LOS ANGELES TIMES
His next cliffhanger
Artist Hiro Yamagata plans to commemorate the fallen 6th century Buddhas in Afghanistan with a laser-light installation set for 2007.
By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times
August 22, 2005
What to do about the Bamiyan Buddhas?
It's a question that has prompted much debate since March 2001, when Taliban forces aimed their rocket launchers at a cliff side in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley and destroyed two ancient statues of the Buddha, probably built in the 6th century.
Preservationists have wanted to catalog the remains for posterity and protect nearby cave murals from further destruction. Last summer, a German restoration specialist studied the site to see if the statues could be rebuilt, but so far that has come to naught.
Archeologists, meanwhile, have been digging deep for the so-called Sleeping Buddha, believed by some to be buried beneath the ruins.
Yet another response comes from artist Hiro Yamagata, who hopes to commemorate the fallen Buddhas by beaming 140 laser-projected squiggles of brightly colored light against the mountainous four-mile stretch where the two figures once stood, 175 and 120 feet tall.
Yamagata has not raised the $7 million he estimates the project would require, nor has he received a green light from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which oversees the ruins.
But in characteristic go-getter fashion, he is acting on the assumption that it's a done deal. "Politics will decide," he said. "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, but you just keep going, and you move on."
Yamagata's timeline includes his nine-day visit to Afghanistan, which continues through Sunday, an October press conference in Japan and a two-month residence in Afghanistan next spring to coordinate equipment installation.
It's all supposed to culminate in a laser-powered light show scheduled to debut at sunset June 4, 2007. The spectacle would run indefinitely, for four to six hours a week on Sundays.
Yamagata, 57, said he knew little about Afghanistan's cultural history before 2003, when Afghan government officials in Tokyo approached him about the project, after he had given a lecture there about his work.
Even now, he seems to nurture no particular attachment to the site's status as a spiritually resonant landmark. "I don't care about religion," he said recently at his Torrance headquarters. "And all the politics? No interest .... They asked me to do this, so I do it.... No other reason."
Yamagata developed his plan during a 2003 visit to the Bamiyan Valley. He interviewed villagers, examined the terrain and snapped photographs: women with toddlers, washing pots and pans in a creek, parched cliffs looming in the background.
His program calls for building solar panels and windmills to generate power for 14 laser systems that would be positioned up to eight miles from the cliff-side where the Buddhas stood. With the mountains serving as a kind of screen, the lasers would project Yamagata's semi-abstract images of the destroyed Buddhas. The illuminated figures, limned in shades of pink, green, orange and blue, would be visible for miles, he said.
Electricity to the valley
As a fringe benefit, he said the impoverished Bamiyan Valley, about 80 miles west of Kabul, would finally be wired for electricity: "If we can provide electric power, why not do it? ... But I don't like the talk about doing this 'for the people.' I have no interest in that. I want to stay more dry and make this a cutting-edge, hard-core piece."
A blur in beige, Yamagata scurried around his headquarters a few hours before catching a flight that would deliver him, after stopovers in New York Tokyo, South Africa and Dubai, to Afghanistan. He planned to survey the valley again, to figure out placement of the windmills.
"All my friends say to me, you're crazy, stay away!" he said. "But you cannot worry or be scared that you can't make it happen. You just do."
The Japanese-born artist has been based in the Los Angeles area since moving from Paris in 1978, but he rarely works locally, he said, in part because he feels unappreciated in his adopted hometown. "The critics make fun of me, especially in L.A." he said. "They don't think I'm a serious artist. When I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, they respect it, but here, the critics, the writers, the museum curators all put me down."
Critics may have dismissed him, but art consumers have loved him. Yamagata became a commercial success in the 1980s when his whimsical sports- and nature-themed works became top sellers for Martin Lawrence Limited Editions Inc., an operator of shopping mall art galleries. In 1994 he created his "Earthly Paradise" series featuring tropical landscapes painted on vintage Mercedes-Benz cars. Since producing his 1998 "Sculpture of Light" on L.A.'s 1st Street Bridge, he has experimented with holographic materials and laser works.
Beginning in August 2004, he presented an installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, consisting of two holographic panel-covered cubes onto which lasers were beamed to create light compositions. Mercedes-Benz Beverly Hills was among the sponsors.
Yamagata said his ability to attract corporate sponsorship rankles naysayers: "They can't find sponsors like I do. I'm not the artist who stays home. I'll go anywhere because I have different avenues: Hollywood, corporations — I have all different kinds of contacts."
To fund the Bamiyan Valley venture, he said he expects backing from Mercedes-Benz and plans to court other potential corporate backers.
Steve Smythe, general manager for Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills, described Yamagata as "a great friend of ours and a good client through the years." He added, "We believe in his work, and we do sponsor each of his installation shows, including the Buddhas."
The Afghan government is offering land and moral support, according to Haron Amin, the Afghan ambassador to Japan, but money is another matter. "We've made it very clear that the Afghan government is not in a position to provide funds for this project," Amin said.
Amin began championing the project about a year and a half ago and helped organize Afghanistan's official submission to UNESCO in July 2004. "The proposal is ingenious," he said, "in the sense that it will bring back those Buddhas to life in some other form. It will be a cheerful event for the children, it will illuminate the city of Bamiyan, and we think it will bring back tourists to Afghanistan and bring back the Buddha's spirit."
Beams won't harm walls
Amin said he expects UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to approve the project and added that concerns about potential laser damage have been addressed by physicists and chemists from the University of Antwerp and Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven. Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's assistant director general for culture, based in Paris, confirmed via e-mail that UNESCO has been informed by Afghan authorities that technical studies have been carried out showing no ill effects from the laser beams.
He added, however, that questions remain about the project's relevance for a site still subject to emergency safeguarding activities and lacking in tourist infrastructure.
With or without UNESCO's imprimatur, Yamagata is moving forward, juggling the Bamiyan Valley piece with other works he says are in progress for St. Petersburg, Russia; the Fiji Islands; Cape Town, South Africa; and London.
The Afghanistan venture represents one more chance to feed his fascination for laser-generated spectacle. "It's like an addiction because I think it makes beautiful pictures," he said. "The color, the brightness — laser for me is like paint. It's very much a different way to release the light."
Pointing to mock-ups of his Bamiyan Valley light show, Yamagata said he can already picture opening night: "Dark sky, except for the starlight — and then, to project on that dark wall these brilliant colors, almost like ghosts coming out from the walls — that is what I'd
like to see."