By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo by Jason Smith

The project was truly inter-disciplinary. It has the potential to transform the way we see not only an important cultural landmark but also the way in which we approach an entire field of study.”
—Tony Hirschel
Director, Smart Museum of Art

Katherine Tsiang first trekked to a remote set of ancient cave temples in China’s Hebei province in the late 1980s, little suspecting that the broken treasures there would dominate her life for years to come.

Tsiang, PhD’96, found mostly fragments of the caves’ former glory. The Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan once housed some of the finest examples of early Chinese sculpture—carvings that former University of Chicago art historian Ludwig Bachhofer once called ”the most majestic sculpture China ever created.” However, the cave temples were heavily damaged in the early 20th century, their contents taken away to be sold.

Almost none of the remaining figures had heads. Many lacked hands. The free-standing sculptures were long gone.

But Tsiang and her team at the Center for the Art of East Asia revived the story of the site with funding from an international collaborative research project and the purchase of 3-D scanning equipment and software. Through a mix of scholarly research and international sleuthing, they hunted down the sculptures in museums and private collections all over the world, attempting to put the artwork back together like the pieces of a puzzle.

The product of Tsiang’s research is now on display at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in the exhibition “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan.” The exhibition opened at the Smart Museum on Sept. 30, and will travel in February to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, the exhibition co-organizer. A national tour will follow. As with all Smart Museum events, admission to “Echoes of the Past” is free.

Visitors can step inside re-creations of spaces and groupings of sculptural images that no longer exist today. The displays combine digital imagery of the caves with physical artifacts such as three-foot-tall limestone heads of bodhisattvas and the Buddha. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a multimedia installation known as a “digital cave,” designed by artist Jason Salavon, Assistant Professor in Visual Arts and the Computation Institute. Salavon conceived of the cave as an immersive experience, using multiple screens to give visitors a glimpse inside the largest temple at Xiangtangshan. Other commissioned works include a video of the modern and age-old environs of the caves, produced by Judy Hoffman, Senior Lecturer in Visual Arts and the Committee on Media Studies.

“The Echoes of the Past’ exhibition represents the very best of what the Smart Museum can do, basing its work on groundbreaking research done at the University of Chicago, seeing art of the greatest interest and importance in new ways, and engaging with partners across the campus and around the world,” said Tony Hirschel, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art. “The project was truly interdisciplinary. It has the potential to transform the way we see not only an important cultural landmark but also the way in which we approach an entire field of study.”

Recovering a Lost Artistic Context

Tsiang stumbled across the art of the Xiangtangshan caves as an undergraduate. The sculptures were said to be magnificent examples of Chinese sculpture, ”but nobody knew exactly where [in the caves] they came from,” Tsiang says.

The decades-long despoliation made it nearly impossible to envision the caves in their original form. All of the sculptures, even those carved into the limestone walls of the caves, were severely damaged. ”That became an important part of the early study—to track down pieces that came from these caves and put them in context,” Tsiang explains.

The task of contextualizing the artwork required traveling to museums that held sculptures from the caves in their collections. Using a sophisticated 3-D laser scanner, Tsiang, Lec Maj, then the Assistant Director for Research Computing in the Humanities Division, and a team that included several UChicago students, imaged nearly 100 works of art.

“The recording and image-processing is very, very time consuming,” Tsiang says. The task required capturing each sculpture from every angle and merging the data to create a 3-D model. A team of researchers in China took charge of scanning the inside of the caves. Tsiang and Maj then attempted to match the sculptures to various locations in the caves, digitally replacing the heads and hands of the massive Buddha sculptures. ”[The process] gave me a very good idea of where a lot of things could have come from ... That’s been very exciting,” she says.

Tsiang also wanted to place the art in its historical and religious contexts—the short-lived Northern Qi dynasty (550–570 C.E), whose rulers sponsored the caves, Tsiang believes. The period leading up to the rise of the Northern Qi witnessed the introduction of Buddhism in China, as well as increased international trade and an influx of tribal groups.

The artwork from the caves reflects the unique character of the Northern Qi. “There were waves of introduction of new images, and this is one of the periods in which you see some of the new types of imagery. In the Buddha figures themselves, you see a new approach to the human figure and the rendering of the robes. There’s a much more solid three-dimensional look to the images,” Tsiang says. The Buddha also looks less Han Chinese than in the previous period. ”Some of the features may be Indian, some of it may be Central Asian, but there was a lot of interchange going on.”

Putting the Pieces Back Together

The opening of ”Echoes of the Past” at the Smart Museum marks a bittersweet centennial—the raiding of the caves began in 1910. But the exhibition organizers believe their work helps to rectify some of the damage done.

“The exhibition is an observance of the despoliation of the sites, but also it offers ways of understanding and reconstruction,” Tsiang says.

“On its most basic level, the project 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,” wrote principal investigator of the Xiangtangshan Project Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College, and Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia. ”Of course the history of removal and damage is irreversible, but we wondered in what way we could remedy the forced separation between body and parts, between local origins and global display.”

By embracing new technology and collaborating with museums around the world, Wu argues, ”the project does not just deal with bygone history, but has attempted to develop a future-oriented approach to solve the problems left by the past.”

Originally published on October 18, 2010.