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Harvard FAS CAMLab: The Art of Transitions

Images projected onto the walls of the Harvard FAS CAMLab exhibition.
Images projected onto the walls of the Harvard FAS CAMLab exhibition. By Courtesy of Harvard FAS CAMLab and Courtesy of Charles Mayer
By John M. Weaver, Contributing Writer

Nestled in the basement of the Arthur M. Sackler Building sits Harvard FAS CAMLab, a web of thin hallways illuminated by shivering light installations that lead to a dark cave lined with mirrors and filled with thin mesh screens. Visitors to the installation will find themselves surrounded by an infinitely large host of dancing projections whose every movement is traced by flame, water, and silhouettes. In an adjacent room, viewers are guided through five floors of the crumbling Shakya Pagoda of the Fogong Monastery and introduced to images of austere statues that, moments later, will be shown in ruins.

Viewers may be left helplessly grasping for a way to describe the installation they just visited, as it demands a new vocabulary to describe the experience.

“It’s kinetic sculpture and expanded scenography with a Buddhist twist,” said Eugene Wang, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art and founding director of Harvard CAMLab.

At its heart, Harvard CAMLab is a celebration of intersections and in-betweens. By pushing technology to its limit, viewers are exposed to a novel aesthetic experience that will challenge their understanding of sculpture and art.

The first half of the installation places the Buddhist culture of dance in a modern context by educating a machine-learning model using ancient texts and professional dancers to project AI-generated images onto diaphanous screens.

The purpose of these dances was partly to illustrate a state of physical and spiritual transition.

“What they’re trying to do is exactly try to capture what I call that intramural or interstitial space where the postmortem spirit goes through phases and goes through stages of transformation,” Wang said.

Through the use of technology, Harvard FAS CAMLab is able to put images in motion to capture the periods of transition that Buddhist art was interested in. Cosmic dancers leave behind glowing silhouettes as they fly across the mesh screens, twisted forms overlapping to form a cohesive whole. In doing so, the installation focuses on the movements that stitch together a dance from beginning to end, making the trajectory of movement the primary object of representation as opposed to any one, final form.

In the next room over, Harvard FAS CAMLab explores expanded scenography through a guided digital tour of a pagoda that is doomed to collapse. Viewers are led through each floor of the crumbling structure and shown fleeting images of Buddhist statues in a process that is meant to mirror the experience of spiritual ascent through the monastery. As they move from level to level the sculptures gradually wither and decay in order to visually represent the transience of Buddhist art.

Despite this impermanence, it is the statues themselves that distinguish expanded scenography from its more traditional counterpart. Rather than looking at a physical stage, viewers are treated to a virtual play in which the statues behave as the actors, foregrounded protagonists enacting a digital performance.

The expanded scenography portion of the exhibit carves out an immersive and ever-changing stage for the viewer. With their back to the only blank wall, visitors watch as every other wall around them lights up with the image of a dusty pagoda. Drawn forth into a virtual setting that evolves through sight and sound on every side of them, the viewer is encouraged to experience the often inert statues in a particularly dynamic and evolving manner.

“It appeals to every sensorial aspect of an experience of art and culture,” said Mary Peng, an educator who leads private tours at Harvard FAS CAMLab.

It is precisely through these novel technologies that Harvard FAS CAMLab is able to introduce visitors to the abstract and often challenging aesthetics of ancient Buddhism. Impermanence is translated into a direct visual metaphor as the sculptures shoot forward in time, huge chunks of wood and stone sloughing off in mere seconds.

“The technological feat is not what is important,” said Simone Levine, the assistant curator for Harvard FAS CAMLab. “What is important is actually opening a cultural experience on the pagoda that one could not get as a tourist and that is strong enough to really show people the cosmological perspective that is embedded in the pagoda.”

However, the purpose of this installation is not just to expose visitors to a particular cultural and aesthetic experience; as the Shakya Pagoda draws ever nearer to extinction, these images serve an important documentary role as they immortalize the endangered artworks inside.

“One way or another this physical thing shall end and the only way that we can preserve that is probably through this digital median. So the digital median that we use has therefore both an educational purpose that allows a more experiential way of experiencing this architectural sculpture, but in the meantime it also has this practical conservation function of keeping it forever,” Wang said.

Installations such as the ones curated by Harvard FAS CAMLab are well-equipped to reach wide audiences for decades to come. Images can not only circumvent physical decay, but transcend the usual limits of portability and accessibility that hinder traditional galleries. Because the artwork is housed in replicable programs that can be installed virtually anywhere, works such as these can be placed in unusual venues all across the world. Doing so expands not only the kinds of people it can reach, but the sorts of experiences it can offer, as visitors are given the opportunity to encounter art in unconventional settings.

This versatility is as much thematic as it is practical, however.

“When young visitors go to places such as MoMA, I noticed that they just want to hang out in the space, they don’t necessarily actually look or have sustained looks at the art,” Wang said. “For them it’s the experience of being in a certain kind of ambiance that is probably more important. So to that extent, I think our installation will accommodate that kind of interest because it is more about putting them in a meaningful experiential space.”

The dynamism and movement of the installation necessitates an extended encounter with the work itself, emphasizing the aesthetic experience rather than any individual object. Formal elements encourage this sort of personal engagement with the art as the viewer sees themselves reflected in the mirrors or finds themselves surrounded on all sides by the monolithic wooden beams of the Shakya Pagoda.

“I think that whether you see the dancers reflected in the mirrors or yourself, there’s a way in which physical boundaries become eroded,” Levine said.

But Harvard FAS CAMLab’s installation not only uses technology to comment on art, but vice versa as well.

“There's a certain weariness about the excess of technology to deprive one of the meaningful human experience, so what we aim to do is to show that in fact there might be a way to put the soulfulness back into the technological apparatus,” Wang said.

Just as the installation explores and celebrates the intersection between the past and the present, the mobile and the static, it offers an argument for the synthesis of art and technology. It is only through these deliberately manipulated visual encounters with familiar modes of art that visitors are able to discover new ways of seeing the world. When guided by human hands towards distinctly human goals, technology has the power to make the otherwise abstract a tangible reality.

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