AROUND 1910, international art dealers made a terrible, profitable discovery: the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan, or “mountain of echoing halls.”

The eleven caves, cut into the mountains above the northeastern city of Fengfeng, were created during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577 CE)—a period of instability and constant warfare, and yet also of remarkable artistic flowering.

Inside the caves, which were large enough just for a few people to enter at a time, were exquisite examples of Buddhist sculpture.

Japanese scholars took the earliest known photos of the caves in 1922. By then, the destruction was well under way.

The first to go were the freestanding statues, sold to collectors as fine art, with little regard for their religious origins. Next went the relief sculptures—usually the heads and hands, the easiest to remove—chiseled off the walls during the 1920s and 30s. Some pieces did not make it to the art market; they smashed as they fell onto the piles of straw below.

After 1949, yet more sculptures were removed so the caves could be adapted for practical purposes—for printing, for arsenal storage.

A hundred years after the looting began, bits of the caves are scattered over continents, like pieces of an intricate puzzle dumped out of its box and kicked carelessly across the floor.

***

LUCKILY, ONE OF the announcements listing the time for the January 16 closing tour of Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan was incorrect. If everyone had come to the Smart Museum of Art at the right time—rather than for the impromptu first and second tours organized to accommodate the crowd—we never would have fit into the exhibition space.

The week before, after attending Thought for Food, a meditation workshop held in conjunction with the exhibition, I had quickly looked at Echoes of the Past. So quickly, I hadn’t realized I was walking through the exhibition exactly backwards. The closing tour, led by senior curator Richard Born, AM’75, and interactive manager Melissa Kinkley, started where I should have.

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For the first room, Born explained, he had chosen “three knock-down-dead, glorious sculpture carvings”—a Buddha, a Bodhisattva, and a crouching monster figure—“completely removed from their original context.” Like museum visitors of a century ago, we were encountering them as beautiful objects, with no knowledge of where they had come from, or why they had been created.

The second room contained no objects. Here we saw the context, supplied by a four-minute “pilgrimage video” by Judy Hoffman, senior lecturer in visual arts, and a 3-D digital recreation of one of the caves by Jason Salavon, assistant professor in visual arts.

The tiny floor space of the digital cave—about 100 square feet—was roughly the size of the cave itself, Born explained, with the fourth wall removed and the sides splayed open. The dispersed objects were shown where they would have been originally, but in glowing, jarring yellow.

In the third room, “I wanted to do something that hadn’t occurred for over a hundred years,” said Born: place the sculptures in relation to each other, in a “functional altar site.”

It was a complicated reunion to arrange. The Buddha’s face had to be borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bodhisattva heads from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The left hand of a Buddha figure came from the Asian Museum of San Francisco, the matching right hand from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 Tsiang painstakingly tracked down nearly 100 objects in museums and private collections across the globe.In the fourth and final room, 3-D digital scans had been made—with assistance from the Illinois Institute of Technology—into glowing yellow objects displayed on the wall. “It’s a very, very fine nylon material,” Kinkley explained. The objects “could be used for any sort of purpose—for study, maybe for reconstruction. They’re very lightweight and they’re durable. So the possibilities are unknown right now.”

The arrangement of the exhibit, once it was explained to me, made complete sense, proceeding logically through time and space.

Now this version of Echoes of the Past has been dismantled. Like the cave temples it attempts to recreate, the show existed in a certain form for a certain period. When it travels to museums across the country, it will be different each time.

Each new venue offers a chance to reflect “on the original beauty and meaning of the shrines,” according to the exhibit publicity—and to contemplate their loss.

***

SCULPTURES FROM XIANGTANGSHAN were first shown in the United States in 1916, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Exhibition of Oriental Art.

In A Short History of Chinese Art (1946), Chicago art history professor Ludwig Bachhofer described the three cave sculptures in this exhibition as “the most majestic sculpture China ever created.”

One of Bachhofer’s students was Harrie Vanderstappen, AM’51, PhD’55, a pioneering scholar of Chinese art. And one of his students was Katherine Tsiang, PhD’96.

Under Vanderstappen’s supervision, Tsiang began her dissertation on the caves. (She completed it under Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History.) As Tsiang worked, she began to imagine what the caves might have looked like with all of the sculptures intact.

In 2004, the Humanities Division’s Research Computing group was looking for projects that brought together technology and the humanities. Tsiang, by then associate director of the new Center for the Art of East Asia, suggested recreating the damaged caves of Xiangtangshan.

Working with a team of scholars from China and the United States, Tsiang painstakingly tracked down nearly 100 objects in museums and private collections across the globe. The objects were then scanned in 3-D and logged in an exhaustive database.

Salavon used these scans to build the digital cave, recreating the picture that Tsiang had carried in her head for decades: “It was so wonderful,” Tsiang says, “that other people could see it too.”

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But with so little documentation of the caves, Tsiang cannot be entirely sure her head-picture is correct. In a few cases, she says, the chisel marks on the back of a sculpture match up precisely with those on the wall of the cave. But often the pieces were recut, so those marks are gone.

In most cases, Tsiang says, she was fairly certain of the stylistic match. But with perhaps ten percent of the pieces, she says, she couldn’t be sure. In the back of the exhibition catalog, these works are listed separately. They might belong in the caves. They might not.

***

WHERE IS THE open lotus flower?

In Buddhism, the lotus flower represents the purity of beings—only someone enlightened by the Buddha and his teachings can be symbolized by an open lotus flower. Sketch a lotus here.

What is he wearing on his head?

Where are these Buddhist cave temples?

Let’s take a virtual trip! Watch part of the pilgrimage video to see what this area looks like today.

Did you know the circle on the forehead of each head is called an urna?

Would you like to visit a cave temple? Why or why not?

—from the children’s guide to the exhibit

***

“THE QUESTION OF removal is a very complex one,” says Born. Who were the rightful owners of the caves? Buddhist monks, worshippers, the local warlord? In some cases, it seems that art dealers simply looted the sculptures. But in others, he says, “warlords who owned the property legitimately sold the pieces.”

As the original artworks were removed, worshippers replaced the missing parts as best as they could. “They put heads back on the sculptures,” says Tsiang. “Not very attractive ones from an art historical point of view, but they made it possible for people to continue to worship. And they still do.” 

***

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ON FEBRUARY 26, Echoes of the Past opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, one of two museums of Asian art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. At this venue, the exhibition includes 13 sculptures from the permanent collection of the Freer Gallery of Art.

The pieces owned by the Freer “are not allowed to travel,” says Tsiang. “And technically, actually, objects from other museums are not supposed to go into the Freer Gallery.” Special permission was granted to move the objects from the Freer to its sister museum, the Sackler; the two are connected by an underground passage.

From there, the exhibit will travel to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, then to the San Diego Museum of Art. The exact objects and their arrangement will vary. The digital pieces are the one component that, in every incarnation, will stay the same.

***

“DOES ANYONE NOTICE any changes in the room?” Tim Boyd, AB’77, a practicing Buddhist and leader of the Thought for Food workshop, asked after our first meditation exercise.

“It feels more relaxed,” someone said.

“Calmer,” added someone else.

Boyd smiled. “It’s the same room.”

Sometimes, beginners complain that meditation makes their mind run faster, Boyd said. “That’s not technically correct. You have just become aware of your racing thoughts. We’re seeing the state of our minds—and sometimes it’s not a pleasant sight. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

“I should probably say,” he corrected himself, “the caves of Xiangtangshan weren’t built in a day.” 

***

THE Xiangtangshan research project and exhibition are “one way of restoring the site for scholarship,” says Born. And that is probably the only way the site will be restored.

“My main consideration was to reenvision the caves as they had been originally,” says Tsiang. “I haven’t thought ever that the objects could, or even should, be returned to the caves.” The sculptures weigh hundreds of pounds, she points out; how could they be reattached to the walls? If they were installed in a museum next door to the caves, would that really be restoring them?

  “Many ancient sites of extraordinary artistic and historical value have survived only in partial form, due in part to human pillage.”—Wu HungIronically, the objects that were left behind are often in worse condition than those that were taken. “The air quality is extremely bad,” says Tsiang, because of the cement factories and coal-burning power plants in the area. “You can see that the surface of the stone has been deteriorating very rapidly.”

The Xiangtangshan project, Wu Hung wrote in the introduction to the exhibition’s catalog, “is a reaction to an unfortunate reality that every student of ancient art must confront: many ancient sites of extraordinary artistic and historical value have survived only in partial form, due in part to human pillage.”

“So many things that you see in museums were taken from somewhere else,” says Tsiang. “Art history is a melancholy discipline.”

***

Tour dates

 
Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC
February 26–July 31, 2011
 
Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University
Dallas
September 11, 2011–January 8, 2012
 
San Diego Art Museum
San Diego
February 18–May 27, 2012
 
 

See the sites: A digital archive of the project, cave sites, and dispersed sculptures is available online at xts.uchicago.edu.

Photos courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art.


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