Can a person stand in a tent on the grounds of the Sackler Galllery on the National Mall in DC on a December day in the 21st Century and simultaneously explore an ornately decorated Buddhist cave in northwestern China in the 6th Century? Well, if you were one of the fortunate few who got to witness the brief (only 8 days) North American debut of the impressive exhibit Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhang, the surprising answer is yes. And how was that accomplished? Using groundbreaking technology, Pure Land digitally recreates such a cave and immerses visitors in a 360-degree panoramic projection theater that gives a true-to-life experience of actually exploring the site.
The experience mimicked both the physical and visual explorations of the cave. After putting on special powered 3-D glasses, visitors initially encountered a darkened chamber. Next, it appeared as if the chamber were lit by torchlight, which is the only way any of the caves that remain open today can be seen.
Suddenly, the lights were turned on, and Cave 220 appeared in all its restored glory. For the rest of the 15-minute visit, 5 projectors, a network of computers, and a state-of-the-art sound system allowed visitors to see (and even hear) the faded frescoes in all their brilliance that has not been seen in thousands of years..
You saw the 7 medical Buddhas that were the highlight of the mural. You saw the faces of the Asian silk road merchants whom Buddhist monks had immortalized on the walls for financing the project. But the pioneer virtual reality techniques allowed for even more, enhancements inconceivable until recently. Instruments depicted leapt from the walls and spun in front of amazed eyes. Dancers performed ancient dances as if they were actually in the room, not mere painted representations.
The astounding display, powered by a sole iPad, was conceived and designed by the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment (ALiVE), City University of Hong Kong in partnership with the Dunhuang Academy.
The more than 700 caves in the Magao Grottoes, which are included on UNESCO's World Heritage List, are located in Dunhuang, a small town in northwestern China that was a gateway on the ancient Silk Road that carried trade between China, western Asia, and India.
Today, Cave 220 is closed to the public to ensure its preservation, but now, with the new technology, visitors will be able to enjoy it for the centuries to come. And they won't even have to visit China to do it.
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Thoroughly impressed, we visited the exhibition twice, the 1st time we had ever done that with a one-week show since coming to D.C. Each time I couldn't help but think of rock music critic Jon Landau's famous quote about his 1st witnessing a performance by Bruce Springsteen. "I have seen the future of rock n' roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen." Landau said. I believe Judy and I were witnessing a virtual reality experience that will dramatically reshape museum presentations. And we weren't the only ones captivated by the one-of-a-kind experience. Washington Post arts and culture writer Philip Kennicott called the presentation "the coolest thing" in town. Claiming that to date, 3-D has mostly proven to be underwhelming, Kennicott said the Sackler exhibit was different. "Although it is only a prototype, it points the way forward, demonstrating how an immersion environment can be used to let visitors actively explore and understand complicated cultural objects. The results are stunning."