Recent posts from my AHBE Lab colleagues Heejee and Wendy have have shown how the public art and murals strewn throughout Los Angeles’ many neighborhoods helps define the city and its culture. This isn’t necessarily unique or new. A recent visit to the Getty Center is where I got to see splendid 1,600 years old murals from the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Gansu, China. Lying on the fringe of the Gobi Desert, the ancient oasis town Dunhuang became the heart of the Silk Road, a nexus where culture, merchandise, and religion were exchanged. The Mogao Caves contain 492 Buddhist temples with incredibly intricate statues and mural paintings, and now they’re here in Los Angeles.
Currently at the Getty, visitors can experience three 1:1 scale replicas of the original Mogao Caves, complete with mural reproductions covering the caves’ walls. The accurate fascimiles permit visitors to get up close to the statues and ancient paintings, an extraordinary experience for Angelenos to see the murals’ numerous details. This up-close opportunity is rather special, as the original Mogao Caves are always too crowded in China. Additionally, there is also an exhibition of some other paintings, Sutra manuscripts, and other works of artwork, all part of Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road.
Among all the breathtaking works, there is one dominant form of Dunhuang painting: Sutra painting. It is a large-scale and comprehensive religious painting illustrating a sutra – a canonical scripture – with a large Buddha at its center and miniature stories drawn around the figure. The painting tells a transformative narrative highlighting the fundamental and final pursuit of worship of the Buddha – an iconic static image, whose solemnity captures the viewer’s gaze, thereby brings in the viewer or worshipper into a process of comprehension.
This ancient visualization method of showing both a transformative process and communicating information related to the faith is similar to what we do as landscape architects when we place diagrams and renderings together on boards. Realizing this parallel while at The Getty, I felt a wonderful connection between us in the present with the artists of the past.
Other paintings at the exhibit depict the Tang Dynasty architectural style – mostly emperor landscape – a Pure Land Buddhism style represented visually by a great flat platform floating on a lotus pond with Buddhas sitting in the middle and apsaras (a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) flying above. This typical Pure Land Buddhism vision had a great impact on ancient Chinese architecture and landscape design, alongside the Japanese landscape through the Japanese branch of Pure Land Buddhism, Jōdo Shu.
There is an overwhelming amount of artwork, manuscripts, and other objects to see at this exhibition. I left amazed by how well preserved the colors of the murals are after thousands of years, alongside the unique poses and vivid facial expressions of each figure decorating each mural.
At last, there is one short excerpt from the Diamond Sutra I would like to share from the exhibition, words which offered me a memorable moment of tranquility and joyful melancholy while experiencing one of history’s greatest examples of mural art: