Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at Silk Road Gateway

Reproduction of a 6th-century pillar at the Mogao Caves (Perry Hu/China Institute Gallery)
The China Institute routinely packs a wealth of art and information way out of proportion to its two tiny galleries.

At present they hold a distillation of one of China’s greatest Buddhist art sites: the Mogao Caves (pictured left) near the far western oasis city of Dunhuang.

According to legend, the caves originated some 2,000 years ago with a miracle: a wandering Buddhist monk camped by a desert cliff heard voices encouraging him to stay. He chiseled a shelter out of the rock and hunkered down. Other monks joined him; a community gathered.

More caves were excavated, some as spaces for [veneration], and these were adorned with frescoes and painted clay sculptures. As Dunhuang became a commercial hub on the Silk Road, the caves, numbering in the hundreds, became a pilgrimage destination. They remained one for centuries until trade routes shifted, traffic stopped, and Mogao was forgotten. 
European explorers rediscovered the place in the 19th and early 20th centuries and pillaged it, carrying off thousands of manuscripts and paintings stored in the so-called Library Cave.

At the end of the 20th century, the caves began to attract tourism, which posed major threats to the art. To save it, the group of archaeologists on site and conservators known as the Dunhuang Academy, is building an elaborate visitor center nearby, which will serve as a museum and offer a surrogate cave experience as access to the real caves becomes restricted.

The China Institute show -- organized by Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, with Willow Weilan Hai Chang, director of the China Institute Gallery -- gives a sense of what that experience might be like. More

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