Purely digital

This article is part of A new Age of Culture: The Digitisation of Arts and Heritage, a content series developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by Google.


The space housing Pure Land, a breath-taking journey back in time, is formally called a gallery, but it feels like anything but one. The exhibition area at the City University of Hong Kong houses no artwork, no artefacts, no historically-significant objects of any kind. Rather, its appeal lies in five unassuming black boxes suspended from the ceiling, each pointed at a different spot along the circumference of the small circular room: projectors. Inside them are images captured from one of the most important Buddhist heritage sites in the world, the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, China.

In their physical form, the grottoes are carved into a cliffside abutting a vast desert plain. Inside Pure Land, they are accessible at the push of a button. The visitor walking into “Pure Land” would be forgiven for mistaking it for an interactive theatre, the kind that is all too common in modern museums and cultural spaces. Yet there is very little theatre involved in Pure Land. The immediate scene displayed on the 360-degree screen surrounding the visitor is a landscape stretching off into the virtual horizon. It presents a kilometre-long sweep of scenery, a “cave browser”, in the words of Jeffrey Shaw, the project curator. Each cave features its own portal, though only one out of hundreds has actually been digitised. “This is a model for how we would present the entire heritage site if we could digitise every cave,” Mr Shaw says.

The one accessible cave is identified only by its number, 220. It dates from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.), considered one of the most culturally-rich periods in Chinese history. Its frescoes depict holy figures engaged in bustling ritual, dance and music-making. Look around: they rush at you from all directions. Along another wall, stolid statues surround a carving of the Buddha in his trademark lotus position. As you watch, they pop forward like the optical illusion they are, creating a sense of richness and depth which approximates with uncanny precision the experience of viewing the cave in person.

The most striking thing about Pure Land is that it is at once intimate and immense, immersive to the point that if it weren’t for the 3D goggles required to view it, one could easily forget the entire tableau is nothing but a collection of ones and zeros. Mr Shaw is an evangelist of cultural digitisation, having spearheaded projects across Asia alongside his wife Sarah Kenderdine, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. He compares the value of digitised culture to that of a piece of recorded music: if the Mogao Grottoes are a live concert, Pure Land is the studio album.

Accordingly, Pure Land has plenty of hidden tracks. One of the niftiest is a “magnifying glass”, controlled by a joystick, which users can glide over the frescoes to zoom in on a specific illustration. This affords a far more granular examination of the artwork than would be possible even in the grottoes themselves, subject to various bureaucratic restrictions, protective glass panels and dust storms. “Art historians have spent hours in our environment and they are enthralled,” Mr Shaw says.

Other flourishes, like the human dancers in miniature one can conjure out of the paintings, are more exercises in endearing gimmickry than true cultural digitisation, though the care imbued into the entire initiative is undeniable. According to Mr Shaw, over 20 workers from China’s Dunhuang Academy spent three months capturing high-resolution photographs from the grottoes. Mr Shaw’s team spent another year stitching together the images and designing the gallery. More caves could be added to the existing programme in a fraction of the time, though Mr Shaw says there are no current plans to do so.

Still, the possibilities for Pure Land, in its current state, reflect the increasingly crucial role digital tools play in cultural preservation. An adjacent room allows users to view the minute details of cave 220 on an iPad screen traced over a sensor-studded wall. And the realism of the Hong Kong installation has been eclipsed by a sister exhibition in Sydney which opened at the end of last year, says Mr Shaw. Its 56-projector-strong set-up allows ten times greater resolution. If technology improves apace, future incarnations could see the entire grotto inserted into a pair of virtual-reality goggles and viewed at home alone: one click and it’s open, sesame.


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