the origin of the chamber of commerce of Japanese antique dealer Teijiro Yamanaka, sort out the research materials on the colonial history of Germany and Japan in Shandong, collect precious images before World War I, consult archaeologists to sort out the search route, etc., finally he tried to clarify the possible circulation path of the relic before it was auctioned by the Yamanaka Chamber of Commerce to the museum during World War II, and worked out a shooting plan.

And have this prose movie.


To some extent, Zhang Beichen breaks the stereotyped distance between museums, gallery and us, and provides us with a new perspective outside the museum.


04 The reality and truth of the circulation of cultural relics.


When art creators give humanistic care to social practical problems, they can always play a role in different angles and at different levels, and there are a variety of ways to intervene in all kinds of communication and dialogue and play a role in the real world.


At present, China’s total number of outbound cultural relics is about 1.64 million, which are distributed in more than 200 museums in 47 countries. In the Harvard Art Museum, there are ducks in the Western Zhou Dynasty, statues of Buddha in the Northern Wei Dynasty, and murals in the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, while in the Minneapolis Art Museum, there are Niutou Jade Cow in the Xia and Shang dynasties, Jade Cottage in the warring States period, and three-color horses in the Tang Dynasty. Princeton University Art Museum has a collection of calligraphy works by Huang Tingjian, Mi Jian and Wang Xizhi.


The work “11565 Kilometer” shows the overseas circulation of Chinese cultural relics and the complexity of Chinese colonial historical archives under the background of colonial history at that time. It projects the issues of cultural relics circulation and cultural heritage protection to a wider public view from a more delicate perspective. In particular, the crackdown on cross-border cultural relics smuggling is making the circulation and smuggling of cultural relics more cover. at the same time, the lack of information in museums and cultural differences also make it difficult for some cultural relics to be described reasonably.  The ripples caused by a work may also promote some social changes to a certain extent.


After the solo exhibition of the work “11565 Kilometer” in the main building of the Maryland Institute of Art in 2019, it aroused a warm response and discussion from some American art historians. Sonja Kelly, an American art historian, spoke highly of it and believed that the protection of Asian artistic and cultural heritage is a very urgent global issue.


At the beginning of the year, Zhang Beichen was invited to participate in the SPE Video Festival in Houston, USA. (Social Photography Education association, focuses on social topics, mainly on world issues, environmental protection, refugee issues, cultural heritage protection and other related topics.), his works were specially shown and attracted attention from all walks of life.


In the near future, Zhang Beichen will also take part in the exhibition unit of the American Asian Studies Summit in March 2020 and the short film show of Towson Asian Culture and Art week in April, and exchange discussions with more Asian art historians and Asian cultural scholars.


Various voices from different occasions also brought more confidence and inspiration to Zhang Beichen. At present, Zhang Beichen is collating the oral history of early Chinese at the Museum of Chinese in America, and preparing for the next feature film, which will still focus on institutional, history and other related topics. In addition, Zhang Beichen’s first solo exhibition will soon open in New York Art Center. Under the intensive creative plan, it is impossible to hide the young artist’s clear track of constantly trying and breaking through the boundary.