During the sixth century, Chinese sculptors of the Northern Qi dynasty carved massive Buddhas, attendant figures, and threatening monsters into the walls of 11 man-made limestone caves. This prodigious artistic achievement remained intact for about 1,400 years—until, in the early 20th century, the caves were rediscovered and ransacked. Pieces—heads and hands, bas-relief monks—were systematically chiseled out to be bought and sold on the international art market.
In an effort to assess if not reverse the damage, the University of Chicago's Center for the Art of East Asia has been working for the past six years on identifying, locating, and scanning carvings taken from the Xiangtangshan caves. With the cooperation of Peking University, the U. of C. team has also photographed and scanned the cave site itself. Now a trio of curators has combined the scans with 14 actual objects from Xiangtangshan to produce a part-physical, part-virtual re-creation of the caves.
The entrance to the exhibit features a monumental stone bodhisattva. Another highlight is the immersive video installation by artist Jason Salavon depicting the caves through time, from their Qi-era glory through their despoliation and eventual, partial reconstruction. The use of state-of-the-art technology to rescue a centuries-old masterpiece from oblivion gives the exhibit a flashy hook, but the original carvings and statuary look spectacular enough to make a visit worthwhile even without the bells and whistles. 9/30-1/16: Tue-Wed and Fri 10 AM-4 PM, Thu 10 AM-8 PM, Sat-Sun 11 AM-5 PM, reception Thu 9/30, 5:30-7:30 PM, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood, 773-702-0200, smartmuseum.uchicago.edu. —Noah Berlatsky
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