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Project would restore history with 21st Century light
By Josh Grossberg
Daily Breeze

Harbor City artist will use lasers to re-create ancient hillside Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban.

With less than two hours to catch a plane, Hiro Yamagata ricochets through his Harbor City studio like a beam of light in a room filled with mirrors.

Simultaneously calm and animated, he practically vibrates with energy as he races up and down the halls pointing at photos on the studio's white wall: a giant shimmering cube in Yokohama, Japan; a kaleidoscope of dancing color outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; and computer renderings of a future project that will surround an island in Fiji with glimmering geometric shapes.

They're all modern and ethereal, but something ancient is occupying most of his time now: a remote corner of Afghanistan where, in 2001, the Taliban destroyed a pair of enormous Buddhas that were carved into the hillside some 1,500 years ago. Yamagata is going to rebuild the statues -- and several hundred more. But he won't be doing it with stone. Instead, he's going to use nothing more than light.

On Tuesday, the 57-year-old artist will join Afghanistan's culture and information minister in Tokyo to officially announce his audacious project. By next summer, he plans to have erected a complicated system of lasers that will project Buddhas onto the cliffs where the ancient originals once stood.

Spreading across 4 miles, the display will feature about 250 Buddhas, each made up of squiggling florescent lines. They will range in height from 125 to 175 feet -- the size of the originals.

"This is going to be the largest installation in history with the most powerful lasers in the world," he said.

Yamagata was recruited for the project two years ago by the Afghan government. With a green light from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, he began visiting the site in Bamiyan in the Hindu Kush mountains.

While the display will have sacred and political significance, for Yamagata it's all about creation.

"I'm not involved in religion or politics -- 100 percent," he said. "I'm an artist, not a politician. I'm not a Buddhist. I'm neutral."

After the press conference, Yamagata will return to Afghanistan, where he will hone some of the technical details. In addition to designing the laser systems, he plans to install dozens of windmills and solar panels that will not only power the display, but also provide electricity to local villages.

"That's the reason the government is excited," he said. "We're going to provide 20,000 families with electricity. For 6,000 years, they never had power there. Can you believe it? Six thousand years."

Yamagata sees the day when the entire country is wired with nonpolluting sources of energy.

"It's like a trigger," he said. "If it goes well, all Afghanistan will have windmills."

The Afghan people are excited about the return of the icons, said Ashraf Haidari, the first secretary of the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"It means a lot to the community," he said. "(The Buddhas) were part of our heritage. It gives Afghans hope that they will be revived, not in the original form and shape, but at least they see the Buddhas they were living with. At least the images will not be forgotten."

Haidari said that there are fears that Taliban sympathizers will try to derail the project, though Bamiyan is in the northern part of the country, far away from any lingering Taliban influence.

"It was one of the worst atrocities the Taliban committed," he said. "It broke everyone's heart. Those Buddhas do not only belong to the people of Afghanistan, but the world."

Yamagata expects the project to cost about $9 million. He's already secured sponsorship from Mercedes-Benz and plans to hold fund-raisers so the public can make small donations.

If anybody is qualified to handle an international project, it's Yamagata. Born in Maibara, Japan, he attended École des Beaux Arts in Paris. After moving to Los Angeles, he designed posters for the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Committees. He also designed commemorative works for the U.S. Constitution's bicentennial and the centennial celebration of the Eiffel Tower.

In 1988, he was commissioned by President Reagan to do a painting as part of the 100-year anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. He also painted a Reagan presidential portrait.

He began working with holographic images in the mid-1980s.

By choosing to work with lasers, Yamagata is using something that can reach people around the world.

"It's a perfect medium for this project," said Kim Koga, director of the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. "It's a powerful medium, a powerful voice to use."

Although the technology is new, Yamagata isn't the first artist to use light to illuminate religious icons, Koga said.

"People are attracted to light," she said. "It's been used religiously before. Stained-glass windows were a way to bring colored lights into cathedrals."

Yamagata has made many friends among the local villagers and he keeps many of their pictures taped to the walls of his studio. He said he's not worried about spending so much time in an area that has been filled with violence.

"My friends think I'm stupid for going to a war-torn country," he said. "But after the Los Angeles riots, people thought we were at war. Ninety-nine percent of the people there don't even know they had a war."

It's almost time for his flight. After a hop to Denver, he's heading to Tokyo and then to New York. In November, he'll head to Afghanistan for three weeks. And in December, he's closing up his Harbor City studio and moving to Fiji so he can start concentrating on that project, which he hopes to have finished by 2012.

It's a hectic schedule, but Yamagata doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

"This life is retirement," he said. "I'm having too much fun to retire."

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