China’s caves decorate NYU’s walls

Kaleel Munroe for WSN

The first-ever digitized reconstructions of the ancient world opened recently as part of a groundbreaking exhibit on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan” at NYU’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World displays Chinese sculptures from the famous sixth century cave temples of Xiangtangshan, which translates to Mountain of Echoing Halls. Xiangtangshan, located in China, is widely known for its religious structures, which acted as shelters and contacts with an imagined spirit world for Buddhists.

The digital part of this reconstruction of the past, the Digital Cave, is made up of archival photographs and the current imaging technology. It results in an eight-minute presentation of the virtual reconstruction of the south cave at Northern Xiangtangshan. There are three screens that allow viewers to experience the site and see the sculptures as they were inside the cave temple. The room’s lighting and the temperature help to create such mood, as does the virtual tour.

ISAW exhibition director and chief curator Jennifer Chi said the Xiangtangshan sculptures stand alone as powerfully impressive works of art.

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“This exhibition is a rare and tremendously exciting opportunity to experience the carvings in their original context and to better understand the sacred meanings they were meant to convey,” Chi said. “Echoes of the Past is a superb example of the enormous potential of digital technology in the public presentation of ancient sites and objects.”

The exhibition also houses various sculptures of Buddhist deities and temple altars from Xiangtangshan’s cave temples, including the heads of the bodhisattva — an enlightened being in Buddhist religion — and the bodhisattva’s attendant. Each head is almost three feet high, emphasizing the importance of the images of Buddha. The sacred Buddhist scriptures, also known as sutras, hang on the walls next to the sculptures. These sutras were directly carved into the rocky walls of the cave temples by the Buddhists during the sixth century.

Fan Zhang, a second-year doctoral program student at ISAW who visited the exhibition, said it is more than a visual feast for the eyes.

“The reconstruction [of the caves] helps a lot for us to re-visualize the past,” Zhang said.

“Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtanshan” will be on display through Jan. 6, 2013 at 15 E. 84th St.

Clara Yang is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected] 

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