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Exhibit Unravels Mysteries of Ancient Chinese Temples Through History, Science

August 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
An art exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington is bringing together art, history and science to solve the mysteries of Chinese temples that date back to the 6th century. Jeffery Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, bringing together art, history and science.

Jeffrey Brown takes us through a unique museum exhibition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sculptures from sixth century China, the head of a Buddha, a seated bodhisattva, a kneeling winged monster, works of art from museums around the world. They tell a tale that goes back some 1,500 years.

This is a story of ancient history and the latest technology. It’s got religion and lots of art, and for you mystery and CSI fans, yes, great treasures have been lost and an investigation is ongoing.

It begins in Northeast China in what is today a rural coal mining area at the Xiangtangshan caves. The name means Mountain of Echoing Halls. In the middle of the sixth century, during the Northern Qi Dynasty, one of the shortest-lived, but most creative in Chinese history, artisans turned the caves into Buddhist temples, carving the limestone into beautiful sculptures and shrines.

Today, worshipers still come to the caves, but they pray to largely empty spaces. That’s because, in the early 20th century, looters forcibly removed many of the cave’s sculptures in order to sell them on the international art market.

KEITH WILSON, Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art: All of a sudden, these objects that were created as religious icons and really seen by many Westerners in the 19th century as idols or icons of religious worship, all of a sudden, these were considered fine art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keith Wilson is the curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington.

KEITH WILSON: Basically, that happens in part through the world’s fair movement. In 19th century world’s fairs, there were often cultural displays from various countries throughout the world. And this is where the West first saw things like Chinese Buddhist sculpture, and finally it’s being recognized within the international canon of what fine arts is all about. So there was a demand.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sculptures made their way to art dealers around the world, who then sold them to collectors, including Western museums. This was decades before such transactions were prohibited by international law.

Now experts are trying to, in a sense, put Humpty Dumpty together again. In part, they’re doing it the traditional way, creating an exhibition originating at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, out of all the works they could gather from around the world, pieces like this hand of a Buddha that’s now in the collection of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

This gives us a sense of scale, among other things.

KEITH WILSON: The body that this hand belonged to, which is still in the cave, is about 20 feet tall. This hand was the proper left hand of a seated Buddha. Through the project, we’re now able to identify that Buddha as the Buddha of the future, or Maitreya, one of three Buddhas that were on the central altars of the north cave at Northern Xiangtangshan.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what makes this project so unusual is the merger of art history and new technology to recreate one of the original caves using 3-D imaging.

This digital cave is now part of the exhibition and allows us to see what the actual cave once looked like. The cave’s surface was scanned by a Chinese team from Peking University, which spent four weeks at Xiangtangshan. A technical team in Chicago then helped turn the scans into these wire frame images. Chicago researchers also traveled the world to scan images of every sculpture and fragment they could find, and then placed them digitally in bright yellow back into the cave.

In doing so, Wilson says, scientists and art historians learned even more about the original site.

KEITH WILSON: Another result of this project has been in really building the number of objects that we now know come from the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, so, how — but how do you — how do you figure out that a particular piece which was thought to belong in another cave, in another site belonged actually…

KEITH WILSON: A couple of — a couple of different ways.

The old-fashioned way is connoisseurship, where you compare the style of one head to another head. The digitizing has also helped, because it records so many details so correctly that, in this physical matching that we were talking about, it allows us to — to physically prove that a piece had been removed from this site.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, this also raises another question: Why not just recreate the cave for real and send the sculptures back to China?

Wilson says that, with the works scattered in so many collections for more than 100 years, the Chinese themselves recognize that’s not going to happen and haven’t made such a request. But the art-technology collaboration, he believes, does offer a new way to think about artworks and their original sites.

KEITH WILSON: For a lot of us, maybe even from the first days of the project, there was a sense that the project does provide an alternative to repatriation, that is, the physical return of the objects, that the digital cave allows us to see these elements back in place.

JEFFREY BROWN: The unraveled mystery of the caves, “Echoes of the Past,” at the Sackler Gallery until the end of July, when it moves on to museums in Dallas and later San Diego.