More so than most other religions, Buddhism seems to revel in the unorthodox, a belief that apparently holds true even when it comes to depictions of Lord Buddha himself.
Across the landscapes of Southeast Asia, statues of Buddha are everywhere, not just in wats and spirit houses, but carved into alley walls and chiseled from the sides of mountains, super-glued to taxicab dashboards and cast in concrete 10 meters high.
They are as varied as the people who commission them, some massive and majestic, others bordering on bizarre.
In “A Blues for Buddha,” at the FCC Angkor from June 2 to June 23, Dutch photographer Eric de Vries pays homage to such sculptures with black-and-white photography documenting the many varied forms of Buddha’s found in Cambodia and Thailand.
“Two years ago I went to this so called ‘Buddha statue factory’ in Phnom Penh,” de Vries says. I saw men and women working 12 hours a day with full passion … making and mixing the cement, shaping the sculptures and finishing their artwork with different colors of paint, not forgetting the last details.”
While he had traveled the region for years, the experience gave him a new appreciation of the labor and dedication involved in carving even the simplest forms.
It also crystallized his understanding of the individuality inherent in not just the statues, but the religion itself.
That individuality no doubt contributes to Buddha’s many incarnations, and de Vries delights in showings us the less-traditional totems that he finds.
In one photograph de Vries crops tight to the face of Buddha, showing impossibly symmetric eyebrows above narrow, cartoonish eyes. Another shows the outstretched hand of Buddha with an inexplicable spool in his palm. In probably the most unusual, de Vries captures Buddha with a Fu Manchu goatee and what looks like a Jimi Hendrix afro circa 1970.
While Buddha is the central subject of de Vries’ collection, at least one other deity makes an appearance. Vishnu, leaning at an unnatural angle underneath a dark and trippy sky, radiates with a surreal quality that adds to the power of the photograph’s incongruent perspectives.
These kinds of statues have long been a source of inspiration for de Vries, influencing both his photography and his paintings. He says “A Blues for Buddha,” with shots from only Cambodia and Thailand, is just part one. He is already working on part two of the series, which will focus on Buddhist statues in Laos.
“It’s just an homage to all the beautiful sculptures out there.”