a while back, I announced that Andrea Hull and I would be launching the AA/WV blog focused on writing + video about contemporary art from Asia in America… well, what Andrea and I realized as we researched this was that what really truly interested us was exploring the mediums by which we communicate about art. Any art. In this quest, Andrea visited a 3-D recreation of a Dunhuang cave set up outside the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here is her reaction:
In a white canopied tent set up for one week in the Moongate outside the Sackler Gallery I saw the future predicted 20 years ago in the phrase “virtual reality.” Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang promised to recreate digitally one of the caves – Cave no. 220 to be precise — of the famous Dunhuang complex along the Silk Road in northern China.
You step inside the tent, which is almost exactly the same size as the original cave, and while a guide babbles on, you see, projected onto the dark interior fabric of the tent, introductory, random images. The tent, the diffident “tour guide” reading from a prepared script, the 3D glasses they handed us – none of it inspired much confidence. But when we actually put the glasses on and the lights dimmed, we were suddenly surrounded by frescoes restored to their original glory. Even the light seemed to have the quality of vibration one would expect in those ancient caves.
Though the cave complex projection includes a seated Buddha statue, the virtual tour focused on the frescoes. A technician—who from this moment forward I regarded as “The Magician”– zeroed in on a part of the wall imagery by projecting a “lens” onto the wall. When he did this a detail would zoom out, filling a space about 3 feet in front of the wall. Right there, where we stood, in all their magnificent detail, two angels flapped their wings, followed by a succession of musicians who, one-by-one, zoomed out of the wall to meet us. As they hovered mid-air, we got to look at them up close while listening to the piped-in sounds of their instruments (this last bit was a tad wanting – no doubt the sound design will improve in future iterations of this project).
As The Magician zoomed one of the musicians back to the wall where he lived with his mates, an amazing thing happened. I hadn’t yet gotten my fill of that particular musician and, glancing at the wall, it seemed to me that the part he belonged in was somehow less restored than the rest. “Not to worry,” I thought to myself, “when the tour is over, I’ll go over and get a closer look.” And almost in the same nanosecond the counter-thought flashed across my brain: “No you won’t. There is nothing there to look at. That’s just a piece of white canvas when the black box turns off.”
And it hit me: For several seconds, my brain had inhabited a reality that was completely digital. This was not just head space–it was a space in which I responded with both thought and desire.
That’s when I thought of Dan Sandin, at U of Illinois Chicago, whose CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) I first saw in the early 90’s. These were the first computer-generated “immersive environments,” and the hype always irritated me a little. But the allegorical cave, from Plato’s Republic, is such a beautiful story that when confronted with a “real” cave rendered into ”virtual” “reality,” my brain tumbled immediately into a fun-house mirror recursion — “how do we know anything at all?”
And I thought of Walter Benjamin, and his famous “aura.” Maybe not yet there, but definitely on the path.
(for more information about the Alive project in other iterations, check out this site.)