Thursday, 23 June 2011

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

In DC for a few days, I was very eager to see this exhibition at the Sackler Museum of sculptures from a group of small 6th-century Chinese cave temples from the mountains of northern China. Organized with the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, the exhibition promised rather extensive contextual material in addition to the important sculptures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and demons that were chopped out of the caves and acquired by museums in the West in the early 20th century. Most intriguing to me was the idea of a virtual reconstruction of one of the caves; I imagined that it would use projections to recreate the feel of being in the cave.

At the entrance to the small exhibition is a video that suggests what a tourist would see approaching the caves from the town. From the nuclear power plant and city streets to the hills and stone steps leading to the caves, the video leads to the entrance, then ends. Below it I discovered a map locating the caves far from China’s largest cities and tourist sites.

The objects are spectacular. In the first room a Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas, with demon figures below, in approximately the placement they would have had in their original cave - which is shown in a small black-and-white photograph by the object label – but without the arches, niches, smaller carvings that surrounded them, and with only traces of their original coloring. In the second room are three huge heads and two huge hands, apparently broken off figures that could not be easily removed from the living rock. The heads are similar in their expressions of meditation and peace, but also subtly different. A third gallery contains full length standing figures that were carved in the round and therefore easier to take from their original caves without damaging them. Labels make it clear that the removal of the figures was not scientific and sometimes resulted in significant damage. The catalogue includes illustrations of the objects advertised in art magazines for sale. When they were sold in the 1920s their provenance was not even identified.

While the digital recreation of one of the caves was a good idea, I didn’t find it as successful in recreating the ‘feel’ of being there as I had hoped. Rather than project still images, the recreation consisted of moving video, and it moved a little too fast for me to really contemplate the site. Also, it included restorations of missing heads that were unfortunately a bright gold color, making them both jarring and fake-looking. The idea is great and this seems a technique with great possibilities to help viewers understand how important context is for a great many works of art. Tom suggested that his lawyer colleagues who reconstruct accident sites might have something to teach the makers of this reconstruction. On the other hand, to imagine a museum can recreate the site of the caves is to believe that Venice, Las Vegas is like Venice, Italy.

The major point of the exhibition for me was how heartbreaking it is for these religious objects with profound meaning to have been torn from their original context and shown in places where they were never intended to be. Watching people casually wander by and glance at these powerful meditative forms was painful, for them, for me, and for world history. I appreciated that the didactic material was very clear that the objects had been chiseled away, heads torn from bodies to be sold on the Western market. At least we weren’t being told that seeing these parts of the whole was enough. The actual destruction was done by people who wanted to profit from the Western interest in these images, and the museums lapped them up.

Next door, in the Freer, are two major reliefs and a demon figure from Xiangtangshan. Ironically, the reliefs are plastered into the wall and couldn’t be moved for this exhibition. Here’s the demon.


And two days later at the Metropolitan Museum I saw more heads from Xiangtangshan, a huge Bodhisattva and a very elegant smaller one, both torn from their bodies and their context. No one seemed to notice them on their way to other galleries.

People walking by the large head between the sign and the mural

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