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In this city of cars, with an economy founded on the production of the disposable, and, lately, an artistic identity founded on the exploitation of detritus, Kenro Izu: Sacred Places, explores the impermanence of the manmade in human history. It makes for an ironic little insight into the really transitory nature of our reality.
Descend to the dark, moody, newly remodeled Albert and Peggy De Salle Gallery of Photography, in the quiet womb-like center of the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, in the most peaceful gallery of the DIA, is a selection of photographs by the renowned Japanese-born photographer who, for more than 30 years, has devoted himself to photographing some of the most outrageous human constructions on the planet. Kenro Izu: Sacred Places is a revelation about how, in building shelter, certain cultures have wed deep respect for place with profound cosmologies. While this is his subject, photography is his art and Izu's work is a masterful blend of the classic and the modern.
Arranged geographically into six regions, mostly in Asia, his work could be an updating of the Greek historian Herodotus' Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as the Seven Wonders of the Sacred World. They are photographs of amazing temples, shrines and monuments, built usually in breathtaking landscapes by cultures that made building a primary goal and celebration of their belief. Izu explores the intersection of the erosive power of nature with architecture, that often spectacular, but ultimately fragile, physical expression of human belief.
The sacred places Izu photographs are mostly familiar but honed by his visionary vocabulary — and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which Izu has visited more than 20 times, is the portfolio centerpiece. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as a state temple (or complex of temples) and capital, Angkor Wat has served continuously as a religious center for Hindu and Buddhist practice.
Izu's photographic vision, profoundly influenced by his Buddhist practice, is summarized in the "Four-plate composite, Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Cambodia." Perhaps the most stunning image of the collection, it's a classic expression of nature — in this case, the mammoth roots of a tree — vanquishing a human construction, in this case an intricately designed stone temple detailing the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses.
The photo is seemingly a crude suturing together of four 14-by-20-inch photos printed so that the seams are distinctively apparent. It's an old modernist photographic trick (David Hockney is most well-known for it), but Izu's minimal use of composites has a very specific value. Light and shadow vary in each misaligned part, indicating they were shot at different times of day under different conditions. There's no effort to hide this fractured arrangement. In a sense, the photo celebrates Izu's own mortality by isolating the moments he took each photo. So even within the same composite photograph, a duration of human and earthly time is represented. The photograph is masterful artifact that shows Izu's simple but mindful relationship with the world.
"Four-plate composite of Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat" may be the most iconic Izu photograph, but it's not the subtlest or most engaging. There are others with otherworldly, dreamlike qualities that seem purely atmospheric, as if trying to capture a memory. The delicately detailed eeriness of "The Tomb of I'thinad-ud-Daula, Agra," which honors a prime minister of the Moghul Empire, appears to be disappearing as we examine it. The huge format of Izu's 14-by-20-inch negative coupled with the antique platinum palladium printing process that he employs allow for spiderweb-like details, making the photograph appear almost as etched lace.
As a young man, Izu was influenced by the huge photographs of the Egyptian pyramids taken by 19th century British photographer Francis Frith. Izu himself ultimately had a 300-pound camera custom-made to accommodate his oversized negatives.
He lugged his camera all the way to Subashi in China's Xinjiang province to explore the ruins of the 1st century Buddhist temple there. Izu makes us work hard here. In the dim light of the Schwartz Gallery "The Great Zhaoguli Temple" looms more like a formless shadow — or even a rotting animal carcass — than the deteriorating stone edifice of a famed Buddhist temple. Here one gets the sense of Izu seeking the animating spirit of the place more than its detailed documentation.
In the subdued light of "Preah Khan, Angkor Wat," another almost shocking image, a buckling stone pathway leads to a distant archway surrounded by sculptural bas-reliefs of Hindu cosmology. The stone pathway reflects light up to illuminate the underside of the invasive canopy of tropical vegetation. Again there is a sense of time and the erosive power of nature literally consuming the awesome handiwork of man.
Most of Izu's photographs are of sacred sites of Asia, but one of the least ordinary and most contemporary is "Ranchos de Taos Church," a 17th century Catholic mission in New Mexico. It's another of Izu's composites. Four images of the backside of this sculptural, cubist-like church are subtly misaligned and each reveals a different angle of light as if documenting not the church but the setting sun or the passage of time.
While Izu reflects 19th century landscape photography's interest in the precise image, he doesn't carry a 300-pound camera around to build muscle, he is after different game, something more elusive. As a Buddhist he speaks of a secular spirituality, the spiritual presence of a "sacred place" without the interference of religious dogma, or of some concept of God. In very simple terms, Izu takes us to where the physical beauty of the earth, with all its nuanced drama, intersects with man's architectural aspirations to live within it and celebrate it.
And then we return to consider our own interior world, to consider mortality and what we've constructed.
In response to his encounters with malnourished, ill and injured children in Cambodia's province of Siem Reap, particularly those disfigured by some of the estimated 8 million landmines remaining in Cambodia, in 1995 photographer Kenro Izu founded the not-for-profit Friends Without Borders to raise awareness of their plight. Among other efforts, he has raised funds to construct and operate a pediatric hospital near the Angkor Wat temples. For more information visit www.fwab.org.
In conjunction with the exhibition Kenro Izu: Sacred Places, the Detroit Institute of Arts is organizing an online photo contest that invites DIA visitors, the online community and the general public to submit photos that capture their interpretation of sacred Detroit. Exhibition curators Nancy Barr and Amelia Chau, as well as Kyohei Abe, professor of photography at the College for Creative Studies, will review and comment on a selection of the submissions in a blog. The winner of the contest will receive prizes, including a signed copy of Kenro Izu: Light over Sacred Places of Asia, two front-row seats to Izu's lecture on September 14, 2008, and admission for two to the post-lecture strolling supper.
To enter, upload your photo to the Detroit's Sacred Places Flickr Group page. In the description section, be sure to include your artist statement (maximum 100 words) and tag your photo with "Detroit's Sacred Places."
Kenro Izu: Sacred Places runs through Oct. 12, at Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-7900.
Glen Mannisto is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.