March 31, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 13

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    Center for Art of East Asia leads project to create 3-D digital renderings of scrolls

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    Though much of the art they study dates back more than a thousand years, the faculty, staff and students associated with the Center for the Art of East Asia also are becoming adept at applying the latest technologies to their research.

    Not only are they using scanning tools to create 3-D digital renderings of sixth-century Buddhist cave shrines, but they also have digitized handscroll paintings, which are too old and delicate to be viewed by hand—the way they were originally intended to be viewed. With just the click of a mouse, students studying East Asian art can view scrolls on a computer screen.

    Unlike a single-panel painting, handscrolls are long, horizontal works, which were meant to be unrolled and viewed section by section, explained Wu Hung, the Harrie H. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History and Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia. The handscrolls’ temporal and spatial qualities are lost in conventional reproductions like photos or slides, Wu said, which provide students with a “distorted, piecemeal” view of the works.

    The digital scrolling technology used by the center liberates the viewer from the single viewpoint presented in photos and recreates the multi-scenic viewing experience. Digital photos of sections of a handscroll are “stitched” together so they can be viewed on a computer monitor or projected onto a big screen as a continuous virtual image—the viewer can scroll through the painting as if he or she were unrolling it by hand, stop, go back and forth, or zoom in and out.

    The digital process is important because many East Asian handscrolls are very old, dating back to the fifth or sixth century, so they are too fragile and priceless to be removed from storage.

    Wu is teaching a class on handscrolls for the third time this quarter and said he is astounded by the difference the technology has had on his class. “The papers from this class are totally different than the papers I got before,” he said. “It’s an amazing change.”

    The University’s collection of handscrolls are available online for viewers to see at http://scrollingpaintings.uchicago.edu/~scrolls. Center faculty and staff will be working to expand the project to create a database of important Chinese and Japanese handscrolls from all over the world. “It will serve as an unprecedented resource for teaching and reference,” said Katherine Tsiang Mino, the center’s Associate Director.

    Though only two years old, the Center for the Art of East Asia has quickly become the campus hub for the art of China and Japan. Established in 2003 under Wu’s guidance, the center was created to provide facilities and technologies to support the growing field of East Asian art in the American university, and to increase resources for research and teaching in the field. The center provides the institutional basis for planning and implementing projects, which include collaborative research, compiling and cataloguing data, and organizing meetings and scholarly and student exchange programs.

    The center also coordinates an annual symposium; this year’s will be held at the Franke Institute for the Humanities on Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, on the subject of “Art and Commerce: Circulating Cultures of East Asia.”

    The symposium will examine East Asian art and commerce in eras spanning from the ancient to the modern. Studies will include a wide variety of material relating to the exchange of goods and services linked to the production and circulation of art and material culture. Art has had commercial aspects throughout history, whether in terms of definition, valuation, patronage, collecting and classification, or trading and circulating.

    “We encourage exploration of avenues that cross cultural, geographic and disciplinary boundaries and that open new territory for academic inquiry,” Mino said. “We hope this gathering will cast new light on understudied aspects of the visual culture of East Asia, develop new perspectives for future work and result in the publication of a collection of papers after the symposium.”

    For more information on the conference, or any of the center’s activities, visit http://caea.uchicago.edu.