The Quiet Long March

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China; he lives in New York. Cai participated in The Quiet in the Land’s second project, The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and Projeto Axé. When France Morin invited him to participate in the present project, he expressed a wish not to create a conventional work of art, but for us to help him realize a dream: to be ordained as a monk and to reside in a monastery for one month. He believed this experience would nourish him spiritually, and that with the nourishment he received, he would become a more enlightened human being, which would enable him to become a more enlightened artist. As he stated in his original project proposal,

As an artist, I have consistently engaged in the exploration of traditional culture as a source for contemporary art practices. I have found that the study of religious rituals and philosophies is a productive process. My artworks have often engaged in communication with unseen energies. As a result, those who experience my works are given the space, tranquility, and spirituality to take refuge from the hustle and bustle of modern life. During my stay, I will not be creating an artwork. Instead, I will let myself be immersed in the process of living with and learning from the monks. As an artist absorbs culture and religion, he becomes a better person and will make better art for the future.

At this point, we did not understand that in Laos ordaining a foreigner as a monk is an extraordinarily complex process. Prime Ministerial Decree No. 92 on the Administration and Protection of Religious Activities was adopted in 2002 to define the rules regulating religious practice. It provides in part that “Lao citizens, foreign residents, people without citizenship and foreigners in Lao PDR have the right to carry out religious activities and participate in religious ceremonies in their places of worship at the temple or their own established churches or mosques.” This right, however, is subject to certain regulations. Most Lao are Theravada Buddhists, and many Lao Buddhist men become members of the Sangha at some point in their lives, if only temporarily. The Sangha, in turn, is organized into the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization. Established in 1976, after the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, this organization supervises the education of the Sangha and strives to ensure that its members comply with the law. It is overseen by the Religious Affairs Department of the Lao Front for National Construction, a governmental organization that operates under the direct authority of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

We soon learned that generally it is impossible for a foreigner to become a fully ordained monk, but that a few foreigners had been ordained as novices. In February 2004, before the project had officially begun, Morin met with Phra Acharn Onekeo Sitthivong, now Abbot of Vat Pak Khane, Vat Xieng Thong, and Vat Pha O, and Hans Georg Berger, who had worked closely with the Sangha since the early 1990s, to discuss Cai’s proposal. Sathou Nhyai Onekeo suggested that if Cai wished to be ordained, he be ordained by Phra Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera, who was Abbot of Vat Sene and the most prominent monk in Luang Prabang. He agreed to arrange a meeting for us.

Cai came to Luang Prabang for the first time in October 2005. We had arranged for his visit to coincide with Boun Ok Phansa, a festival marking the end of Buddhist Lent, the three-month period during the rainy season that begins on the first day of the eighth lunar month, when the monks and novices of the town retreat to their monasteries. It was fitting for Cai to visit Luang Prabang during this festival for two reasons: first, it marks the culmination of a period when many laypeople focus on their spiritual development and adopt more ascetic practices, just as Cai was planning to do; and second, one of the traditions that used to take place during this festival, since discontinued for safety reasons, was the launching of rockets over the Mekong River by monks and novices, a practice that related to Cai’s work.

Cai is perhaps best known for the drawings and events he creates by exploding gunpowder, which the Chinese invented in the tenth century. When he traveled to Salvador, Brazil, for The Quiet in the Land’s second project, for example, he developed a project involving gunpowder, in collaboration with a group of former street children, most of whom were African-Brazilian. Intrigued by the cannons in Salvador’s historical forts, he wanted to deepen the children’s understanding of the causes of racially motivated violence and to reclaim a symbol of destruction as one of hope. Under his guidance, the children built inventive cannons based on drawings they had made, and they fired these cannons at the opening of the project exhibition in a celebratory fusillade. When Cai traveled to Luang Prabang for the present project, he was similarly intrigued by the monks’ and novices’ use of gunpowder during Boun Ok Pansa. These monks and novices made their rockets by tamping homemade gunpowder into bamboo stalks, and they fired the rockets all day. Rockets are considered to be busa (offerings) sent into the heavens to honor the Buddha. They also are believed to sweep away evil influences and are connected to the death of the Buddha, when divinities sent a rocket to ignite his cremation pyre. The celebration thus linked up with Cai’s own use of gunpowder in his art, as well as with his interest in being ordained: huo yao is the Chinese word for gunpowder (huo means “fire”; yao means “medicine”), a substance that functions as a medicine that cleanses the spirit by sending away evil. Similarly, Cai conceived of the experience of being ordained as a cleansing of the spirit.

During his October 2005 visit, Cai reconfirmed his interest in being ordained and visited several monasteries. We then arranged for him to meet with Sathou Nyai Khamchan. Also present at this meeting were Sathou Nyai Onekeo, Berger, Engelmann, Morin, and Vanpheng Keophannha, then Curator of Collections at the Luang Prabang National Museum. Sathou Nhyai Khamchan listened to Cai’s explanation of his desire to be ordained and reviewed supporting documentation we provided. At the end of the meeting, he agreed to ordain Cai. Later, it was arranged for Cai to reside at Vat Phou Kway, a monastery on the outskirts of Luang Prabang that is less visited by tourists than the monasteries on the peninsula.

In January 2006, we began the process of obtaining permission from the Religious Affairs Department for Cai’s ordination, which Morin coordinated. In July, we submitted a formal application to the Department. At the same time, we were speaking directly to governmental officials to help them better understand the purpose and legitimacy of the request. As the application was in the final stage of the approval process, however, Cai’s responsibilities as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Beijing became all-consuming, and he was unable to move forward with the project. But as he has stated, ultimately the Olympics became his “monastery”—a place of isolation to which he retreated, which enabled him to undertake the process of self-examination he had planned to undertake at Vat Phou Kway, the quiet monastery in Luang Prabang where he had planned to reside, to strengthen his spiritual development as a person and as an artist. The title he gave to his proposed project, The Quiet Long March, invokes the Long March, the historic retreat that the Red Army of the Chinese Communist Party undertook in 1934 for the purpose of fortifying itself—and which has since become a metaphor for any such type of strategic withdrawal undertaken to become stronger. As the Tun/Retreat hexagram of the I Ching (Book of Changes) states: “Retreat is not to confused with flight. Flight means saving oneself under any circumstances, whereas retreat is a sign of strength.”