Dunhuang, a Gobi Desert town in northwestern Gansu Province, is mainly known for the in situ art of its Mogao Caves, Buddhist murals and sculptures created in discrete phases from the Northern Liang (397-439 CE) through the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE). The network of grotto carvings and murals in Dunhuang is as site-specific as art can get, an evolving corpus created over a millennium of episodic political turbulence and slow, steady overland socioeconomic exchange. (Dunhuang was a crucial Silk Road pit stop, especially during the peak of the Tang Dynasty, thanks to a large nearby oasis.)
Faithfully recreating this art within the glittering techno-financial hub that is Shanghai is no small feat. You're inadvertently prepared for the contrasting time horizons housed within even before you enter the exhibition itself. The curators -- a grab bag of researchers associated with the museum and the Dunhuang Research Academy -- have constructed a cave replica in the plaza outside the Zendai plaza, a very Shanghai piece of architecture. On entering the building, which is more of a mall than a museum, one must navigate several floors of arch-bourgeois consumerism (commercial galleries selling idealized "Himalayan" art; a two-story Maan Coffee) before encountering the exhibit entrance, which plunges you directly into the dusty yellow sandstone world that is painstakingly, artificially recreated inside.
Take the plunge...
Song of Living Beings starts strong, with a half-dozen individual caves recreated in a maze of sand-colored cloth and low light, revealing concerted attention to textural accuracy. The process of recreating the cave environment is spelled out in a jarringly personal note from its designer:
In the cave replica section, Dunhuang's enduring significance is broken down through expansive wall texts using select examples of caves from the Northern Liang through the High Tang as object studies in the flux of ideas, political and cultural, that was facilitated by Silk Road travel and indexed on Mogao's walls.
Pictorial representations shift over time from illustrations of Gautama's mytho-history to more historically-oriented documents of emissaries from as far afield as India and, later, Europe. One of the most impressive aspects of these cave replicas is the incredible attention to detail, a painstaking recreation of the erosion of time on art.
The cave replicas are thrown into high contrast with the next exhibition space, a hall of recreated murals hung on walls painted a shocking Matissean blue. This section is equally absorbing, restoring the faded mural art into panel after panel of vivid two-dimensional storytelling.
In some cases, the same mural is depicted twice: once in "authentic" replica, once in interpretive polychrome restoration. Again, lengthy wall texts explicate the dense concatenation of religious and historical narrative on visual display. Budget a few hours if you want to soak in the full context.
The curators of Songs of Living Beings go through great pains to stress the contemporary cultural value of antiquity. A wall text near the beginning helpfully explains:
Unfortunately, Paik's "Blue Buddha" was downed by technical difficulties on my visit, but the wall text describes its intended effect:
Other conceptual pieces display greater depth. Xu Jing's "Diamond Sutra" places characters from the titular Buddhist text into 1,800 individual frames, creating a compelling visual metaphor for the power of verbal, mantric and tantric repetition.
The most poignant contemporary piece is Niu Youyu's "Guanyin", in which the artist creates hundreds of miniature soap sculptures of the bodhisattva of compassion, gives them away, and later collects them along with notes of how each individual piece of soap was used. The resulting work is a meditation on high-speed entropy, recreating a millennium of erosion and decay in the space of a few short months of ritual and literal purification. (Some people used the Guanyin soaps to wash their hands; others to wash their clothes. Some refused to touch the statue out of reliquary deference.)
The other category of contemporary works are of the canonical, Institutional Painter variety. Kong Baiji, a faculty member of the Shanghai Theater Academy and art scene player in the rich post-Mao renaissance, contributes a few canvases of beautified Guanyins placed into an imitative Abstract Expressionist background. He Wunjie's "The Uyghur's Shop" adds a drop into the ocean of shaoshuminzu colonialist painting, compressing the embattled ethnic group's cultural identity into a colorful textile bazaar.
Context and Subtext
The rich flow of images and the stated focus on transhistorical dialogue in Songs of Living Beings is underscored by a subtextual narrative never explicitly addressed: China's slow-burning, 21st-century soft power drive. The immense historical detail put into reconstructing the ancient Silk Road here must be seen in some capacity as an elliptical reference to Yi Lu Yi Dai, or the New Silk Road, China's loudly touted infrastructure construction project across Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The paroxysms of the Cultural Revolution, during which China's material heritage was intentionally and systematically destroyed, are tidily omitted from the narrative. (Zhou Enlai saved Dunhuang with a one million RMB preservation endowment in 1962. After the Cultural Revolution broke out four years later, he "gave instructions that the safety of the monuments should be ensured at all costs.")
Indeed, the viewer basically jumps from the Ming Dynasty directly into the post-Reform and Opening Up era, with its renewed focus on cultural heritage restoration and preservation. The relationship between art and power is only directly confronted in an anomalous section of the exhibit recounting Harvard archaeologist Langdon Warner's controversial early 1920s expeditions to Dunhuang, during which, the Chinese-only text explains, he and his team "stole" the paintings by applying a chemical glue to the murals and literally ripping them off the walls. The text goes on to describe future attempts of cultural heritage theft being thwarted by the crafty and resourceful Dunhuang locals.
[EDIT: A reader alerted me to this Wechat bulletin floating around about ancient sexual and scatological graffiti at Dunhuang. These pieces were also excluded from the Zendai exhibit.]
But really, themes of geopolitical hegemony and imperial triumphalism are baked into any display of ancient cultural heritage, and these don't distract much, if at all, from the aesthetic grandiosity of the exhibition as a whole. China's working hard to reinstate its role as a centrifuge of pan-Asian cultural diffusion, and it makes a strong case here. If anything, my biggest beef with the show was the obnoxious QR audio guide prompts placed at the entrance of each cave replica. Rogue philosopher Nick Land writes of Songs of Living Beings that "as an art of the replica show, it’s jaw-dropping", and it is that, but at points the mediated smartphone experience can trump the "pure" replica experience. Navigating queues of QR scanners and blaring audio explications reduced the plain-old simulacrum effect inherent in any art of the replica exercise into an uncomfortable, annoying chain of digital meta-simulacra.
That said: highly recommended.
Dunhuang: Songs of Living Beings is a compelling and, bottom line, beautiful illustration of the intersection of time horizons. Its anachronistic mixture of contemporary and ancient art, like a Janus face simultaneously looking back on deep history and forward to the future, reminds us of the constant condition of temporal reconstruction that is the present. It's a poignant metaphor for the times we live in, and especially China's attempt to reconcile its ideal future with its traumatic, monumental past.
Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings is on view at the Himalayas Museum until March 20. Find more info in the listing.