Games of Desire

Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957 and lives in New York. Accompanied by her artistic collaborator Shoja Azari, she traveled to Luang Prabang for the first time in November 2005.

One evening during this visit, Neshat and Azari, accompanied by France Morin and Outh Litthavong, went to a festival at Vat That Luang, where the Buddhist ceremony Boun Pha Vet was taking place. For this ceremony, monks and novices from this vat, as well as from other vats, are invited to read in its entirety the Vessantara jātaka—the last of the 547 jātaka or tales recounting the Buddha’s former lives, which relates the life of Pha Vet (Prince Vessantara). A throne-like structure is set up in the sim, and one by one each monk reads or chants passages of the text from this structure—a process that takes more than 24 hours over about three days. Their voices, amplified by a microphone, resonate through the vat’s entire grounds, which are decorated with trees and flowers to evoke the forest the Buddha encountered before his enlightenment. Sitting on mats under tents, the laypeople listen from these grounds; and each evening, after the day’s reading has concluded, they eat, drink, and sing.

During her visit, Neshat encountered a festive group of women and men from about 60 to 80, who were singing and socializing. She later learned that they were singing Lao courting songs, a tradition from their youth that is rarely practiced by young people today. These songs belong to a vocal genre known in southern Laos as lam and in Luang Prabang as khap thoum, which is traditionally performed as part of courtship rituals during festive occasions but which in recent years has been increasingly performed as staged entertainment. It derives from traditional Lao courtship poetry: as part of courtship rituals, young men would recite courtship poems, which were intended to highlight their wit, charm, and appeal to the subjects of their affection. Indeed, the courting songs of lam are like poems set to music. Often improvised, the lyrics deal with courtship, village life, and old tales, and they feature gently sensual and sometimes boldly sexual imagery, frequently expressed through metaphor, double entendre, and playful insult. The singers, who typically perform while seated on the ground, may dramatize the lyrics with dance-like movements of the torso, arms, and hands.

Performances of lam, which can last for hours, are like musical jousts. A pair of female and male singers sings in alternation, while in the audience, the women sit together on one side to support the female singers, and the men sit together on the other to support the male ones. The improvisations must conform to the genre’s conventions, including the tempo of the music and the rules of versification. The goal of each singer in each pair is to outwit the other, causing that person to stop singing. In the process, the singers “let loose” in a spirit of joy. Men and especially women seem to relish this opportunity to playfully transgress the strict codes that define gender roles and regulate sexual expression in their everyday lives.

Intrigued by this tradition, Neshat decided to develop a video installation and a photographic series inspired by it. After her initial visit to Luang Prabang, Morin connected her with the anthropologist Catherine Choron-Baix, whose research interests include traditional Lao performing arts. Neshat and Choron-Baix began a dialogue about lam and its practitioners. As the project developed, Luang Prabang resident Phonesavanh Bilavarn, in collaboration with Francis Engelmann, Litthavong, and Nithakhong Somsanith, helped Neshat locate 11 female singers and 10 male singers from about 60 to 80 from Ban Xieng Mene, Ban Done, and Ban Panhom. Somsanith proposed that she also work with the musicians of Puang Champa Cultural House.

Filming took place in October 2008, when Neshat and Azari returned to Luang Prabang for their second residency, this time accompanied by the cinematographer and photographer Benjamin Wolf. The filming location was the Ho Chek (monks’ refectory) at Vat Long Khoun, a monastery near Ban Xieng Mene that appealed to Neshat because of its peacefulness. The singers and musicians, full of energy and exuberance, arrived by boat, tuk-tuk, and other modes of transportation. Filming began early in the morning and ended late in the afternoon, with pauses for meals. In the festive spirit of lam, these meals included traditional Lao dishes and Lao beer and were convivial gatherings in which the participants ate, drank, sang, laughed, and deepened old friendships and developed new ones.

Games of Desire is a two-channel video installation and a series of 14 color photographs. The screens for the video installation are installed on opposite walls so that they face each other. Six film sequences are projected consecutively onto these screens. The first five show five respective pairs of women and men singing an improvised courting song in alternation: one screen shows the woman singing, while the other shows the man responding to her, and vice versa (in the sixth sequence, one screen shows the entire group of female singers; the other, that of the male singers). Each singer is filmed by a stationary camera that frames her or him from the chest up against a black background. The result is a series of delicately nuanced moving portraits that present these anonymous singers as multidimensional individuals. In the first sequence, for example, the woman sings as a peasant’s daughter who asks the man in a voice of boldness laced with vulnerability if she could be his lover or second wife. The man responds in metaphor-rich song, accentuated by dramatic gestures, that contrasts with the calmness of his delivery: “With all my heart, I would love to live with you. / If I was a wild elephant, I would stretch my trunk to reach you. / If I was a star, I would be clouds surrounding you. / If you were the moon, I would look up to you. / Oh, you soft-cheeked one, you with the curvy waist and soft breasts.” Each pair sings with a youthful exuberance belying their grandparent-like appearance and encouraging us to reexamine our perceptions of love, sexuality, and aging. The photographic series comprises seven pairs of portraits, with each pair consisting of a full-length portrait of a female singer and one of a male singer posing before mural paintings on either side of the doorway of the sim at Vat Long Khoun; the lyrics of the songs they sing are written in Farsi on the background of each photograph.

Games of Desire is Neshat’s first major work dealing with a culture other than the Muslim culture in which she was raised. Acknowledging her status as outsider, she did not seek to document the reality she encountered, as an ethnographic filmmaker might. Instead, she sensitively entered into this reality in a more personal way to explore from a different perspective questions she has long been exploring in her previous works. Perhaps the closest analogy to the present work is Turbulent (1998), a video installation also consisting of two screens facing one other, in which a film of a male singer is projected onto one screen and that of a female singer onto the other. Both Games of Desire and Turbulent examine how the concept of sexual difference, conceived as the opposition between women and men, shapes the spheres they respectively inhabit and their interactions with one another. At the same time, both examine the suppleness of this concept. Specifically, in Games of Desire, the formal conventions Neshat uses to structure the filmed sequences, which amplify the formal conventions of lam, frame a space of poetry in which both the female and the male singers can express their desires and pleasures as individuals with a freedom as unexpected as it is inspiring.



Luang Prabang Collaborators: Phonesavanh Bilavarn, Phut Chanmanifong, Francis Engelmann, Outh Litthavong, Phet Manichan, France Morin, Nithakhong Somsanith, Ome Thipphoumy; Advisor: Catherine Choron-Baix; Musicians: Phan Chanmanephong, Suliya Lao, Sengsuliya Manichit, Sounphet Suliyasit, Thi Thitphoummy; Singers (Women): Phonesavanh Bilavarn, Boualoy, Phoumy Bouasavat, Kham, Bouaphan Indavan, Bounthan Mathipanya, Chansouk Milavan, Simone Phanthachit, Sida Sidara, Saopom, Khamlek Xaiyasit; Singers (Men): Phan Chanmanephong, Thitchan Inthamit, Mi Milavan, Thitonsy Ounsavat, Chan Phoummy, Thit Somdy Sisavath, Thit Thi, Thi Thitphoummy, Khampha Vilasak, Xieng Thi Vilasak; Cinematography: Shoja Azari, Benjamin Wolf; Photography (Art): Benjamin Wolf; Photographic Production: Fahimeh Gooran, Fereydoun Ghaffari; Video Editing: Nariman Hamed; Photography (Production Stills): Ratsamy Viphakone-Szafran; Translation (Lao to English): Phonesavanh Bilavarn.