Visual Arts

“Binh Danh: In the Eclipse of Angkor” at Lisa Sette Gallery Uses an Alternative Photographic Process to Burn Images of Khmer Rouge Victims Into Your Soul

Ghostly traces of somber Asian children's faces are just part of the stark imagery that will haunt your dreams after seeing "Binh Danh: In the Eclipse of Angkor," the current exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery, open until June 27. Artist photographer Binh Danh's photos of their anxious expressions, burned onto leaves by the sun — sometimes juxtaposed with fragile butterfly remains pinned beneath them — are guaranteed to sear holes in your soul.

This exhibition combines work executed in alternative photographic processes from several series produced by Binh Danh in recent years, including "Iridescence of Life" and "Memory of Tuol Sleng." The show contains photographic images he gathered during trips made to Vietnam and Cambodia to learn more about his ancestral roots. Born in 1977 to a Cambodian father and Vietnamese mother, Binh was curious about his beginnings, as well as the Vietnam War (in Vietnam, it's referred to as the American War), a conflict that had forced his parents and hundreds of thousands like them to flee Southeast Asia. Like most who have survived the unspeakable horrors of war, his parents rarely elaborated upon their experiences as "boat people" who escaped from Vietnam and landed in Northern California when the artist was only 2 years old.

What Binh found, both physically and spiritually, during those sobering sojourns to Southeast Asia, has been poured into photographic art unequivocally designed to honor the people and spirits he encountered along the way. Many of them were victims of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many buried in mass graves in the country's infamous — and all too numerous — "killing fields."

Binh's wanderings took him not only to Vietnam, the place of his birth, to visit his grandparents in 1999 but also to adjacent Cambodia, the birthplace of his father. In Vietnam, he became acutely aware that the remnants of war had become "a part of the landscape, with bomb craters that became rice paddies." According to Binh, "All materiel left after the war was made into other objects; bombshells were made into vases. It's so poetic in a way — an object of destruction became an object of creation."

In Cambodia, the artist made the usual tourist's pilgrimage to Angkor Wat, the magnificent stone temple complex built between 802 and 1220 A.D. by the mighty Khmer at the apex of their civilization; the Khmer was a highly advanced culture that thrived and prospered at a time when Europe was laboring in the Dark Ages. At its peak, Angkor was a buzzing metropolis with complicated social, religious, and political structures. Angkor's surviving stone temples, teeming with intricate carvings of demons and deities, are of Hindu origin. After the city's decline and abandonment, the temples were rediscovered by wandering Buddhist monks, who considered Angkor a sacred site built by the gods and revered it accordingly.

Ironically, Angkor was also basically the birthplace of the Khmer Rouge, which between 1975 and 1979, under the unblinking eye of Pol Pot, destroyed the lives of approximately 2 million people through their forced relocation from cities to the countryside (including hospital patients in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital), "political cleansing" (the polite term for execution), starvation, and slave labor. Enthralled with the idea of restoring Cambodia to its 12th-century glory and creating a Marxist agrarian utopia neither fettered by technology nor tainted by education and the tenets of Buddhism, Pol Pot began the systematic torture and elimination of anyone he felt didn't fit into his perversely Luddite/Arcadian vision, be it for political, religious, or intellectual reasons.

Binh also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, an old high school that once held the distinct dishonor of having been converted into Tuol Sleng Prison, referred to as S21, Pol Pot's most notorious secret prison and torture center. A dismal warren of torture cells, the prison was merely an anteroom to hell. S21, discovered by two Vietnamese photographers in the city after the Khmer Rouge was ousted, was found to contain rotting bodies, instruments of torture (including set-ups for waterboarding), and a huge, detailed archive of documentary photos and confessions from each person who entered the prison but never left.

All this ancient and not-so-ancient history became tough grist for Binh Danh's mental mill. In his "Iridescence of Life" images, which he refers to as "chlorophyll prints," he pairs butterfly specimens he's collected ("all the butterflies I've used have had a full life and died naturally") with photographic images on leaves. The artist took negatives of the documentary photos of child prisoners he had captured on film during his tour of Tuol Sleng, placed them on mostly live nasturtium leaves grown in his California garden and treated with resin, and exposed them to sunlight. Through the process of photosynthesis, those areas not in contact with the sun die, leaving faint images behind. "It's like leaving your water hose on your lawn on a really hot day," Binh explained in a gallery lecture given to Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum. "Pick up the hose and you'll see a spiral where the hose has blocked the sunlight."

Older prisoners, a stack of skulls, and a tree against which children were beaten before being executed by unimaginable means appear in the artist's "Memory of Tuol Sleng" series. Interspersed among these grim subjects are elegant images of tranquil stone Buddhas, young Buddhist monks, and intricate temple detail at Angkor Wat. For these, Binh has resurrected the tedious daguerreotype process to capture a shimmering, otherwordly quality absent in other types of photo representation. For him, it is the perfect way to capture fleeting moments in the past, never to be experienced again, while reflecting the present.

Invented in 1837 by artist and chemist Louis Daguerre, the daguerreotype was the first commercially viable — though labor- and materials-intensive — photographic process. It involved exposure of a copper plate covered with light-sensitive silver in a box camera to produce a unique image that is irreproducible. "Daguerreotypes are mirrored," notes Binh. "So when you look at them, you also see yourself; that's why a daguerreotype is called a mirror with a memory. The mirror remembers who you are."

A dignified Buddhist sensibility pervades Binh Danh's otherwise unsettling shots of child and adult prisoners. Binh's nasturtium leaves echo the shape of those from the lotus, a sacred plant in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The lotus and its leaf are rife with symbolic references to purity, since even after emerging from mud, they do not retain dirt when they unfurl.

The artist's use of daguerreotypes is especially fitting for his subject matter. His images, literally and figuratively, reflect the eternal cycle of death and rebirth — the ultimate act of recycling, while freezing a moment in time and simultaneously reflecting our participation in that moment.

In Vietnamese Buddhist culture, it is generally believed that one does not die but merely passes on to another invisible world that co-exists with the land of the living. Because they have supernatural powers, the dead watch over and assist the living. For this reason, home altars, decorated with photos, flowers, food offerings and incense, are built to honor and pray to the departed. Dead people who are forgotten or to whom veneration is not given are doomed to wander the Earth disconsolate, preying on the living.

The consummate intertwining of technique and intent, Binh Danh's powerful images are not just a dignified homage to those slaughtered during Pol Pot's regime. In truth, they are a part of a consummate ancestral altar the artist has constructed to revere, honor, and remember still unidentified victims of human savagery everywhere. They are a lyric tribute to all those who have been blotted out, like an eclipsed sun, much too soon and lost to history.

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Kathleen Vanesian