06/07/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Made in China: The Sublime Terracotta Warriors Visit New York City

I went into the new Terracotta Warrior exhibit at Discovery Times Square with some curious ambivalence. Six feet clay warriors, fully intact, meticulously crafted, with weapons, all preserved for over 2000 years -- where could the ambivalence possibly creep in? Like most things in my life, I blame it on books. Annie Dillard, America's treasured explorer of spiritual cartography, in her gnomic For The Time Being, explores eternal spiritual issues through a random string of sources: a book of infant deformities, the mystic stories of Hasidic masters, the fascinating life of theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and for our purposes, the revelation of seeing thousands of "human bodies coming out of the earth." Dillard not only stands in sublime awe at the mere sight of such a historical treasure, but sees specific meaning in the chaos of an unfinished dig in which, "From the trench walls emerge an elbow here, a leg and foot there, a head a neck... Everywhere the bodies, the clay people, come crawling from the deep ground." For her, in a book in which she explores human frailty like no other writer of our time, the broken arms, the split bodies, the holes in the heads speak more than the complete warriors standing ready for heavenly battle. Consequently, Dillard pronounces this uplifting, yet prohibitive statement:

There is at least this one extraordinary distinction of our generation: For it is in our lifetimes alone that people can witness the unearthing of the deep-dwelling army of Emperor Qin -- the seven thousand or the ten thousand soldiers, their real crossbows and swords, their horse and chariots. (The golden smithies of the emperor!) Seeing the open pits in the open air, among farms, is the wonder, and seeing the bodies twist free from the soil. The sight of a cleaned clay soldier upright in a museum case is unremarkable, and this is all the future generations will see. No one will display those men crushed beyond repair; no one will display their loose parts; no one will display them crawling from the walls. Future generations will miss the crucial sight of ourselves, as rammed earth.

Of course, she captures the beauty of the singular privileged experience of seeing the actual excavation. Her formulation of "ourselves as rammed earth" -- pithy, heartbreaking, cuts to the core of her main question: How do we reconcile the warring parts of ourselves, the eroding physicality and the soaring spirituality. How can we breathe as both animals and angels, how can we live with deformity but still feel awe at beauty? Dillard rarely provides answers, just prompts for thoughts, and though I cherish her description of her experience in China, I respectfully disagree with her statement that seeing one of these fearsome, sublime pieces of art in a museum is, "unremarkable." What we lose in rawness, we make up for in perfection. Seeing a fully intact warrior in perfect lighting on a cement block might not remind me of the dumb physicality of humanity, but it elicits a whole host of other fascinating feelings and ideas.

Though nothing like seeing the whole army of close to 8,000 soldiers, with horses, weapons excavated, seeing even one of these masterpieces from 2,000 years ago engenders a strange sense of the sublime. Generally, early aesthetic theorists posited that the sublime arose from an encounter with natural beauty, not man made beauty. The sublime represented an encounter with a force larger than ourselves, therefore, beauty created by other humans could not elicit the humbling feelings of the sublime. I tend to agree, but where does the heaviness of history fall into these categories? If someone today recreated these Terracotta warriors we would think of them as clever carbon copies, but not much more. So much of the experience of these sculptures arise from the context: A whole army of warriors created to fight for their emperor, the first emperor of China, in the afterlife; buried, not found till 1974. The unfathomable historicity, the ability to look at a piece of art slaved over by some unknown craftsmen makes me feel wondrously small, like a speck of clay in the unending march of time. Not only can you see a remnant from one of the most powerful empires of all time, but we can see what no one in the past 2000 years could see. We see these warriors with new eyes, with the eyes of a child finding hidden treasure in their backyard.

History often gives us a hint of eternity in the relics that reach across the chasm of a barely understood past. That in and of itself, and the realization that I know nothing about a completely foreign thriving 2,000 year old society, instills in me a sense of the infinite. For all intents and purposes the Eastern world, its history, might as well be the history of an alien society that I just discovered this past week. I feel stupid, tiny, insignificant. In general, thinking of existence outside of New York baffles me, but a fully realized, thriving society of which I know nothing about, floors me.

On top of this, the immediacy of exhibit itself, again with apologies to Dillard, raises essential questions about art. Essentially, how do we understand the context of creation in evaluating and experiencing art. The 8,000 person army required, purportedly, over 700,000 workers and craftsmen. I doubt they received fair pay. The equivalent of millions of hours and billions of dollars went into this monumental project all to insure immortality for one single person, the often cruel emperor Qin. What does it say that we now enjoy the fruits of complete solipsism?

From a different perspective, we view these warriors as art and artifacts, but originally people saw them as a heavenly army, as infused with spiritual and religious meaning on the gateway to immortality. How do we bridge this gap between our perception and the original intent of the art? Does it matter? Intuitively, we think it does, but cannot always articulate an explanation. Part of the beauty of these warriors stems from their purpose as immortal protectors, not as simple sculptures. Their initial purpose imbued them with a sense of transcendence that regular sculptures do not normally attain. We feel a glimpse of this transcendence, but given our secular society we chuckle at the lengths a simple body of flesh will go for preservation.

In that sense, I don't think the ultimate issue with the Terracotta warriors lies in the inevitable placement in some plastic moveable museum tomb. Rather, I think the Terracotta warriors, a must see for anything interested in humanity, forces us to confront our ostensible sense of progress. Ancient art draws us in, not only for its inherent artistic nature, but because, within all of us we harbor the strange intuition that humans from long ago represent third cousins, in terms of ability or nuance, at best. However, when we encounter mystifying art from the ancient world, for a moment we question ourselves and our singularity, for a moment we feel caught up the sense of one humanity, for all time. We laugh at the pretensions to immortality, but do we truly lead different lives, do we not all strive for the immortal whether in the form of our progeny, our art, or our names plastered across a building? Of course, no one can really answer these questions, but to feel them with such urgency represents a triumph of art. Though a poor substitute for the actual excavation site in China, I doubt many of us can easily go to China. Therefore, go see these true treasures while you can.