Sunday, August 29, 2010


[July 25th, 2010]

Kris Hemensley : I'm keen to update our previous conversation about art in Vientiane [see Art & About in Vientiane, August 2009] and a good beginning might be to thank you for The Learning Photographer (Scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art-work in Laos & Iran) [Anantha Publishing, Luang Prabang, Sept. '09]...
There are numerous cues for discussion in this nuggety little book's articles & interviews, for example (and it's crucial to what he & his critics believe he's doing) Berger's involvement with the people & place, making portraits of interaction & for his subjects. This causes a "surprising symbolic inversion. (...) he clearly defined the subject, that is himself, in the role of 'the Other' and in consequence consciously worked to overcome his condition of exclusion." (Campione, pp18/19).
I wonder if this is more semantic than substantial --not doubting for a moment that he lived there, the modern specialist with his Hasselblad, a student of the Traditional way, or that he was anything but wholeheartedly sincere --but how does one know from an image how it was philosophically informed or constructed? Campione says, "The best proof of the validity of his assumptions is the fact that the monks of Luang Prabang keep his photographs among their few personal effects, that they use them for reflection and introspective meditation. They take spiritual advantage of what Berger's photographs represent." This amplifies a previous comment about the distinction between viewers --who one is in relation to subject or photographer. But whatever its relevance to the ethnography/photography/documentary discussion it clearly confronts the idea of the (imaginative) freedom of image & artist which both in East & West in our time opposes art's status as ideologically subservient & instrumental.
Have you actually seen Berger's work?

Catherine O'Brien : Yes. In Luang Prabang --the monks doing vipassana in the forest...

K H : What was its effect?

C O'B : Since I've been travelling I look at a lot of photos --by people who take them to record their travels, & by professional photographers --and it rang a bell for me when I remembered from Susan Sontag, "everyone is a photographer" (from her Essay on Photography) --And so it seems to be that every Westerner who has something to say or show has an exhibition! --from any or all of those perspectives. I think of this all the time when I look at photography exhibitions.
The first time I saw a body of Berger's work was in The Quiet of the Land project in Luang Prabang --the documentation of the monks... a permanent exhibition in Luang Prabang, in the old palace...
When I looked at it it stood out from all others I'd seen. Everyone takes a picture of a monk! Tourists, photographers... Yet it seemed to me he'd captured the monks as though the photographer were invisible. The monk is deeply in meditation, or the monks in walking meditation seem completely unaware of his presence. Where is he? Behind a tree?!

K H : But the claim for Berger is that the photography records a relationship...

C O'B : I didnt know that before I read the book...

K H : This returns me to my point that one only sees what one sees, from the only perspective one knows, whatever that is... descriptive (ethnological), exotic, aesthetical...

C O'B : Responding to the photograph, it was the tone of the black & white... I responded to a situation one doesnt often see --in contemplation, meditation. Not the usual alms-giving scenario! And the forest context is different again.

K H : This was a clue to you that something else was going on?

C O'B : Yes... You look at this big body of work --at the stillness of the forest, of the moment the monks are in... Some of them seem to be floating or levitating in a sea of fallen leaves... as if the group of monks in walking meditation are a mirage in the forest... Looking at this, responding to it -- as though the black & white photo has created a transparency over the forest...
Then you come across coloured photographs. One --a blue piece of fabric, a mosquito net. The other, the orange of the monk's robe... Two close-ups of fabric --sky-blue & orange... And suddenly it's as though one feels the breeze moving --the fabric is an aspect of the monk's life-- The details of colour & movement take one away from the etheriality of the forest and into the life --the clothing, sleeping...
Every time I've been back to Luang Prabang I've looked at it --and I always wondered, how did he do it? How courageous to go into the forest and photograph the monks... Until I read the book...

K H : This leads beautifully into that wonderful disclosure by Berger --here he is, the contemporary Western artist, whose most important formative experience was collaboration with Joseph Beuys, sensitively explaining the potentially positive role of photography in the (vulnerable) traditional context to the Vientiane abbot, without whose blessing he couldnt work with the monks --getting the nod, working for two years, and then one day, at their regular audience, the venerable Abbot reveals his own immense collection of photography!
p.61, "(...) at a sign from the abbot, the young monks present in the room got up and began to open the doors of the dark cupboards lining his reception room: they were filled to the ceiling with boxes, frames and files, they were full of photographs! Photographs of monks, of ceremonies, of visitors who had come to Luang Prabang, going back to the time when photography was invented. All sorts of different technical processes, hundreds, maybe several thousand historic photographs. the elderly monk was a photograph collector! He had hidden his collection away, protecting it from the war, from the revolution and during the isolation. Now he was offering it to me, who had come from afar, and who could perhaps understand. The abbot became my most important referee and analyst..."
For me this is another example of the danger of stereotyping tradition vis a vis modernity, and also shows the collaboration with colonialism to the extent of re-skewing the post-colonial! That is, they've been there, with us, all along!

[Photo by Cathy O'Brien. from The Off : International Photography Festival, Luang Prabang . 2010. Photo from a series of works at CafĂ© 56 : Light in Motion , “An exhibition of performance arts” by Phoonsab Thevongsa.]

K H : Was the changed appearance of Mr. Patrick's gallery, which we witnessed in June, '09, symptomatic of a general stasis or even degradation of the 'new art movement' in your opinion?

C O'B : Hard to tell... For example, trying to explain to someone who asked me about Lao art, I revisited the gallery and it was similar & even more of a mish-mash. I've since heard it intends opening a cafe there which means reduced art space. The several times I've been to the 5 Arts gallery I felt work had been sold but not replaced, and there seemed a lack of the excitement I'd encountered there before.

K H : Replaced by the same artists or new artists?

C O'B : Less work there and the themes seemed tired...

K H : It was "recognizable" now?

C O'B : I need to revisit... When I visited my friend Sabre in a S E Games hotel she was staying at, I was amazed to find 5 Arts & Mr Patrick's gallery's artists hanging there. Instead of copies of, say, Van Gogh or Vietnamese Realist style, there were the contemporary Lao artists... Maybe they're there as a consequence of the showcase provided by the S E Asian Games... This was considered to be a major achievement for Laos.
I notice more tourist artists selling on the street --one I saw was really lovely.. . I've seen a couple of new boutique galleries. It's something I'll investigate when I return to Vientiane. I'm aware of a few Lao photographers, some of whom were included in an exhibition curated by non-Lao people in Luang Prabang.

K H : Do you think photography & the new technologies might gazump the new painting?

C O'B : Definitely there's great interest in photography & the arts of the new technologies... New Lao films at the German Centre for example.--they were excellent --technique & subject (considering the censorship that must operate) : some lyrical, comedy, social realism...

K H : No matter where you live there's no getting away from the new technologies! Is there any point, then, in protecting the traditional cultures? Can it or should it be done? (Ironic that painting in the West is now tantamount to a traditional culture! It's affected by the very same questions --except perhaps that its larger & deeper history is an in-built protection. I imagine Lao artists coming of age in the globalized culture & technology in which painting, art history, fine arts, aesthetics are the hang-ups supposedly transcended by the new technologies' place/time simultaneity!)


[July 31st, 2010]

C O'B : An example of them moving into the new technology is how they took on the mobile-phone without first developing land-lines. In the same way, painting begins after the founding by the French of an art school --before that was the painting for the temples, which continues. So you've really only got a handful of painters coming out of the art school --and I dont see anything new happening...

K H : Is this because there isnt new energy & ideas entering the art school?

C O'B : I dont know... however I was impressed in Luang Prabang by a project --a photography workshop --during a photography festival -- and the photos emerging from the workshop, about their lives & the culture, were impressive. You dont get this kind of content in the painting which tends to be conservative & sentimental...

K H : Even though there is interesting painting --the 'hyper-real' for example, & the surreal cartoon type of thing?

C O'B : Yes, but it's not so significant...

K H : "Significant" in what context?

C O'B : There hasnt been much development since the first work of the "opening up" period. They're copying one another's styles...

K H : Why isnt that productive?

C O'B : But they're still derivative of Marc Leguay --you can still, in the contemporary painters, see the Marc Leguay flame tree...

K H : But, so long as it's their own 'story', whatever the style...? Seems to me that the challenge to painting of photography in Vientiane is that photography's influences are contemporary (state-of-the-art), and being photography the 'mechanics' are abundantly available & amenable to whatever the practitioner wants to do...

C O'B : I think the young people have had access to t.v., film, technology unlike previous generations. And their influences via computer & DVD come from everywhere. And they're not seeing any other visual art...

K H : Yes. But the point I'm making is only because of a devotion to a particular form of visual representation, that is drawing & painting! And an abiding attraction to what I call the local or regional against the juggernaut of 'international style'. international influence, & now the global technologies! That's all!

C O'B : Well, as long as there's an art school people will paint and as long as there are temples there will be artists needed to paint the stories on the temple walls... On the other hand there is a Lao mind-set which says, knock down the old temple & build a new one! There's a horrifying incident in the '90s, I think, when a very historically & religiously significant temple, whose art had, as it happens, been photographed, was pulled down... And they though that was fine!
Anna Karlstrom in Preserving Impermanence : The Creation of Heritage in Vientiane, Laos [Studies in Global Archaeology, 13; Uppsala Universitet, 2009], describing the destruction of the Vat Ou Mong in Vientiane, says "The temple was not identified as valuable heritage until it was demolished." However, as she also says, building a new temple earns great [Buddhist] merit! The temple is only a "shell for spiritual values" [Karlstrom] --but it's still shocking to me!

K H : This is an example of an enormous collision of values isnt it?!

C O'B : Absolutely!

K H : I'm tickled by all of that --it's at the heart of the Buddhist lesson after all-- but I'm also happy with my Western fetishising & privileging!

C O'B : And I love that title, Preserving Impermanence!

K H : That says it all, for East & West! It's at the pith of the very notions of culture & history --of ourselves as historical people --as people who remember, or seek to remember -- A wonderful, fantastical futility --yes?

C O'B : Yes!


[Bendigo & Melbourne]


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