Dunhuang visualization shows media lever for cultural assets

At the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang in northeastern China, murals and sculptures created from the fifth to the fourteenth centuries fill hundreds of caves.  The murals show thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as musicians, dancers, and patrons. Their costumes and instruments for spiritual advancement, pleasure, and battles with demons provide an extraordinary visual record of a vibrant, cosmopolitan culture.

Media for experiencing and sharing culture significantly affect a culture’s influence and generativity.  The murals on the walls of the Dunhuang caves are difficult to access, share, organize, analyze, augment, transform, and adapt into other cultural works.  The imperative of long-term preservation requires carefully controlled physical access.  Under these media circumstances, the cultural wealth of Dunhuang has had relatively little influence on the creation of new cultural works around the world in the past century.

The Sackler Gallery’s current installation, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang,” immerses visitors in a life-sized, high-fidelity, three-dimensional visualization of one of the Mogao caves.  The guided, immersive experience focuses on a large mural representing a sutra of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Pure Land:

The Bhaisajyaguru sutra tells of the twelve great vows of the Buddha, relating to the provision of food, drink, clothing, medicine, and spiritual aids.  In the painting, the seven forms, or emanations, that Bhaisajyaguru can assume as a healer stand in a row on lotus platforms above a pool, with dancers accompanied by a group of musicians.

The realistic visualization is augmented with selectable magnifications, colorations, animations, and sound effects.  Without traveling to Dunhuang and without causing any risk to the physical artifacts, an unlimited number of persons can richly experience with this visualization the aesthetic wonder and spiritual drama of a Dunhuang cave.

Dunhuang visualization in Sackler Gallery installation, "Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang"

This high-tech installation showcases great opportunities to create new value and new understandings from China’s ancient cultural wealth.  Big-data technologies are driving high-tech industries.  Digitization of Dunhuang caves creates big, creative data from ancient culture.  The technological platform for the Dunhuang visualization suggests future directions for high-resolution display technology, big-data image-processing technology, and broadband communication networks.  More importantly, the Dunhuang visualization shows how cultural wealth can be multiplied.  Adapted, augmented, and shared, vibrant Dunhuang imagery, audience-proven across a millennium of Silk Road travelers, could transform global culture.

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The free Sackler Gallery installation, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang,” is open to the public through Dec. 9, 2012.  Timed, same-day tickets for the 15-minute guided immersive experience are available daily, on a first-come, first-served basis, in the Sackler Pavilion.  Support is being sought to include this installation long-term in the Sackler’s new International Center Gallery.

The installation 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 and the Friends of Dunhuang.  Here are descriptions of other ALiVE projects.  Another ALiVE Dunhuang cave visualization uses visitor-directed iPads as magic windows within a background visualization.  The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) is working on technology similar to ALiVE’s.  EVL’s CAVE2 is being used to create a three-dimension visualization of Star Trek’s spaceship Enterprise.  That EVL application seems to me neither as good, nor as advanced, as ALiVE’s Dunhuang Pure Land visualization.

The quoted text above is from the visitor brochure for the Sackler exhibit.

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