This Is What Happens When The Terra-Cotta Warriors Meet Pop Culture


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The Terra-cotta warriors are one of the most famous archaeological discoveries of modern times. In 1974, a group of workers digging a well in the Chinese city of Xi'an stumbled upon thousands of these life-sized soldiers built to protect the tomb of China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang about 2,000 years ago. Since then, the discovery has been seen by millions of people around the globe in various exhibitions and has become an iconic piece of world history.

Though these statues may be ancient, that doesn't mean they can't be used to give a fresh perspective on contemporary political issues. That's just what San Francisco-based provocateur Lizabeth Eva Rossof did when she created her Xi'an-American Warriors collection, which takes the famous clay, militaristic bodies of the warriors but replaces their heads with more contemporary figures that might be even easier to recognize: Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, Batman, Spider-Man and Shrek. You may have heard of them.

Yes, Rossof's series is like a mash-up of Eastern and Western cultures, ancient times and new media. The collection originally debuted as part of her "Hey, China!" show at the Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles in 2010. The show explored the long tradition of replication in China through paintings by Chinese artists that replicated Associated Press photos banned in the country. The Xi'an-American Warriors are a commentary on how creative media from the United States is often replicated in some form in China.

"I think it's an interesting area of exploration and discussion, certainly, and how differently our countries, the U.S. versus China, view reproduction, replication and intellectual property and that they're so contrasted," Rossof said in a phone interview with T-Lounge. "At the same time, the views on freedom of information and freedom of access to information is also very different."

Though this might seem like pretty heavy stuff to some people, Rossof said her statues give a "playful commentary" on these issues. Similarly, the inspiration for the statues actually came from an August 2009 article from the famous satirical publication The Onion, which described an army of terra-cotta Mouseketeers unearthed beneath Disney World's Cinderella Castle. Soon, Rossof traveled to Xi'an and enlisted the help of a studio to create the statues before shipping them to the U.S.

"That was conceptually part of it. I wanted them to be of the same earth as the rest of the replicas," Rossof said. "The Xi'an Warriors themselves were replicas. They weren't unique pieces. They were churned out, many, many, many, many of the same piece."

The heads of the characters and their warrior bodies were actually created separately and then put together in various combinations. There are 225 different combinations in total.

The five characters represent many of the major media groups of today, which was Rossof's intention with her picks. You've got Mickey Mouse from Disney, Shrek from DreamWorks Animation, Bart Simpson from FOX, Spider-Man from Marvel and Batman from DC Comics. The original collection also included a Ronald McDonald statue, but it wasn't so easy to recognize the face, so he was later replaced by Spider-Man.

Of course, you always run the risk of having something lost in translation when it's produced in a foreign land. That's exactly what happened to some of Rossof's statues, such as a candle holder-like hole included on the heads of the first Bart Simpson figures. But that's sort of the point of the pieces as well, to have them not look exactly like the characters but a little off.

Since the first showing of Rossof's Xi'an-American Warriors, she has continued to make more statues in China. The statues have recently gotten some buzz on the Internet, thanks to an article by Rossof's friend David Pescovitz on BoingBoing and an Instagram post by designer Todd Oldham. They're also available for purchase on Rossof's website. Just think, you could form your own little army of pop culture warriors to protect you from the dangers of boredom.

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