Experiencing Tang – Art Gallery of New South Wales

Another day, another excursion. I think I have started a blog post like this before, but, it so perfectly summarizes how wonderfully excursion-filled this semester has been. Even coming down with quite a terrible flu did not ruin the day!

I will begin by saying this was my first visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I don’t usually visit art galleries – the only exception being the NGV. Even when travelling I tend to prefer history museums. Personally, this has a lot to do with accessibility. I find that art labels are often quite convoluted and unnecessarily complex. Having no background in art or artistic concepts means I can struggle with trying to figure out what exactly I’m seeing. The irony is, as with Biennale, as soon as someone explains a piece to me in more casual terms, I can end up really loving the art! Anyway that was a bit of a rant, but, it does link with what I’m going to say next.

What made this visit enjoyable was the fact we had a guide, digital designer Andrew Yip, who showed us around the exhibition and explained the digital technology. The exhibition is split over two floors, the first floor focusing on life under the Tang dynasty and the second exploring concepts of religion and the underworld. Incorporated into this bottom level is a digital experience that Yip described as an immersive experience. Equipped with an iPad, visitors can explore one of the hundreds of Dunhuang caves in China.

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Holding the iPad

It’s significant for two main reasons. Firstly Dunhuang was a thriving trade city at the end of the silk road. What is contained in these caves can shed much light on the trade of commodities and ideas. Secondly, the caves have been accessed by thousands of visitors and are in dire need of conservation. In my opinion, whilst we should never go with digitization as opposed to actual conservation efforts, it does provide the perfect way to record, keep, and share the wonder. It also means the caves can reach beyond their geographical location and actually influence individuals in other countries etc.

The room in which the digital experience takes place just looks like three black-painted walls with randomly drawn white lines everywhere. If you look hard enough, you can notice the infrared cameras dotted above the wall. What transforms this room into the cave is the iPad that connects to a whole lot of computer and infrared technology. Wherever you point the iPad in the room you can see the cave. The paintings on the wall and the 3D sculptures come to life, sometimes literally, and transport you from the AGNSW to China. What I thought was most effective about this experience was the level of control. If you wanted to zoom, see something different etc you could. This was lacking from the VR experience we saw a couple of weeks ago. I was also less claustrophobic in this space and definitely felt I could spend as long as I wanted exploring at my own pace.

This experience actually made me want to see the rest of the exhibition in more depth and learn more about this fascinating time period. Again, this is just personal opinion, but I felt as though the experience was integrated well into the overall exhibition and not just tacked on. The rest of the exhibition space had some wonderful objects included but I did not get a clear narrative or holistic idea. Yes, the objects were about religion and the underworld but there was no clear indication of how they all related. I had to keep in mind it was an art gallery and this is not necessarily the point.

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Another shout out must go to the kid’s activities. The shadow puppet screen was amazing and creating silk road trade bags, heaps of fun.

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If I had to say one thing I’d like to have seen in the exhibition, I would say that what made my experience amazing was having Yip guide us around the cave. If the iPad had some audio accompanying what visitors were seeing, this could be really effective as a more in-depth learning tool. I am, however, just being very picky. This kind of technology is still in its infancy and it will be great to see how it evolves and transforms over time!

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