Since 2018, Zhang Beichen has been investigating the history of the circulation of Chinese artefacts in American museums and initiated a project named 11,565 kilometres Project. Presented as an “imagined artefact exhibition”, the project is a visual archive built upon the medium of photography, artefact-origin tracing, artefact reproduction, image collection, and historical scholarship research.
11,565 kilometres Project tracks the path of an artefact (Object#40-35-4) from the Shandong province in China to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in USA. This project highlights issues related to the circulation of Chinese artefacts and the complexity of Chinese colonial histories. It delineates the migration of a Han dynasty coffin fragment, its colonial background, and the power dynamics within American institutional museum collections.
This project now includes: an essay film, a 3D-print sculpture, a photography book and a photography installation (soil, rocks, photos), a specific site exhibition. This project seeks to maintain that, as carriers of history, many artefacts that are removed from their place of origin are re-incorporated into museum collections across different cultural systems. Undergone the process of textualisation, the historical narratives residing in artefacts are institutionalised and obscured by “inauthenticity”.
As participants of history, artists can prompt the creation of new historical narratives; the investigation through photography attempts to reconstruct artefacts’ original contexts and uncover those veiled histories; the making of artefact’s specimens and archives employ material information to confront with the muted historical narrative beyond textualisation. The “imagined artefact exhibition” constructed upon the image and archive enumerated above can form new sites that interrogate the power dynamics of museum space and the cultural structures embedded within the institutional narratives of artifactual histories.