October 06, 2006

Hey, isn't that Pablo Wendel?

A few weeks ago, German performance artist Pablo Wendel, clad in a tunic that looked like it was made of baked clay, hopped into the burial pit in emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum in Xian, China and stood silent and motionless beside a line of the site's famous terra cotta warriors.

This was a pretty audacious stunt, because the Chinese take their terra cotta warriors, buried with the emperor about 2,200 years ago and discovered in 1974 by a few farmers digging a well, very seriously. Xian, capital of China's Shaanxi province, is a city full of ancient sites that you can walk or climb on -- ancient brick structures like the old, wide city walls and the mustard-colored Yellow Goose Pagoda.

But you can't mess with the warriors. Pablo lasted a few minutes before Chinese police spotted him and pulled him out.

Security is tight at the emperor's mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there are eyes everywhere. I'm amazed that Pablo managed to make it into the building that covers the mausoleum, never mind into the actual pit. After all, he was dressed unconventionally, and I'd have thought his circa 246 BC military attire might have been a bit of a red flag.

Every visitor to the site is watched, and you feel the eyes on your back as you move along the railing that separates you from the platoons of soldiers and horses standing in the football field-size hole below you.

When Mike and I visited, no photography was allowed, which irked the die-hard photographers in the group we were traveling with. I felt cheated at having flown to the other side of the world to see one of the planet's foremost archaeological wonders and not being allowed to photograph it.

I channeled my anger and disappointment into an illicit act. As I circumambulated the pit, I intermittently rested my Nikon on the railing at a slight downward angle and clicked the shutter and cocked the advance, using fake coughing jags to mask the sounds. I hoped for the best as I worked my way around the site popping off these surreptitious shots.

The best would be to not only not get caught, but to also end up with one or two decent pictures of the warriors' ghost-eyed faces.

Alas, the best was not to be. I didn't get caught -- the air is so bad in China and bronchial conditions so prevalent that my coughing bursts aroused no suspicion. Everybody coughs in China. But I didn't get any good photos, either. I ended up with a dozen fuzzy, unfocused images of dirt, with an occasional discernible eye or nose or arm.

Russell Thompson, a wiry, 75-year-old, denim-clad New Yorker who was traveling with our group, was not content to take his chances and shoot from the hip, as it were. Russell, a professional photographer who shot in black and white, wanted perfect pictures, and he knew the only way to get them was to raise his camera to his eye, frame his subject, and slowly and deliberately coax his Nikon's manual focus and light settings to create the image he was after.

Russell cased the joint for the perfect warrior-horse grouping, and, once he found it, planted his feet slightly apart, brought his thousand-dollar precision instrument to his eye, worked its rings and settings, and clicked away. Within 20 seconds, three policemen were on him, two at each arm and one separating Russell from his Nikon. They took him away -- perhaps to the same room they took Pablo -- and we waited, killing time in the museum next to the mausoleum, for Russell to reappear. He rejoined us after an hour or so, having been relieved of the film that was inside his camera.

But the authorities gave him his camera back, and they let him keep the 20 rolls of Kodak pro-grade film in his backpack. Not wanting to risk another visit to the interrogation room -- now perhaps known as the Pablo Wendel Room -- Russell joined me at the souvenir tent, where I was busy photographing the miniature clay warrior knock-offs that filled the vendors' tables. Russell liked doing portraits, so while I shot the souvenirs, Russell was recording the faces of the souvenir sellers.

Want a life-size terra cotta warrior for your front lawn or living room? For two thousand bucks, The China Terra Cotta Warriors Company will ship you one, and they'll throw in a deck of terra cotta warrior playing cards as a special thank-you for your order.