Beijing 2015-2017, University of Chicago Beijing Center Gallery

In September 2015 an exhibit based on the digital 3D models of sculptures created by the Tianlongshan Caves Project opened at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing where it was on view through spring of 2017. The exhibit is designed to be an introduction to the possibilities of digital displays for a future more comprehensive museum exhibition.

The scanned 3D sculptures, now located outside of China, are the raw materials for creating the current installations shown on flat screen monitors. The 3D model animated displays are rendered in realtime, and are not videos. Realtime rendering allows the future addition of user interaction and control of the 3D model displays.

The various displays can be discussed in four categories:

1]   Introduction to the 3D models at approximately actual size in order to view them in detail and at high resolution.
To enhance the sense of seeing actual objects in the round, the sculptures rotate and are shown from all sides with lighting from various directions. The carved forms, surface texture, and traces of paint and white base coating can be clearly seen. These scanned sculptures offer accurate documentation for research, analysis, and display, and serve as raw materials for digital reconstruction of sculptures that are now in a fragmented state.

2]   Digital reconstruction of sculptures in the caves.
Many of the caves are heavily damaged because of years of neglect and pillaging of the site beginning in the 1920s. We have combined 3D models together with recent photographs and historical photographs of the cave shrines to reconnect the sculptures with their original locations. Many sculptural figures and reliefs can be digitally matched to the traces remaining in the caves. We expect future 3D scanning at the Tianlongshan caves to further enable reconstruction and restoration of their former appearance and their art historical, cultural, and religious significance.

3]   Distribution of sculptures around the globe.
The sculptures from Tianlongshan are located in many museums and collections around the globe and have become part of the cultural property of numerous countries in Europe, North America, and Asia. Although it is a regrettable fact that the caves have been severely damaged, the preservation of these fragmented sculptures to the present day in many museums demonstrates the high valuation of these cultural artifacts in an international context. These sculptures continue to circulate in the international art market through which some have returned to China. The artistic quality and the religious principles that they embody make them important vehicles of historical education and trans-cultural understanding.

4]   Technological features of 3D models.
The digital models created by the 3D scanning process record and archive characteristics of size, form, volume, color, and texture. The scanners use structured light to capture the surface contours of the sculptures as point clouds. The computer software can display the 3D digital information in various ways—as points in space, as a network of triangles connecting the points, and as a multifaceted form made up of many triangular surfaces. At the same time, the scanners take photographs which software maps onto the surface of the 3D models.

Digital reconstruction of sculptures in the caves

Historical cave photo, and matching contemporary photo with destruction

3D model of removed sculpture fragment, and contemporary cave photo

Animated model of removed sculpture fragment, and contemporary cave photo

3D model of sculpture fragment superimposed in correct location on cave photo

Technological features of 3D models

5000 points on the surface of the 3D model

5000 3D points tessellated into a mesh of 10000 triangles

10000 triangles on the model surface shaded with artificial light

2 million triangles on the model surface shaded with artificial light

Realistic color applied to the 2 million shaded triangles

Lifesize sculpture high-resolution display and animation

Lifesize Buddha head sculpture high-resolution animated display, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale - Rome

Sculpture head during rotation animation

Lifesize standing guardian sculpture body high-resolution display and animation, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art - Kansas City

Sculpture body during rotation animation

Distribution of sculptures around the globe

Night time globe spins to a museum location, and displays a cave sculpture located at the museum

Large seated Buddha sculpture, Harvard Art Museums

Standing bodhisattva sculpture, Rietberg Museum - Zurich