It’s grotesque. A sneering, snarling, stupid face with an upturned, piggish nose and a tongue waggling out between pointlessly swollen fangs.
People brush past it as they head to see “American Gothic,” “Nighthawks,” “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Picasso, Manet, Monet, the gift shop, the rest room, the Modern Wing film installation where the clown just screams.
The little sad ogre-faced brick is tucked in a corner by the elevator, passed and ignored by the milling Art Institute of Chicago crowds.
One thousand two hundred thirty-three years ago – give or take a century – in the south foot of Qingliang Mountain in the Taihang Mountain Range 35 kilometers to the northwest of Anyang County, Henan Province, China, sandy clay was dug.
The clay was mixed with water and left to “mature” overnight. It was put into an ogre-faced mold and worked, kneaded, perhaps by foot. It was fired in reduction, meaning in a kiln without enough oxygen to consume the fuel. To overcome, the flame pulled oxygen molecules from the clay itself, hardening it and baking its color to dusty gray.
The ogre was then treated with pigment to join the walls of the Red Pagoda.
The Xiudingsi Pagoda was built either between 627 and 649 under Emperor Taizong or between 781 and 794 under Taizong’s great-great-great-great-grandson Emperor Dazong.
It was a 20-meter box, an architectural oddity for a pagoda, a single-story cube instead of a sloping tiered tower. It was covered with molded bricks, all dyed red. Our ogre was one of the 72 or 76 different patterns, depending on who you listen to. Sources vary.
Diamonds, squares, pentacles, rhombuses lined geometrically to cover the space. Lions, elephants, geese, dragons, tigers, heavenly kings and guards, Taoist masters, knights, Buddha’s warrior attendants, handmaidens, Flying Apsaras, treasured elephant, strong lion, heavenly horse, boa, flower, colorful ribbon.
In total, the ogre was one of 3,442 tiles covering the Red Pagoda walls.
Or more than 5,000.
The original temple that would house the pagoda was built in 494 and destroyed in anti-Buddhist campaigns in 567. It would be rebuilt, expanded, expanded again and then expanded, going through the names Tiancheng Temple, Heshui Temple and finally Xiuding Temple.
The temple was destroyed sometime toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, which went until 1912. The pagoda was all that remained.
The little placard next to the ogre on the Art Institute wall says “In the early 20th century, the temple’s isolated site lay abandoned, and decorative bricks like this one entered private and museum collections with no evidence of their architectural context or function.”
The authorized Chinese government site says “Before Liberation in 1949 the sculptured bricks on the pagoda were repeatedly stolen by imperialists and antique dealers.”
In 1973, Chinese archeologists restored the crumbling, rural pagoda. The No. 5 bus from Anyang City can take you there for five yuan. That’s about 82 cents.
Along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill., a sneering, snarling stupid face hangs on a wall, a guardian demon screaming for someone, anyone to hear its story.
There are 300,000 pieces in the Art Institute of Chicago collection. One of them is a lonely little brick tucked over by the elevator.