untitled 2006 (one thousand Buddhas)
Rirkrit Tiravanija was born in Buenos Aires in 1961 and divides his time between New York and Chiang Mai, Thailand. He produces installations and events that reframe the activities of everyday life, offering the public opportunities to look at them differently. Reflecting both his study of conceptual art practices and his Buddhist upbringing, many of these works invite the public’s participation. Typically, they are informed by the social, cultural, and institutional contexts in which he works.
Tiravanija participated in The Quiet in the Land’s second project, a collaboration with Projeto Axé, a nongovernmental organization based in Salvador, Brazil, that works with former street children. For this project, he organized several Thai meals for the children of Axé, which were designed to feed both their bodies and their spirits. During the preparation of the meals, for example, he talked with the children about their ideas of giving: to whom would they give if they could, and what would they give? The importance he placed on giving would imbue his work for the present project.
Tiravanija first visited Luang Prabang in connection with The Quiet in the Land in October 2005. He became interested in the disappearance of Buddha images from temples and sacred places in and around the town—one of the unfortunate consequences of its integration into the global economy. Even though the Lao government prohibits the export of historical Buddha images, many are stolen and then sold, while others are destroyed.
Following this initial visit, Tiravanija returned to Chiang Mai, where he found in a local antique shop a small wooden Buddha. Carved with bold, simple, expressive strokes, this Buddha is seated in the Conqueror of Mara posture: the right hand points to the ground; the left rests on the lap. This posture references the time when the meditating Buddha was subjected to various temptations by Mara but was able to remain steadfast. He then pointed to the earth and summoned the Earth Goddess Thorani, who rose from the ground, wrung water from her hair, and instigated a flood that drowned Mara and his army of demons.
Tiravanija’s Buddha is carved in a folk version of the Isan style. Isan is a region in northeastern Thailand that was originally part of the Lao Lan Xang kingdom. Lao influence on Isan language and culture has been exceptionally strong—so strong that in the twentieth century the Thai government implemented a policy that attempted to de-emphasize the region’s Lao character and integrate it more deeply into Thailand.
Tiravanija asked a master carver and a craft workshop in Chiang Mai to produce, in various sizes, 1,000 copies of the Buddha he had found. In October 2006, he shipped all of these Buddhas to the Project House. He asked that they be given to monks, lay people, and participants in The Quiet in the Land, who in turn were asked to offer them to local temples and sacred places, rather than to keep them. Today, the Buddhas may be found in temples throughout the peninsula.
In October 2007, Tiravanija and his friend Uthit Atimana, a professor at Chiang Mai University and an artist with extensive knowledge of the artistic traditions of northern Thailand and Laos, traveled to Luang Prabang to present a series of educational programs for local monks and novices. They conducted these programs in collaboration with Acharn Boungnalitsavong from the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School and local masters associated with the project Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha: Documentation, Education, and Training to Revitalize Traditional Decorative Arts and Building Crafts in the Temples of Asia. Initiated jointly by UNESCO in collaboration with the Sangha, the Luang Prabang Department of Information and Culture, and other entities, this innovative project was designed to respond to the problem of heritage conservation in Luang Prabang by helping to revive the traditional practice of artisan training and apprenticeship within the town’s temples. The project was developed in response to requests from the Sangha, which was seeking assistance in conserving local living cultural traditions. These traditions are essential to local cultural identities, but are threatened by development and the growth of tourism.
The programs included lectures on drawing, sculpting, and the history of Buddha images, including the Buddhas of Laos; visits to Vat Vixun, which has one of the finest collections of Buddha images in Luang Prabang; and practical workshops, which often lasted until late in the evening. Participants described the experience as one of mutual respect, in which none of the teachers assumed a position of authority over the others in their collective effort to pass down their knowledge to the next generation and thus help sustain the long tradition in Luang Prabang of sculpting Buddha images.
A year later, at the invitation of Bounkhong Khutthao, who served as The Quiet in the Land’s primary liaison with the Lao government, about 150 of Tiravanija’s Buddhas were offered at the Pak Ou Caves. Located on the Mekong River about 15 1/2 miles (25 kilometers) from Luang Prabang, this group of caves is a pilgrimage site, and now also a tourist site, where the devout have offered thousands of Buddhas over the centuries; many, unfortunately, have disappeared. Traditionally, the people of Luang Prabang make an annual pilgrimage to the site at the beginning of Buddhist Lent. In preparation for the offering, about 70 teen-aged students from the Children’s Cultural Center painted Tiravanija’s Buddhas gold. Then, on the morning of October 26, 2008, these students, along with Khutthao, about 18 monks and novices, about 35 members of the community, and representatives of The Quiet in the Land, including France Morin, Francis Engelmann, Vanpheng Keopannha, Nithakhong Somsanith, and Outh Litthavong, boarded Ann Hamilton’s meditation boat at the stairs of Vat Xieng Thong with the Buddhas, other offerings, and dishes for the mid-day meal. Followed by a small boat with musicians from Puang Champa Cultural House, the boat traveled up the Mekong to the sacred island of Don Khoune. At the island, the monks and novices blessed the Buddhas in a ceremony that included prayers and chanting. They then had their meal; afterward, the lay people ate the food that remained on their plates, a sign of respect, and other food. Subsequently, the group proceeded to the caves, where the students deposited the Buddhas.
Tiravanija’s project incorporates the Theravada Buddhist tradition of making offerings to the Triple Gem (Buddha, dhamma, and Sangha), thus giving rise to contemplative gratitude and inspiration. It poetically encourages the public to contemplate the looting of Luang Prabang’s temples and the potential erosion of its cultural heritage, and to translate contemplation into action by becoming agents of replenishment. It addresses, and in a humble way attempts to conciliate, the complex relationship between Laos and Thailand—two countries whose history has been conflicted at times, but which nevertheless share a cultural tradition that transcends the political boundaries that can divide people. And it evokes the ritual of sand, which is performed in Luang Prabang. During this ritual, the lay people make an offering of sand to their temple, scattering it on the temple grounds in compensation for the sand they have carried away with them during the previous year.
In his development of this project, Tiravanija was like a modern-day Enkū. An itinerant monk who lived in Japan during the seventeenth century, Enkū held a deep compassion for others; journeyed continuously throughout remote mountainous regions, never settling in one place to live; and propagated the dhamma. One legend states he vowed to carve 100,000 Buddha images, including Shinto manifestations of Buddhist deities. He is known to have given some of the images he carved to farmers, merchants, and their families, and to have deposited others in temples, shrines, and caves. Carved quickly, these Buddhas have bold, unrefined, abstracted features similar to those of the Buddha that Tiravanija found in Chiang Mai. The following poem by Enkū could almost describe Tiravanija’s Buddha and the project it inspired: “Grateful! / Even into a piece of wood / the god moves / his Dhamma voice / the sound of water in the valley.”