Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Copies, Aura and the Caves of Dunhuang

Buddha’s Caves

Published: July 6, 2008
The New York Times
On the lip of the Gobi Desert, sand and tourists threaten Mogaoku’s singular art.
(with slideshow)

Plans for drastic remedial action are in place. Under Dr. Fan and the vice director, Wang Xudong, the academy will build by 2011 a new visitor reception center several miles from the caves, near the airport and railroad station. All Mogaoku-bound travelers will be required to go to the center first, where they will be given an immersive introduction to the caves’ history, digital tours of interiors and simulated restorations on film of damaged images. They will then be shuttled to the site itself, where they will take in the ambience of its desert-edge locale and see the insides of one or two caves before returning to where they started.

(About 70 percent of the money for the visitor center — the equivalent of $38 million — is coming from the Chinese government. The rest must be raised from private sources. Details related to the project can be found on

For Chinese visitors a partly virtual approach may not feel unusual. Many museums in China give equal time to art objects and information technology. Multimedia evocations of sites are common: it is the only way to see excavated tomb frescos too sensitive to light and air to be removed from the underground. And it is common practice substitute copies of famous works of art in museums when the originals are unavailable.

For Westerners addicted to the concept of authenticity, to the romance of “the real thing,” the idea of a primarily digital experience of Mogaoku is hard, if not impossible to accept. Art is, after all, about the aura attached to uniqueness. The art experience depends on being there.

Paradoxically this insistence on authenticity is also the impulse driving contemporary conservation. At whatever cost, the integrity of the original must be preserved. Yet conservators know that often the only way to protect the “real thing” is by restricting access to it, by forcing an audience to accept a condition of not being there, by substituting virtual auras for actual ones. And so the contradictions pile up, and change inexorably goes on.

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