Harvard CAMLab


Digital Exhibition 

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In both the West and the East, the nature of reality was told through stories of cave. In Plato’s cave allegory, the shadow image on the cave wall perceived by the cave prisoners stands for the illusory nature of human perception. In the Eastern/Buddhist imagination, however, a cave is a metaphor for the ultimate reality: the mind, to be illuminated by the everlasting image of the preaching Buddha. In Buddhist culture, the imagination of the optical qualities of a cave was pushed to the limit. In a meditation manual compiled by the 5th-century monk Buddhabhadra,

practitioners were instructed to visualize a “Shadow Cave” that is at once rocky as a grotto and reflective as a mirror: on the cave wall, a radiating “shadow image” of the Buddha would reveal itself from afar but fades into the rock upon approach.

The imagined optical experience of the “shadow cave” became the ultimate prototype underlying a millennium’s practice of cave making in Asia. In sites such as Dunhuang, Longmen, and Maijishan caves, ancient artists strive to shape a rocky cave into a “shadow cave”, realizing the legend that existed only in meditation and transforming a physical space into a mental theatre. Interestingly, the 21st vision of reality is a fundamental echo to the allegories of the cave. “Cave” is used by media artists as the metaphor for the virtual environments created through emerging digital technologies such as projection and VR. Bringing together the modern “cave” technologies of digital media and premodern “cave” imagination in Buddhist art, the CAMLab “Shadow Cave” project aims to reflect upon human beings’ long fascination with cave. By staging a series of key moments in the Buddhist development of “Shadow Cave”, we invite visitors to re-experience the imaginative theatre in the imagination of ancient artists.

Around Shadow Cave is a film and multimedia-theatre project that explores the imaginative cosmos behind Buddhist cave temples in Asia. It includes a series of episodes that explores the development of the prototype of “Shadow Cave” from the Gandhara region all the way to the Buddhist temples in Burma.

The first episode brings to life the original “Shadow Cave” legend of the Gandhara region, through an immersive digital exhibition. The second episode focuses on the “Shadow Cave” reconstruction in Mt. Lu by Chinese monk Huiyuan (334–416 AD). The third episode will address the Binyang Central Cave of Longmen.

The design of the first two episodes have been completed; the preparations are finalized for the third episode, including digital modeling and 3D scan. In 2022 the installation mockups will be completed and the digital exhibition will be launched along with a series of academic lectures and conferences on the culture of “Shadow Cave”.

Trailer of Episode 1 "Shadow Cave"

Trailer of Episode 2 "Contemplation on Four Elements"

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