Watch: China's Ancient Buddhist Cave Art Perfectly Recreated in L.A.


Cave Replicas Let Visitors Inside a Trove of Buddhist Art The Wall Street Journal
Cave Replicas Let Visitors Inside a Trove of Buddhist Art The Wall Street Journal

Not many Western travelers make their way to China's western desert regions, but those who do — like Marco Polo traversing the Silk Road centuries ago — might encounter fantastic troves of ancient artwork secreted away in cliffside cave shelters.

For the rest of us, we've had to make do just photos of the Buddhist statuary, frescoes and manuscripts that decorate the Mogao Caves, a series of 492 man-made grottoes located near the city of Dunhuang. But if you can't take yourself to China's northwestern Gansu Province on the edge of the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts, you bring China's northwestern Gansu Province on the edge of the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts Desert to you. And that's just what's happened with "Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road," a new exhibition currently showing at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Built between the 4th and 14th centuries, the caves served as waypoints for travelers, merchants and pilgrims. Artwork accumulated over a millennium as travelers added to existing murals and statues in an effort to spread the religion and as an act of devotion. Spanning centuries, the artwork displays numerous evolving manners of dress and religious tradition, and reflects contributions from different cultures and artistic styles.

The exhibition, created by artists and preservationists from the International Dunhuang Project, recreates the actual caves in exacting detail. The process took multiple years, involving pencil drawings, photographs, drawings on mulberry bark paper mounted on wooden cave interiors, all to the exact dimensions of the caves in China. 

And while ancient tech was used in recreating much of the work, the exhibition embraces a state-of-the-art approach; immersive 3-D glasses and stereoscopic technology let visitors examine the interior of Cave 45, an 8th-century highlight that exemplifies artwork of the High Tang period.

The preservationists even use the same pigments and techniques as original paintings. But the aim is to transport visitors through space, but not time — "Cave Temples of Dunhuang" shows areas of loss and deterioration to depict how the caves look right now, rather than how they originally appeared.

The "Cave Temples of Dunhuang" at the Getty runs through September 4, 2016. If you can't make it to L.A., take a more in-depth look at the process of recreating the caves in this video: