- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

LOS ANGELES - When the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan destroyed two 1,600-year-old Buddha statues lining Bamiyan Valley’s soaring cliffs, the world quaked with shock at the demise of such huge archaeological treasures.

Now, artist Hiro Yamagata plans to commemorate the towering Buddhas by projecting multicolored laser images onto the clay cliffsides where the figures once stood, about 80 miles west of Kabul.

“I’m doing a fine-art piece. That’s my purpose — not for human rights, or for supporting religion or a political statement,” says the 58-year-old artist, whose other laser works include a recent display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Against a canvas of desert darkness, 14 laser systems will project 140 overlapping faceless “statues” sweeping four miles across Bamiyan’s cliffs in neon shades of green, pink, orange, white and blue. Each image will continuously change color and pattern.

Powered by solar panels and windmills, the 125- to 175-foot-high squiggle-style, Day-Glo images — the same size as the original Buddhas — would be in stark contrast to the austere, rural valley below, a land wracked by poverty and violence, a land that has little electricity of its own.

In March 2001, Taliban militants disregarded worldwide protests and used dynamite and artillery to blow up the original fifth-century statues, famed for their size and location along the ancient Silk Road linking Europe and Central Asia. The fundamentalist group considered the Buddhas idolatrous and anti-Muslim.

“The destruction of the twin towers and the two Buddhas have been linked as a moment in time,” says Robert Brown, 60, an art historian from the University of California at Los Angeles and a curator of Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Mr. Yamagata’s lasers obviously have a commemorative notion to them, like the 9/11 memorial in New York.”

Afghan government officials first approached Mr. Yamagata in 2003 about the project and gave him conditional approval last year, pending a green light from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO has been a prominent presence in Bamiyan, evaluating ways to preserve mural paintings in caves surrounding the Buddhas.

“They are the ones who will make a decision and will advise us,” Gulam Sakhi Yousafzai, former acting deputy minister in charge of arts and culture in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Associated Press. “They are the experts. We are waiting for their response.”

Bamiyan provincial Gov. Habiba Sarobi told AP that she was aware of Mr. Yamagata’s proposal and hoped UNESCO could prove the cliffs would not be damaged by the 80- to 100-watt laser beams, which would be projected permanently every Sunday night for four hours.

“If there is a way to do it so there is no environmental impact, we would support it as it would boost tourism and the images would remind us of what [the cliffs] once looked like,” Mrs. Sarobi says.

Letters obtained by Associated Press, sent to Mr. Yamagata from physics and chemistry experts at the University of Antwerp and Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, noted that the beams will not affect the cliffs because of the low power levels cast from a safe distance of six to eight miles.

Zahir Aziz, Afghan ambassador to UNESCO, says he would strongly recommend Mr. Yamagata’s lasers if they went through UNESCO. He also confirmed that a Swiss plan to rebuild the Buddhas at $30 million a statue is no longer in the works.

Meanwhile, Mr. Yamagata, who estimates his project’s cost at up to $9 million, has been busy amassing funds, materials and workers for his vision from his home base at an industrial warehouse in suburban Torrance, Calif.

Shortly after his 2003 meeting with Afghan officials in Tokyo, Mr. Yamagata visited Bamiyan and was moved by its orphaned children, squalid living conditions and lack of electricity. He decided then that his artwork also should give something back to the war-torn region.Of the roughly 140 4,000-kilowatt windmills he plans to ship into Afghanistan for the Bamiyan project, Mr. Yamagata says 100 of them would provide power for surrounding villages. Completion of the project is set for June 2007.

A longtime Los Angeles resident who was born in Japan, Mr. Yamagata says he already has secured co-sponsorship from Mercedes-Benz and will choose a windmill company in December.

“Many people say, ‘My art will heal the people.’ I always avoid ‘heal the people’,” Mr. Yamagata says. “Of course, I help people, but it’s more about not harming people. An artist to me is more about inner matter.”

Associated Press writer Daniel Cooney in Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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