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'Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan' at the Sackler

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By Mark Jenkins
Friday, March 4, 2011

You might think of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery's new exhibition as "CSI Xiangtangshan.''

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In 1913, Charles Lang Freer bought two ancient Chinese sculpted heads at a New York gallery. He couldn't have known exactly where they came from. Only in the past decade have scholars determined the origin of these pieces: several Buddhist cave temple complexes in Xiangtangshan, northern China.

The temples, constructed during the sixth century's short-lived Northern Qi Dynasty, were a mystery for a simple reason: Their contents had been, uh, repurposed. Many of the sculptures in the two sets of caves, about nine miles apart, were free-standing limestone figures; they were easily removed (and sold). But profiteers also hacked heads and hands off Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that had been carved directly into the rock walls.

Recent photos of the caverns, which show dozens of headless figures, have an eerie quality. They portray a sort of crime scene.

On one level, "Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan'' is simply a collection of Chinese statues that ended up in Western museums. There are plenty of comparable pieces in the Freer and Sackler's collections. In fact, 13 of the show's 31 items belong to the Freer.

But the nearly 1,500-year-old artifacts from Xiangtangshan ("echoing halls mountain'') are complemented by modern technology. A three-screen video presentation integrates 20th- and 21st-century photographs with CGI modeling to give a powerful sense of one of the cave temples. The video reveals where some of the severed heads and hands used to be and shows the bright colors applied to the stone figures. (While the pigments you see today are recent, similar ones would have been applied when the temples were new.)

Much of the information that guides the exhibition was developed by the University of Chicago's Center for the Art of East Asia, beginning in 2004. Collaborating with other institutions, the center began the forensics investigation that linked sculptures to their original locations. One way to do this is by comparing the jagged cuts where stone heads were detached from their bodies.

If the 20th-century workers who cleaved hands and heads did so roughly, the original sculptors had considerably more finesse. They gave the Buddha's half-smile the suppleness of human flesh and deftly combined the features of dogs, lions and boars to invent the faces of the winged demons that once guarded the northern cave's perimeter.

The art for the temples was made in a time of spiritual and political turmoil; new forms of Buddhism were entering China, and Northern Qi rule lasted only 27 years. Yet these pieces show not confusion, but assurance and delicacy. A serene figure such as "Standing Disciple Mahakasyapa Holding a Cylindrical Reliquary'' helps explain why so many people are trying to reconstruct the caves' lost sculpture. One look at its fluid form, and you want to know more.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

ECHOES OF THE PAST: THE BUDDHIST CAVE TEMPLES OF XIANGTANGSHAN Through July 31 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000. www.asia.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free.


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