Entombed Terracotta Warriors and the Janus Face of Modernity

Melissa Liu


This paper opens the question of modernity and its dynamic relationship with its counterpart, tradition. Drawing ideas and inspiration from The First Emperor, China’s Entombed Warriors exhibition from the Art Gallery of NSW as well as ‘modern’ Western society, the paper aims to critically examine the impact of modernity in a cultural, political and economical landscape. The installation acts as an analogy between the modernisation process in the Qin dynasty and that similar contemporary drive in our Western capitalist society. For the most part, the installation serves to recount and revisit artifacts from the past but at the same time it structurally represents a construction of the present.

The question of modernity manifests in two distinct ways: as an uplifting development and progression or as a tool for weakening tradition. The article delves into the ways modernity is a form of emancipation inducing the idea of a “new beginning.” Yet, it also acknowledges the view that modernity is an apparatus used to ‘disintegrate’ tradition. The paper proposes a third limb, that is, the ideas of tradition and modernity are inextricably linked. Whilst tradition may be continually losing recognition and practice in the public sphere, it still continues in the private sphere. Moreover, the space of the “everyday” shows the ways tradition is consistently reshaped and appropriated according to our changing values. By exploring an array of modernist critics and conservative philosophers’ understanding of this dynamic relationship between modernity and tradition, it will allow us to better comprehend the present moment we live in.

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