October 8, 2010

Smart Museum brings Chinese Art back to the future

Echoes of the Past, the beautiful and thought-provoking new exhibit at the Smart Museum, is aptly named. The exhibit displays art and sculpture from the Xiangtangshan (Chinese for “Mountain of Echoing Halls”) cave temples and imparts to the viewer the impression that what remains of the Buddhist temples is but a hollow echo, an eerie shadow of the caves’ former splendor.

The exhibit displays temples that were constructed in the sixth century during the Qi dynasty, one of the most short-lived Chinese dynasties. They were commissioned to be built into the side of northern Chinese mountains as a reminder of Buddhist culture in an era of declining religious fervor and rising political and social turmoil.

Although the Qi dynasty lasted no more than 27 years, the caves were preserved until the early 1900s, when the caves were re-discovered and their art was chiseled away. The first photographs we have of the caves, displayed in the exhibit, show damaged engravings and decapitated statues, their heads violently cracked off and sold all over the world to the highest bidders.

Echoes of the Past is evidence of the University of Chicago’s extraordinary passion for things thought to be long lost—languages, the plundered heads of ancient statues—and using intellectual rigor to piece them together. For the last six years, a team of scientists associated with the University has been digitally reconstructing the caves and collecting what it could to resurrect their beauty and meaning.

But enough with the history lesson. The art displayed in the exhibit is beautiful and worth seeing even without any knowledge of its origins. There are sculptures of Buddha much different from those seen in Chinese gift shops. These are faces with serene, half-closed eyes and exquisitely carved hands and garments. There are gorgeous floral engravings and statues of demons and ghosts, the Chinese equivalent of gargoyles.

The statues’ peaceful expressions are even more striking in contrast with the violence of their removal from the caves by plunderers, which is evident in the damage to the pieces, and the fact that most of the art is in fragments—a head here, a hand there. However, the loving and delicate work that went into restoring and repairing the pieces is also evident in each of them.

The true marvel of the exhibit, however, is the digital reconstruction of the caves. Sit on a bench in front of three large screens and be transported into the actual temples, surrounded on all sides by the walls and art as they were meant to be seen. The screens alternate between a view of the caves as they truly are—headless statues, scratched paintings—and a view of the caves as they looked before they were plundered, recreated through laborious research.

The virtual tour is a marvel of technology, and it could be the future of museums. Instead of ancient artifacts traveling from museum to museum, far (and often wrongfully taken) from their place of origin, patrons may still be able to experience art in a way that is almost just as interactive.

So sit on the bench and ponder what lasts and what is destroyed: dynasties, stone sculpture, religious doctrines that come and go. But it’s certain that as long as there are humans with intellectual curiosity, lost things can be brought to life again, and art can be just as meaningful when it’s a thousand-year-old echo of its former self.