8 Lessons on Emptiness With a Happy End
Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. Since the early 1970s, she has created a pioneering body of work in performance and other mediums.
Abramović first traveled to Luang Prabang in July–August 2006. This residency coincided with the Boat Race Festival, which takes place in Luang Prabang each August. While visiting a fair accompanying the festival, she observed numerous children playing with toy machine guns and other weapons. She began to reflect on the relationship between the violence they acted out in their games, the suffering experienced by Lao people as a result of the long civil war, and the increasingly pervasive presence of the violent imagery of global media culture in Luang Prabang—all seemingly paradoxical phenomena in the context of a placid Buddhist culture. She addressed this relationship in Family, a series of photographs shot in a local portrait studio, which she made during her visit. As she began to consider how she might expand her investigation for her artist project, she asked No Tua Ly, a Hmong shaman introduced to us by Mo Ly, a Hmong woman with whom we had worked, to conduct a purification ceremony for her. This ritual of endurance, which lasted several hours, would eventually empower her to focus on the spiritual labor of cleansing oneself of the desire for violence, which would become one of the themes of her project. This project culminated in the video installation 8 Lessons on Emptiness With a Happy End and the photographic series The Family Cycle.
Abramović returned to Luang Prabang in January 2008 for filming, which began after the shaman conducted a second purification ceremony. The crew consisted of Igor Kecman, producer; Alexander Ilić, director of photography; Attilio Maranzano, photographer; Gaia Bartolini, Maranzano’s assistant; and Ramon Coelho, who shot video for a documentary about the project titled Everything you always wanted to know about the making of a video installation (2008). Another crew from Living Films in Chiang Mai, Thailand, provided technical assistance. In Luang Prabang, France Morin, Outh Litthavong, and Francis Engelmann coordinated the project. Jean-Pierre Cuomo of the firm Naturalia Moulage built the set—a life-sized house in a field in his village of Ban Done, furnished with oversized furniture based on designs the artist supplied—and provided additional support. And a group of teachers from the Children’s Cultural Center, a local institution that offers children’s arts programs, helped supervise the performers, 27 six-to-ten-year-old students from the Center.
The installation features eight sequences of imagery, each titled a “lesson on emptiness,” presented on five screens arrayed by side by side. Subtly evoking the great multi-panel altarpieces of the Renaissance to which pilgrims would travel great distances to visit, this format invests the viewing of the work with a sacred dimension that complements its subject and that positions the beholder as a pilgrim of sorts. The imagery itself features the children, dressed in combat fatigues and armed with realistic-looking toy weapons, performing acts of war-related violence—brandishing their weapons, executing their enemies by firing squad, dragging the artist’s body across a field. Interwoven with these images are scenes of the natural landscape around Luang Prabang, as seen from a stationary camera: a mountain, a waterfall at Kouang Si, and a tree on the sacred island of Don Khoune. The stylized nature of the action, together with the monumental scale of the furniture in relation to the house and the children, imbues the video with a dream-like quality. The photographic series features imagery related to that in the installation.
In the installation, the imagery of war references not only the violent history of Laos in the twentieth century, but also the contemporary culture of violence throughout the world. From 1945, when King Sisavangvong of Luang Prabang declared the independence of Laos, to 1975, when the Pathet Lao established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos was a battlefield of the Cold War, in which Lao factions, supported by various regional and global powers, bitterly fought for control of the country. Millions were killed or wounded, and parts of the country were devastated by bombing. Although Abramović did not experience this history directly, the fact that she was raised in the former Yugoslavia after World War II, another Cold War battleground divided by internecine strife, gave her a heightened sensitivity to the suffering experienced by the Lao and its broader resonance.
While summoning this history, the imagery at the same time evokes a range of visual sources. On one level, it evokes Vietnam War films like Apocalypse Now, First Blood, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, as well as war-related video games. For example, although the children do not play specific characters, we recognize familiar archetypes from the movies: the Viet Cong female guerilla, the machine-gun wielding vigilante, the sadistic executioner. On another level, it evokes portrayals of the violence of war from the history of art. The shot of the firing squad, for example, is in the lineage of paintings like Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814), Édouard Manet’s Death of Maximilian (1869), and Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951).
Many of the images are staged as tableaux vivants in which the children hold long poses, transforming the moving image into a still photograph. In one, a six-year-old Rambo, standing motionless, brandishes two machine guns while staring at the camera with a chilling intensity beyond his years. In another, seven girls sleep silently on a bed made with bright pink sheets, their machine guns resting sinisterly next to them. By stilling time, Abramović allows us to replace looking with seeing, distraction with concentration.
And as we see the images unfolding, we cannot help being seduced by the beauty of the violence portrayed. Not only do many of the children radiate an enchanting innocence at odds with the acts they perform, but the images featuring them, as well as those of the landscape, are exquisitely composed and lit. But as we concentrate on these images, the sight of children with guns becomes exceptionally disturbing, while the fact that we cannot avert our eyes becomes even more shocking to our sensibilities. By inducing shock, however, Abramović encourages us to confront the contemporary culture of violence—particularly the complacency of those of us who are not directly affected by war. For the shock that we feel when we see these images boldly contrasts with our immunity to the flood of images of suffering caused by violence that we passively consume every day—the killing scenes from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and other places, as well as the images in films, television programs, and video games perversely crafted for our visual delectation.
In this manner, Abramović literally brings the war home. The generic house where the violence takes place is like a dream world crafted by our own unconscious, in which the horror of the violence perpetrated in the political realm is transformed into play. Play is how children become socialized. It is how they learn to control, or not to control, the desire for violence, a desire fed by the global mass media culture, a desire that is one of the causes of suffering, for individuals and for nations. But can we learn to extinguish this desire?
The word “emptiness” in the phrase “lessons on emptiness” refers to a Buddhist concept expressing the belief that nothing possesses an enduring identity because everything is impermanent. Although often misunderstood as nihilism, this concept actually conveys optimism, for with impermanence, every door is open for change. Like the shaman who offered her the opportunity to cleanse her own spirit before embarking on her work, Abramović invites the beholder to commence the spiritual labor that must be undertaken to cleanse the self of the desire for violence, just as in the last sequence of the video the children, with great deliberateness, place their weapons into a bonfire, where the weapons are consumed (originally, the artist intended for the house itself to be burned down, but ultimately the necessary permissions could not be obtained). In this respect, the experience of viewing the work is analogous to participating in the purification ceremonies that Abramović herself endured. It is as if the viewer has become the artist, and the artist the shaman in a performance that elides into ritual.
This project was made possible through the generous contribution of Galerie Guy Bärtschi, Geneva and Laboral Escena: Ciudad de la Cultura, Gijon. Executive Producer: Igor Kecman, Film House Bas Celik, Belgrade; Director of Photography: Alexander Ilić; Camera: Dragan Rakicević; Sound: Goran Stipanić; Lighting: Living Films Entertainment and Siamlite, Bangkok; Editing: Ramon Coelho, Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo and Amsterdam; Photography: Attilio Maranzano (Director) and Gaia Bartolini (Assistant); Project Coordinator: Outh Litthavong; Architects: Tei Carpenter and Jolie Kerns, Toshiko Mori Studio, New York; Construction of the House and Furniture: Jean-Pierre Cuomo, Naturalia Moulage, Luang Prabang; Children: Bounlom, Chanthasone Chaleunsinh, Melira Chanthavong, Philatda Keodala, Sitthikone Keouanithieng, Alanya Keovonglat, Aliva Khamsy, Vithana Lattana, Khamlah Manisuk, Ninthana Mungkutdet, Piksavanh Pangnathong, Visanon Paseuthkun, Houmphan Philavan, Linda Phommavong, Nitta Phommavong, Salinthip Phouangmalay, Chonny Seangta, Taun Seangta, Suvanny Sisuphan, Phatthanavong Sitthiphong, Phetoulay Souphanthong, Dalakham Suphanthong, Saiyavong Tandala, Phetsuda Vannapha, Phonesanit Vonechit, Sonethavy Vilaysak, Vannavong; Children’s Cultural Center, Luang Prabang: Sengkeo Pasertkoun, Chanpheng Singpheth, Noukham Sisuphanh.