meditation boat

Ann Hamilton was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1956; she lives in Columbus, Ohio. She is best known for large-scale, materially diverse installations that respond to architectural sites and their contexts. Her processes of response follow her curiosity about the material history of a place, including its political and cultural contexts, but her projects develop into physical form only as her research and conversations in the community inform her initial intuitive impressions and questions.

Hamilton first visited Luang Prabang in August 2005. Of this visit, she has observed: “I was struck first by the flow of the Mekong River—the strength of its underwater forces and the hypnotic pattern of its pooling surface. Liquid and deep, the river is a place in-between, a substance that both gives life and receives death. Walking the perimeter of the Luang Prabang peninsula, the river became for me a visual embodiment and confluence of cultural currents, where a traditional past mixes with the modern present. I started to think about the Mekong as the site for my project, and about how the swirling rhythms of its surface might meet the rhythms and pace of my ambling body.”

Hamilton’s interest in the Mekong led her to visit a series of monasteries along the river’s forested banks with Francis Engelmann. These sites included the monasteries Vat Had Seio, Vat Khok Phap, and the renovated Vat Long Khoun, located on the right bank, and Vat Khom Khouang, located on the left. Each has a walking meditation hall, none presently in use. Vat Long Khoun’s features a mural with an image of a boat, which would become a source of inspiration for the artist.

For Hamilton, the abandoned walking meditation halls demonstrated how opportunities for meditation practice in Luang Prabang were becoming rarer as the distractions of the modern world intensified. In response, she proposed to design a boat for the Sangha inspired by the form and function of a walking meditation hall. The Sangha might use the boat, she imagined, to travel beyond the hustle and bustle of the town to quieter sites, where they could meditate and chant in peace. She consulted with Phra Acharn Onekeo Sitthivong, now the Abbot of Vat Pak Khane, Vat Xieng Thong, and Vat Pha O, with whom The Quiet in the Land had been working since 2004, to gauge the Sangha’s interest in the project and to seek their input.

After Sathou Nyai Onekeo expressed the Sangha’s interest, the design and construction of the boat began in earnest. Upon her return to Ohio, Hamilton worked with P’Elizabeth Koelker to create a series of computer-generated drawings and conceptual models. The architects Laurent Rampon and Yushi Kawaguchi, based in Luang Prabang, developed these into buildable form. Jean-Pierre Cuomo, of the firm Naturalia Moulage, participated in the design of the boat and built its wooden structure, and the boat builder Sichan Phongsavath built its metal structure. France Morin oversaw the project with the assistance of Engelmann and Outh Litthavong. Construction was challenging because the team had never built a vessel like this one before. In addition, Luang Prabang’s long rainy season, as well as the intense heat, delayed work. As each new technical problem arose, the team paused to find a creative solution to ensure that the boat would reflect Hamilton’s original concept, as well as be buoyant and safe.

The finished boat is about 118 feet (36 meters) long. Ninety percent of the wood comes from two types of locally grown deciduous trees, Pentacme suavis, p. siamensis (may paop in Lao) and Chukrasis tabulris (may gnium in Lao), both of which have a warm, lustrous, reddish-brown hue when polished with Flemish oil; are highly prized for carving; and are moisture-proof. The meditation hall, about 65 feet (19.6 meters) long, is built on top of the boat. It is a long, narrow structure wide enough to accommodate two rows of people. This structure comprises a series of gently arched wooden armatures that support the roof and the walls, which consist of slim wooden panels that may be opened or closed to let in light and air.

In October 2006, an exhibition at the Luang Prabang National Museum of works created for The Quiet in the Land’s project opened, which featured 75 photographs documenting the making of the then-half-completed boat. Two days later, the first sukhuan (blessing) of the boat took place on the steps of Vat Xieng Thong, which lead down to the Mekong. Sathou Nyai Onekeo led the blessing, which was attended by monks, novices, and participants from The Quiet in the Land. On October 28, 2007, a second sukhuan, to celebrate the boat’s completion, took place. Also led by Sathou Nyai Onekeo, a delegation of about 70 locals whom he and The Quiet in the Land invited boarded the boat at Vat Xieng Thong and rode about 90 minutes along the Mekong to the sacred island of Don Khoune, where the blessing took place. The boat was presented to the people of Luang Prabang on February 28 and 29, 2008. On both days, it was driven from Ban Done to Ban Chan, as the monks and novices on board meditated.

In October 2008, Hamilton returned to Luang Prabang to discuss with Sathou Nyai Onekeo and the Sangha their experiences with the boat, as well as to have her own experiences, such as traveling with a group of 60 nuns to Don Khoune to practice meditation. In addition, Bounkhong Khuttao, Deputy Director, Department of Information and Culture; Nithakhong Somsanith; and the staff of The Quiet in the Land organized a day-long trip for more than 70 people on the boat. This group also traveled to Don Khoune, where a ritual was performed at the temple on the island. Then they traveled to the Pak Ou Caves, where hundreds of Buddhas are enshrined. About 150 of the Buddhas created in connection with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s project, which were painted gold by the students of the Children’s Cultural Center, were blessed and deposited in the caves.

Hamilton visited Luang Prabang in connection with the project one last time in February 2009. Accompanied by a film crew that consisted of Paul Hill, Paul Marbury, Thibault Jeanson, and Dyanna Taylor, as well as Thibault’s wife Paule Fattacioli, she filmed the boat. At the conclusion of this visit, Hamilton and The Quiet in the Land officially gifted the boat to the Sangha in a ceremony at Vat Pha O. Also attending were Engelmann, Litthavong, and Sathou Nyai Onekeo. The Quiet in the Land funded the operation and maintenance of the boat from the time it was completed to the time it was given to the Sangha.

The gifting of the boat to the Sangha can be located within the long tradition of gift-giving in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist culture, which encompasses practices ranging from a layperson’s giving of alms to a monk to a king’s patronage of a temple. In her book Theories of the Gift in South Asia: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Reflections on Dāna (2004) the scholar Maria Helm examines this tradition. She cites the following quotation from a Theravada Buddhist commentary on gift-giving in the Sārasangaha, which illuminates one dimension of the tradition that is particularly relevant to Hamilton’s project: “Just as something beautiful, lovely, delightful, and well composed is created by a skillful artist, so too a deed done with a wise thought occasions beauty, giving pleasure to the eyes and other senses like something golden, well formed, dressed up, and adorned” (xv). As Helm observes, this passage compares a proper gift to a work of art: “Like art, the gift is done with care and is connected to knowledge. Giving dresses up and adorns our experiences with one another, bringing reverence to human relations” (xv). Reflecting this interpretation, Hamilton’s meditation boat is both a luminous work of art made with care and a gift whose giving sanctified the relationships that developed during the long course of its creation.