THE QUIET IN THE LAND
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
NEWSLETTER NO. 1 (FALL/ WINTER 2004/2005)
This is the first issue of a newsletter that we hope to publish regularly during our project in Luang Prabang over the next two years to keep you informed about our work. As you know, The Quiet in the Land: Art, Spirituality, and Everyday Life, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR is the third project of The Quiet in the Land series. Each project in the series is structured as a carefully planned group of long-term, community-based, collaborative art and education projects. The Quiet in the Land in Luang Prabang is taking place from 2004 to 2006. It consist of a series of collaborations between more than 40 artists and educators from Laos, the Mekong region, and elsewhere and a wide range of local community members. The project is guided by the conviction that the practice of art, broadly defined, offers both individuals and communitiesincluding the poor, the disenfranchised, and others who have been adversely affected by globalizationthe potential to acknowledge for themselves the dignity of the activities of everyday life; to understand more deeply the relevance of preserving and adapting their cultural heritage to the challenges they face in the 21st century; and to build the capacity for transforming their lives for the better by harnessing the undertapped power of the creative spirit.
France Morin, Project Director
The Quiet in the Land began on October 16, 2004. The first participant to visit us was Ajahn Vithi Panitchapham, professor at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Ajahn Vithi spent this year’s Bun Ok Pansa (October 29, 2004) in Luang Prabang at the Project House of The Quiet in the Land. He wrote this text on the Bun Ok Pansa ceremonies during his stay to share with us:
Starting during the month of August, which is approximately halfway through the traditional Buddhist Lent period, many Southeast Asian countries hold rites or rituals offering foods and gifts to the souls of their deceased relatives. Lao people perform this grateful gesture through festival offering at their Theravada Buddhist temples, called Bun Salaak and Bun Kao Pradab Din, in late August and September respectively. The traditional offerings for their deceased loved ones or stray hungry ghosts were rice cooked and wrapped in different ways, along with dry or preserved foods, sometimes accompanying small household utensils and fabrics. Buddhist monks and novices received these offerings either knowing the donors’ names or not knowing them, through lottery-style designations, creating excitement and unpredictable results between the givers and the receivers.
During the month of October, Bun Ok Pansa wraps up the duration of Buddhist Lent, during which all monks and novices are rigidly required to contemplate and remain stationary for three months at any single temple. On this day, people specially prepare small packages of foods, rice or sweets, as alms offering to monks and novices as they go around early in the morning with their food bowls. Hungry spirits and ghosts benefit from these ritual offerings. At this time, lay people and novices are busy constructing boat-shaped forms with bamboo strips and often banana stalks. Some are decorated with colored paper and tassels. Some are then placed onto floating bamboo rafts, while others are placed stationary on the ground in front of families’ houses or temple grounds. These boat-shaped offerings are usually decorated with fresh flowers, leaves, candles, oil lamps, lanterns of various designs, foods, and strings of Lao kip. Contemporary boat decorations include blinking Christmas lights, balloons, and written social comments. No one seems to know the origin of the boat-shaped offerings, which are to be floated down the water along the banks of the Mekong River on the evening of Ok Pansa day, called Lai Huea Fai.
Through years of travel up and down this mighty Mekong River, I have come across funerary practices among many tiny communities on the stretch between the Sipsong Panna region of southwestern China and the town of Chiangsaen in Thailand. People still wrap their deceased relatives in cloths, mats, and flattened bamboo strips, then suspend the bodies from bamboo structures placed on bamboo rafts. Foods, clothes, and large numbers of symbolic household and daily utensils are placed on the rafts for the loved ones to use during their long journeys into eternity. Lit candles and joss-sticks, along with flower leis, are placed on the rafts before departure. Relatives and family members wail and say goodbye to the deceased ones as the rafts are slowly pushed into the current of the rushing waters.
Smaller rafts of food and offering follow, as long as the deceased persons are remembered. This could be one of the clues explaining Bun Ok Pansa and the festival of Lai Huea Fai among the people of the Mekong River.
The artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba arrived on November 1, 2004 with his assistant Lam for a first visit to Luang Prabang.
Here are some biographical notes on the artist:
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba is an artist best known for a series of videos he has shot underwater. Born to a Vietnamese father and a Japanese mother in Tokyo, Japan, in 1968, he lived in Japan and Vietnam as a young child and moved to the United States in 1978. After completing his studies in the United States, he decided to return to Vietnam in 1994, and he currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is one of a growing number of artists who have experienced life in a number of different cultures and who integrates these experiences into their work.
Many of Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s early works consist of sculptures and installations incorporating ordinary objects such as cyclos, mosquito nets, rice, charcoal, and bamboo, which are part of the everyday life of many people in Vietnam.
In 2001, Nguyen-Hatsushiba made the first of his underwater videos. This video is entitled Memorial Project, Nha Trang, Vietnam: Toward the ComplexFor the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards. Shot in the sea off the coast of Vietnam, it depicts a group of men, local pearl divers, laboriously pedaling cyclos across the sea floor. Their desperate struggle to push their cyclos forward, combined with the translucent and light-filled underwater scenery, create a strange and beautiful panorama
Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s other underwater videos also communicate in a similarly metaphoric manner a critical view of such issues as the complex history of Vietnam; the impact of globalization; the struggles of displaced peoples to survive; and, as he has stated, “the basic human struggle of breathing to live, breathing to take another step forward” in the context of these historical shifts.
Happy New YearMemorial Project Vietnam II (2002), for example, refers to the Tet Offensive of 1968, a turning point in the Vietnam War that ultimately led to North Vietnam’s victory over the South and the United States. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive during the Lunar New Year, a festival which the Vietnamese celebrate with dragon dances and fireworks. In the video, divers guide a dragon beneath the water, while a “Fate Machine” on the floor of the sea shoots balls to the surface. When the balls, which are filled with colored powders, reach the surface, they explode and release colored smoke that surrounds the dragon. In this respect, the video conflates images of celebration with images of destruction.
Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel PointMemorial Project Okinawa (2003) refers to the United States’ bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 during the Christmas holidaya festive winter holiday during which Christians celebrate the birth of Christ by giving one another gifts. Nguyen-Hatsushiba shot this video in the sea near a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. A large yellow star, evoking the stars on the Vietnamese and U.S. flags, floats in the middle of a circle of easels set up on the sea floor. On these easels divers dressed as soldiers and wearing gun belts holding tubes of paint, rather than guns, struggle to create portraits. The viewer gradually realizes that these portraits depict Hollywood stars who have appeared in films about the Vietnam War. The video ends, however, before the soldiers accomplish their “mission.”
Here are some highlights of Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s visit in Luang Prabang:
Monday, November 1, 2004
Arrival. First contact with the city of Luang Prabang with Francis Engelmann, Consultant for The Heritage House in Luang Prabang, and The Quiet in the Land project, and author of Luang Prabang, Capital of Legends (ASA Editions, Paris 1997), and Ounheuane Soukhaseum, Bamboo Coiling, Wood Carving, and Lacquerware Artist and Teacher at the Luang Prabang School of Fine Arts. .
Tour comprising Vat Xieng Thong (monastery of the city of the Flame Tree), Luang Prabang’s most important royal foundation and an architectural masterpiece of northern Laos, the religious complex of the Siphouthabath temples on the slope of Mount Phousi, Vat Pafay, Vat Pa Khe, the stairs of Buddha’s Sacred Footprint (North), the Nam Khane River lookout, the Ban Xieng Mouane lane, the renovated wooden house of Vat Xieng Mouane, the previous residence of Phanya Muong Sene Tiane Thone, “the first right-wing mandarin” (circa 1900), the banks of the Mekong River, the Vat Prabath Thai, Buddha’s Sacred Footprint (South), and the temple of the Vietnamese community of Luang Prabang.
Tuesday, November 2, 2004
Presentation of the artist’s work to fourth-year students at the School of Fine Arts at the Project House. The artist showed two of his films: Happy New YearMemorial Project Vietnam II (2002) and Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel PointMemorial Project Okinawa (2003). A discussion followed.
Crossing to the right bank of the Mekong River, upstream from Luang Prabang. Visit to the ruins of the Had Sieo Monastery on the banks of the Mekong, the sanctuary mural paintings, and the meditation gallery. Climb to the abandoned monastery of Vat Non Sa Keo, Naga hole, kouti (monks’ housing) in the middle of the green pond. Descent toward the Mekong near the abandoned monastery of Kok Phap.
Boat ride and visit to the temple of Chom Phet (“diamond point”), currently under renovation. From the lookout at the top of the hill, one can see the Mekong and the city of Luang Prabang situated across, on the left bank. Return by boat to the stairs of Vat Xieng Thong (6 p.m.).
Visit to Boua Kang Bung House (“house of the lotus in the middle of the pond”) on the water, which is the site of the future Ecomuseum.
Wednesday, November 3, 2004
Departure at 10 a.m.on Mr. Tanh’s boat, downstream from Luang Prabang. First stop on the right bank of the Mekong, the “cultural village” of Pak Lung. Visit to an old aristocratic double- gable peaked wooden house, an old Vietnamese-style house, a monastery, and a restored kouti. Walk on the old road along the Lung River.
Next stop on the left bank of the Mekong for a picnic under the grand banyan tree (ficus religiosa) of Ban Vat Sing. Climb up the Vat Sing Monastery stairs, an old royal foundation (one of the monks died last August at age ninety). Naga hole which connects the Mekong’s rock ledge and the rapids. Great latan trees. Beautiful That in a style similar to the one that holds the ashes of the family of the maha oupahat (deputy king) at Vat That (Luang Prabang).
Next stop across the Mekong in the very poor village of Ban Saluan. Departure from the village at 5 p.m. Arrival at the stairs of Vat Xieng Thong at 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, November 4, 2004
Presentation at the Project House of Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s work (including two films) to a group of approximately twenty local officials, including Bounkhong Khutthao, Deputy Director, Department of Information and Culture, Luang Prabang, and Deputy Director of UNESCO, Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha, Luang Prabang; Vanpheng Keopannha, Deputy Director, Luang Prabang National Museum; Sisavath Nhilatchay, Director, Luang Prabang National Museum; Catherine Gaudu and Alexandra Frantz of The Heritage House. A discussion followed.
Visit to the Luang Prabang School of Fine Arts. Discussion with students and teachers about their work.
Friday, November 5, 2004
Tour of the Vat Mai Temple. Tour of the blacksmiths’ village of Had Hien. Visit to the monastery of Vat Phone Saat across from Vat Pakane.
Preparation for the trip to Xieng Khouang, the city of Phonesavanh, and the Plain of Jars. Meeting with the students of the School of Fine Arts.
Saturday, November 6, 2004
Two days in Xieng Khouang.
On November 16, 2004, the artist Hans Georg Berger arrived in Luang Prabang to stay at the Project House for nearly two months to develop his work with the sangha (community of monks) in collaboration with Phra Ajahn Onekeo Sitthivong, Abbot of Vat Pak Khan and Vat Xiang Thong Monasteries in Luang Prabang, and Director of the Buddhist Schools of Luang Prabang.
Here are some biographical notes on Berger:
Hans Georg Berger is a photographer and writer. He was born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, and he presently divides his time between Germany, Iran, Italy, and Luang Prabang, Laos. Berger studied comparative religion and drama in Germany and the United States. In 1975, he collaborated for the first time with the German artist Joseph Beuys, whose artparticularly his concept of “social sculpture”would greatly influence his development of his conception of photography and “community involvement” described below. He was the director of the Munich Theater Festival from 1977 to 1983 and the co-founder of the Münchner Biennale music theater festival. Since 1977, he has been involved in rebuilding a former Franciscan monastery on the island of Elba, Italy, which he has developed into a place where artists and scientists can share their ideas with one another.
Since 1988, Berger has produced a series of long-term photography projects involving world religions, including Theravada Buddhism in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, as well as Shiite Islam in Iran. These projects embody his conception of “community involvement.” The photographer, who is an outsider, seeks to blend in with the community he seeks to photograph to avoid disturbing the unfolding of the activities to which the community has granted him access. Toward this end, the photographer brackets his own artistic vision by inviting the community to teach him where to look, what to portray, and how to portray it.
From 1994 to 1998, Berger developed a photography project in Luang Prabang that reflected his conception of community involvement. With the assistance and involvement of the city’s people, he documented Luang Prabang’s sacred rituals and monastic life in a series of black-and-white photographs. One group consists of documentary images of architecture, ritual objects, and festivals, such as the annual New Year celebrations and boat races. Another group consists of posed portraits of monks, nuns, and novices, often taken during important moments of religious life. Collectively, the photographs document the important role of spirituality in the everyday life of Luang Prabang’s people. The project culminated with the installation of some of the photographs in nine of the city’s sacred sites in 1998 and the publication of the book Het Bun Dai Bun: Laos, Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang, in 2000 by Westzone.
The schoolbook version of this publication published at the request of the Ministry of Education is now in its third edition.
In 2004 and 2005, Berger will develop a photography and video project that will document the forms and methods of study in Shiite Islam in selected Iranian Koran schools in the cities of Mashad, Qom, and Isfahanplaces of study that as a rule are closed entirely to non-Muslims. He prepared for this project with three working visits to Iran in 1996, 2002, and 2003, as well as an ongoing discussion process with Iranian and international academics, spiritual leaders, and intellectuals. Just as in his earlier photography project in Luang Prabang, in this project the Koran school students and teachers will assume an active role within an artistic process that questions forms of thought and communication, visual representation, and cultural translation. The underlying principle of this project, and of all Berger’s work, is a readiness to engage in dialogue and mutual understanding that is free of cultural stereotypes and preconceptions and that acknowledges the religious context of the subject matter.
For The Quiet in the Land in Luang Prabang, Berger is organizing, invited by the Sangha,(community of monks), a photographic survey of a month-long teaching retreat at Vat Phone Pao Monastery in December 2004. The first two weeks will be devoted to preparing the teachers; the next two, to helping 600 monks and novices learn Vipassana Meditationa centuries-old tradition in abeyance since 1975 and currently known only by a few elderly monks. He has conceived this project not as a work of photodocumentation, but as the crystallization of a process of community involvement, in which the “subjects” will teach the artist what is important to represent and ideally become artists themselves.
A Heritage Project as Part of The Quiet in the Land
We also have been working on a Heritage Project as part of The Quiet in the Land that includes many of our participants. It has been conceived by Ouane Sirisak, Director of The Heritage House, Luang Prabang and Felipe Delmont, Architect and Director of Preliminary Sketches for SCOT (Scheme for Territorial Coherence), Luang Prabang, in collaboration with France Morin and photographer Hans Georg Berger.
The team also includes Bounkhong Khutthao, Deputy Director, Department of Information and Culture, Luang Prabang; Vanpheng Keopannha, Deputy Director, Luang Prabang National Museum, Luang Prabang; Francis Engelmann, Advisor to The Heritage House, Luang Prabang, and to The Quiet in the Land; and Dr. Catherine Choron-Baix, Anthropologist, CNRS, Paris.
This project will develop over the next two years. We held the first meeting of the team on Saturday, November 20, 2004 while Delmont was in Luang Prabang.
Description and Goals of the Heritage Project
We will encourage the active participation of the citizens of Luang Prabang in the various steps of the preservation of their heritage. We will work with the families who live in these heritage houses to help them document, through photography, their homes and family treasures from the past. Art, in this case, will serve to restore pride, self-esteem, and to create a feeling of belonging. The methodology will borrow from the various practices of the anthropologist, the artist, the social worker. For example, it will include interviews, photographs taken by the families themselves guided by a profesionnal photographer, systematic analysis of the materials produced by the families, and so on. At the end of this Heritage Component, the photographs produced by the families that will have been selected for the exhibition and the publication, hopefully, will be purchased from the families, and possibly given to the National Museum here in Luang Prabang; copies of the photographs will also be given to the families. Exhibitions in the various neighborhoods, discussions, and a symposium will be organized to draw conclusions, continue mobilization, and raise awareness of the issues addressed by the project. A selection of these documents will be included in The Quiet in the Land publication, which will be published at the end of the project in 2006.
Approximately twenty families will participate. The selection will take into consideration families belonging to various neighborhoods (for example: Ban Aphay, Ban Xieng Mene, Ban Pakham, around Boua Kang Bung, and so on), with a variety in the architectural heritage (wooden houses, colonial houses, traditional modest houses, and so on), a variety in the histories of its occupants (old Luang Prabang families, new families installed since the Revolution, and so on), a variety in their social positions (old aristocratic families, merchants, poor population, and so on), a variety in their occupations (traditional activities such as “noodles” makers in Ban Aphay village, other occupations linked to tourism, to education, and so on).
Community Involvement by Hans Georg Berger is a new method of constructing an artistic photographic experience. Its essence is the creation of an almost intimate relationship between the photographer and the people he or she wishes to portray. Through the progression of the creative process the subjects become, in the ideal case, artists themselves. It is the subject who judges the quality of the photographer’s pictures, their accuratenesstheir “truth.” It is the subject who teaches the photographer where to look, what is important to show, what the meaning of the action witnessed is. The subject tells the photographer the story behind a face, behind a person’s behavior and action. The photographer in this way progressively abandons the role of an outsider and gives up his outsider’s view. This process requires time to establish mutual confidence, trust and respect. Mr. Berger will use his Community Involvement concept for art photography to work with the families of Luang Prabang in collaboration with other participants.
In December 2004, we will also have the visit of participant Somsanouk Mixay, Advisor to the Minister of Information and Culture and Vice President of the Lao Journalists Association in Vientiane, Laos. We will discuss The Quiet in the Land publication with him and his participation.
In January 2005, we will have the visit of Dr. Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty/Vice-President for Academic Affairs of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, US and Jeffrey Skoler, Professor of Film at the Art Institute of Chicago. They are coming to Luang Prabang to prepare the study trip of their students in January 2006 in collaboration with Ajahn Luk Singkhamtanh, Director of the Luang Prabang School of Fine Arts.
We will also have in January our first Supervising Committee meeting with the following members:
Singkham Phommalath; Director, Department of Information and Culture, Luang Prabang
France Morin, President, The Quiet in the Land
Bounkhong Khutthao, Deputy Director, Department of Information and Culture, Luang Prabang, and Deputy Director of UNESCO, Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha, Luang Prabang
Luk Singkhamtanh, Director, Luang Prabang School of Fine Arts, Luang Prabang
Ajan Sipanh, Lao National Front Construction, Luang Prabang
Ouane Sirisack; Director, The Heritage House, Luang Prabang
Heng Lo Savanh, Deputy Director, Department of Education, Luang Prabang
Phra Ajahn Onekeo Sitthivong, Abbot of Vat Pak Khan and Vat Xiang Thong Monasteries, Luang Prabang, and Director of the Buddhist Study Schools of Luang Prabang
Vanpheng Keopannha, Deputy Director, Luang Prabang National Museum, Luang Prabang
Advisors from Abroad
Dr. Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty/Vice-President for Academic Affairs of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Dr. Vishakha N. Desai, President, The Asia Society, New York
Dr. Vithi Panitchaphan, Professor, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand
In February 2005, the artist Dinh Q. Lê, will collaborate with the artisan Nithakhong Somsanith, one of the few practitioners of Luang Prabang’s courtly tradition of gold-thread embroidery, who was born in Luang Prabang and now lives in Orléans, France. They will work with Dr. Catherine Choron-Baix, Anthropologist, CNRS, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Urbaine, Paris, France, and director of the film Mémoire d’or, mémoire de soie (Memories of Gold, Memories of Silk) on Nithakhong Somsanith. Lê has previously worked with communities of weavers in his native Vietnam. Like the other projects discussed, this one seeks to revive a tradition in danger of vanishing and to investigate its potential to address contemporary challenges.
Here are some biographical notes on the artist:
Dinh Q. Lê is an artist who has created works in a variety of mediums; he is perhaps best known for his series of “photo-weavings.” Lê was born in Ha-Tien, Vietnam, in 1968, during the Vietnam War, which would become a major theme of much of his work as an artist. In 1977, Khmer Rouge soldiers from neighboring Cambodia invaded Ha-Tien, and in 1978 Lê and his family escaped to Thailand. In 1979 they immigrated to Los Angeles, California, United States. Lê studied art at college and photography at art school. In 1992, he returned to Vietnam for the first time since leaving as a child. By 1998 he was spending most of each year there. His primary residence is now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
In 1994, Lê traveled to Cambodia, where he saw Tuol Sleng, a prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed many prisoners during the 1970s. That year he began the series Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness (199499), which consists of about thirty photo-weavings combining images of Tuol Sleng with images of Angkor Wat and other Cambodian temples. Using a method he learned while weaving grass mats with his aunt, he produces his photo-weavings by weaving together strips cut from large photographs and carefully burning the edges of the weavings to fuse the strips together and create a finished border.
In 1998, Lê produced an installation entitled Headless Buddha, which addresses the issue of displacement between two cultures, East and West. That same year he created a work in the form of a kiosk in a market in Ho Chi Minh City, from which he sold handmade clothing for conjoined twins, T-shirts, and conjoined twin figures. This work, and his installation Lotus Land (1999), deal with the devastating effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people (Agent Orange has resulted in an increase in births of conjoined twins to many Vietnamese women).
In 1999, Lê produced Mot Coi Di Ve (Spending one’s life trying to find one’s way home), a huge quilt hung from the ceiling. The quilt is composed of hundreds of old family photographs he bought at secondhand stores in Vietnam. On the back of most of the photographs are inscribed lines from Vietnam’s classic epic poem from the early nineteenth century, The Tale of Kieu; interviews with Vietnamese Americans about their memories of Vietnam and their experiences as immigrants; and selections from letters that U.S. soldiers sent home during the war.
In 2000, Lê began a series of photo-weavings entitled From Vietnam to Hollywood. These works weave together photojournalistic images shot during the Vietnam War with digitally enhanced stills from Hollywood films about the war, such as Apocalypse Now. This series addresses the complexities of weaving one’s personal history with larger cultural histories.
In 2000 and 2001, Lê produced the series The Texture of Memory. He created this series in collaboration with a group of women embroiderers in Vietnam. It consists of portraits of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng embroidered in white thread on thick white cotton stretched over frames, like paintings (in the Asian tradition, white is the color of mourning). Viewers are encouraged to touch the portraits, and over time the oils from their hands will stain the embroidered outlines and make the portraits more visible. The more people participate in the remembering process by touching the paintings, the more the memories that both the people and the paintings embody will become alive. Lê has continued to explore the concept of memory in his more recent work.
Thank you for your interest in The Quiet in the Land, and for your support. We are looking forward to your visit to Luang Prabang and to working with you. We also want to wish you a very beautiful and peaceful holiday season.
The Quiet in the Land Team:
Francis Engelmann, Consultant for The Heritage House in Luang Prabang and for The Quiet in the Land project, and Author of Luang Prabang, Capital of Legends (ASA Editions, Paris 1997)
Vanpheng Keopannha, Deputy Director, Luang Prabang National Museum
Bounkhong Khutthao, Deputy Director, Department of Information and Culture, Luang Prabang, and Deputy Director of UNESCO, Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha, Luang Prabang
Marisela La Grave, New York Assistant
France Morin, Director, The Quiet in the Land
Bounyang Phanthavong, Luang Prabang Assistant