One of the most significant cultural heritage sites in the world, Dunhuang preserves more than 400 embellished Buddhist cave shrines dating from the fifth century to the fourteenth century. Covered with murals and sculptures, these cave shrines enclose visitors with an imaginary landscape of Buddhist legends and paradises. Standing out from the rich visual culture of the Dunhuang caves, scenes of celestial dance performances in Buddhist paradises are widely acclaimed as the most representative of artistic achievements at Dunhuang. Held within Duhuang’s grand repository of ancient documents are textual records of annotated movements for the wine dance, which combined performance and game to enact intoxicated transcendence at banquets.
Embodied Architecture pursues a new way of telling the master narrative of Chinese architectural history. The project centers upon a question: what is the logic and language of design that fundamentally informs Chinese architecture? The first series of Embodied Architecture, Architecture of the Mind: Buddhist Pagodas of the Liao, focuses on the monumental pagodas of the Liao dynasty (916–1125). As we explore the mental blueprints of Chinese Buddhist architecture, we consider space, sculpture, and painting as an organic, interrelated structure. Bringing together architectural history and art history, we unpack the ideas of body, cosmology, and ritual that are embodied by the monuments.
Far more than a spatial enclosure, a Buddhist temple was deemed in medieval Asia to be a total representation of the cosmos, a symbolic complex of the body, a living organism, a utopia—a microcosm sufficient unto itself.
Bringing into focus China’s history of modern architecture from the early 1900s to the twenty-first century, China Builders invites the audience to explore and experience the life journeys of pioneering architects. Living in times of dramatic cultural interactions and transformations, these architects have produced the milestones of modern architecture in China. Some of them came to China from abroad; they brought modern design practices to China and reshaped the urban landscape of Chinese cities. Others were architects educated outside of China and initiated the study of Chinese architectural history—in turn, they founded the discipline of architecture in China. As it examines the past hundred years of China’s architectural history, China Builders recalls the careers and lived experience of multiple generations’ representative architects.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, he had a spiritual companion with him. A Chinese painter named Liu Kuo-sung (Liu Guosong, b. 1932) collaged a photograph of Armstrong within an abstract moonscape, situating the astronaut as his lunar avatar. And thus, Liu vicariously landed on the moon, gazing at mother earth on the horizon.
Born of Greco-Asian civilizations, Buddhist art in the Gandhara region (part of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) epitomizes an early flowering of global classicism. Today, much of this legacy is in jeopardy. The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan has left many early Gandharan sites unattended and vulnerable to looting, vandalism, and illegal excavation, all fueled by black-market trade.
Luoyang, the capital of the Northern Wei dynasty (494–534), was the world’s largest city during its time; it exerted a profound and lasting influence on the history of urban planning in East Asia. At once a Buddhist capital and a global cultural center, Luoyang was shaped by a systematic zoning policy, an advanced infrastructure system, and a spectacular city plan that was rich in cosmological symbolism. At the center of the transportation, commercial, and cultural network of sixth-century Asia, Luoyang received merchants, monks, and pilgrims from all different regions. It established a cosmopolitan urban culture that integrated the artistic traditions from civilizations across Asia. Towering over Luoyang’s streets were hundreds of magnificent Buddhist monasteries, lavishly sponsored by the imperial family and aristocrats of the Northern Wei dynasty.
Fire Dream was first ignited by the ceramics practice of Chinese artist Zhao Meng (born 1957). Reconceptualizing ceramic techniques and literati traditions such as ink painting and paper making, Zhao remediates organic materials throughout his iterative artistic process. From initial incorporations of straw into clay, Zhao fires the materials to produce ceramic sculpture; thereafter he photographs the sculpture, and finally prints the images on xuan paper—where straw reappears as woven fibers. Though his materials have been used across centuries of Chinese art, Zhao’s invocation of these elements mirrors an ecological process, through which organic matter undergoes cycles of reincorporation and remediation within the natural environment.
Courtyard invites visitors into the imaginary dimension of Chinese architecture. Covered with wood carvings of scenes from traditional dramas, Chinese vernacular houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1644 and 1644–1911, respectively) demonstrate a unique ornamentation system with multivalent connections to theatrical culture. Dramatic scenes were ubiquitous as decorations in the living environment, distinctively shaping lived experiences, even blurring the boundary between theater and life. This phenomenon in architectural design history echoes the flourishing philosophical discourse on the relationship between performance and reality in the Ming and Qing periods.
This project explores the visual, material, and architectural cultures of the Avatamsaka school of Buddhism. As one of Asia’s most influential systems of ideas, Avatamsaka Buddhism is renowned for its unique cosmological imagination, which served as the design prototype for numerous cultural heritage sites and Buddhist artworks. Indra’s net is the central metaphor that artfully illustrates the Avatamsaka cosmology. It describes a net of jewels, where the polished surface of each jewel reflects all other jewels.
As a sister project to Digital Luoyang, Luoyang Soundscape explores the acoustic fabric of the ancient cosmopolis, Luoyang—the world’s largest city during the sixth century. As the capital of the Northern Wei dynasty (494–534) and the center of Asia’s commercial and transportation network, Luoyang flourished as a global center, intersecting art, religion, and culture from across Asia. The city, however, quickly fell into ruins only half a century after its establishment due to wars and political turmoil.
Mindscape is a modern-day recreation of a Chan Buddhist meditation practice that dates as far back as the Song dynasty (960–1279). This project guides audiences through the journey of multisensorial meditation, inviting them into the mental dimension of Buddhist ritual. Mindscape draws upon an array of objects integral to the Water-Land ritual, a Buddhist rite developed for the universal salvation of all sentient beings. These include bells, water, light, and other materials incorporated within temple practices; and Buddist pictorial art, rich in dramatic imagery and vibrant colors.
One of the most performed dramas by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), The Peony Pavilion is a comic-yet-tragic romance in which dreams, facts, images, and reality become fatally entangled. Set during the waning days of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), the play centers on a young girl who falls asleep in a garden. In her dream, she begins a passionate romance that builds into an obsession after she awakens and ultimately consumes her. Before her death of lovesickness, she leaves a self-portrait in a garden with the futile hope that the illusory lover of her dream will pick it up.
An interactive, educational game that retells a Chinese literary classic, Romance of the Western Chamber invites players to explore the multifaceted culture of Wang Shifu’s thirteenth-century drama. In Wang’s Romance of the Western Chamber, textual, visual, and material histories intertwine. After the drama’s debut, numerous scrolls, albums, prints, manuscripts, and artifacts responded to Romance of the Western Chamber across the centuries that followed.
Shadow Cave addresses a foundational myth of Buddhist art originating around the year 400 CE in the region of Nagarahāra (in present-day Afghanistan), part of the kingdom of Gandhāra. There the Buddha is said to have leaped into the wall of a cliffside grotto, imprinting on it a “shadow image” that was radiantly reflective like a mirror when seen from afar but disappeared into the rocky surface upon approach.
For Chinese art, the 1980s is commonly seen as a period of transition—a time of either healing from the rigid and iconographic depictions from the Mao era in the past, or setting the stage for the so-called contemporary Chinese art of the 1990s, defined by the fame and success of Chinese artists in the global market. However, depictions of laughter in artworks such as Geng Jianyi’s The Second State reveal that these dominant narratives fall short, failing to account for the full story of the 1980s in Chinese art history.
Dating to the third century BCE, the Mawangdui tombs are among the most important archaeological findings of the twentieth century. Bearing similarity to Egyptian pyramids, the sophisticated underground structure of the Mawangdui indicates the early Chinese understanding of life and its relationship to the outer cosmos.