The Politics of Reconstructing Ancient Grotto Murals from Xinjiang in China Today

Why did Beijing’s M WOODS museum recently mount two simultaneous exhibitions focusing on the ancient Buddhist site of Kizil, Xinjiang Province?

BY Colin Siyuan Chinnery in Opinion | 17 SEP 18

M WOODS, a private contemporary art museum based in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, recently mounted two simultaneous exhibitions focusing on the ancient Buddhist site of Kizil, Xinjiang Province. Carved from the Baicheng County hillside between the 3rd and 8th centuries, the Kizil Buddhist grottoes are China’s earliest, large-scale Buddhist cave complex, and are regularly listed as one of China’s four most significant Buddhist art sites.

‘Collected Reproductions of the Kizil Grottoes and Overseas Murals’ was produced with the Kucha Research Institute of Xinjiang, who worked for 20 years tracing the whereabouts of countless mural fragments removed by foreign archaeologists a century ago and subsequently dispersed to public and private collections around the world. The institute obtained high-quality photographs of the mural fragments and found their original placement in the Buddhist grottoes. A selection of these were then mapped onto the walls of the ground floor exhibition hall at M WOODS, recreating the murals to scale, and a 1:1 replica of grotto no. 38 was constructed within this volume, giving audiences an approximate experience of what the Buddhist caves were like in situ.

‘Collected Reproductions of the Kizil Grottoes and Overseas Murals’, 2018, installation view, M WOODS, Beijing. Courtesy: M WOODS, Beijing

On the first floor was its companion show ‘Monks and Artists’, consisting of three original mural fragments from the Kizil grottoes, acquired by M WOODS founders Lin Han and Wanwan Lei, and repatriated to China. Accompanying these original fragments are stone carvings from other civilizations along the Silk Road, and Kader Attia’s Open Your Eyes, part of his project shown originally at dOCUMENTA (13). However, M WOODS is the first and only institution in China to own original fragments from the caves. This begs the question: why did a contemporary art institution decide to devote its energies to a show of ancient religious art?

M WOODS founder Lin Han has repeatedly claimed that the Kizil exhibition is as contemporary as the museum’s show of Paul McCarthy videos, mounted this past spring. Contemporary, in this context, is synonymous with ‘relevant’ – and the Kizil murals reveal much about modern China. Although Kizil is well within China’s current borders, most of its murals show scarcely any Chinese influence at all, but rather Gandharan, Indian and Persian characteristics, demonstrating the incredible cultural fluidity of the Silk Road. Today, the Silk Road is being used as a blueprint for China’s massive international trade scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, while Xinjiang, home to Kizil and much of the Silk Road, is undergoing a period of extreme religious and political tension, as the Chinese government has exerted tight control over the Uyghurs, the Muslim minority population there.

Grotto no. 38 in ‘Collected Reproductions of the Kizil Grottoes and Overseas Murals’, 2018, installation view, M WOODS, Beijing. Courtesy: M WOODS, Beijing

Ever since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), China has attached enormous strategic importance to its Western Regions, consisting of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province and Xinjiang, as a vital trade lifeline. Whether the area now called Xinjiang was part of the Chinese empire has always been a barometer of China’s political fortunes. The Kizil murals were painted during a Chinese power vacuum, after the collapse of the Han Dynasty and before the Tang Dynasty reasserted its influence in the region. It is precisely this lack of Chinese cultural influence that makes them so unique. Their stunning colours derive from minerals such as lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and their inventive compositions are untethered from strict Buddhist conventions, revealing a wide range of Asian sources. The artists who created the murals were far away from their own territories, and were able to take inspiration from each other.

Equally important, however, is seeing the negative historical and cultural space of this exhibition. In 1906, many of them were cut from cave walls by Albert von Le Coq, a German archaeologist, and brought to the Museum for Asian Art in Berlin; other explorers followed, and murals appeared in Russia, Japan and the US. The removal and dispersal of the murals runs reverse to the globalization that once brought wealth to Xinjiang. Foreign powers found little resistance when they plundered Chinese cultural heritage during the turbulent years of the early 20th century. The feeling of loss this history brings is compounded by the reconstructed grotto at M WOODS, marked by the scars of excavation. The sculpture of a Buddha figure is missing from its niche, leaving behind a white shadow.

Head of Buddha, Mardan, Pakistan, (Ancient Gandhara), 3rd–5th century CE, black schist, Collection of Ping He, installation view M WOODS, Beijing. Courtesy: M WOODS, Beijing

The contradictions of the Kizil murals makes their exhibition at M WOODS and the 20 years of study conducted by the Kucha Research Institute of Xinjiang all the more essential. Xinjiang itself is a place of contradiction and conflict, and understanding its present requires a deeper knowledge of its past.

‘Monks and Artists’ and ‘Collected Reproductions of the Kizil Grottoes and Overseas Murals’ ran at M WOODS, Beijing, from 14 July – 2 September 2, 2018.

Main image: Grotto no. 38 in ‘Collected Reproductions of the Kizil Grottoes and Overseas Murals’, 2018, installation view, M WOODS, Beijing. Courtesy: M WOODS, Beijing

Colin Siyuan Chinnery is an artist and curator based in Beijing, China, and a contributing editor of frieze. In November 2018, his work Hawkers Refrain was unveiled as the first permanent public sound installation in China.