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An Artist Buried an Army of 'Terracotta Daughters' in China

A French artist protested China's one child policy with an army of terracotta girls. Now she's burying them until 2030.

In the midst of China's tranformative move to end the one child policy, French artist Prune Nourry has put an end to her three-year-long project fighting for the country's women's rights, Terracotta Daughters. In 2013, she created 108 replicas of real Chinese school girls in the style of the Terracotta Army. Throughout 2014 and 2015, these statues traveled the world, spreading their message of respect towards women along the way. Since then, they've returned to Xi'an for the penultimate stage of the project: their burial. For the next 15 years, Nourry's "children" will rest in as historically accurate a burial chamber as possible, which you can check out in the images throughout this article.

The location of what they're calling a "Contemporary Archeological Site" will remain a secret until they're exhumed in the year 2030. Leaving them alone in the dark for a decade and a half brings them one step closer to the level of authenticity Nourry developed with the help of master craftsman Xian Feng and sociologists Yang Xueyan and Li Shuzhuo. They even built the sculptures in Xi'an, the city famous for hosting the iconic Terracotta Army.

Nourry's work on The Terracotta Daughters was triggered by another project in an Eastern population giant, India. In 2010, she made a series of sculptures fusing the holy symbol of the cow and the downtrodden position women are perceived to have there, entitled Holy Daughters. Just as The Terracotta Daughters imbued girls with the status and respect ancient China bestowed upon warriors, Holy Daughters gave the female subjects spiritual power that still pervades in Indian culture.

The Terracotta Daughters, as the next iteration of Nourry's ideas in Holy Daughters, are grander in scale. The burial, which began October 6th and lasted until an Earth Ceremony on October 17th, was attended by ten guests. Most of them were either early supporters of the project, or actually worked on it, but three of the eight girls who modeled for the 108 statues were also in attendance. Adding a layer of austerity to the ceremony, these attendees recorded interviews about the project, which were stored on memory cards and embedded directly into the statues, to be unveiled along with the Daughters in 2030. Next year, Nourry will release feature-length film about the whole project edited by collaborator Anne Sophie Bion. Watch a teaser of the film below.

The Creators Project spoke to Prune Nourry about making The Terracotta Daughters a reality:

The Creators Project: Tell me about the moment you came up with the idea for The Terracotta Daughters.

Prune Nourry: I was back from India where I had done the projects Holy Daughters in Delhi and Holy River in Kolkata, working with the sociologist Ravinder Kaur. As India plus China are 1/3 of the world’s population, I knew I wanted to make my next project in China to work further on the gender imbalance issue. As the Sacred Cow I had worked on for the Indian projects, I was searching for a strong Chinese symbol that would speak to anyone, even in the deep Chinese countryside, but also to the diaspora. What’s best than an army of men to talk about these millions of missing girls?

And the moment when you first realized this idea was going to become a reality?

Ravinder Kaur told me about Chinese sociologists specialized into this subject, and by a strange coincidence, they were based in Xi’an, the same place that the Soldiers and that craftsmen specialized into copies. I took this as a sign and left right away for a research trip.

What were the most significant challenges you overcame in between these two realizations?

At first the craftsmen didn’t like my idea, as they were saying an army couldn’t be made of girls. Soldiers are men and that’s it. But along the months I worked there, they appropriated the project and now it’s theirs as much as mine. Like Wen Xian Feng, the main craftsman I worked with, said when the daughters left for a world tour: "It’s like my children went out to play." Then, finding a site to bury the army in mainland China for 15 years was quite a challenge. First, it’s a non-commercial project: the army is not meant to be sold, and I was searching for a place not rent but as a non-commercial exchange with a Chinese philanthropist. And then, 15 years sounds like 100 years in China, and land is quite another issue there.

How do you feel now that the project is complete?

It’s like the form of the eight, a Chinese lucky number I got based on for this project, was completed, but at the same time it symbolizes the infinite, and the project will continue with the excavation in many years from now.

Who are some of the artists who inspired you in this work? 

It’s mostly a place, Naoshima and Teshima Islands that inspired me to create a site specific monumental piece like the army. Then I got the main inspiration from the craftsmen from Qin Dynasty, 2000 years ago, who made the Terracotta Soldiers.

Do you have your eye on any up and coming artists? 

Mathilde Roussel (French), Takao Shiraishi (Japanese), and Damien Deroubaix (French).

What will you do next? What other projects do you have in the works? 

I’m working now on a long-feature to be released in 2016 about the Army’s creation and march around the globe, raising the gender preference issue from an art project point of view. Xian Feng, the craftsman, is the main character, and I’m working on it with a fiction editor, Anne-Sophie Bion who did The Artist with Michel Hazanavicius, and Casse Tete Chinois with Cedric Klapish.

See more of Prune Nourry's work on her website.

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