Pascal Convert, Falaise de Bâmiyân (Bamiyan’s Cliffs) (detail), 2017, fifteen platinum palladium prints, each 65 3/8 × 43 1/4".

Pascal Convert, Falaise de Bâmiyân (Bamiyan’s Cliffs) (detail), 2017, fifteen platinum palladium prints, each 65 3/8 × 43 1/4".

Pascal Convert

Pascal Convert, Falaise de Bâmiyân (Bamiyan’s Cliffs) (detail), 2017, fifteen platinum palladium prints, each 65 3/8 × 43 1/4".

In March 2016, the French ambassador to Afghanistan invited Pascal Convert to the city of Bamiyan, site of the destruction of the great Buddha sculptures fifteen years earlier—six months before the attack on the Twin Towers. In deploying dynamite against these monumental statues, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar did not only desecrate religious idols, he also attacked the cultural patrimony of Afghanistan. Though Bamiyan—long a crossroads of Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Buddhism on the Silk Road—has not been a site of pilgrimage or worship for centuries, and though there are no longer Buddhists in the country, these objects were important monuments of Afghan art and history. The Taliban made a film of the destruction, a document that points to the paradox of the iconoclasts, who are as conscious as any artist of the power of images. The 2002 exhibition “Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science Religion, and Art” at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, made precisely this argument.

Convert left for Bamiyan loaded down with more than 550 pounds of photographic equipment. In collaboration with Iconem, a company that specializes in archaeology in war zones, he created a 3-D scan of the entire rocky wall. Then, using a robotic camera and adopting a technique for documenting hairline cracks in wind turbines, he photographed the wall’s every nook and cranny. The approximately twelve thousand shots he took, a third of which he used to construct the work in this show, map the wall both horizontally and vertically. From these he was able, with the help of printer Laurent Lafolie, to adjust the parallax and changes in light to create a single unified image on fifteen panels. Printed in platinum and palladium, the image has a durability equal to that of its paper support (if not that of the sculpted Buddha figures), and could potentially last for centuries.

Composed of fifteen large photographic panels, each about sixty-five inches by forty-three inches, Falaise de Bâmiyân (Bamiyan’s Cliffs; all works 2017), shows a panoramic view of the stony face, with the two Buddhas, in the Gandhara style, and about 750 cave sanctuaries once filled with wall paintings and sculptures, most of which have vanished. The impressive precision of the photography, which has the tactile qualities of a direct print, reveals the junctures between the irregular surface and the empty spaces. The sculptures’ mute frontality led Convert to think of Fayum portraits; though the comparison is unexpected, it is easy to appreciate. The flakiness of the porous rock is also clearly visible and, like a sand castle, in a continuous state of erosion. The decomposition of this living fossil, which art historian Georges Didi-Huberman compares in the catalogue to a “bullet-ridden wall from a civil war,” is a natural process more than a gesture guided by the hand of man.

Despite the aridity of the landscape and the political and religious tensions that remain fraught, life is not absent in Bamiyan. Children from the Hazara ethnic group, descendants of the soldiers of Genghis Khan, play soccer, ride bicycles, clean carpets, and, in Convert’s video Les enfants de Bâmiyân (The Children of Bamiyan), pose for the artist’s camera. Their unexpectedly mature faces recall those of the Buddhas.

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.