Opening Saturday: “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan”

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Discover the treasures of the Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan. Once scattered around the world, these artifacts were recently brought together for the first time in almost a century in "Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan," a multi-sensory exhibit, featuring a pioneering 3D installation that opens tomorrow at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art.

Located southwest of Beijing, in China’s present-day southern Hebei province, are a group of limestone caves called, Xiangtangshan (pronounced shahng-tahng-shahn) or the "Mountain of Echoing Halls." The caves are the site of one of the most important groups of Buddhist devotional worship, and were once home to a magnificent array of sculptures, monumental Buddhas, divine attendant figures and crouching monsters framed by floral motifs that represent the "crowning cultural achievement of the sixth-century Northern Qi dynasty (550-577 CE)."

But sadly between 1910 and 1930, the temples were irreparably damaged, when sculptures and fragments were removed from the caves and sold on the international black market.

The show, a traveling exhibition that originated at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, is a collaborative effort of an international team of experts, and marks the culmination of years of scholarship, research, innovation and international cooperation. The magnificent works haven't been seen together in almost a century.

“The project is really about, first of all, identifying objects that come from this site and then trying to place them back into their original context,” says Keith Wilson, associate director and curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries.“The goal is to help people understand this place and its design and its Buddhist meaning.”

Five years ago, researchers at the Center for East Asia at the University of Chicago began examining fragments long thought to have come originally from Xiangtangshan. The fragments, bought and sold decades before international laws prohibited such trade and housed in collections and museums all over the world, were photographed and then scanned using 3D imaging technology. (All of the pieces in the exhibition, almost three-dozen sculptures originally created for the site, are from museums in either the United States or the United Kingdom.) In order to contextualize the data, the team collaborated with site managers at Xiangtangshan itself to digitally scan the caves as well. "These two scans provide the basis for the virtual reconstruction of the man-made cave temples today," says Wilson. The sculptures and recreations help complete the picture.

“I think the exhibition really transports you both in place and time,” Wilson says, “Visitors are invited into the kind of research that has gone into reconstructing the site.” Touch-screen kiosks located throughout the gallery help explain the significance of each piece in greater detail and allow visitors to both explore the site and the artifacts more closely.

The first and second galleries contain sculptures and artifacts from the northern caves, which were the earliest imperially-sponsored creations at the site, finished in the 550s. This is followed by a monographic treatment of the southern cave, represented by the "Digital Cave," a 3D installation (above) that gives viewers the impression of being transported back to the actual site. "This immersive experiential installation is meant to bring you to the site and share the place with you at different moments in its past, bringing you all the way up to the 21st-century digital imaging," Wilson says.  The exhibition ends with artifacts from the latest commission (finished in the 570s) which comes from a separate site, southern Xiangtangshan.

In the adjoining Charles Lang Freer Gallery, two monumental reliefs from Xiangtangshan are installed in gallery 17.

"The show attempts to address the relative obscurity of the site," says Wilson. "Hopefully, as a result of the exhibition, the importance of Xiangtangshan will become more universally recognized."

"Echoes of the Past," on display at the Sackler Gallery until July 31, will also travel to the Meadows Museum of Southern Methodist University in Dallas (September 11, 2011- January 8, 2012) and then to the San Diego Museum of Art (February 18-May 27, 2012).

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