“The Light of Buddha” is the first exhibition of a private collection ever allowed in the Palace Museum, commonly known as the Forbidden City. studio O was commissioned by Beijing-based Zhiguan Gallery (止观美术馆) to develop the exhibition design and retrofit installation system for the display of 112 antique Buddhist sculptures spanning from the 4th century a.d. to 16th a.d. from the Himalayan regions (Pakistan, North India, Nepal, Tibet)
Occupying the entirety of the Palace of Abstinence, the exhibition is located in the northeastern quadrant of the Forbidden City. Within the Palace, the collection of Buddhist sculptures is displayed between two main pavilions:
Zhai Gong (Hall of Abstinence, 斋宫) to south and Cheng Su Dian (Hall of Sincerity, 诚肃殿) to north. The exterior spaces are also included in the design and create a path for visitors to move clockwise through the space from the outer-courtyard inward.
The exhibition begins with a metaphorical dialogue between the visitor, the first installation and the backdrop of the Forbidden City – it is a journey that guides the viewer to the place from where the exhibited sculptures originate. Abstractly representing the eight most significant peaks of the Himalayan mountain range, audiences encounter eight 2.5 meter-tall white steel pillars upon entering the exhibition courtyard. By proportionally reducing the heights of these peaks to human scale, the peaks seem within reach. As nature often exists beyond our scale, subverting the great difference between man and nature allows us an opportunity to reflect on human existence.
The journey continues through the second courtyard and then into the Zhai Gong(斋宫) pavilion, where it meets the first part of the exhibition. Here, like in the Cheng Su Dian(诚肃殿) pavilion, the sculptures are set along the space’s interior perimeter and presented within customized system of vitrines. By creating a neutral and almost invisible background, the visitor can intimately experience the artworks through a series of small openings that reveal each figurine. The exhibition design can be experienced and viewed as a whole, yet simultaneously also presents the opportunity for unique, personalized journeys for each visitor and with each sculpture. It is as if the exhibition layout is designed to protect the sculptures – creating a sequence where fragments of history are viewed and appreciated through “frames.” Frames that are perceived as tridimensional paintings in which the antique sculptures transmit timeless narratives of history and culture.
Throughout the design process, studio O remained committed to creating a discreet environment suitable for exhibiting the utmost refined craftsmanship of the ancient Himalayan masters. In order to create an intimate environment that considers yet re-evaluates the existing interior conditions, lighting plays a decisive role. The existing lighting conditions due to the wide-glass window displays were not suitable for viewing the private collection. Therefore, studio O controls the amount of ambient light and focuses it on the precise openings within a series of vertical, black, self-standing panels. These panels also serve as a temporary design system that accommodates the original building structure without demolishing existing walls, and further allows freedom for defining the size and position of each display opening. They incorporate a flexible lighting system that is built into metal frame and designed specifically for each sculpture.
As each spatial experience depends on our arrival in it, passing from the first exhibition hall section into the second allows viewers to further reconsider their conceptions of space. The installation in the central pavilion thus serves as a link, and a point of restful contemplation between the two pavilions. Mirroring the pilgrimage Buddhist monks make to the Himalayan region, the fabric installation, comprised of 135 layers of textile, welcomes visitors into the calm, peaceful and timeless space of a lit tunnel as an allegory of an inner reflection. After visiting the last exhibition hall, the journey is concluded via the passage through the adjacent courtyard and then back to the entrance. A progressive movement through the ancient architecture before returning to the outer world.