Immersive Buddhist Cave Environment Opens a Digital Portal to China at the Smithsonian

An immersive multimedia installation replicating a Chinese cave temple built over 1,300 years old opened to visitors at the Smithsonian‘s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. yesterday. Installed in the Moongate Garden through December 9, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang” is a striking and engaging 360-degree projection that incorporates virtual reality to transport viewers to the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang, China, known as the Mogao Grottoes or the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

The 3D images of the ancient murals, which feature figures like the Bhaisajyaguru sutra coming to life, are accompanied by music from drums and harps, as well as dancers moving across the digital landscape. “Pure Land” was made by Jeffrey Shaw with the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong, where he is dean, in collaboration with the ALIVE project and Dunhuang Academy. This is the first time for it to be presented in the United States. In a video (embedded below) from the Sackler, Shaw says that “Pure Land” “was seen as a powerful means of working towards the longterm sustainability of these caves by creating a virtual representation” and “would even enhance the experience of a real visit to the cave.”

The Mogao Grottoes are located on what was the Silk Road and were at a crossroads of not just culture, but religion as well. The caves, which were places of meditation, have paintings from dates separated by centuries, and the story goes that the first was built in the 4th century after a monk had a vision of a thousand Buddhas at the site all washed in a gilding light.

The installation is part of the celebration of the Asian art-focused Sackler’s 25th anniversary, and admission is free with a timed ticket. Initial feedback on the cave installation has been warmly positive, with the Huffington Post calling it “incredible” and the Washington Post stating that “it points the way forward, demonstrating how the immersion environment can be used to let visitors actively explore and understand complicated cultural objects.”

Allison Meier

(Image: “Pure Land,” courtesy of the Smithsonian.)