A new digital installation at the Sackler gallery is all the fun of spelunking, with none of the claustrophobia. Visitors can surround themselves in 360 degrees of an ancient Chinese Buddhist cave, which seems like the lovechild of Google Art Project, IMAX 3D, and that Circle-Vision display at Epcot.
Part of the Sackler’s 25th anniversary celebration, the technology of “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang” comes to the gallery from China, where scientists used laser scanning and ultra-high-resolution photography to recreate a cave painted in the early Tang Dynasty, 618-705 A.D. Put on your 3D glasses and enter cave 220 — chosen because it is one of the most ornate, and also the most in need of preservation — and the walls of the cave surround you, first illuminated by flashlight, and then in full light.
Recreating the cave is a neat enough trick on its own, but “Pure Land” goes one step further: it brings the cave to life. With the swish of a finger on a touch screen controller, the faded paint is restored to the brilliant colors that scholars believe once filled the cave. Selecting different pictures on the walls brings them closer for a detailed look, and also animates them, with the chandeliers above the seven Mecidine Buddhas turning and twinkling before you. Underneath them, dancers twirl their scarves, and a band of musicians brings forth each instrument pictured, so you can hear its song.
Altogether, it’s kind of trippy. But it’s also a way to make a work of art that is both inaccessible and arcane completely captivating to everyone. Even if ancient art isn’t your thing, the technology that brings these paintings to life will fascinate kids and grown-ups. It is the first time this type of virtual tour has been to the U.S.
You only have a brief window to check it out, though. Get your free, same-day tickets at the Sackler Pavilion — first come, first serve — from Dec. 1-9, before the cave goes back to China for permanent display.