Monday, 15 June 2009

Live-leaf photos imprint horror of Khmer killings

by Richard Nilsen
The Arizona Republic

In 1388, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane ordered several pyramids of 40,000 human skulls each built in the conquered Persian city of Isfahan, made from the heads of those his army had decapitated.

Ten years later, he had 100,000 beheaded in the sack of Delhi.

When we read about such things, the stories seem more like legends than history. The numbers can never be verified. But the murder of more than a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s can be: They left pictures of those they killed, photographed like mug shots, often tagged with names and dates, as documentation.

Vietnamese-American artist Binh Danh has taken some of these haunting images and given them new life in his current show at Lisa Sette Gallery. He prints the negatives of the photos on living plant leaves, in a process he calls chlorophyll printing.

Like traditional photography, it prints a negative onto a surface, but instead of printing on sensitized paper and developing it with chemicals, he flattens the negative against a leaf and lets sunlight and shadow grow a living image on the leaf. The printing process takes on average about a month of exposure.

The faces of the dead show on the living leaf, often paired with a mounted butterfly in the frame and titled "Iridescence of Life."

In much tribal art, ceremonial masks are topped with flying birds or dragons, their wings spread out, a metaphor for the spirit of the person depicted. In Danh's images, the butterflies serve this function.

In a previous body of work, Danh printed photographs of every American soldier who died in the week of May 28-June 3, 1969, on handfuls of grass, reminding us of the verse from the Christian Bible's New Testament, "All flesh is as grass and all the glory of man is as the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower thereof falleth away."

He doesn't seem to make a distinction among victims: We are all fuel for Kali's fire.

"A lot of my work has to do with death itself," Danh has said in an interview. But Danh's images have a Buddhist subtext, not a Christian one: The lives continue in the chlorophyll, the spirit in the butterfly.

"I am coming up with my own concept of what is life, what is death, what is consciousness and what is history," he has said.

What shows is the endless sadness of humankind's lot, nasty, brutish and short. "All life is suffering," is the foundation of Buddhism, and there is no sense of political outrage in Danh's art. Rather it is the compassion that some humans can rise to, seen in the face of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion, that he has photographed in the statuary of the ancient Khmer site of Angkor.

While most of the images are writ on leaves, Danh has also taken up the historical process of the Daguerreotype, an image printed directly onto a highly polished, silvered metal surface. In the leaves, we see the faces of those who have died. In the silver, we see two groups of images. The first is of the ancient sculpture and architecture of Angkor, and reminding us of the 19th-century colonialists who first took such picturesque Daguerreotypes for European consumption. The silver is so polished, the images serve as mirrors, and we can see ourselves layered on the colonialist subject matter, drawing what lessons we are open to.

The second group are ever more horrifying images from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, which memorializes the genocide, and from Choeung Ek, one of the infamous "Killing Fields," from that terror.

One image is a tree with the sign, "Killing Tree against which executioners beat children," which for many will echo the verses in the Bible in which children are dashed against the rocks. Another is of skulls at the Choeung Ek memorial, where a glass stupa is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. And one cannot help but remember Tamerlane and weep for the symmetry of human history.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8823.

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