U. of Chicago project brings life to ancient Chinese relics
Three wall-sized screens project a cave filled with sculptures of Buddha, bodhisattvas and other attendants at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago. With the slow shifting of the images, including some in three dimensions, a "digital cave" that measures in size and proportion to a limestone cave at China's Xiangtangshan Caves comes to life.
The exhibition "Echoes of the Past" opened at the Smart Museum in September 2010 and will end on January 16th, 2011. It presents more than a dozen original fragments of stone-carved sculptures from the Xiangtangshan Caves -- temples cut out of limestone mountain cliffs in the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th century. In addition, it shows sculptures and two rubbings of the sutras etched on the stone walls and digital imaging that provides contextual settings for the sculptures and sites, both in ancient times and today.
"This exhibition is the result of an eight-year research project and is an international collaboration, involving many scholars in the United States, Europe, and China," Richard Born, Senior Curator at the Museum, said in an exclusive interview with Xinhua.
Born explained the historical background of the Xiangtangshan Caves. They are located in today's Fengfeng Mining District, Hebei Province and are divided into two major parts. The southern and northern caves are 15 kilometers apart. Beginning in 1910, sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas from the caves were taken away by looters and sold at the world art market. Most of the sculptures that remain are without heads or hands. Chiseled-away fragments are scattered around the world, including museums in England, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and the United States.
"Our goal for the exhibition is to give people a sense of the greatness and aesthetic quality of the sculptures and the historic period from which they came," said Dr. Katherine Tsiang, Associate Director, Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago, and a leading scholar on Xiangtangshan Caves. "These sculptures are objects of worship, not as works of art displayed in museums. The digital imaging helps people to see them in their context." Tsiang called the 3-D imaging a "rendering" of what it is like in reality.
"We are very pleased to obtain permission from the Chinese State Culture and Relics Bureau to do digital scanning and worked closely with the Fengfeng Cultural Relics Conservation Center to get the work done," said Tsiang. "It's impossible to work on our project without their collaboration."
Both Western and Chinese scholars regard the Xiangtangshan sculptures as the greatest early Buddhist carvings in China. Tsiang has spent years working on the research and identified more than 100 objects in different parts of the world that are believed to have originated from Xiangtangshan. Photos of these objects were taken from all angles and were used in a 9-minute video, along with the contextual scanning of the caves and the black and white photos taken in the 1920s. Jason Salavon, an artist and faculty member at the University of Chicago, created the video of the "digital cave."
Born called the video "an immersive experience that uses multiple screens to give visitors a glimpse inside the temple at Xiangtangshan."
Another 4-minute video on display was created by Judy Hoffman, an award-winning photographer on the faculty of the University of Chicago. Her video presents today's life at Xiangtangshan Caves, with visitors and worshippers making their offerings at the Caves for children and blessings for their families. It links the ancient caves with their current settings.
In addition to the videos, a number of kiosks and computers at the exhibition allow visitors to explore the history and images of Xiangtangshan Caves and the sculptures. "I've noticed that people stay longer and remain quieter at the exhibition," Born said. "They watch the videos and examine the objects from all sides."
Nell and Jack, a middle-aged couple from Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, used a computer to study the sculptures after going through the exhibition.
"We read about the exhibition in the Chicago Tribune," Nell said to Xinhua. "It is indeed quite fascinating."
"We've never been to China. The digital imaging and interactive feature really gave us a good sense of the cave context and their significance," Jack added. The exhibition kindled their interest in China.
Among the objects on display are a meter-tall Buddha head from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, two bodhisattvas heads from the University of Pennsylvania, and two hands, one from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the other from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"These Buddhist sculptural fragments were in the same room for more than 1,300 years before they were removed from the cave temple after around 1910. For nearly one hundred years, these displaced stone carvings have since resided in four different museums located on two separate continents. For three months, while exhibited at the Smart Museum, they are shown together in the same space once again, in relationships that approximate their original pillar altar setting," Born said. "That's quite significant."
"At the end of the exhibition, we made models using the digital information (collected). Such information can be fed into 3-D printers, which can print out the heads (of the sculptures) in hollow plastics. The new technology has many possibilities in the future for archeological studies," Tsiang said.
It took more than three years to put the exhibition together. The exhibition is well received in the Chicago area and will soon go on a tour in the United States, including the Arthur M. Sachler Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, in Washington D.C., Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California.