Sunday, November 21, 2010

Smart Museum : The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

"Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
Smart Museum thru January 16, 2011

Back in August of 1909, distinguished orientalist, Victor Segalen, author of “La Grande Statuaire chinoise” (translated and published by the University of Chicago,1972) found himself and a colleague alone with a remarkable statue of Buddha in a remote shrine in China. Despite some damage to the torso, “its profile had retained its nobility, its eyes their gaze, the smile of its mouth its generous sweetness and a kind of irony.” And immediately they knew what to do. “This statue, we must have it! We will not leave without it!.” Removing an ax from their luggage, Segalen began chopping at the neck, and when the clamor attracted the attention of two peasants who were passing by, the locals obligingly showed them how to apply wedges and wooden blocks to make the work so much easier.

Imagine that process repeated tens of thousands of times in grottos and temple shrines throughout China in the early 20th Century, where unable carry off entire tableaux, plunderers, servicing the world art market, chopped off heads, hands, whatever -- many of which fragments would eventually enter the collections of American museums

But times have changed, and one of the greatest changes is the focus of modern scholarship. The pioneering scholar of Japanese Buddhist art, Ernest Fenellosa (1853-1908), may have believed that : "We are approaching the time when the art work of all the world of man may be looked upon as one, as infinite variations in a single kind of mental and social effort" But modern scholars are more likely to agree with Sir Edmund Leach(1910-1989): "works of art are not just things in themselves, they are objects carrying moral implications. What the moral implication is depends upon where they are"

So now, a century later, the University of Chicago has begun a project to restore one of the original sites, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan. No, museums will not be sending the loot back to China, but 3-D scanning techniques allow for fragments to be scanned and then assembled into a virtual reality, which has been projected onto a wrap-around screen in this exhibit, and supplemented with touch-screens that offer iconographic information.

But as another pioneer in world art, Andre Malraux, once asserted : “Art is not learned, it is encountered”, and happily (perhaps has an afterthought) curators have complemented this digital display with 13 actual sculptural fragments (mostly heads and hands, but also a few complete figures) which have traveled here from museums in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

But when these 13 original fragments (some which are monumental in size) have been encountered, at least one viewer is convinced that the moral context involved is not specific to Buddhist doctrine, and the place where they belong is anywhere on planet earth, rather than just some shallow mountain caves in southern Hubei Province.

What’s especially delightful and unique about this display is that all of the pieces come from one place, Xiangtangshan, and one time, the short lived Qi Dynasty of northern China (550-577), and they all have a kind of simple sweetness that feels less severe/dogmatic than the Wei dynasty statuary that preceded it, and more natural than the Tang dynasty Buddhas that followed.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many examples of this (or possibly any) site specific genre of Buddhist sculpture, unless you travel to Washington for it’s next installation, which will be augmented by even more pieces from the Freer Gallery (which are forbidden to travel)

It’s also a chance to compare original fragments with the computer mapped versions derived from them. However accurate those mappings may be in terms of size and iconographic detail, aesthetically, they’re as ruined as original statuary when badly weathered by wind, ice, and water. And what is so remarkable about the 13 originals is how good each and every one of them looks. They’re in great condition, and just as in the great French cathedrals, the standard of workmanship, and quality control, was very, very high.

Perhaps, some future generation of scholars will re-discover the technique of rubber-mold making and use it to re-create some these shrines exactly as would now appear if they had never been butchered.

But for our generation, the fascination with digital technology is still too compelling, and interest in historic context still trumps aesthetic quality.

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