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November 4, 2001, Sunday

ART/ARCHITECTURE; One Who Listens to Ruins That Speak of Mortality


By ELEANOR MUNRO

PRESIDENTS should see these photographs. Members of Congress should see them. Military strategists and merchants of weapons, sowers of land mines and brewers of lethal chemicals should meditate on them. They are pictures of a global array of once-noble cultural monuments reduced by time, natural erosion and human misadventure to the barest of ruins. Like Shelley's poem ''Ozymandias,'' Kenro Izu's photographs can be read as an ominous warning to partisans of ideology and empire. The artist, however, does not read them that way. For him, the photographs are full of hopeful humanity. Yet both themes are in this work. How could the value of the arts for an age of ideological confrontation be better shown?

These superb palladium prints, of the inaccessible landscapes of which legends have long been told, take their place in a more than 100-year-old tradition of travelers' photography. But they use a radically different grammar of technique and aesthetics. Against backgrounds of river valleys and the heart-stopping elevations of Himalayan and other mountain ranges, the artist directs us to weathered structures of archetypal profile whose outlines subsist in the world's memory: pyramids at sunset, stone circles in moonlight, dawn-lighted, snow-tipped peaks. Once these forms embodied complex religious and philosophical ideas. Hindu and Buddhist images are still legible on a certain level, but others exist in cultural oblivion. Most moving among these last are the well-known Easter Island figures, on bedrock roots yearning toward who-knows-what seas beyond their own.


Several plates show details of the Borobodur, the great Buddhist temple in Java, built in the ninth century, abandoned to the jungle, rediscovered in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, reclaimed by foliage and decay and finally reconstructed by Unesco. To climb and circumambulate its intricately carved stepped platforms is to travel in theory from the realm of ordinary life up through ever more rarefied levels of sculptural abstraction to the empty sky where, by Buddhist teaching, all things must end.

Actually, Mr. Izu is a reverent and buddhistic humanist with layered memories and ideas. He is exquisitely attentive to what he brings to his subjects and what he wants to evoke from them. With masterly patience, he prepares and waits in place to experience the ambience that he anticipates finding at a chosen site. He trusts that what is literally intangible -- perhaps an aura of ancient passersby and ceremonial enactments -- can be made accessible through the tonalities, densities and illumination that he will, months later, cause to appear in his prints.

I saw the prints at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., not long after Sept. 11. I still had in mind that morning's news photos of smoking wreckage in New York. Walking among these images of destroyed and abandoned temples, Buddha heads in a stranglehold of vines, prayer sheets blown to lace in bone-dry air, I thought I'd never seen images so melancholy. That day, it seemed unsurprising that that vision came from an artist formed by boyhood visits to Hiroshima. (The Peabody Essex show runs until Dec. 2 and another exhibition of Mr. Izu's work is at Sepia International in Chelsea through Dec. 10.)

In fact, Mr. Izu was in Japan in September, waiting for a plane to New York when he saw the World Trade Center destroyed on television. ''I felt I had stones in my stomach,'' he told me during a recent visit to his studio in Chelsea. ''I felt my own house was invaded. Destroyed.'' When I asked whether he would photograph the New York site, he shook his head. ''In the World Trade Center, I sense grief, sadness. It doesn't motivate me to photograph. I'm praying for the spirits of the victims. I wouldn't photograph in Hiroshima. It's a place where people only prayed 'never again.' ''

Kenro Izu, who is 52, was born in Osaka to a single mother and spent his school years in Iwakuni, near Hiroshima. If a father's absence affected his boyhood, so doubtless did the monuments, the human stories and the photographic documentation of the atom-bombed city.

He first planned to become a doctor. But in high school he switched to liberal arts and by college was studying photography. Shortly before graduation, he visited New York and decided to stay. For the next two decades, he worked in fashion and other commercial photography.

Artists, like travelers, reach turning points. ''When I was 29 and 10 months, facing the Big 30, I was panicked,'' he said. ''I was thinking I had come to New York to be a fine-art photographer, but at the time I was photographing jewelry. When I questioned myself about what my personal work would be, the internal reason for making art, I couldn't even say I was a photographer. I had to go somewhere. So I went to Egypt. This was 1979.''

Mr. Izu gave himself three weeks to travel and photograph in that land of monuments and desolation. When he returned, he spent a long time studying the shots he had made. One print, he saw, stood out. ''It impressed me, myself,'' he said. ''It was different from what I'd thought I was aiming at. And then things came together.''

That image was of the famous stepped pyramid of Sakkara, the earliest of the pyramids. Mr. Izu shot it from a distance, showing it looming against a dull sky, which seems full of blown sand. The foreground is sand as well, drifting almost to the photographer's feet and nearly engulfing a field of fallen walls. The tones of the print have a remarkable pictorial unity. The ghostly pyramid and its enveloping atmosphere merge into a single image not exactly textured but almost palpable. The effect is uncanny. The image came by accident, but it turned Mr. Izu around.

''The moment had come just before sunset,'' Mr. Izu recalled. ''I was making a long exposure. Suddenly I couldn't believe what was happening in front of my eyes. When I saw it later, the photograph was more than I expected. More than I was capable of. It was beyond my ability to make.''

Since then, Mr. Izu has perfected his technique and method. He uses a specially designed and constructed camera weighing 300 pounds to produce 14-by-20-inch negatives. With this burden of baggage, which he consigns to porters or, in extremity, portages on his own back like a Hokusai traveler, he takes off on his tremendous treks. ''The purpose of the 300-pound camera is to capture the dense air surrounding the stone,'' he said. ''I didn't believe in it until I started to use the big camera. Now I believe I am capturing it.

''I feel it in these sacred places: a certain tense atmosphere. In Japan, the borders around shrines, between the sacred and human area, are clearly marked. A shinto shrine is beyond the real world. The air of that area is beyond human. When I was a child and passed a certain shrine, I felt the air grow tense. Now I try to believe in my instinct.''

Mr. Izu documents what he brings to the site in his sensory imagination. ''That is what I want to capture: a sense of presence,'' he said. ''As if someone or something were there.''

Clearly, Mr. Izu is engaged in a process of imaginative projection, a living theater of illusion, if you will. ''I have to wait for the light,'' he said. ''Often I don't feel it until there's a change of wind, sun, rain, sunset, sunrise, whatever. But eventually the atmosphere changes and I feel it. I want to maintain that documentary principle. To accept what is. To unite my self with it.''

Listening to Mr. Izu describe his pursuit of ''air'' and ''presence'' in dead monuments, I recalled how New York had seemed to change after the World Trade Center disaster. The very stones of the city, its sidewalks and walls, its terrifying dark canyons between buildings, were putting forth candlelight and scrawls of poetry. I, who rarely do, used the word ''mystical'' to describe the sight.

Yet it's no mystery. From ancient times, people have engaged in collective rituals of regeneration by building artful bulwarks against fear. Some street and performance artists tap into these feelings, too.

''I feel protected in sacred places,'' Mr. Izu said. ''I try to harmonize with the people who have been there. Their presences. Their prayers. I don't do the prayers. But I try to accept what is there.''

The arts don't work prayerful magic, stop time or raise up fallen walls, but individual artists can reanimate the stones. Reason enough, again, to harbor the living arts in our time.



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