Saturday, July 30, 2011

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

Where: The Sackler Gallery

When: through July 31, 2011

Before visiting this exhibit, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Smithsonian, in which one of the Sackler's curators talked about the cave temples, their history, and the work that's been done to determine where certain pieces of their sculpture now residing in Western or Japanese collections originally stood.

A special "thank you" to my friend Yvette for inviting me to the lecture. It took place in the Ripley, in one of their meeting rooms; it was fun to be there after hours and see it in use not just as exhibit space. The Smithsonian sponsors lectures and trips almost every day on a variety of subjects, many related to current shows. It's well worth checking out, if you're looking for something to do that's both fun and educational:

I find antiquities fascinating. It really doesn't matter what the work is, I am mesmerized by extreme age. I remember, when visiting the Louvre, I stood transfixed by the Winged Victory, which dates to about 190 B.C. The idea of seeing something that old is amazing to me; someone worked on that statue so long ago, and now, through everything that's happened in human history, I'm looking at it - I really can't describe how incredible that is.

While the Buddhist cave temples are not quite as old as the Winged Victory, they date from the 500s, so they are plenty old enough to inspire my wonder. The statues remained in their caves from the time they were created until the early 20th century, when Western and Japanese collectors became interested in them. Let the looting begin! Unscrupulous Chinese dealers facilitated the removal of entire statutes and pieces of statues (heads and hands were most desirable), and these pieces were scattered across the globe. Several works ended up in the Freer; others went to the University of Pennsylvania and to many other locations. What is far worse than the breakup of the collection is the fact that often, when the pieces were being removed, they were damaged or destroyed. Beautiful works of art lost forever, due to the greed of a few.

The pieces are just enormous; I can't quite fathom how big some of these statues are, based on the size of the heads. That was one thing I didn't quite get from the lecture, was the enormity of these works. Even if you look at a picture of someone standing next to a statue, it's not quite the same as seeing it for yourself.

I noticed that two of the pieces now in the Freer were originally in the Natural History Museum - that would have puzzled me, had I not been to the National History Museum's exhibit on its own history. With that knowledge under my belt, however, I knew exactly what had gone on.

Perhaps the best part of the exhibit is the "Digital Cave." Researchers have managed to piece together the original locations of many of the works now on display outside of China, and have used digital technology and virtual reality to "put them back." The picture above is from the digital cave - the bright yellow piece is one that has been removed. You sit in a small room and watch on three screens as shots of the walls of the caves are shown, with the removed pieces in yellow in their rightful places. The juxtaposition of 1500 year old statuary and 21st century technology is wild and terrific. Visiting the "Digital Cave" is as close to being in the caves themselves as you can get without a ticket to China. I was reminded of the Chinese idea that a picture of an experience is as good as the experience itself. I'm still not convinced this is true, but I did get a lot out of this show.

In the last room is a group of four large statutes from the southern caves. This group was separated in the early 20th century; three of the pieces went to the University of Pennsylvania and one came to the Freer. They are now together again, at least for a while. Of course, looking at all of these pieces, and contemplating how collectors and museum curators have ripped the caves apart for their own purposes, made me think about my own participation in this process. I go to museums all the time, and look at objects that come from a wide variety of countries. I don't know that all of these items have been acquired in completely legitimate ways. I felt a little guilty, but since I know I'm not going to stop seeing great shows, I decided to put the matter out of my mind. I can console myself that the cave temple pieces are now in places where they will be well cared for, and since the Smithsonian is open to the public, and free of charge, anyone can see them.

Verdict: Really worth while show - if you can catch it today or tomorrow, you won't be disappointed.

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