In the keynote speech of Humanities Day, Prof. UChicago’s Wu Hung on the ability to reconstruct damaged images.

What does it mean to restore Buddhist works of art looted by art dealers from grottoes in China a century ago? And what can art history learn from such works? Prof. Wu Hung addressed these topics in his Humanities Day keynote speech on October 16 at the University of Chicago.

An annual tradition at the University, Humanities Day celebrates the research of UChicago humanities scholars through lectures, discussions and activities open to the University community and the public.


Wu is the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History. He serves in a variety of capacities at UChicago, including director of the Center for the Art of East Asia; assistant curator at the Art Museum; and a special advisor to the promoter for business in Asia.

The speech he gave was called “In the Name of Art—Destruction and Reconstruction,” the title of the Tianlongshan Grottoes (known in English as the Grottoes at Heavenly Dragon Mountain) in Shanxi Province, China. A large cave tucked into the sides of two mountains is the site of thousands of intact Buddhist statues from the Qi and Tang dynasties.

While Buddhist sites in Asia were destroyed due to religious and political upheaval, Wu explained, this site and others were actually desecrated in the early 20th century by art dealers. image that forcibly removed the statues from the sites where they stood for hundreds. years and sold them as individual pieces to European, North American and Japanese collectors.

Often, the pieces go to major museums, where they are removed from the context that surrounded them ​​​​​​at Tianlongshan and used with hundreds of other works in exhibitions and with collections that seek to provide comprehensive, comparative histories of Asian art.

Currently, art historians in China and at UChicago are leading the exploration of caves and museums in major Western collections using 3D modeling technology, in order to discover eat and restore one of the pictures. in situ by making translations of measurements that give the current observers a sense of their original form.

“I think that today – although it is very important to strengthen the legal protection of original sites and protect them with new methods – the protection of heritage sites should point to the change of the analysis of history from personal images to their bodies and history,” said Wu. “In cases where the context is broken, a great effort should be made to rebuild them and understand them through learning with the help of new information technology.”

Full descriptions of other lectures are available on the Humanities Day website. There is now a selection of talks to watch on YouTube.

The traditional genealogies of a cultural experience, or, what did Madame Bovary do in Haiti? — Haun Saussy, University Professor of Comparative Literature

The Wild Man in the Green Swamp and Other Stories About Race in America — C. Riley Snorton, Professor of English Language and History, co-opted at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies

Queer Medievalism — Kris Trujillo, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature

Hannah Arendt and the Humanities — David Rodowick, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in the Division of the Humanities

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: