In collaboration with anthropologist CATHERINE CHORON-BAIX

The Banners of Luang Prabang

Inner Self and Outer World

The Blessing of the Land

Dinh Q. Lê was born in Ha-Tien, Vietnam, in 1968, during the Vietnam War, which would become a major theme of much of his work. In 1977, Khmer Rouge soldiers from neighboring Cambodia invaded Ha-Tien, and in 1978 Lê and his family escaped to Thailand and then migrated to the United States the following year. Since 1998, he has lived in Ho Chi Minh City.

Nithakhong Somsanith was born in Vientiane, Laos, in 1959. A member of the Lao royal family, he learned the courtly tradition of gold-and-silver-thread embroidery from his grandmother. He moved to France in 1985 to study psychology and other disciplines, but he now focuses on embroidery and related traditional arts. He divides his time between Paris and Luang Prabang.

After seeing Mémoire d’or, mémoire de soie (Memories of Gold, Memories of Silk, 2001), the anthropologist Catherine Choron-Baix’s film on Somsanith, France Morin proposed a collaboration between Lê, Somsanith, and Choron-Baix, who met for the first time in Luang Prabang in February 2005. They visited numerous sites and had lengthy discussions about what they saw. Lê proposed developing a project focusing on the coexistence of tradition and modernity in the town. As he stated, “We found a community that is going through a very difficult and confusing transitional process,” under pressure to “modernize, and yet stay the same.” Because Lê’s training is in conceptual contemporary art theory and practice and Somsanith’s is in traditional craft, one challenge the artists faced in developing this project was finding the complementarities and interconnections between their differing techniques and conceptions of creation. From this perspective, one of their tasks was to develop the capacity to allow each to venture into the respective field of the other. By developing this capacity, they ultimately would be able to frame the space between them as a site of creativity that can be understood in the terms of the Japanese concept of ma—an interval of space or time between phenomena that is not perceived as emptiness, but as a space of potentiality and energy. As Martin Heidegger wrote in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” “art breaks open an open place, in whose openness everything is other than usual” (The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. Clive Cazeaux (2000), 98).

The artists decided to create seven large-scale gold-and-silver-thread embroideries on Lao natural-dyed silk that explore this issue (the thread was made by Dorures Charles Mathieu, a French company that supplied the Lao royal family), of which they ultimately created three. Gold-and-silver-thread embroidery occupies a complex place in contemporary Lao culture. Traditionally, royal weavers, usually noblewomen, embroidered the sumptuous costumes of the royal family with symbolic designs in gold and silver thread. Worn during ceremonies, these costumes were invested with political and spiritual meaning. After the monarchy’s abolition in 1975, the medium’s relevance to the new social order was questioned, and its practice declined. In recent years, it has experienced a modest revival. Now, however, the embroideries adorn the costumes worn by Lao brides and accessories used in Buddhist rituals, as well as products for tourists. Somsanith has observed that as a result, the medium “is acquiring a market value and losing its meaning” because these consumers do not understand its traditional forms and functions. The challenge the artists faced was how to invest the medium with new meaning so that it could become relevant to contemporary social realities. Lê made a series of computer-aided drawings featuring images emblematic of this reality, and Somsanith creatively translated the drawings into embroideries. Both artists, as well as Choron-Baix, discussed the refinement of the motifs as the project progressed.

The Banners of Luang Prabang (2005) is a horizontal field of white, on which Somsanith embroidered in gold and silver thread over 40 images of funeral banners, huddled to the left like graceful dancers. In traditional Lao funeral rites, a funeral banner is a tall bamboo pole planted into the ground, with a banner attached to the top and a sculpted image of a fish, bird, or airplane attached to the end of the banner. Its purpose is to help the deceased find the way to the other world. For the artists, the banners evoke not only the death of the body, but of tradition. The expanse of white to the left of the gently swaying banners is a space of emptiness that reflects this absence, an absence tinged with the aura of death: white is the color of mourning in many Asian countries. It also evokes the tradition of modern artists who have used white to explore emptiness not only as a zone of negation, but as a zone of potentiality, as in the Japanese concept ma, a pregnant nothingness. These artists include Kasimir Malevich, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Lê himself, whose series The Texture of Memory (2000) consists of more than 20 framed white cotton cloths embroidered in white thread with portraits of Khmer Rouge victims, taken from interrogation photographs. In The Banners of Luang Prabang, the potentiality contained within the white emptiness is the gestation of new traditions from departed ones.

Inner Self and Outer World (2005) addresses this process of gestation. Recalling a Chinese or Japanese scroll painting, it consists of images of 20 satellite dishes mounted on tall poles, arrayed in a staccato rhythm, like notes on a sheet of music, across a greenish-gold field, with images of three meditation huts clustered to the left. Invoking the reference to “inner self” in the work’s title, the meditation huts, embroidered in gold thread, represent the structures traditionally used by monks in Luang Prabang for solitary meditation. Invoking the reference to “outer world,” the satellite dishes, whose vertical forms echo those of the funeral banners, are embroidered in both gold and silver thread. Television came to Laos in 1983, and satellite television arrived in the mid-1990s. Fuelled by imports of cheap satellite dishes, satellite television brought scores of channels from around the world, with Thai channels, particularly Thai dramas, and Asian MTV among the most popular. Satellite dishes are now common sights outside even the most modest homes. They bring viewers previously inaccessible knowledge of the world. In spite of the potential of this influx to overwhelm locally produced culture, access to such information holds the promise of broadening awareness and understanding.

The Blessing of the Land (2006) is a celebratory work that expresses the implicit optimism of Inner Self and Outer World. It features the motif of the hang lin—a long wooden conduit pierced with holes, which is used to sprinkle Buddha statues and monks with water during rituals. Water is poured into a receptacle on one end in the shape of a hamsa (a mythical bird); flows through the conduit, whose surface is carved to represent the scaly body of a makara (a mythical reptilian sea creature); and spits out of the mouth of a naga (a mythical serpent). The flood from the naga’s mouth is represented as a joyous profusion of curved lines formed by gold and silver threads that evoke an allover painting, raining down a blessing on a community striving to reconcile tradition and modernity.

In connection with the project, the artists organized several education programs for the community, including lectures on their work and workshops on drawing and embroidery in a studio at the Project House. Somsanith subsequently established a new nonprofit cultural organization in Luang Prabang, Puang Champa Cultural House. This organization is a center for traditional arts in Luang Prabang whose mission is to preserve, promote, and transmit its cultural and artistic heritage. It teaches traditional arts such as gold-and-silver-thread embroidery, ceremonial flower arrangement, dance, and instrument making. In addition, it provides opportunities for individuals to earn a sustainable living by practicing traditional arts. And finally, it promotes these arts through public programs to help ensure that they are preserved for future generations.