Japanese artist seeks enlightenment in Afghanistan

AFP, Sept 1, 2005

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- Hiro Yamagata stands in the gaping hole where the world’s tallest Buddha once looked over the Bamiyan valley and dreams of lighting up the darkness left by some of the Taliban’s most famous victims.

Faceless images … an artist's impression of what the Bamiyan Buddhas
laser show will look like

The fundamentalist regime drew international condemnation when they dynamited the two 1,500-year-old statues carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in March 2001, branding them unIslamic.

Almost four years after the Taliban were ousted with the help of US-led forces, the Japanese artist plans to use lasers powered by windmills and solar panels to project figures more than 100 feet high (30 metres) in neon colours onto the rockface.

The 58-year-old is no stranger to big projects. He currently has an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has built light sculptures in Los Angeles, and is working on a holographic exhibition in Fiji.

But the Bamiyan project will be his most ambitious vision so far.

“This is a project where everybody wins: the villages will get power, the cliffs won’t be damaged, and it will be a work of art,” Yamagata told AFP as he conducted surveys for the project in the ancient Silk Road town seven hours’ drive from Kabul.

Yamagata does not plan to re-create the destroyed Buddhas with laser holograms but instead will beam 140 faceless outlines of figures onto the cliffs every Friday night. Laying the technological foundations for the 30-million-dollar laser light show is a daunting task. If the show begins as planned in June 2007, Yamagata will have to surmount a number of political, funding and above all logistics and transportation hurdles in an area which has no power and only dirt roads.

The artist wants to raise a total of 55 to 60 million dollars, and use around 25 million dollars to build a power station to regulate and store the currents from more than 200 windmills and solar panels used to power the lasers.

Engineers will then lay cables into the small town of Bamiyan where 300,000 people now live in darkness. Bamiyan would get power from the project in the summer of 2009 under his plan.

Bamiyan’s deputy governor, Mohammed Ibrahim Akbari, told AFP the area has become deforested because locals try to heat their homes with firewood.

“I believe this project will change the life of the people of Bamiyan. We need power because there is so much we cannot do without it,” Akbari said.

The Afghan government backs the project, saying it would not only be fine art but also a boost to development. But the government is anxiously waiting for approval from the United Nations Education Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) which has designated the cliffs a world heritage site.

Afghan Minister of Culture Mahdoom Raheen told AFP that he proposed a similar idea as early as 2002, a year before Afghan officials approached Yamagata.

He described an earlier 60-million-dollar Swiss project to rebuild the two Buddhas as impractical. That project has been abandoned.

“Instead of rebuilding the Buddha statues, which is nonsense and which doesn’t mean anything, it would be good to establish a sound and light project in Bamiyan,” Raheen said.

However, Raheen stopped short of saying Afghan authorities would be prepared to go ahead with the laser light show without UNESCO approval.

“According to the new research it won’t damage the cliffs and I hope they will agree with that. I hope they won’t say no, because UNESCO’s opinion is important,” Raheen added.

Letters sent to Yamagata from physics and chemistry experts at the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium say the laser beams are not powerful enough and will not be beamed at the rocks for long enough to cause damage.

Yamagata has already raised two million dollars and said that raising the funds to put this dream into action will not be a problem.

“There has been a snowball effect. We got over 100 emails from all over the world, from multi-national corporations committing themselves to donate transportation, the windmills, cables, solar panels and power plant. I was not expecting this reaction but I am very optimistic that we will raise the money,” he told news agency.

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