The fully illustrated version of this essay is published in France Morin and John Alan Farmer, eds., The Quiet in the Land: Luang Prabang, Laos (New York: The Quiet in the Land, Inc., 2009). This book is distributed by D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers.
A Flower Does Not Talk
France Morin and John Alan Farmer
Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;
Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,
the whole of the flower, the whole of
the world is blooming.
This is the talk of the flower, the truth
of the blossom;
The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.
I have worked as a contemporary art curator and art historian since the mid-1970s. In 1995, I founded The Quiet in the Land, and I have served as project director ever since. Before The Quiet in the Land became a nonprofit organization in 2005, we worked in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum, then led by Gerard C. Wertkin. The project that is the subject of this publication took place in Luang Prabang, Laos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from 2004 through 2008. This project was based in a two-story house facing the left bank of the Mekong River in Ban Vat Nong, one of the many ban that comprise the town of Luang Prabang. I lived and worked in this house, along with 14 artists and all the other participants, whom I invited to develop artist projects in collaboration with local communities, including the Sangha, artisans, and students, as well as scholars. In Luang Prabang, I was assisted by Francis Engelmann, an historian who generously shared his rich knowledge of Lao culture with us; Outh Litthavong, who helped coordinate many of the artist projects; and many others. The following essay tells the story of this project.
I named The Quiet in the Land in homage to the third installment of the composer Glenn Gould’s work, The Solitude Trilogy: three sound portraits in the form of radio documentaries that he created for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The first installment is The Idea of North (1967); the second, The Latecomers (1969); and the third, The Quiet in the Land (1977). These works explore the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the state of isolation, which Gould believed nurtured the creative spirit. Inspired by The Solitude Trilogy, in 1987 I organized an exhibition titled The Idea of North for 49th Parallel, Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art / 49e Parallèle, Centre d’art contemporain canadien, a nonprofit gallery operated as an extension of the Canadian Consulate General in New York, where I served as director from 1983 to 1989. I also planned to organize for the same gallery an exhibition inspired by Gould’s The Quiet in the Land. Consisting of five parts connected through the structure of a worship service, this work focuses on an isolated community of Mennonites in the Red River Valley in Manitoba, Canada—a community that is “in” but not “of” the world and that is struggling to adapt to the encroachment of modern society. This work resonated more and more strongly with me as I began to question the nature of my curatorial practice more deeply—specifically, as I began to ask whether removing the making and experiencing of art from the confines of the art world might make it possible to forge a new path pointing to the broader world of possibilities that lies outside of it.
I embarked on this path during my tenure as senior curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York from 1989 to 1994. Among the projects I conceived with my team of curators at the New Museum was a series of three provocative exhibitions that investigated changing social, cultural, and political boundaries through the lens of contemporary art. The first was In Transit (1993), which I organized; the second was Trade Routes (1993), organized by Laura Trippi; and the third was The Final Frontier (1994), organized by Alice Yang. This series developed from the premise that contemporary artists have the potential to stand alongside scientists, economists, and representatives of other disciplines to meaningfully examine critical discourses, ranging from globalization to biotechnology, that affect the daily lives of individuals and communities. From this perspective, the series suggested how an artist’s gift to open up new ways of seeing, to forge connections between persons from diverse backgrounds, and to inspire positive change might contribute to the process of reconsidering the potential of contemporary art as a socially grounded practice. But I gradually realized that to take this process to its logical conclusion, it would be necessary to move beyond the paradigm of the exhibition format itself to search for new ways of rooting artistic and curatorial practice more deeply in lived experience.
I proceeded to move in this direction as I began to imagine what would become The Quiet in the Land’s first project: a collaboration between the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the only active Shaker community in the world, and 10 artists. I ultimately decided, however, that to develop this project, I needed to work completely outside of the “white cube”: I left the New Museum and struck out on my own. Of the project’s genesis, I wrote: “The Quiet in the Land began as a premise, a set of questions, and evolved into a wide variety of enriching individual experiences. By bridging two disparate cultures—that of the United Society of Believers and the contemporary art world—it sought to challenge the widespread belief that art and life exist in separate realms. The variety of works made in response to such experiences may suggest new methodologies for producing, viewing, and defining art, and encourage a reconsideration of its relevance.” The projects of The Quiet in the Land that followed—a collaboration with Projeto Axé, a nongovernmental organization based in Salvador, Brazil, that works with former street children, and the collaboration with local communities in Luang Prabang that is the subject of this publication—deepened the exploration of these questions.
The objective of these collaborations, which constitute the core of each project, is to illuminate the space between the artists and the communities. The nature of this space in-between can be understood by invoking the Japanese concept of ma—the interval of space or time between phenomena, such as a room (the space between walls) or a pause in music (the time between notes). This space is not just a void, but a vessel to be filled. In the Shinto religion, for example, the open courtyard covered with white rocks that lies within a shrine is a ma into which the spiritual energy of the kami (divinity) descends. As the religious studies scholar Richard B. Pilgrim has observed, “ma is not a mere emptiness or opening; through and in it shines a light, and the function of this ma becomes precisely to let that light shine through.”
I select the site of each project of The Quiet in the Land following a period of intensive research, organization, and outreach. Each site is the home of a community in which the spiritual imbues the rhythms of everyday life, whether the specific spiritual practice is Shakerism, as was the case with the first project; Candomblé, Catholicism, or other Christian sects, as was the case with the second; or Theravada Buddhism or animism, as was the case with the third. But the concept of the spiritual focuses less on spiritual practice and more on spiritual consciousness, defined as the sustained examination of fundamental questions, such as: what constitutes an enhanced life, and how can I create the conditions for such a life for myself and for others? These questions have ethical, cultural, and social implications; and they are particularly relevant to the communities with whom the artists collaborate. For in addition to being communities with a special relationship to the spiritual, these communities are also communities in transition that are struggling to adapt to a changing world while preserving the values that define them as a “community.” This struggle, which simultaneously reveals both the strength and the vulnerability of each community, has a profound resonance with the artists with whom we work, perhaps because the process of making art by its very nature encourages artists to examine their own lives, to plumb the depths of their own psyches, and to confront their own strengths and vulnerabilities. For many of the artists, this process may in some respects be analogous to embarking on a pilgrimage, a journey to a sacred place in which the process of undertaking the journey possesses a certain moral significance.
John Alan Farmer, the co-author of this essay and co-editor of this publication, began working with The Quiet in the Land in 1997, while serving as senior editor of Art Journal, which under executive editor Janet A. Kaplan extensively covered The Quiet in the Land’s first two projects. As an art historian, he worked with the artists and scholars involved in the present project, as an attorney he helped address the complex legal issues that emerge with the organization of an international project of this complexity, and as a writer and editor he played an invaluable role in realizing this publication. His deep understanding of The Quiet in the Land’s mission has made him a precious collaborator and friend.
The artists who participated in The Quiet in the Land: Art, Spirituality, and Everyday Life, Luang Prabang, Laos created works ranging from drawings to photographic series, films, large-scale embroideries, Buddha carvings, and a full-scale boat. These works drew from a variety of sources: the tales recounted in Sang Sinxay, the national epic of Laos; the murals of Vat Long Khoun, Vat Had Sieo, and other monasteries along the Mekong River; the Lao courtly tradition of gold-and-silver-thread embroidery; the forms of the walking meditation halls that the Sangha once used; the legacy of the Secret War. Above all, they drew from the artists’ interactions with the individuals and communities of Luang Prabang: the monks and novices of Vat Pak Khane, Vat Xieng Thong, and Vat Xieng Mouane; the blacksmiths of Ban Had Hien; the students of the Children’s Cultural Center and the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School. Collectively, these works explored the relationship between art, spirituality, and everyday life in a society being reshaped by tourism-related development. At the same time, they illuminated how artists working in collaboration with communities might foster a deeper consideration of the roles that culture might play in the process of development, broadly defined as the creation of opportunities for individuals in particular communities to enhance the material, ethical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual value of their lives.
1. Grace Fills Empty Spaces
The curatorial model that The Quiet in the Land embodies can be located within the genealogy of site-specific practices that emerged in the visual arts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More specifically, it can be connected to that iteration of these practices that developed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which the art historian Miwon Kwon has termed “discursive” site specificity. This term describes a range of practices that shift art beyond the confines of the museum and gallery to pursue “a more intense engagement with the outside world and everyday life—a critique of culture that is inclusive of nonart spaces, nonart institutions, and nonart issues (blurring the division between art and nonart, in fact).” Striving to integrate art into society, these practices address critical social issues; are informed by a broad range of disciplines, not just the history of art; and conceive “the art work’s relationship to the actuality of a location (as site) and the social conditions of the institutional frame (as site) . . . [as] subordinate to a discursively determined site that is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate.” For example, one of the “sites” of the artist Krystzof Wodiczko’s work might be defined as “homelessness,” a discourse he has engaged throughout his career. Although the site of our work might be defined as the discourse defined by the relationship between art, spirituality, and everyday life, our engagement with this discourse is inextricably moored to the specificities of the place in which each respective project is located. It consequently shifts from project to project in rhythm with these specificities.
More directly, the curatorial model of The Quiet in the Land was inspired by the visionary contemporary art exhibitions organized by the curator Harald Szeemann in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and documenta 5 (1972). Szeemann boldly reimagined the potential of contemporary art as a vehicle to explore the poetry of everyday life, the politics of art, and the process of creation, among other issues. In documenta 5, for example, titled Befragung der Realität—Bildwelten heute (Questioning Reality—Pictorial Worlds Today), he sought to open up new ways of seeing contemporary art as one of many “pictorial worlds” inextricably engaged with social reality. In our projects, we have pushed this model further by shifting the site of creativity from the space of the museum to that of everyday life. This process requires the participants in each collaboration, who typically come from diverse social, cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds, to bridge the often cavernous distances between them. The process of bridging these distances animates the collaborations.
The writer Simone Weil once stated, “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” These words describe the dynamic of these collaborations. We create a framework in which we connect individuals from different backgrounds. The distances between them are like the voids Weil describes. The collaborations are successful only to the extent that the participants are willing to travel these distances to perceive more clearly the differences that separate them, as well as the commonalities they share. For the collaboration with the Shakers, the artists and the Shakers came to see that in spite of their differences, each shared a sense of vocation, a purpose to which each had dedicated their lives: as Brother Wayne Smith observed at the time, “You have art, we have prayer.” For our collaboration with Projeto Axé, the artists and the children came to see that each in their own ways had rejected lives of normalcy to follow paths outside the mainstream. Both the artists and the children shared a transgressive energy: for the artists, this energy manifested itself as the impulse to pursue their creative visions; for the children, the courage to use the tools of creativity to awaken spiritually, to look within themselves and find the power to change their lives for the better, and to journey from the street to home as citizens with dignity. In summary, the point of each collaboration is not to undo differences, but to see through them, to allow the void to be filled with grace. Acceptance of this grace, consciousness of this shared humanity, is a precondition for the process of holistic development we hope each project will foster.
2. I Feel the Courage to Plunge Into the World
Critical to this philosophy is the conviction that artists have the potential to serve as powerful agents of personal and social transformation. This conviction is based on the assumption that the primary role of artists in society is not to produce commodities but to cultivate the creative spirit—the power to perceive that which has been unperceived, to imagine that which has been unimagined, and to translate new concepts into new forms. During our collaboration with the Shakers, the term we used to describe the creative spirit was the “gift”—a term the Shakers used to describe the visionary experiences that deceased Shaker leaders or figures from sacred history sent to various “instruments” during a period of intense religious revival in the nineteenth century, who were inspired to create visionary drawings, writings, and songs. During our collaboration with Projeto Axé, the term we used was axé—a Yoruba word that can be loosely translated as “the power to make things happen.”
This conception of the artist as an agent of personal and social transformation is a modernist doctrine that has been tainted by what the scholar Marshall Berman has termed the “tragedy of development,” the archetypal representation of which is Goethe’s Faust. Faust was a tragic hero who strove to fuse the ideal of personal development with the ideal of social development. As he states, “I look and feel my powers growing, / As if I’d drunk new wine I’m glowing. / I feel the courage to plunge into the world, / To bear all earthly grief, all earthly joy; To wrestle with the storm, to grapple and clinch, / To enter into the jaws and the shipwreck and never to flinch.” He subsequently uses the spiritual and intellectual gifts he has acquired to initiate a visionary program of moral, social, and economic development that ultimately results in the murders of Philemon and Baucis, a humble elderly couple who were supposed to be among the beneficiaries of this program. Faust is thus at once a tale that expresses the potential of the artist to cultivate the creative spirit as a source of both personal and social transformation, and a warning that this goal can at times be tragically misguided, harming the ones it is intended to benefit. Indeed, the naiveté of the major European avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, such as the Suprematism of Kasimir Malevich, the Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian, and the non-objective abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, which shared the belief that artists would help usher in a new society by catalyzing the transformation of individual and collective consciousness, should give us pause. But it should not paralyze us. As Berman wrote, “if Faust is a critique, it is also a challenge—to our world even more than to Goethe’s own—to imagine and to create new modes of modernity, in which man will not exist for the sake of development, but development for the sake of man. Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives.”
For this reason, we have embraced the modernist conception of the artist as a potential agent of personal and social transformation, but critically. In addition to abandoning the utopian aspirations of the great avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century for a more humble awareness of the limitations of art to transform life, we have grounded this conception in a holistic theory of development that strives to honor the humanity and individuality of each life we touch. In recent years, more and more scholars have come to believe that development should be understood broadly as a process that strives to enhance the material, ethical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual value of the life of every individual in a particular community, not narrowly as a process that focuses solely on the pursuit of economic growth at any cost. One of the most prominent advocates of this point of view is the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen. Sen argues that a holistic theory of development must recognize individuals “as active agents of change, rather than as passive recipients of dispensed benefits” and must therefore focus on “the removal of the various types of unfreedom that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” Culture in general and art in particular can potentially play a crucial role in this process because they shape how we think and behave and because they are a source for the awakening of creativity, imagination, and empowerment, and thus for the development of the social potential of each individual.
We began to incorporate this perspective into The Quiet in the Land during our collaboration with Projeto Axé, which expanded our previous focus on the role that art might play in the process of personal transformation to encompass an investigation into the role it might play in the process of social transformation. Through the collaborations between the artists and the children of Projeto Axé, both discovered how it might be possible to reaffirm the dignity, beauty, and sacredness of every member of society, including the disenfranchised and the excluded; to instill the spaces and activities of everyday life with the value traditionally ascribed to art; to reaffirm the social utility of art by reintegrating it with life; to acknowledge that one has rights as a citizen, including the right to envision a better future for oneself; and consequently to initiate the process of social transformation, even if only on the most modest scale.
Our collaboration with Projeto Axé gave us the knowledge, experience, and sense of purpose that made it possible for us to embark on our project in Luang Prabang, where colonialism had left a similar legacy. Both Salvador and Luang Prabang are former capitals that remained important centers of culture after their political power declined. Both are places in which spiritual practices infuse the rhythms of everyday life: in Salvador, these include Candomblé, an African-inspired religion focused on the worship of orixás (deities), as well as Catholicism and other Christian sects; in Luang Prabang, Theravada Buddhism, as well as certain varieties of animism. Both are places whose people have struggled to overcome histories marked by violence and poverty. And both are places where the living cultural heritage that is inseparable from their respective spiritual practices has the potential to function as a source of empowerment for individuals and communities.
But in Luang Prabang, this cultural heritage is becoming increasingly endangered. In 1995, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO approved the Lao government’s nomination of the Town of Luang Prabang for inscription on the World Heritage List, the first site in Laos to be added to the list. This event, which would dramatically alter the course of the town’s history, was in part the consequence of the government’s liberalization of the Lao economy beginning in the late 1980s. The government’s encouragement of free-market economic reforms, increased foreign investment, and greater economic integration with the other nations of continental Southeast Asia accelerated the growth of tourism. In turn, the influx of more tourists into Laos precipitated concerns about the sustainability of Lao culture in the face of the rising influence of foreign cultures—a recurring concern in the history of the small country, which traditionally has been overshadowed by its larger neighbors, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, and China. The government accordingly attempted to forge a “‘middle way’ for Lao tourism between the virtual exclusion that prevailed in the 1980s and mass tourism Thai-style.” One of its strategies was to protect important cultural sites from development. This imperative was one factor that motivated the government to develop a preservation plan for Luang Prabang and then to nominate the site for inscription on the World Heritage List. Luang Prabang’s status as a World Heritage Site has attracted millions of tourists since 1995.
Tourism-related development has undeniably brought benefits to some residents. A comprehensive plan for the preservation of the built environment within the site has been conceived. Funding, albeit limited, to implement the plan has become available. And Lao workers, some of the poorest in Southeast Asia, have found employment in new hotels, restaurants, and shops. With this income and training, some have successfully obtained higher education at the National University of Laos in Vientiane or the University Souphanouvong in Luang Prabang, which was established in 2003 and opened a new campus in 2008. Others have been able to start small businesses of their own. In addition, many artisans are able to supplement their family’s small incomes by selling their goods to tourists at the Handicrafts Market or the Night Market on Sisavangvong Road, the town’s main thoroughfare.
At the same time, tourism-related development has had negative consequences. Indeed, by 2007, it had increased so dramatically that UNESCO sent a monitoring mission to Luang Prabang to determine whether the plan to safeguard and enhance the site was being implemented adequately. The mission concluded that “unprecedented pressure from development is posing new strains on the site, in the face of which the competent authorities appear unable to cope. If the Lao traditional heritage in particular continues its steady decline, the Town of Luang Prabang is heading towards a situation that would justify World Heritage in Danger listing.” In addition to calling attention to the threats to Luang Prabang’s tangible cultural heritage, the mission also described the related and equally important threats to its intangible cultural heritage. In the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the term “intangible cultural heritage” is defined as the practices, representations, and expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups, and in some cases individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. Among other practices, it encompasses oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals, and festive events; and traditional craftsmanship. Within the context of Luang Prabang, it includes oral traditions such as the courting songs sung by the elderly performers in Shirin Neshat’s Games of Desire. It includes performing art traditions such as the Phra Lak Phra Lam, now performed in a theater on the grounds of the Luang Prabang National Museum, for which Manivong Khattiyarat has created masks. It includes ceremonies and rituals that form a link with the past, shape the community’s identity, and are a source of local pride: daily rituals like the tak bat; annual festivals like Pi Mai (New Year) in April and Boun Ok Phansa (Festival of Light) in October; and baci that commemorate important life passages. It includes modes of traditional craftsmanship, ranging from architectural construction and decoration techniques, to textile making by the Hmong, Lue, and other ethnic minorities, gold-and-silver-thread embroidery, Buddha carving, and even blacksmithing, as Allan Sekula documented in A Short Film for Laos.
The expansion of tourism-related development, however, has begun to reshape these and other examples of Luang Prabang’s intangible cultural heritage. As the economy has become more closely integrated with the regional and global economies, new jobs have been created; new products from abroad have become available; and new values, cultivated in part by the proliferation of new modes of communication, have emerged. The satellite dishes that now dot the town, which Dinh Q. Lê and Nithakhong Somsanith used as a motif in their large-scale gold-and-silver-thread embroidery Inner Self and Outer World, evidence the fact that many residents enthusiastically view on the international television channels that are now widely available Thai dramas, Vietnamese variety shows, and programs from other countries. Marina Abramović, for example, who created the video installation 8 Lessons on Emptiness With a Happy End, recalled her surprise at the sight of the violent action films on the television screens of numerous family homes, a contrast with the town’s placid Buddhist culture that in part inspired her work. In addition, the Internet cafés that line Sisavangvong Road, filled with both tourists and locals, reveal that many residents, especially the young, are as Web-savvy as their counterparts in more developed countries.
Access to television and the Internet, as well as the constant presence of monied tourists, has helped fuel a desire for material goods previously unattainable to most residents—a new-style house and the furniture to fill it, a new-model motorcycle and a mobile phone. Many of these goods, including the knock-off running shoes worn by the student performers in Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s film The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree and the toy machine guns used by the children in Abramović’s video installation, are available at the Chinese Market, an outdoor market that is Luang Prabang’s version of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target. Some families have demolished their traditional Lao-style timber homes to build more elaborate modern concrete structures in their stead. Others have converted their homes into guest houses or leased them to foreigners and moved to the outskirts of the town, where the cost of living is lower. And as more life-long residents leave, the town’s character as a collection of interconnected villages, each centered on the local monastery, changes. These communities mutate into commercial areas populated by hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and other businesses that serve tourists. The rituals and ceremonies that once defined daily life slowly vanish as the people who practice them move away, or they are transformed into spectacles for tourists, emptied of their traditional meanings.
3. Communities and Artists
Our project focused on the issue of the preservation of Luang Prabang’s intangible cultural heritage because this heritage is the foundation on which the personal and social development of its residents can be built. At stake is who controls this heritage and to what end: will it be controlled by ordinary residents themselves for the development of their lives, by an elite comprised of developers and their beneficiaries intent on commodifying it for the purpose of enriching their coffers, or by a combination of stakeholders? The practices that constitute this heritage manifest the cultural values that define the residents in all their diversity—values that have invested them with the strength to address the challenges of an often turbulent past and that will also invest them with the strength to address the challenges of the future. The gradual loss of these practices, whether by their disappearance or by their transmutation into commodity or spectacle, so eloquently evoked in Vong Phaophanit’s film All that’s solid melts into air (Karl Marx), would be tragic because it would constitute the loss of the very resources that the residents of Luang Prabang need to address these challenges.
We worked extensively with the Sangha because it is one of the communities facing some of the most severe challenges. Encouraging novices to consider a life-long commitment to the monastic life has become more difficult as the temptation of landing a job in a hotel or restaurant, a potential springboard for a more prosperous future, becomes more appealing. Maintaining monastic discipline has become more taxing as the distractions of the new tourism-driven economy increase. It is not uncommon, for example, to see novices surfing the Web in Internet cafés, chatting on mobile phones, or conversing with tourists. Unaware of the customs governing interactions with the Sangha, some tourists who tour the monasteries wander into private areas where the monks and novices bathe, wash their robes, and perform their daily chores, or they intrude on the performance of ceremonies and rituals by taking photographs without permission. The situation has become so complicated that a new monastery, Vat Pha O, was established outside of town in 2008 to provide a site more conducive to meditation; it may be developed into a Buddhist university in the future. Exacerbating these challenges is the disappearance of some of the elder leaders of the Sangha: in particular, the death of individuals such as Phra Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera, Abbot of Vat Sene Soukharam and the most prominent monk in Luang Prabang, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 87.
As we became more aware of these challenges, we organized several projects in collaboration with the Sangha. Before the project formally began, we established a relationship with Phra Acharn Onekeo Sitthivong, who provided essential advice, support, and encouragement to us. At his suggestion, with Hans Georg Berger we supported and documented a series of historic annual meditation retreats organized by the Sangha to reintroduce the practice of Vipassana meditation in Laos, a practice that had been in partial abeyance since 1975. Another artist, Ann Hamilton, who had learned through conversations with leaders of the Sangha that meditation practice in the monasteries was becoming more challenging as the distractions of the modern world intruded, designed the meditation boat. Inspired by the form and function of a walking meditation hall (a long, narrow, corridor-like structure that monks historically used for walking meditation), this floating sculpture is now being used by the Sangha for various Buddhist practices. Shahzia Sikander, by contrast, was struck by the extent to which the tak bat had become a photo-spectacle for tourists, where monks and novices are regarded as anonymous signs of an exotic cultural ritual. In response, she collaborated with the Sangha to create a group of about 50 graphite-on-paper portraits of monks and novices from Vat Pak Khane and Vat Xieng Thong. By creating these drawings from photographic portraits she herself had taken, she recuperated the medium of photography from tourism and reconceived it as a vehicle for the sensitive representation of each monk and novice as a unique individual, whose humanity luminously emerges from the white ground of the paper.
Sikander’s interest in the contradictory meanings of the tak bat, now a conflation of a moving ritual emblematic of traditional Buddhism and a spectacle emblematic of contemporary mass tourism, was amplified in a separate educational campaign we organized in collaboration with the Sangha, several governmental entities, and other stakeholders. As the life-long residents of Luang Prabang who perform this ritual as an expression of their piety die or move away, the number of tourists drawn to its sensual beauty ironically increases. Arriving by minivan or bus, some maintain a respectful distance, others jostle for positions to capture a good photograph, and others purchase packages of cooked rice from vendors seeking to scrape out a living, so that they can hand their own offerings to the monks and novices, in contravention of custom. Most tourists who do not observe the sanctity of the ritual do so not out of intentional disrespect, but out of unfamiliarity with its religious significance. To address this issue, our campaign involved the production and distribution of a poster with an image of the tak bat by Berger and a text in six languages that explains what the ritual is, what it means to the community, and how to observe it respectfully. Through the complex process of producing and distributing this poster, we forged productive relationships with the stakeholders and earned the trust of the community.
In addition to working with the Sangha, we also worked with artisans to explore how perceiving traditional artisanal practices from new perspectives, instilling them with new meaning, and placing them in new contexts could invest them with contemporary relevance. The expansion of tourism-related development has had profound effects on traditional craftsmanship. Artisans have begun to use new techniques, motifs, and materials to produce products more appealing to the tourist market. On the positive side, the ethnic minority women of the villages outside of Luang Prabang, who traditionally create embroideries with abstract motifs for costumes, have begun to create new types of embroidered products that they sell in the Handicrafts Market and the Night Market to supplement their families’ incomes. On the negative side, the drive to meet the demands of the tourist market has inspired other artisans to churn out products based on traditional forms that no longer have any connection to their makers. In addition, the influx of inexpensive factory-made products from countries such as China has contracted the market for certain locally made Lao products. The blacksmiths of Ban Had Hien, for example, make machetes and other metal objects using techniques passed down from generation to generation, but it is becoming more difficult for them to compete with cheaper products available at the Chinese Market.
We organized several projects that addressed these issues. Lê and Somsanith created a series of three large-scale gold-and-silver-thread embroideries using a traditional technique rooted in Luang Prabang’s courtly past, a project complemented by a series of workshops led by Somsanith for local textile artisans. In the process, they suggested how this technique, in danger of being lost, can convey contemporary meaning. Sekula’s interest in investigating the legacy of the Secret War led him to the blacksmiths of Ban Had Hien. In A Short Film for Laos, he shows how these individuals practice an ancient craft that is becoming anachronistic in a globalized economy that does not value it as a heritage that can be commodified for tourist consumption—a reality that encourages us to ask how the physical violence that almost destroyed Laos in the 1960s has been reconstituted in economic form today. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s project untitled 2006 (one thousand buddhas) involved the carving of 1,000 Buddhas, the offering of them to temples and religious sites throughout Luang Prabang, and the organization of a series of educational programs on the creation of Buddha images for local monks and novices in collaboration with his Thai colleague Uthit Atimana and local masters. This collaboration sensitively demonstrated how cultural processes based on mutual respect can bridge the boundaries that divide individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Similarly, Antoni’s project To Ply, a collaboration with the Hmong embroiderer Mo Ly and her mother Xia Song in the form of a conversation in thread, envisioned how the process of active listening has the potential to forge positive connections that cut through the cultural schisms that divide us and form the moral foundation from which development can grow.
We also organized other projects that involved traditional artisanal practices. For example, beginning in 2005, we provided materials to each of the monasteries of Luang Prabang to produce decorations for Boun Ok Phansa, a tradition that other organizations continued after the project ended. Also, in collaboration with the Luang Prabang National Museum, we organized the exhibition Enduring Hands, Globalized Eyes: Historical and Contemporary Lao Textiles, which included textiles created by the many ethnic groups of Laos. In conjunction with this exhibition, we organized a competition open to textile makers resident in Luang Prabang Province to demonstrate the continued vitality of Lao textiles, a tradition that can thrive given the proper support. The winners were awarded cash prizes, and their textiles entered the collection of the museum, where they will be preserved as examples of the province’s artisanal heritage. And finally, we arranged for the conservation and accession by the museum of 20 drawings by Khattiyarat, one of the most renowned artists of Luang Prabang.
In addition, we organized several projects in collaboration with students, which focused on challenges facing the young generation. Abramović’s video installation 8 Lessons on Emptiness With a Happy End was a collaboration with students from the Children’s Cultural Center. Inspired by her efforts to understand the contradiction between Luang Prabang’s Buddhist sensibility and a fascination with violence reflected in part by the war games that some of the town’s children play, this work explored the spiritual labor that must be undertaken to cleanse the self of the desire for violence. Nguyen-Hatushiba’s film The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree was a collaboration with students from the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School, whose graduates generally pursue careers in traditional craftsmanship. And Phaophanit produced his film All that’s solid melts into air (Karl Marx) in collaboration with three students from the school, who photographed sites for certain scenes based on themes he suggested, a year-long process that gave them the opportunity to individually reflect on the changes taking place in their home. These projects were accompanied by student-focused collaborations with two schools: the Université de Vincennes, Paris 8—Saint Denis and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Finally, we organized an exhibition of works produced in connection with the project, which was on view at the Luang Prabang National Museum from October 2006 through July 2007. This exhibition and its related educational programs, which included a symposium and tours in Lao for students and other communities, demonstrated how the sensitive preservation and presentation of Luang Prabang’s intangible cultural heritage could have contemporary relevance by encouraging diverse communities to become more actively invested in the debates that are shaping their futures.
4. A Flower Does Not Talk
During our four years in Luang Prabang, the changes we witnessed instilled in us a palpable consciousness of impermanence, which imbues the contemporary social reality of the town. Many of the artists’ works reflected this sense: Hamilton’s meditation boat floating down the constantly shifting currents of the Mekong River, a reminder of traditions that have long passed; the students in Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s film striving to record the passing landscape; the blacksmiths in Sekula’s film practicing a craft that in all likelihood will disappear in another generation; the closeups of the faces of the elderly men and women in Neshat’s film singing courting songs that the young people of their village know less and less; and above all the images of empty rooms, decaying meditation halls, and abandoned encampments on the bed of the Mekong River in Phaophanit’s film, traces of lives now disappeared.
This sense of impermanence is a symptom of the emergence in Luang Prabang of new social and economic processes that are slowly destroying ones that have long been in place. The imperative to promote economic growth to ameliorate poverty has paradoxically integrated a Communist society into a more global capitalist order driven by the relentless cycle of commodification and consumption. To be sure, every society exists in a state of perpetual becoming, and Luang Prabang is no different. The town’s eldest residents, for example, were born when Laos was a French colony and have witnessed the declaration of its independence, the trauma of a decades-long civil war, the establishment of the Communist government, and the introduction of economic liberalization. But the integration of Luang Prabang into the global economy has brought opportunities and challenges of a different order. It has brought an influx of factory-made goods from abroad, satellite television and the Internet, development projects financed by foreign corporations and governments, and millions of tourists. It has brought a new configuration of modernity in which all that is solid seems to be melting into air. The disappearance of traditional artisanal practices, the disrespect of timeheld rituals, the devaluing of deeply rooted belief systems, and the death of monks who were the only repositories of histories never archived are all signs of the infiltration of the spectacularized commodity culture that is capitalist modernity.
For some of us, this configuration of modernity provokes an intense desire to identify ways to hold on to the past before it slips away into memory. But how do we justify this desire in the context of a Buddhist society like Luang Prabang, in which impermanence is one of the Three Marks of Existence?: “O monks, all karmically constituted things are impermanent; they are not fixed, not comforting, and are characterized by constant change. . . . For all beings, all creatures, all living things, life is limited by death; for them there is no termination of death and rebirth.” Human beings are born, live, and die; great societies rise, stagnate, and fall; the planet itself is formed, evolves, and will eventually perish. All things exist in a state of constant flux until they reach the state of final extinction called nirvana. If, in the West, the concept of preservation is rooted in a desire for permanence, from a Buddhist perspective, desire itself is conceived as one of the sources of suffering and must be eliminated. Hence, the desire for permanence must be eliminated. But it is necessary to examine the implications of the doctrine of impermanence more deeply. As the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The Buddha implored us not just to talk about impermanence, but to use it as an instrument to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain liberating insight. We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering. But the Buddha encouraged us to look again.” He continues: “Without impermanence life is not possible. How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent? How can our daughter grow up into a beautiful young lady? How can the situation in the world improve? We need impermanence for social justice and for hope. . . . With impermanence, every door is open for change. . . . Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.”
Heartened by this insight, we did not come to Luang Prabang as historical preservationists with the goal of arresting change to create a nostalgic fantasy of a colonial town. Instead, we sought to create a framework in which the collaborations we organized would offer the participants the opportunity to perceive their lives from new perspectives—to appreciate what they have with renewed vitality and to envision the possibility of change—and to use this knowledge as the moral foundation for a better future. Through these collaborations, the artists and the community members came to see that even though they were separated by language, nationality, ethnicity, income level, and other categories of experience, they were connected as citizens of the world and as the caretakers of their respective cultures. In this capacity, they worked together to nurture a reverence for the intangible cultural heritage that makes Luang Prabang unique and to suggest that the sensitive revitalization of these practices can foster the conditions for a development process based not on the promotion of economic growth at any cost, but on the creation of opportunities to enhance the material, ethical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual value of the lives of its residents. Indeed, during our time in Luang Prabang, we saw many signs of positive change: the establishment of Puang Champa Cultural House by Somsanith; the commencement of a project to digitize the Buddhist Archive of Photography of the Sangha of Luang Prabang established by Phra Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera, with which Berger has been closely involved; the conveyance of Hamilton’s meditation boat to the Sangha, which is now used to support Buddhist practice in a variety of creative ways; the construction of a meditation center at Vat Pha O, made possible in part by a dhamma gift by Sikander; and the continuation by other organizations of the material support we gave to local monasteries and the Children’s Cultural Center to make decorations for Boun Ok Phansa, among many other examples.
The lessons we learned, however, are not restricted to Luang Prabang. Just as the whole of the world blooms in the whole of the flower, Luang Prabang is a microcosm of the world: this is the talk of the flower, the truth of the blossom, that was impressed upon us during the four years of our project. As we write these words, it is more clear than ever that the challenges of globalization are challenges that individuals in both developed and less developed nations must confront as we reexamine what constitutes a well-lived life and what role the cultivation of the creative spirit might play in this process. We hope that the artists, the community members, and the other individuals who have participated in our collective work over the years have seen, as the artist Chen Zhen once said, that The Quiet in the Land is not only a project, but a way of life, and that art must be made not only by the hands, the eyes, and the intelligence, but mostly by the heart.
This exhibition was never realized. The exhibition titled The Idea of North “examined, in Gould’s words, ‘that condition of solitude which is neither exclusive to the north, nor the prerogative of those who go north.’” See France Morin, “This is Glenn Gould,” Artforum 25, no. 10 (Summer 1987): 102–06.
“The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers,” exh. brochure (Portland, Me.: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997).
On the first project, see ibid.; Kay Larson, “A Month in Shaker Country,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 1997, 2:31, 33; and “The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers: A Conversation With Janet A. Kaplan,” Art Journal 57, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 4–27. On the second project, see France Morin and John Alan Farmer, eds., A quietude da terra: vida cotidiana, arte contemporânea e Projeto Axé / The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art and Projeto Axé (Salvador, Brazil: Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, 2000); France Morin, “The Quiet in the Land: Resistance and Healing Through Art,” Art Journal 59, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 7–10; and France Morin, “The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and Projeto Axé,” Art Journal 59, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 4–17. On the third project, see Carol Becker, Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2009), 65–69; and John Alan Farmer, “The Quiet in the Land: Art, Spirituality, and Everyday Life, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR,” DIAAALOGUE (July 2008), Asia Art Archive.
Richard B. Pilgrim, “Intervals (Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan,” in Japan in Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives, ed. by Charles Wei-hsun Fu and Steven Heine (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1995), 62.
In this respect, the artists recall the precedent of 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. I became familiar with Enkū’s work when I was conducting research in Japan in the 1990s. See Jan Van Alphen, et al., Enku, 1632–1695: Timeless Images From 17th Century Japan (Antwerp: Etnografisch Museum Antwerpen, 1999) and Grisha F. Dotzenko, Enku: Master Carver (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1976).
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 3.
Ibid., 24, 26.
Harald Szeemann, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, exh. cat. (Bern: Kunsthalle Bern, 1969); documenta 5: Befragung der Realität Bildwelten heute, exh. cat. (Kassel: Verlag documenta, 1972). Morin recalls that seeing documenta 5 made a dramatic impression on her when she was a university student in Montreal and inspired her to become a curator. Years later, she came to know Szeemann well. When she told him that she was leaving her position as senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art to develop The Quiet in the Land, he encouraged her to continue pushing the boundaries of her curatorial practice.
On Szeemann’s curatorial practice, see François Aubart et al., Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology, Florence Derieux, ed. (Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag Ag; Grenoble: Le Magasin, 2007); Hans-Joachim Müller, Harald Szeemann: Exhibition Maker (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2006); and Daniel Birnbaum, “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum 43, no. 10 (Summer 2005), 55, 58, 346.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Routledge, 1987), 10.
See France Morin, ed., Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs, exh. cat. (New York: The Drawing Center and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
See Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), ch. I (“Goethe’s Faust: The Tragedy of Development). Our discussion in this paragraph is indebted to this brilliant analysis.
Goethe, Faust, ll. 462–67, cited in ibid., 42.
Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, 86.
This understanding of development began to emerge in the 1990s. In 1992, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (then Secretary-General of the United Nations) and Federico Mayor (then Director-General of UNESCO) formed the World Commission on Culture and Development, an initiative of the World Decade for Culture and Development. Its mission was to reexamine the concept of development—specifically, by considering development as a concept that encompassed more than the pursuit of economic growth. In 1996, the Commission published a report summarizing its findings. The report is Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development (Summary Version) (Paris: World Commission on Culture and Development, 1996).
Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xii–xiii.
See Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, “From the President’s Foreword,” in Our Creative Diversity, 11.
The World Heritage Site constitutes only a portion of the entirety of Luang Prabang, which is much larger. For ease of reference, however, in this essay the World Heritage Site called the “Town of Luang Prabang” will be referred to simply as “Luang Prabang,” its common designation.
Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 204–05. Other studies of Lao history and culture include Grant Evans, The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998) and Grant Evans, ed., Laos: Culture and Society (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999). In addition, the website Laos Cultural Profile, a collaborative project of Visiting Arts and the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, provides useful information about contemporary Lao culture.
Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, 206.
In 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which led to the creation of the World Heritage Committee. The purpose of this committee is to establish the World Heritage List, a list of sites in the nations that are party to the Convention that are judged to have “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one criterion from a specified list. By the end of 2008, 679 cultural sites, 174 natural sites, and 25 mixed sites in 145 nations were inscribed on the list.
See Seth Mydans, “Tourism Saves a Laotian City but Saps Its Buddhist Spirit,” New York Times, April 15, 2008, A9; and Barbie Nadeau, “The Curse of Approval: If UNESCO Designates It, They Will Come. Does Identifying Heritage Sites Do More Harm Than Good?,” Newsweek (International Edition), April 10, 2006.
Giovanni Bocardi and William Logan, Reactive Monitoring Mission to the Town of Luang Prabang World Heritage Property, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 22–28 November 2007: Mission Report (UNESCO, 2008), 2. The authors of IMPACT: Tourism and World Heritage Site Management in the World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (Bangkok: Office of the Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO Bangkok and Honolulu: School of Travel Industry Management, University of Hawai‘i, 2004) made similar observations: “The rapid increase in visitors to Luang Prabang has resulted in a correspondingly rapid and largely unplanned expansion of transportation infrastructure and accommodation facilities. In addition to the stress placed on the town’s public utilities . . . the construction boom has created a demand for land within and around the town’s historic core. This combination of development pressures has placed critical stress on both the environment and the historic cultural resources of Luang Prabang and threatens to overwhelm them” (9).
Bocardi and Logan, Reactive Monitoring Mission, 26.
UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage art. 2.1, Oct. 17, 2003. This Convention was adopted in recognition of the fact that the world’s intangible cultural heritage was endangered by the same social, political, and economic conditions that endangered its tangible cultural heritage and that led to the adoption of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
Ibid., art. 2.2.
Thomas Fuller, “Made in China: Cheap Products Change Lives,” New York Times, Dec. 27, 2007, A4.
Bocardi and Logan, Reactive Monitoring Mission, 21.
Historically, most novices are boys from poor families in the countryside who become novices to earn merit for their families and to obtain an education, which is provided free of charge. Only a small percentage become monks, and this number has been decreasing since 1975.
See Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, passim.
Translation from Anityatasutra, cited in Anna Karlström, “Spiritual Materiality: Heritage Preservation in a Buddhist World?” Journal of Social Archaeology 5 (2005): 339.
Karlström, “Spiritual Materiality,” 348.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Cultivating the Mind of Love (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996), 69–70.