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The exhibition Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan focuses on sculptural fragments from, and the subsequent digital reconstruction of, the Buddhist cave temple site of Xiangtangshan, located in Hebei Province in northern China. The inception of the site dates to the short-lived yet prolific Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577), the subject of the accompanying international conference held at the Freer Gallery on June 3–5, 2011. The name Xiangtangshan may be translated as “Mountain of Echoing Halls.” The name seems fitting, as the exhibition and accompanying illustrated catalogue examine the site as it reverberated during three distinct historical moments: first, at the time of its sixth-century inception and patronage under the Northern Qi court; second, during the early twentieth-century development of the appreciation for Buddhist stone sculpture and the looting of the site; and finally, coming full circle to the early twenty-first-century digital reconstruction of the site and its continued local use. Furthermore, the publicity material for the exhibition has billed it as “Buddha 2.0,” another apt moniker, given the sophisticated digital technology used to virtually reconstruct the site as well as the various digital components of the exhibit.
The exhibit is associated with the Xiangtangshan Caves Project, established in 2004 by the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago. Until recently, the Xiangtangshan caves were best known for sculptural fragments of fine aesthetic quality scattered principally throughout U.S., European, and Asian collections. Even at the time that the sculptures were being peddled to museums and collectors in the early twentieth century, they were often misrepresented as having originated from more well-known cave temple sites, such as Longmen in Henan Province. The Xiangtangshan Caves Project, dedicated to domestic and international collaboration and the use of 3D scanning technology and digital photography in order to match sculptural fragments with their original placement in the caves, has brought renewed attention to the site. The resulting exhibition, intended to disseminate the results of this research, was curated by Katherine R. Tsiang, director of the Xiangtangshan Caves Project, and co-organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. After its initial opening at the Smart Museum of Art in September 2010, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is the second venue for the exhibition and the subject of this exhibition review.
Carved from limestone mountain and cliffs, the site is divided between three groups of man-made caves titled Northern Xiangtangshan, Southern Xiangtangshan, and Little Xiangtangshan; the exhibition, however, focuses only upon the sculptures from Northern Xiangtangshan and Southern Xiangtangshan, which are located nine miles apart. Altogether, eleven caves from these three locations fall under the Northern Qi Dynasty, from a combined total of around thirty caves, which indicates continued activity through the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The practice of physically carving caves from mountains and cliffs for the purposes of Buddhist monastic communities as well as for Buddhist patronage began in India and subsequently flourished in Central Asia and China.
The three main caves of the Northern Xiangtangshan group (designated the North, Middle, and South Caves) are believed to have been inaugurated and carved under the patronage of the Northern Qi rulers, and the seven caves of the Southern Xiangtangshan group (numbered sequentially) are smaller than those of the imperially sponsored Northern Xiangtangshan group and were likely sponsored by court officials. Consequently, the sculptures may thus be understood to represent the apogee of the plastic arts and particularly of stone carving during the Northern Qi. The caves, in turn, were situated along a well-traveled route that connected the capital city of the Northern Qi Dynasty with the ancestral base of the imperial clan.
The exhibition, deceptively small, is exquisitely installed and superbly organized. While there is no shortage of Buddhist sculptural masterpieces in the permanent collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the major accomplishment of the exhibition is to allow the visitor to imagine the sculptures in their original historical, spatial, and religious environment, rather than simply as isolated artworks. Toward this end, the first four rooms focus on sculptural fragments from the North and South Caves at Northern Xiangtangshan, with the fifth and final room devoted to freestanding sculptures from Southern Xiangtangshan. The choice was a good one, as the North and South Caves represent the earliest and latest caves, respectively, from Northern Xiangtangshan. Moreover, the juxtaposition of sculptures from Northern and Southern Xiangtangshan serves to highlight differences in cave architecture and scale between the two groups, as well as to showcase the overall range of iconographic types, which is especially apparent in the choice of sculptures from Southern Xiangtangshan. Among the latter group of sculptures are ones that jumpstarted the collecting frenzy with their publication in Burlington Magazine in April 1914.
The attention paid to context is evident in a number of ways. Outside the entrance, a four-minute documentary film takes visitors on a journey from the adjacent modern-day coal-mining town of Fengfeng and up a steep mountain path to the caves, where their continued use by the local community is evident. In the first room, sculptural fragments from the perimeter walls of the North Cave of Northern Xiangtangshan are displayed in a similar manner to their original setting: a central seated Buddha figure is flanked by two bodhisattvas; displayed below in a lower register are three monstrous creatures that would originally have supported the carved architectural elements of the cave. The second room features a thirty-five-inch tall Buddha head from the North Cave of Northern Xiangtangshan, suspended well above eye level. Here, the effect is not to render the sculpture accessible to the viewer but rather to approximate the actual experience of encountering a monumental Buddha sculpture, now represented only by its head. Along the side walls are displayed the heads of two bodhisattvas of the type that would have flanked a monumental Buddha image. Finally, on the lowest pedestals, sculptural fragments of two hands originally belonging to a monumental Buddha sculpture are displayed. The sum of these disembodied parts is at once stark and ghostly; the oversized scale of the original sculptures is made clear and, at the same time, the looting of the site is poignantly obvious.
The third room does the most to contextualize the Buddhist content of the sculptures. A stone stele whose original provenance is unknown but which may have originated from Xiangtangshan features iconic groups that reference, among other themes, the Lotus Sūtra and the Western Pure Land of Amitābha, which are also represented in other sculptures. An ink rubbing of an inscribed sūtra from the South Cave of Northern Xiangtangshan is also on display. Buddhist sūtras had been carved on the porch and outer walls of the cave, perhaps in response to the contemporary belief regarding the impending decline of the Buddhist teachings and the resulting need to carve them into stone for preservation.
The focus upon the South Cave of Northern Xiangtangshan is continued into the connecting corridor and fourth room of the exhibition. The corridor features sculptural fragments purchased by Charles Lang Freer that were matched to this cave as a result of 3D scanning, in addition to plastic forms produced from the same scanning technique. The fourth room contains the so-called “Digital Cave,” which features shifting digital projections of the South Cave across three screens that approximate the open architectural plan of the cave. It would be misleading to assume that the Digital Cave provides nothing more than a virtual experience; as the projected images rotate among black-and-white archival photographs, current color photographs, and 3D digitilization, it is as much a reflection upon ways of looking at the cave as the ravages that it suffered over time.
The dark walls and dramatic lighting of the exhibition space highlight the robust modeling of the sculptures, and the wall labels introducing individual sculptures reflect a thoughtful design in the inclusion of thumbnail images of each sculpture next to its details. Another welcome feature is the use of interactive technology. Interactive touch screens located in the second and fifth rooms allow visitors to explore more deeply local topography, cave architecture and layout, iconic groupings, and the religious functions of the caves. One of the more interesting features demonstrates the 3D-scanning techniques that were employed to match sculptural fragments to their original locations. In comparison to the immediate appeal that the interactive touch screens held for visitors, three computer terminals located outside the exit were less frequently in use, suggesting that proximity to real objects and the accompanying potential for contextualization may be one determining factor in the success of exhibition technology.
Many sculptures in Echoes of the Past originate from the Freer’s permanent collection, which holds the largest number of sculptural fragments from Xiangtangshan in any Western collection. Except for a brief mention of Freer’s purchase of sculptural fragments in 1913 from a New York City gallery, there is little content to suggest how and when the sculptures on display came to their current repositories and how the aesthetic appreciation for Chinese stone sculpture was shaped in the early twentieth century. This lacuna is addressed by the excellent exhibition catalogue essay co-authored by J. Keith Wilson and Daisy Yiyou Wang which traces the route by which the sculptures first came to the attention of foreign collectors and museums. The sobering observation is made that a scholarly publication, Mission archéologique dans la Chine septentrionale, published between 1909 and 1915 by Edouard Chavannes, was unintentionally culpable for making archaeological sites across China known not only to scholars but also to art dealers and collectors. Happily, the initiative of the Xiangtangshan Caves Project appears to have had the opposite effect, being well positioned to inspire similar projects and collaboration. Further information regarding provenance research and the protection of Chinese cultural heritage may be found on the exhibition website. Other essays in the lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue cover the historical and religious background of the Northern Qi, visual culture and architecture, as well as the use of digital and exhibition technology. Of particular interest, given the prerogatives of the Xiangtangshan Caves Project, is an illustrated concordance of Xiangtangshan sculptures outside China.
Because of restrictions on the loan of Freer pieces, the installation of the exhibition will by necessity differ from museum to museum. After leaving the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, it will travel to venues in Dallas and San Diego, where it will continue to be a must-see for audiences interested in Buddhist art, the applications of digital technology in provenance research, and issues of historiography and cultural heritage preservation.
Michelle C. Wang
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Georgetown University
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