Essays

The Quiet in the Land: Art, Spirituality, and Everyday Life, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

The Quiet in the Land: Art, Spirituality, and Everyday Life, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR is the third project of The Quiet in the Land, a non-profit organization founded and directed by the contemporary art curator France Morin. Luang Prabang is the spiritual centre of a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a city undergoing rapid change as the pace of tourism-driven economic development has accelerated in recent years. The Quiet in the Land came to Luang Prabang to examine the effects of these changes on the everyday life of the city’s people and their culture—and to examine the roles that artists might play in fostering a deeper consideration of these changes, particularly the tensions between tradition and modernity.

Between 2004 and 2008, fourteen internationally renowned artists undertook extended residencies in Luang Prabang and developed art projects in collaboration with local communities, including the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and novices), artisans and students. The artists were Marina Abramovic, Janine Antoni, Hans Georg Berger, Cai Guo-Qiang, Ann Hamilton, Manivong Khattiyarat, Dinh Q. Lê, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Shirin Neshat, Vong Phaophanit, Allan Sekula, Shahzia Sikander, Nithakhong Somsanith, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. They created works ranging from photographic series to films to large-scale embroideries. Collectively, these works addressed the tensions that have resulted as the imperative to preserve the cultural traditions that have shaped the city’s everyday life has been confronted by the temptation to embrace the economic benefits promised by the expansion of tourism.

Morin founded The Quiet in the Land in 1995. A contemporary art curator who has worked with artists since the mid 1970s, she left her position as senior curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1994, where she had organized a series of provocative exhibitions, in search of a way of working differently. Liberated from the constraints that come with working within an institution, she hoped to open up new spaces in which the relationship between art and life could be explored productively. She was particularly interested in investigating the spiritual nature of art and its potential to serve as a catalyst for personal, cultural, and social transformation. Thus, it was no accident that the first project of The Quiet in the Land was a collaboration with the only active Shaker community in the world, located in Sabbathday Lake, Maine; and the second a collaboration with Projeto Axé, a non-governmental organization that works with former street children, located in Salvador, Brazil, where the African-Brazilian religion of Candomblé has nourished a vibrant spiritual culture; and the third was sited in Luang Prabang, where the traditions of Theravada Buddhism permeate virtually every aspect of everyday life.

For each project, The Quiet in the Land invites a group of internationally known artists to develop works of art in collaboration with a selected community. Each project is preceded by a period of intensive research and organization. Slowly, the project is integrated into the life of the community, at a pace and to an extent that the community and The Quiet in the Land mutually prescribe. Typically, each artist visits the community for at least two, and often for additional, extended residencies. During these residencies, the artist meets with community members and scholars, visits sites of interest, and formulates a proposal for and develops an art project that addresses issues relevant to the given project. Additional development of each art project takes place between the residencies. The process culminates in the creation of a work of art, which may take the form of photography, sculpture, installation, film, performance, or other mediums; but the process of creation, especially the relationships created and shared between the artists and the community, is as meaningful as the work of art itself. Each project is accompanied by an exhibition of selected works, and the last two are documented by publications (the publication for the Luang Prabang project is currently in preparation).

The decision to develop The Quiet in the Land in Luang Prabang was the result of several years of travel throughout the Mekong River Basin, research, and meetings with artists and artisans, members of the Lao government, leaders of the Sangha, and other individuals. Morin’s original interest in working in Luang Prabang was inspired by her desire to consider the opportunities and challenges posed by globalization, an issue that had begun to interest her while she was working in Salvador. Luang Prabang was an ideal place in which to address this issue: not only was the conflict between tradition and modernity sharply defined there, but the city itself was small enough for the project to have the potential to make a meaningful impact. After securing the required permissions to work in Laos, Morin moved to Luang Prabang in October 2004. The project’s base was the Project House, located next to the Mekong River—an office, studio, site for the presentation of public programs, and home for the artists and Morin herself over the next four years. She also gathered a dedicated team that included Francis Engelmann, an expert on Lao culture who had lived in the city for several years; Khonesavanh Litthavong, who helped organize the artist projects; Vanpheng Kephannha, then curator of collections and now Deputy Director at the Luang Prabang National Museum; and a group of scholars and educators, among others. The Quiet in the Land’s Board of Directors, as well as an Advisory Board consisting of scholars and art professionals and a Supervising Committee consisting of local government and cultural figures, also provided invaluable assistance.

Planning for the first art project began several months before Morin moved to Luang Prabang. The Sangha was planning to organize a meditation retreat for monks and novices in December 2004, the purpose of which would be to formally reintroduce into Laos the teaching of Vipassana meditation—a traditional practice that had been in partial abeyance since 1975, when the communist regime was established. At the invitation of the Sangha and The Quiet in the Land, the photographer Hans Georg Berger, who in the 1990s had completed a long-term project documenting the rituals and ceremonies of Luang Prabang, photographed this retreat, which was attended by 402 monks and novices. Reflecting his aesthetic of ‘community involvement’, the photographs he produced were the result of a collaboration with the individuals portrayed, whom he gave ‘the last word in a subtle, carefully orchestrated process of choice, discussion, and shared decision on the value and importance of the images produced.’ His reconsideration of the relation between artist and subject can be contextualized within interpretive frameworks across a range of disciplines, including collaborative ethnography, postmodernist critiques of authorship, and Buddhist teaching on the concepts of self and non-self.

Other artists also addressed the challenges faced by the Sangha. During her first visit to Luang Prabang, Ann Hamilton, for example, observed that opportunities for meditation practice by the Sangha in the city’s monasteries were becoming rarer as the distractions of the modern world intensified. In response, she designed a boat for the Sangha, inspired by the form and function of a walking meditation hall; a long, narrow structure that monks traditionally used to practice walking meditation. Built in collaboration with the Sangha and a team of architects and boat builders, Meditation Boat is 36 metres long and is surmounted by a meditation hall comprised of a series of gently arched wooden armatures supporting the roof and the walls. Upon its completion, it was blessed by Phra Acharn One Keo Sitthivong, the abbot of the monasteries Vat Pak Khane and Vat Xieng Thong, with whom The Quiet in the Land had been working since 2004. The Sangha can use the boat to travel beyond the hustle and bustle of the city to quieter sites, where they may meditate and chant in peace. Even when it is not in use, its presence on the Mekong River is a humble reminder of the necessity of cultivating mindfulness in an increasingly inscrutable world.
 
Dinh Q. Lê and Nithakhong Somsanith, who is a descendant of the Lao royal family and one of the only surviving practitioners of the traditional Lao courtly art of gold- and silver-thread embroidery, developed a project in collaboration with the anthropologist Catherine Choron-Baix that explored this inscrutability from another perspective. Finding a community that was under pressure to modernize, yet stay the same, they developed a project focusing on the co-existence of tradition and modernity. The project took the form of a series of large-scale gold- and silver-thread embroideries on Lao natural-dyed silk, a medium that has been in decline since the abolition of the monarchy in 1975. The challenge was how to invest this medium with new meaning so that it could become relevant to contemporary social realities. One of the works they created, Inner Self and Outer World (2005), addressed this challenge by juxtaposing images of twenty satellite dishes mounted on tall poles, arrayed in a staccato rhythm, like notes on a sheet of music, across a greenish-gold field, with images of three meditation huts, clustered to the left. Looming above the meditation huts, the satellite dishes hold the promise of broadening awareness and understanding by bringing to the residents of the city previously inaccessible knowledge of the world, but also have the potential to overwhelm traditional local culture.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba created a film, The Root, the Ground, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree (2007), in collaboration with fifty students from the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School, which explored the challenges faced by the young people of Luang Prabang as the pace of economic change accelerates, forcing them to choose between a life grounded in the past or one grounded in the future. In the film’s most dramatic sequence, a flotilla of fifty boats motors swiftly down the Mekong River. Each boat is occupied by a driver and an art student who balances with remarkable poise at the helm of the boat before an easel, trying to paint or draw the landscape in brush or pencil as it passes by elusively. As they approach the Bodhi Tree (the species of tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment) of Vat Sing, a monastery outside of Luang Prabang, some of the youths jump out of their boats and swim toward the tree. By contrast, others float by without stopping. The film refrains from judging whether the pursuit of modernity at the expense of tradition is positive or negative. Instead, it formulates the question, while it suggests that everything is as impermanent as the shifting shapes of the luminous white clouds in the blue sky, which constitute the first shot of the film, and as fluid as the currents of the river. And according to Buddhist doctrine, attachment to such things, represented by the youths’ efforts to capture the passing landscape on paper, leads to suffering, a truth to behold whether one strives to cling to the past, to embrace the new economic order of the future and its fetishization of material goods, or to forge a new way that blends the two.

In his film All that’s solid melts into air (Karl Marx) (2007), Vong Phaophanit also explored the concept of impermanence. In the film, images, words, and sounds of everyday life in Luang Prabang flow together in a dream-like chain of associations as a melancholic meditation on ephemerality. This meditation evokes a constellation of referents, including Marxist conceptions of modernity, the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, ruminations of Romantic and Symbolist poets on the ephemeral and the decayed, and the critical discourse on the ruin, especially Walter Benjamin. Cultures, as well as human beings, the film suggests, exist in a state of perpetual becoming, which we may attempt to still. But ultimately, both pass away into memory and then nothingness. In Luang Prabang at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the ruins―both literal and figurative―that Phaophanit portrays in the film are signs not only of an old social order that is waning, but also of the impermanence of the new one that is waxing.

An exhibition of several of the art projects opened at the Luang Prabang National Museum in October 2006, in galleries restored with the assistance of The Quiet in the Land. In addition to the art projects, The Quiet in the Land also organized a range of programs and publications, which included a campaign to protect the sanctity of the morning alms round; an exhibition of contemporary and historical Lao textiles presented at the museum; the publication of a book on meditation designed for young people, with text by Phra Acharn One Keo Sitthivong and photographs by Hans Georg Berger (10,000 copies of which were distributed to students throughout the country in collaboration with the National Library of Laos); and countless artist presentations to students at the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School and other members of the community.

As an art and education project, The Quiet in the Land’s project in Luang Prabang proposed a different type of curatorial practice that focused on working with local communities rather than the organization of large-scale exhibitions. Specifically, it sought to establish a framework in which all participants, including both locals and outsiders, could work together in mutually beneficial, lasting interactions. These interactions among people from different cultures and experiences offered everyone involved new perspectives on their lives and communities and on the potential role of art in everyday life.

 

John Alan Farmer is an art historian and attorney. He has worked with The Quiet in the Land since 1998 and is presently a member of its Board of Directors.

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Author

John Alan FARMER

Topic
Essays
Date
Tue, 1 Jul 2008

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