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The World’s Oldest Profession

April 11, 2011

We might argue about what is truly the world’s oldest profession, but
certainly thievery is in the running. There may be times when it’s
useful to distinguish between stealing bread, stealing a bicycle, and
stealing art, but not many of them.

If you’ve seen the excellent film, “The Bicycle Thief,” you already
know the difficulty in making such a distinction. And stealing art? Is
the theft of two of Roberta Smith’s oil paintings from the library
somehow worse than stealing images, or music, or books, or movies over
the Internet?

We are perhaps more offended by the theft of the canvases, and right
now I am, but it brings up some value judgments that we may not want
to acknowledge. We are struggling with the relative places of physical
and digital objects in our society.

I happen to value Roberta’s oil paintings more than the photographs of
them she left for the police or the digital images she emailed me,
although I’m happy to have the latter.

Another local artist with a hand in stolen art is photographer Dan
. Now, don’t get me wrong. The art in question was stolen
before he was born. During the first half of the twentieth century,
statues and reliefs carved in Chinese caves in the 6th century were
chiseled out and sold on the world art market.

There’s something profoundly offensive about that, although some argue
the carvings were inadvertently saved from subsequent destruction by
Chinese revolutionary forces.

In any case, they are being saved again in a digital way, and that’s
where Dan Downing comes in. He was a technical consultant on the
Xiangtangshan Caves Project. It’s been four years since Dan gave a
presentation at the library about this work and his trips to China.

I could describe this complex project but better you read about it.
Echoes of the Past: the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan” is a
beautiful book published to accompany the museum show now in the
Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian.

The book was published by the Smart Gallery of Art at the University
of Chicago
and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian
Institution. These are but a fraction of the institutions and
government bodies involved in the project. Artifacts are spread around
the world. The caves are in China. The project required cooperation
across cultures and continents.

One goal of the project was to create a digital reconstruction of the
original caves using photographs and 3-D scans of the missing
sculptures and fragments (which have been in collections around the
world since their removal).

The caves are so damaged that modern visitors can’t possibly imagine
the original art and Buddhist imagery, and conversely, visitors to
museums around the world can’t imagine the uniquely rich context in
which the sculptures and fragments on display once stood.

The museum show includes large 3-D digital reconstructions of some of
the caves.

But I would look at “Echoes of the Past,” which contains a catalogue
of the museum show plus photos and essays about the history of the
caves, Chinese architecture, Chinese Buddhism, and the technologies
used in the project.

A few photos exist showing parts of the caves intact, as they were for
14 centuries before greed caught up with them. Their current state is
a shock in contrast.

Seeing Roberta’s empty picture frames, which the thieves hid behind
radiators, was like seeing the photos of the damaged cave figures with
their faces gone.


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