Saturday, February 23, 2008
Beijingers are flocking to the National Art Museum to check out the Dunhuang Art Exhibition.
The Dunhuang grottoes or caves in Gansu Province, central China, are filled with murals and some statues featuring Buddha and his disciples in various situations or illustrated stories about Buddha.
These grottoes are basically on a sheer mountainside along the Silk Road. It's believed Buddhism from India came along this route and inspired many artisans and followers to leave their artistic impressions of the religion in the caves.
The 735 grottoes were built and decorated from the 4th to the 14th centuries. It wasn't until 1945 that conservation work began and many artists began the painstaking work of reproducing the murals.
And their efforts are now on display in the Chinese capital.
The museum is wrapped up in a picture of the Dunhuang caves, hoping to give visitors the impression of visiting them.
I had heard the museum had over 5,000 visitors a day going through this exhibition. Not prepared to put up with the crowds, I woke up early today and took a taxi to the museum before it officially opened at 9am.
There was already a big crowd there, about 70-80 people by the time I arrived at 8:30. And I saw staff were beginning to let people in, so the line to buy tickets went quickly and soon I was inside.
In the lobby there was another big rush -- this time for audio guides. By the time I reached the front and asked for an English one, the staff said they didn't have any.
That was disappointing -- if you want more foreigners understand Chinese culture, you have to make it more accessible.... especially in a national museum.
However, it wasn't really necessary and turned out to work to my advantage.
The beginning of the exhibition was choc full of people, with audio guides stuck to their ears listening to every word. I wandered relatively quickly at my own pace, losing the crowd.
At first it was strange to look at reproductions, but they were honest ones -- if a face was missing in the original, they didn't attempt to guess what it looked like. If there were places that were chipped, that was also painted in the copy to make it look as real as possible.
The best part was wandering in the several rooms that were created to look like the actual grottoes, including the ceiling. They were all covered in various scenes with Buddha or included sculptures, and towards the curved ceiling were hundreds or even thousands of disciples sitting next to each other.
Some of the murals looked roughly painted, others showed considerable skill, even painting the hairs on men's beards. There was even a reproduction of a giant sleeping Buddha, some 14.4m long.
Most of the colourful murals had a large Buddha surrounded by his smaller-sized disciples as they enjoyed a performance of dancing and music. Attendants all wore flowing robes and made various offerings to him.
What was also interesting was that some of the designs on the borders framing these murals looked very Western. Some reminded me of the wavy floral motifs on Florentine notebooks. If they were taken out of context, one would think they came from Europe.
Overall I had a wonderful experience going through the museum without encountering too much obnoxious behaviour -- some people chatting loudly on their cell phones, or taking pictures with flash when there were signs everywhere of a camera with a line through it. However, even the staff weren't vigilant enough in warning people either, something that should be stepped up so that visitors understand they should obey the rules.
Before the exhibition I already had an interest in seeing the Dunhuang grottoes. One of my favourite artists, Zhang Daqian went there to copy some murals.
And now I'm even more keen to see the real thing, hopefully in the near future.