Monday, September 12, 2011
Art review: Echoes of the Past: the Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan at SMU’s Meadows Museum
Combined with 3D technology, the exhibition is a giant leap toward historical understanding and a true triumph for research.
SMU’s current exhibit, Echoes of the Past: the Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan is a collaborative mix of technology and art. The project’s goal was to reconstruct Xiangtangshan, a series of 6th century Buddhist cave temples within the living rock of northern China, for viewers to achieve a better understanding of the setting in its original form and context. Associated with the briefly powerful Northern Qi dynasty, the hallowed caves housed large-scale Buddhas and enlightened bodhisattvas which were surrounded by altars and reliefs of lotus flowers, jewels, and small winged monsters. It was a place for pilgrims to sojourn to in their effort to reach enlightenment.
In order to capture the true essence of a holy place and to assist the viewer in understanding the cave in its historical context and original form, a team set out the rebuild the cave and to fill in the missing pieces after centuries of archaeological destruction.
Capturing the authenticity of the caves at Xiantangshang was no small feat. For the duration of six years, a team of researchers, archeologists, and digital specialists dedicated themselves to this ancient devotional site in order to create in true-to-life form a replica of this holy site. Researchers gathered the missing pieces, mostly heads of the buddhas and bodhisattvas from private institutions and collections throughout the world. Their task was to scan and photograph each object at hundreds of different points of view in order to achieve a complete 3D image. The scanning provided high-resolution accuracy of chisel markings and damaged surfaces that aided in re-imaging the lost and most broken pieces.
Media artist Jason Salavon was then able to create the centerpiece for the exhibition, a “Digital Cave” which represents the South Cave of the northern group of caves. Three large projection screens, roughly the size of the original cave, draw the viewer in so that he may experience what it might have been like to be inside today and in the 6th century. The video loop begins with the current state of the cave. One will see headless sculptures and various other degrees of deterioration. Slowly, the rebuild begins, with the help of superimposed images of altar fragments and replacement statues, to reveal the different states of historical damage. This aids in providing an idea of how the reconstruction took place.
The end result is astonishing. The viewer finds himself within the cave as it was intended to be seen, the 3D images serving to make the space hyper-realistic and whole again.
This kind of re-creation and imaging of spaces is becoming increasingly important in art historical research and preservation. Not only does it provide researchers with living documentation of history, but also serves as an educational tool.
As for the sculptures in the exhibit, there are many. Buddhas and bodhisattvas sit and stand atop cubes, holding a variety of objects, from small leaves to reliquaries. Their eyes closed and mouths turned upward into small smiles, they offer a sense of peace in the surroundings. All together, the exhibition is a giant leap toward historical understanding and a true triumph for research. To observe the statues in the midst of the “Digital Cave” is to achieve a sense of wonder that before hasn’t been quite possible.
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