How touring an ancient Buddhist cave can be a sheer joy
By Philip Kennicott
Friday, November 30, 2012
Beginning Saturday, and for the next eight days, it will be the coolest thing in town. The Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery is hosting a “digital cave,” a fully immersive, three-dimensional tour of an elaborately painted, more-than 1,300-year-old Buddhist cave in northwest China. Using technology developed in Sydney, the “Pure Land” installation is contained in a tent, in the garden courtyard of the Sackler.
It’s easy to be blase about this kind of thing. A decade or more of efforts to use virtual reality to reproduce aesthetic experiences have generally led to unsatisfying, cumbersome and distracting technologies. The transient buzz of interactivity overwhelms the actual content or educational value. But the “Pure Land” cave is different. Although it is only a prototype, it points the way forward, demonstrating how the immersion environment can be used to let visitors actively explore and understand complicated cultural objects.
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 (at Hong Kong University) 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.