'Headless Buddha' Weaves History, Myth


Reproductions don't do justice to Dinh Q. Le^'s mind-blowing photoweavings at Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. These amazingly intricate images have to be seen up close to be fully appreciated.

Le^, who splits his time between his Vietnam homeland and L.A., takes photographs of family members, Cambodian war victims, statues of Buddha and of Christ on the cross, then slices them into strips and deftly weaves the pieces together so that fragmentary images emerge from the patterns. He then lines the sides with linen tape and burns it, which seals the woven edges and gives each piece the roughhewn look of a document that's survived the ravages of war.

There's a distinctly psychedelic quality to the finished weavings, particularly the ones in color. Giant golden Buddha heads and the faces of smiling infants and old women look as if they're simultaneously breaking apart and reconstituting themselves, like half-buried memories wavering in and out of consciousness. The longer you look, the more engrossed you become.

Large-scale vertical works like "Mother and Child" (1998) combine the iconic impact of mural painting with the homespun charm of grass mats or quilts. A meditative Buddha is superimposed over a young woman and her child, while on either side lie mirror images of a Christlike bearded man culled from Renaissance painting. Other works stitch stark, black-and-white photos of young victims of the Khmer Rouge into the walls of ancient Cambodian temples. In one, the haunting faces of these murdered prisoners stare out from the unblinking eyes of a stone carving.

By interlacing different images, Le^ portrays cross-cultural identities as overlapping spatial and pictorial fields, where past intermingles with present, just as the foreground and background in his pieces seem to meld into a single perspective. In this complex mesh of mythology and history, no single image, no single history, predominates over another.

The exhibition's title, "The Headless Buddha," refers to the frequent (and illegal) practice in Cambodia of decapitating religious statues and selling the heads on the black market. Many heads eventually find their way into Western museum collections, where they are proudly exhibited as "exotic" cultural artifacts.

Tucked behind a back wall of the gallery, like a secret shrine, you encounter a light-box containing a large color photograph of one of these headless statues. On a pedestal, a concrete replica of the missing head has been placed directly in front the photograph, as if condemned for all eternity to contemplate an image of its own cultural alienation.


* Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 466-6232, through March 20. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

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