by Rachel Pafe
We are ushered down a plastic-encased hallway into the main room, given glasses and herded into what feels like a vast cavern. It takes my eyes a few seconds to adjust and I can make out squares of light dancing across the curved walls. “OK, here we go.” Pitch black.
A beam of light suddenly illuminates a spot on the wall and everyone gasps. We are in a cave. Albeit a very thoughtfully reconstructed digital cave, but we have been transported nonetheless. The spotlight widens and murals, sculptures and intricate pictures appear. We are in a reconstruction of the Magoa Grottoes at Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is currently closed off to visitors. This heated, outdoor cave, termed “Pure Land,” is part of the 25th birthday extravaganza of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. From December 1st through December 9th, viewers can enter into an immersive, digital experience that uses 3D modeling, animation, video and installation to momentarily travel to Buddhist cave temples in Dunhuang, China.
Our guide clicks on a stationary woman and she suddenly erupts into dance. He points to a faded shadow and it materializes as a reconstructed musical instrument ripe with song. “Let’s look closer,” he murmurs, and the walls are lit with a digital magnifying glass that zooms in on the creases of eyes, the embroidery of jackets, the taut muscles of sitting stoics. “Going up!” and my stomach actually drops as we ascend to inspect the ceiling. Gasps multiply, triple, quadruple.
Back inside amidst sturdy marble floors and abundant champagne, Director Dr. Julian Raby declares that, “silk roads have given way to high speed, ethereal connections.” Not only is the Freer/Sackler is entering the digital age, but it is embracing contemporary art. The room buzzes with excited chatter when he announces the museum’s new partnership with the U.S. State Department’s Art and Embassies Program, which showcase commissioned work before it is sent abroad.
The latest incarnation is artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Explosion Event this Friday at 3 pm, outside the north entrance of the Freer. Part pyrotechnics, part 4D optical illusion, a 40 foot pine tree will burst into a sea of fireworks that will be followed up by silken black clouds reminiscent of Chinese brush drawings. Two trees remain: the tangible original and its sinister, ephemeral black twin. Of the scheduled eruption, the gregarious Cai teases, “So, you’re probably thinking: have I tried this before? No.”
Other events this week include a panel discussion “Pheonizes and Beyond: A Conversation with Xu Bing”: Saturday, December 1st at 10:30 a.m. in the Meyer Auditorium, in which the artist will discuss her multifaceted work that encompasses calligraphy, monumental public art and time-based digital media. Later in the day from 1 – 5 pm in the Sackler and S Dillon Ripley Center is a public anniversary celebration complete with free cupcakes provided by Georgetown Cupcakes, book-making activities, and Asian art and culture book fair and authors on-hand to sign your new discoveries. Stick around for a performance of Classical Arab and Andalusian Music at 7:30 p.m. in the Freer Meyer Auditorium.