I was recently in Los Angeles and so, as always, I made a point of visiting the astounding Getty Center complex which contains the Getty Museum, Research Institute (GRI), and Conservation Institute (GCI). This complex is a mecca for art and archaeology lovers in the Southern California area. My visit this time though was specifically to attend the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road, put on by the GRI and GCI. Not only was this an opportunity to learn about the fascinating art and archaeology of a region that I had never been exposed to, but it was also an opportunity to experience some novel exhibition techniques.
There were three sections to the exhibition - the replica caves, the Cave 45 Virtual Immersive Experience, and an exhibition of artefacts and photographs in the GRI galleries. As timed tickets were needed for the replica caves we first headed to the GRI galleries to learn the story of the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi desert and nearby temple complex of Mogao (peerless) grottoes. This exhibition brought together artefacts from the site that had been scattered to museums across the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. These artefacts, especially those from the Library Cave, but also including paintings and sculptures found in almost 500 other caves, focus on Buddhism whilst also telling stories of the people of the Dunhuang region for almost a millennia; merchants, monks, and ruling families alike. Unfortunately photography was not permitted in the exhibition space so I cannot share all of my favourite pieces.
In this exhibition space too, were photographs and videos which highlighted the 25 year collaboration between the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy to examine and conserve these cave temples, some of which were in danger of being lost to the elements or the ravages of uncontrolled tourism. By focusing on Cave 85 the team from the Getty and the local academy have succeeded in developing a practical conservation methodology which will allow the rest of Mogao as well as other Silk Road sites to be preserved and enjoyed - in a controlled manner - by the public. The project is ready to publish its findings and the Chinese team are already teaching the techniques to the next generation of students.
The next section of the exhibition we explored was the Cave 45 Virtual Immersive Experience. This is essentially a small 3D film which provides a tour of the paintings and statues within Cave 45. This is an 8th-century cave which is excellently preserved and exemplifies the Chinese art of the High Tang period (705–781). Although short, this novel tour allowed me to get a better feel for the interiors of the caves and, I think, understand their imagery better than the exhibition area. There is something more visceral about "being there" which I think helps the learning process.
Finally we headed to the replica caves. These caves were created meticulously by students at Dunhuang Academy as a way to understand the conservation issues at play in the real spaces. They also serve as a record of the state of the caves at different periods. The three caves that were re-created in the Getty Plaza were Cave 275 (from the 5th century), Cave 285 (from the 6th century), and Cave 320 (from the 8th century). For me this was the highlight of the whole experience. Despite knowing that you are really in a large tent you feel like you have transported to the Gobi desert on pilgrimage to this extraordinary Buddhist site. Detailed and vivid, these replicas seem to come complete with the stillness of a temple. The thing that grabbed my attention the most was in Cave 285 there were depictions of both Chinese and Indian deities, emphasising the multicultural, and open, nature of this site which sat on the major overground trade route for centuries.
This was a truly enlightening exhibition about a region and World Heritage Site, that I had never heard of, and would have been the poorer for not experiencing. I think that there is no other appropriate way to exhibit these caves short of travelling to China.
The Getty has created a series of videos to accompany the exhibition which can be found here.
The Dunhuang Academy has published some 3D tours of the caves including the three replicated at the Getty which can be found here.
The exhibition runs until September 4th 2016 and if you can make it I thoroughly recommend it!