In size and shape, it resembles 19th-century panoramic painting, which used specially made circular rooms and careful, perspectival painting to create the illusion of being in the middle of a space, often a battlefield. The Pure Land cave updates this, with a circular screen in a darkened tent, five projectors mounted on a metal scaffolding overhead, 3-D glasses, speakers and a network of computers to make the environment respond to the user’s control. An iPad Mini serves as a controller, allowing one to focus in and highlight details.
The interface is simple, the results stunning. The Pure Land cave is part of a complex known as the Mogao Grottoes, carved out of a cliff in Dunhuang, on the ancient Silk Road. For more than a thousand years, beginning in the 3rd century A.D., these elaborately painted spaces served as sites for worship and meditation. The Pure Land cave, one of perhaps 600 such spaces, contains sculpture, and an elaborate representation of the seven Medicine Buddhas, surrounded by musicians and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings).
The fresco appears static and formal to modern viewers, an arrangement that stresses hierarchy rather than action. The virtual technology, however, unlocks a dynamism that is present though muted in the painting. When highlighted on a magnifying screen that seems to hover in space, the bodhisattvas appear to fly. By focusing the controller on the musicians, their instruments leap out of the image while speakers give a modern approximation of the sounds they would have made.
The experience mimics both the physical and visual exploration of the cave, the architectural and artistic space. One setting puts the visitor in the darkened, square chamber, with a powerful flashlight to explore the space. Turn on the lights, and the full cave appears. Focus in and details become explicit. One button shows elements of the faded fresco “repainted” in the brilliant, even lurid colors that one might have seen a thousand years ago.
The actual caves are in danger from too many visitors and are often closed to the public. So the technology also functions as a preservation medium, making what is available only to scholars and VIPs open to general visitors.
Finally, it seems virtual environments are catching up with the way we actually move about and understand visual space. Even better, the special features built into the experience by the Run Run Shaw Creative Media Center (affiliated with the City University of Hong Kong) are aimed at genuine educational impact.
After the temporary tent is taken down after Dec. 9, the Sackler hopes to reinstall it in an underground gallery that is now part of the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center, sometime in the spring. With luck, even this state-of-the-art technology will be obsolete in a few years. But at last we have a virtual reality system that is worthy of inclusion in a museum devoted to the real stuff of art.
will be on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through Dec. 9. Free timed tickets are required for entry. For information, visit www.asia.si.edu.