The current "Cave Temples of Dunhuang" exhibit at the Getty Center offers a rare glimpse into Buddhist art on China's Silk Road. Considered relatively well-preserved but still suffering from damages from the elements for 1,500 years, the Mogao Grottoes (敦煌莫高窟) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that witnessed the intense religious, commercial, and cultural exchange along the trade routes linking the East and the West. This exhibition highlights the more than 25 years of collaboration between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dunhuang Academy to protect and conserve an important part of history.
There are many reasons that this exhibition is not to be missed. First, the Mogao Grottoes are located on the faraway, western edge of the Gobi Desert. When my mother made the trip last year, she started her trip in Shenzhen in southern part of China, flew to Urumqi via Wuhan, transferred to the high speed train, and then took a very long car ride across the desert. It was not exactly pleasant. Secondly, since the grottoes are one of the most popular sightseeing destinations, the authorities are doing the best to balance tourism and conservation. Each cave is barely lit and its carbon dioxide level is carefully monitored. Tourists can visit many caves; however, they can only see as much as the tour guide's flashlight reveals, let alone doing any kind of photography. Also, the bigger the group, the shorter the visit (only minutes per cave) because of the accumulation of carbon dioxide.
This exhibit at Getty Center includes the replicas of Caves 275, 285, and 320 representing different time periods. The caves were re-created and replicated by master artists, using organic materials similar to those of the original and matching the current colors, as you would see if you had travelled to the real site. Since the replica paintings are also light-sensitive, the replica caves are still only dimly lit, but you can see the entire room perfectly. The visit is still limited to a few minutes, not for conservation, but to get big crowds through.
Obviously, no flash photography is allowed. Do not despair; with the available lighting, you can still take pictures with a smartphone or a camera, provided you have stable enough hands. For a real camera (point-and-shoot, DSLRs and MILCs alike), crank up your ISO to a level that you feel comfortable handholding without introducing too much noise in the image (Note: High ISO = noise in image = sacrificing quality. The amount of noise depends on the size as well as quality of the sensor.) The real challenge is to avoid your fellow visitors.
- Buddha of the Future in Cave 275 taken with an iPhone 6Plus (left) and a DSLR - Canon 5D Mark III (right)
One solution is to take pictures of a smaller area to focus on the details. Each cave is filled with intricate drawings of buddhas, deities of various origins, characters of captivating stories, and dancers and musicians of Pure Lands.
Another solution is to look up above the crowd and capture the just as exquisite ceiling canopies. Lighting is a little dimmer, which means longer exposure, but it is very doable. For best results, hold your device parallel / square to the surface to prevent horizontal or vertical distortions.
By luck, I had tickets for two time slots, and the crowd was manageable. The replica cave walk-in's require a timed ticket, which is distributed for free under a canopy near the entrance to the main building. For my first round, I only used my smartphone to scout out the interesting pieces and ideal angles. In the first cave (Cave 275), I hang behind until other visitors in my group had left for the next cave to snap a clear shot of the Buddha before the next group was called in. I learned by mistake that it would be too late when the front door opens for the next group, as sunlight washes over everything and casts my shadow into the cave. So, work fast! I suggest that you be nice to the guide and chat him/her up to give you a few more seconds. Alternatively, if you go on a less busy day, get a few tickets and walk through caves a few times.
The replica caves are just part of the exhibit. There is also an impressive virtual tour of Cave 45, the best 3D experience I have had in terms of high resolution. Then at the Getty Research Institute Galleries, there are artworks and buddhist treasures, including manuscripts, paintings on silk, embroideries, and many other precious objects on loan from British Museum and other institutes in UK and France. The highlight includes the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest dated and complete printed book. Unfortunately, since these are loan items, photography is not allowed.
The exhibit has already started since May and is ending in two weeks on September 4. Admission is free (parking is $15). Don't miss this excellent opportunity to get close and personal with these artifacts without traveling across the globe!
Open Tuesday-Sunday. Extended hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in the summer.