PHOTOGRAPHY IZABEL & HANS FONK, ZACHARY BAKO & PRUNE | TEXT HANS FONK

It’s a contemporary Xi’an army. The result of one year of working with Chinese craftsmen. Her female army was exhibited for the first time in the winter of 2013 in Shanghai. Prune Nourry is presenting her most recent project Terracotta Daughters to the rest of the world. Famous for numerous performances and exhibitions in Asia, Europe and the US, she showcases her socially-engaged work with 108 clay sculptures representing young Chinese girls. The first show outside China was in Paris. After its world tour, the Terracotta Daughters will return to China to be buried, then excavated in thirty years’ time.

Prune Nourry is a multi-disciplinary French artist whose work comprises sculptures, pictures and videos. Since she embarked on her studies she has always shown an interest in sociology, ethics and bioethics. Her particular focus is on human beings and procreation. Her work aims at highlighting the crucial problems of our society, as exemplified by the implications of science in child gender selection and the consequences of the techniques of procreation which lead to an artificial evolution of the population. With Spermbar, she created a bar at Central Park where the visitor could drink a cocktail composed from his own physical characteristics – for example, brown eyes would correspond to a nutty flavour.

With her previous work, Holy Daughters, Prune Nourry highlighted the selective abortions on female foetuses in India and raised the woman’s place in Indian society. The work process for each one of Prune’s projects always begins with a research trip during which she meets specialists on the societal subject of interest. At the University of Xi’an, the most eminent sociologists – notably Professor Li Shuzhuo – study the question of gender preference in China. Prune interviewed him in June 2012 during her first research trip for this new project. Li Shuzhuo initiated the Care for Girls government campaign aiming to ameliorate the condition of girls within Chinese families. Moreover, Xi’an is also the site of the Terracotta Warriors. Prune has chosen that familiar symbol as inspiration for her project. The artist acknowledges the beauty and cultural richness of the Chinese artifacts dating back to 210 BC.

The purpose of the army, which was discovered in March 1974 by farmers digging a well, was to protect China’s first emperor Qin Shi in the afterlife. The warriors are now a national treasure, exhibited all around the world, and registered as a UNESCO site. Estimated at more than 8,000 and measuring between 1.80 and 2 metres, every soldier is unique. Prune Nourry created her 108 characters inspired by the features of eight orphan girls she had met, aged between 10 and 13. Emulating the style and ancient techniques of the Terracotta Warriors, Prune collaborated with the local Xi’an artisans specialized in producing copies of the terracotta warriors, to create the Terracotta Daughters project. The clay used in the process is the same as was dug up over 2,000 years ago for the original warriors.

For this project, the artist learnt the local copyist’s technique based on the methods used in ancient times. Once her 8 original sculptures were completed and the moulds made, Prune gave the craftsmen a table of 108 combinations. Based on this document, they could interchange the moulds to create an army of 108 life-size Terracotta Daughters. Prune then proposed to one of the artisans, Xian Feng, that he interpret her work and become an artist himself. Xian Feng personalized each face individually to make each Terracotta Daughter unique – as had been done with the ancient soldiers, and he goes on to sign them. The army of daughters was first presented in Shanghai, at Magda Danysz gallery. The sculptures were displayed in a similar configuration to the archaeological site which served as their inspiration.

This exhibition is being followed by a show in Paris lasting from March to May 2014, as well as in Switzerland in June and North America from September to October. The army will go back to China in 2015 to be buried as a ‘contemporary archaeological site’ when the 108 Terracotta Daughters after 30 years will be excavated. In this work, Prune Nourry addresses the gender imbalance issue in China. She tries to show the complexity of historical and international preference for boys over girls. The work proceeds from the traditional Chinese moulding techniques of terracotta in the Xi’an region where the famous army comes from. She also highlights the beauty of ancient Chinese art and the cultural riches in a new presentation, in which heritage assumes critical importance. In this way, she demonstrates her sensibility towards a major issue, while also showing great respect for the origins of this civilisation.