ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1923, Carl Whiting Bishop, the Freer Gallery of Art’s first curator, acquired a sculpture of ‘the Cosmic Buddha’, or Vairochana in Beijing. A headless, life-size limestone figure, the Buddha is an important figure in the Buddhist pantheon, and has remained an iconic object in the Smithsonian’s collections since that time. The masterpiece was made in 6th-century China – a dynamic period of artistic transformation – when Buddhism, supported by imperial patronage, enjoyed theological debate and thrived. Indeed the sculpture is exceptional: it is wrapped in a simple monk’s robe covered with extremely complex illustrations of Buddhist stories which portray moments in the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence. These low-relief images represent a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, and range from the tortures of Hell to Enlightenment and Paradise. When first created in north China, they were probably embellished with paint which would have made their subject matter easier to discern. However through the ages, scholarship of the low-relief illustrations on the sculpture began increasingly to pose a challenge. Until its acquisition by the Freer, Chinese scholars made rubbings of the sculpture’s surface using ink on paper, to create for clarity, greater contrast between the inked elements and the white paper. The procedure contained an element of risk since ink might occasionally stain the object’s surface.
Today, cutting-edge technology is making the previously hidden meanings on the Buddha’s robe accessible to scholars as well as to members of the public. A new interactive installation, Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M Sackler Gallery, offers an exceptional opportunity to understand the ancient sculpture. ‘The Cosmic Buddha’ has been 3-D imaged by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office – which helps to integrate digitisation into the core functions of the Smithsonian – by using a variety of digital tools. The object was scanned using a laser-arm scanner, and its colour recorded through more than 300 photographs of the work; the combined surface and colour data managing to create a 3-D model made of 20 million triangles. ‘3-D scanning is an amazing process that brings new details to light,’ says Keith Wilson, Freer/Sackler curator of the exhibition. ‘I can continue adding findings to the digital model and easily share information with other researchers. The exhibition is a great opportunity to feature this compelling work and show how advances in digital technology open up channels to new research and information.’
The interactive installation presents the Buddha in the context of the evolving methods that had been employed to study it: The ancient object itself, the ink rubbings, a digital flat map of the surface and touchscreen monitors that allow visitors to manipulate the digital images and explore more information about it.
The Cosmic Buddha moreover is at the forefront of the pioneering digital work currently underway at the Freer and Sackler galleries. Since January 2015, digital images of their entire collections have been made available online, providing unprecedented access to one of the world’s most important holdings of Asian and American art. According to Gunter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office: ‘3-D imaging is a non-invasive method, and it has the added benefits of capturing a great depth of information and allowing broad access to treasures without the risk of harm to the object.’
The digitised model of the Cosmic Buddha is now available on the Smithsonian’s X 3D website, offering users the ability to study the work in unprecedented detail, and provides worldwide access to anyone interested in this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.
BY YVONNE TAN
Through December, Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D is at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Washington DC, www.asia.si.edu