Vong Phaonphanit and Claire Oboussier

'All that's solid melts into air (Karl Marx)'

2005 - 2006

Collection of the Tate Gallery, London. UK

© Phaophanit and Oboussier Studio 2006

33 mins Colour DVD

Commissioned by The Quiet Land

'All that’s solid melts into air (Karl Marx)'

 

He told us that in Lao the graves bore no inscriptions, that there was no written trace of the person who had died. He told us that as long as the people hold the memory of that person in their minds it is of relevance and it exits. When it effaces itself from the memory it has ceased to be of importance and is let go.

 

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He wrote that human societies cannot tolerate such ephemeralness.

 

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He told me that they were very fearful on entering the cemetery to film in case the spirits should misunderstand their intentions. They needed to explain to them the purpose of their visit so that the spirits didn’t follow them home and disturb them in return.

 

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She never met our gaze but the exchange was nonetheless palpable.

 

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To see – from the Latin sequi – to follow, to follow with the eye

 

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To look – from the middle high Germen luogen – to mark, behold – originally “to look through a hole” – loch – a hole or dungeon, lochern – to pierce, to lock

 

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Her eyes didn’t pierce us, they fell gently upon us, never in the eyes, never to hold, never to possess

 

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Her gaze made contact in passing, in movement, never breaking the flow of her activity

 

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In the temple she saw the woman adjust herself, adopt the required position, make her salute, earnest in her observation of protocol – she watched as the woman’s mobile sang out its electronic chant – she answered and chatted in a desultory way

 

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He wrote that to create the sense of a ‘national essence’ people are asked simultaneously to remember and forget

 

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He wrote that in Lao shared memories are illusive

 

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She read that A jaan had been arrested

because he spoke of spirits, thevadas and

gods and because people were making claims

that he could fly. She read that when

he was expelled from the monkhood his library was confiscated. Two years later he was invited to rejoin the sangha.He declined and today wears a white robe

 

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He told us of the time when he was taking part in a ceremony offering flowers to the spirits – each time the woman passed him the intricate arrangements he had put his nose to them to smell their perfume. Each time he did so she gently took the flowers back and discarded them. Finally she explained to him that by smelling the flowers he was taking away that which was for the spirits – their scent

 

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We spoke of the religious ceremony where the spirits are fed. F ood is prepared, embellished with florid colourings, and offered up in a compartmentalised structure made of banana leaf. U nlike we who are ‘grossier’, uncouth and inhabit the material world, the spirits receive their nourishment from the food at another level – a level that is not visible or touchable - I remembered how, as a child, secretly I sometimes used to eat the leftover offerings and how bland they used to taste because the spirits had already absorbed all that was nourishing and good from them

 

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She told him she had bought mosquito nets:

‘No mosquitos in Lao’ he laughed

She told him they would be useful anyway, for keeping away the spiders:

‘No spiders in Lao’ he laughed

Perhaps then, she said, to protect them from the snakes he had told her about, the ones that could swallow a baby elephant:

‘No snakes’

 

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Then to keep away the elephants: ‘No elephants’ he laughed

 

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When we look we have already decided what it is that we will see

 

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To see Lao I must suspend all that I know of it

 

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I must make myself precarious, as precarious as the blue hut at the edge of the Mekong

 

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A-topos – without place

 

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I cut myself adrift. I vagabond like the dogs roaming on the steps at the edge of the Mekong

 

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At the end of the dry season the blue hut will simply be washed away with the rising of the Mekong. The abode set adrift

 

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I watched the flang couple as they laboured to free the birds from their cages. It was as if they lacked some basic manual skill. The dogged sawing of the penknife. The forcing back of the sides of the cage. An overwrought tussle – the gesture outweighing the task

 

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Endless the series of things without name

 

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It holds a different sort of beauty this landscape of abandonment

 

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The roots of the tree grew above the surface of the earth. They have forgotten their place. They have become conspicuous. We can look at them but no longer see them

 

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She read that recently they have found clusters of neurons on the human heart – our hearts have the capacity to remember

 

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The Lao say that in order to create something you must lose something 

 

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We spoke of Keng Kok, the town my mother’s family originates from, of the turtles who live in a lake there. They will emerge from the lake only with the singing of a certain song. The turtles had names, such as ‘little brother, ‘older sister’. I remember the song sounded like the prayer from a Baci.

 

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The boy said nothing but his toes spoke a silent dolorous dance, curling up, recoiling from the scorching macadam

 

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