• Photo provided by Seattle Art Museum
Parinirvana, Mogao Cave 158, Photograph. • Photo provided by Seattle Art Museum

Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park is showing “Journey to Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of the Silk Road Caves” from March 5 to June 12, 2016. The exhibit shows black & white photographs taken by James and Lucy Lo in the 1940s, ancient manuscripts they collected, and life size copies of cave murals.

Thousands of years of stories and history are packed behind the objects in this small exhibit.

China has been trading with the West for over 2000 years. The Silk Road refers to a set of “caravan routes that stretched from China, Central Asia, and India to the West. Luxury goods flowed along vast distances—silk, for example, was worth its weight in gold in the Roman Empire,” according to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Art travelled the road along with goods, people, ideas, foods, languages, and religions. Buddhism came from India to China along the Silk Road over 2000 years ago.

Dunhuang is at the western edge of China along the Silk Road. For a thousand years since the fourth century, it was a “bustling desert oasis, … the original melting pot of China, … a gateway for new forms of art, culture, and religions,” according to SAM. Over this time, patrons and devotees of Buddhism built nearly 500 caves, and decorated them with thousands of brilliant sculptures and tens of thousands of murals. After the 14th century, Dunhuang was gradually abandoned. In the earlier 20th century, it was basically a dried up, desert town nearly empty of people, with no electricity or running water.

So it was most unusual that newlyweds James and Lucy Lo decided to honeymoon in Dunhuang, and photograph the caves. In 1943, they had to travel by horse and donkey cart, carrying thousands of rolls of film or heavy plates for their cameras. One can admire the adventurous and hardy spirits of to Los.

In the exhibit, we get to see 31 out of over 2500 of the photos taken by the Los. Every three or four photos are grouped and displayed in “rooms” that are created by long diaphanous floor-to-ceiling fabric panels. The “rooms” are a simple and elegant way to suggest the mystery and intimacy of the caves.

I love the shadows in the photos. You can almost imagine those are the shadows caused by the Los. You feel like you are standing next to them as they take the photo. The shadows make the images seem personal, and creative. The technical perfection in photographs is much too highly rated considering the Los’ technical challenges.

The exhibit shows 12 drawings of life-size copies of the cave murals created by a group of young artists organized by the Los in Taiwan. What must it have been like for the Los to see the murals painted, to see them come to life again in front of their eyes in full color, to relive their adventure in a small way. These drawings capture not just the subject matter, but also the condition of the murals, with dirt, grime, cracks, missing paints accurately reproduced.

The exhibit also includes six of the many ancient manuscripts the Los collected; a few really caught my eye and imagination. Two pieces are exam papers over 1000 years old. Just imagine students taking practice tests to prepare for the killer “Imperial Exam” that lasts multiple days and nights. One paper shows an answer a student probably struggled over for a long time, only to have the teacher write a big “NO” on it. If you think we have high stakes testing in schools today, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

What is most fascinating about Dunhuang is the mixing of cultures, which resulted in mixed marriages, new and mixed religious beliefs, and new art. You can see the actual mixing of cultures in the manuscript, Flower Garland Sutra Volume 77, combining different languages on the same sheet of paper. The Tangut script is itself a mix of the Tangut language and Chinese strokes. It reminds me of square word calligraphy, the famous invention of contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing that combines English and Chinese strokes.

Dunhuang is a happy introduction to our new Chinese Art curator Dr. Ping Foong’s work. In her first Seattle exhibition, she shows her keen sense of design and imaginative choices. Multicultural Dunhuang is a fitting subject because it is a great foil to our own time in the Northwest, where we can eat food from different parts of the world, live among people who can enrich each other with different ways of thinking and being.

The exhibit makes me very curious about the Los, and I wish I could have learned more about them, what drew them to honeymoon at such a remote place, to face challenges and dangers. Did they also suspect that they were preserving history, that many of the places they photographed at Dunhuang would no longer exist?

The exhibit also makes me want to learn more about Buddhist art, and Dunhuang. Fortunately, the Asian Art museum has many Buddhist art objects, and an on-going exhibit, Awakened Ones: Buddhas of Asia. And the Getty Museum in Los Angeles will be having a major exhibit on Dunhuang from May 7 to September 4.

“Journey to Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of the Silk Road Caves” runs until June 12, 2016 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (Volunteer Park, 1400 E Prospect St, Seattle, WA 98112). More information available at http://www.seattleartmuseum.org.

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