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A viewer takes in the Pure Land digital cave. ©ALiVE, CityU, and Dunhuang Academy. Visitor Information »

Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang


A digital, immersive experience of Cave 220 at Dunhuang, China

December 1–December 9, 2012; 10 am–5:30 pm

Moongate Garden, Enid A. Haupt Garden
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
1050 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20560


Tickets are sold out for Sunday, December 9.

Admission/tickets: Admission is free but requires timed tickets, which can be picked up at the Sackler information desk daily, beginning on Saturday, December 1. A limited number of tickets are available for 15 minute blocks throughout the day. Last ticket time is 5:15 p.m. Some ticket times may not be available each day. Tickets are only available for a given day and are first-come, first-served. Reservations for future days are not available.


During the Sackler’s 25th anniversary celebration, the Gallery offers a profound visual experience uniting art and technology. Drums and harps resonate as dancers spring to life and twirl, and images from Buddhist art zoom forth to welcome viewers to China’s ancient past and the Sackler’s digital future.

Making its United States debut, Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang digitally recreates one of these famous Chinese cave temples. Included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Mogao Grottoes are maintained under the auspices of the Dunhuang Academy, which has increased public awareness of these unique treasures as it supports their investigation by scholars.

The Mogao Grottoes are located in Dunhuang, a small town in northwestern China that was a gateway on the ancient Silk Road that carried trade between China, western Asia, and India from the 2nd century BCE to the 14th century CE. There are more than 700 caves at the site. Though the caves are closed to the public on a rotating basis to ensure their preservation, visitors to the Sackler can enjoy them virtually through the Pure Land digital cave.

Pure Land immerses visitors in a 360-degree panoramic projection theater that gives a true-to-life experience of being inside one of the caves. It dramatizes a mural painted on Cave 220’s north wall, representing the sutra of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Pure Land. The Bhaisajyaguru sutra tells of the twelve great vows of the Buddha, relating to the provision of food, drink, clothing, medicine, and spiritual aids. In the painting, the seven forms, or emanations, that Bhaisajyaguru can assume as a healer stand in a row on lotus platforms above a pool, with dancers accompanied by a group of musicians.

Using pioneering virtual reality techniques, the digital cave brings this scene to life. Figures and objects are dramatized with spectacular interactive 3D animations and digital effects that reveal their painterly beauty and underlying narrative meanings. Pictorial recoloring, digital magnification, and a rich sound design augment the high-resolution photography and laser-scanned model. The 1:1 scale facsimile allows the cave to be interactively explored and understood, bringing new, sustainable life to the aesthetic and spiritual drama of Dunhuang’s extraordinary paintings and sculptures.

Pure Land was created by Jeffrey Shaw, dean of the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong (CityU), and developed by ALiVE, an interdisciplinary art research initiative at CityU, in partnership with the Dunhuang Academy and the Friends of Dunhuang Hong Kong. Since 1943, the Dunhuang Academy has carried out many large projects including conservation to restore and consolidate the caves, statues, and murals; digitization of the caves and the relics inside; and multimedia tour presentations for visitors.

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