This web document hosts a conversation

A 2000 year old ceramic granary sits on display at the Art Institute of Chicago while its contemporary twin–a recent commission by the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park–placidly overlooks a 50 acre field on the outskirts of the city.

This site (underconstruction) hosts a conversation exploring the ecological linkages that inform these two objects, their histories, and the two sites they now inhabit.

Halfway to the Year 4000

Peterman 2/28/2011

The concept for the Granary project emerged from a decade long fascination with a small grouping of Han Dynasty burial ceramics in the Asian collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. They caught my attention one day, not just for the humble rural elegance that I've always admired in them, but as objects invested with ecological knowledge that in a surprising moment appeared legible to me. This small suite of ancient objects–a pigsty latrine, a small grain milling shed, a granary–spoke directly to my ecological concerns today: my garden; my interest in waste, nutrient, and energy cycles; my interest in food systems and food security; back-to-the-land desires that I'd been shoe-horning into a city of 8 million. As funerary objects, they reminded me of my mortality; they made me ponder what, if anything, I might want to take with me into the afterlife–or leave behind. But most riveting, was the recognition that these modest proposals from the Han Dynasty were offering me a new perspective on where to position myself across an enormous spectrum of time. They provoked the recognition that I was standing, and living my life, at a halfway point on the way to the year 4000. I continue to digest this discovery.

"Pigsty Latrine," wood frame construction modeled after Han dynasty original. Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY

Ceramic granary–Han dynasty.
Asian Art collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Granary (series)

The Granary (series) is a contemporary production of grain storage buildings modeled after ceramic granaries produced during the Han Dynasty in China (206BC–220AD). These Han ceramics known as mingqi were originally produced as funerary items intended for the dead to use in the afterlife. Mingqi translates roughly into "spirit objects". They depicted objects used in daily life like stoves, latrines, houses and agricultural buildings. Granaries figured prominently among them as they "guaranteed continued affluence for the deceased in the afterlife." 1

After two thousand years, a ceramic mingqi granary still resonates culturally as it points to contemporary food systems and questions of food security. We live at a time of increased ecological instability and severe challenges to our ability to sustainably feed a human population of nearly 7 billion. We also live in an age defined by our dependance on petroleum and at an historically significant moment of "peak oil", where diminishing discoveries of new petroleum sources, and severe consequences of excessive carbon emissions pressure us toward new technologies and new strategies for meeting basic needs. We are living in a compelling moment to contemplate our transition to post-petroleum living and a compelling moment to consider our strategies for feeding everyone who continues to show up at the dinner table.

The Han period is known for innovative modular ceramic production, this granary series however is made of post-consumer plastics. The color variation comes from the accidental mixing of plastics during re-manufacture. In addition, much of this plastic is twice recycled having been previously used in a public sculpture "ground cover," also by Peterman, that continues to function as an open-air public dancefloor in Chicago. Replaced plastic floor boards showing signs of excessive wear, many having been dance upon for 15 years, serve as primary material stock for granary production. This material, recognizable in many of Peterman's projects, is a petro-chemical marker of the peak oil moment we are living in and of our consumer habits. As with all plastics these granaries are capable of spanning centuries, and being unearthed, like ceramic, bronze and stone artifacts, thousands of years in future. Hopefully these granaries will carry with them some useful resonance between a long gone agrarian culture and our current ecological dilemma.

1)The mingqi Pottery buildings of Han Dynasty China 206 BC-AD 220, Quinghua Guo, Sussex Academic Press 2010.

Squatting Figures

It is common for pottery granaries, both cylindrical and box-like, to be raised. Some stand on stilts and others on feet in animal form, often bear. The bear motif plays a prominent part in Han artefacts. Probably because of the strength of the bear, the form was fashioned as support for various structures. There are comparable examples to the bear motif. Men also appear in Han pottery granaries, shaped in different postures. Figure 4.44 provides a close-up view of a sculptured squatting man as a foot for a granary of the Western Han 31. It seems that men appeared a bit earlier than bears in terms of Han mingqi.

The mingqi Pottery buildings of Han Dynasty China 206 BC-AD 220, Quinghua Guo, Sussex Academic Press 2010, p. 100