Research, Reconstruction, and Breaking Boundaries in the Xiangtangshan Caves Project

Talk by Dr. Katherine R. Tsiang, Associate Director, Center for the Art of East Asia, Department of Art History, University of Chicago

Fri, October 28, 2011 | Auditorium, Art Building

3:00 PM

Research, Reconstruction, and Breaking Boundaries in the Xiangtangshan Caves Project

Reception and digital demonstration at 2:00 PM • Art History Conference Room, DFA 2.506

The exhibition “Echoes of the Past”  is the result of a multiple-year research project entitled “The Xiangtangshan Caves Project: Reconstruction and Recontextualization” begun in 2004 with  two major components—new digital imaging systems and more traditional forms of academic research. The exhibition brings together strikingly fine examples of the limestone sculptures from the caves which have not been seen together since they were taken from the caves as much as a hundred years ago and displays them together with digital imaging installations, a video, interactive touch screen monitors and a virtual or digital cave which present the Xiangtangshan caves and their sculptures in spatial, geographic, historical, cultural and religious contexts.
      On the first and most obvious level, reconstruction was necessary because the sculptures seen in the exhibition were removed from sixth century Buddhist cave temples in northern China. Displayed as works of art in museum galleries outside of their original groupings and cave contexts, their meaning and places in design of the caves as a whole were lost. The caves themselves could not be studied in depth without more information about their former appearance. The Northern Qi caves associated with the name Xiangtangshan today are located at 3 sites in southern Hebei Province, near the Northern Qi capital at Ye. These are known as the Northern Xiangtangshan, Southern Xiangtangshan and Shuiyusi Caves. All have suffered severe damage beginning in the early 20th century before the earliest known photographs of the sites. Through a combination of visual analysis and imaging technology, substantial theoretical reconstruction can now be proposed, and the locations of many pieces can be demonstrated irrefutably with the 3D digital imaging. The study of the caves can be approached through various other perspectives including social and cultural history, and history of Buddhist thought and practice. The talk presents some analysis and elaboration of the multiple aspects and levels of reconstruction:  methodologies, results, and also limitations.

“Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan” is currently on view in Dallas,

Sponsored by: The Yew Family Endowment and Department of Art and Art History

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