Bounpaul Phothyzan: Elevating Laos

Bounpaul Phothyzan, Lie of Land, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Bounpaul Phothyzan, House of Dove, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Bounpaul Phothyzan, Red Houses, 2015 & 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Bounpaul Phothyzan, Red Carpet, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Installation View of Sutthirat Supaparinya’s When Need Moves the Earth. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
TOP
460
48
0
 
14
Jan
14
Jan
Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

For the first time, 3 artists living and working in Laos have featured in the Asia Pacific Triennale, whose 9th edition (APT9) opened on November 24 in Australia. This première inspired the creation of Elevations Laos, a new, non-profit platform created in Vientiane that aims to support a new generation of Lao artists. It favours exchanges and mobility within the region through exhibitions, symposiums and an art prize. The inaugural exhibition entitled, Depths, curated by Erin Gleeson, is built on three main axes – Others, Lands, Selves – and aptly explores how artists from Southeast Asia and China respond to these core issues.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos

 

In particular, Lao artist Bounpaul Phothyzan (b. 1979) draws most of his inspiration from his environment and addresses issues that are relative to land through a multimedia socially-engaged practice that encompasses ecological, social and historical perspectives. His outdoor installation, House of Dove (2018), is located at the entrance of the gallery and welcomes the public. It features three bombshells that are planted vertically on cracked, dry soil, topped by white birdhouses. This could be perceived as a local shrine to protect the local residents, except for the fact that the houses are empty and pierced from the inside by the bombs. They refer to the ghost villages that were left empty during the Vietnamese war, when the inhabitants had to constantly hide from American bombings. More than 260 million cluster bombs were dropped under the secret ‘Rolling Thunder’ operation, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Many of them did not explode and remain scattered in the territory. Villagers in the countryside have incorporated them into their daily lives: once their explosive content has been removed, they are turned into pillars for houses, boats, vases and some are even recycled into bracelets, cutlery and plates. For Phothyzan, this recycling process epitomizes the Lao people’s historical resilience, and their ability to transform the tragedy – which is still killing innocent civilians at the rate of about one hundred new casualties each year – into something positive.

House of Dove is the artist’s third artwork made from cluster bombshells. In Lie of the Land (2017), which was exhibited at the 9th Asia Pacific Triennale, the shells were used horizontally and served as long flowerpots. Phothyzan underscores the formal beauty of these reinvented casings, using them to convey the idea of peace.

House of Dove is aesthetically surprising, as the smooth new and disproportionate white wooden parts offer a strange contrast with the rusty, long and irregular forms of the recycled bombs.

 

Bounpaul Phothyzan, Lie of Land, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Bounpaul Phothyzan, House of Dove, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.

 

The work was originally built as a gift to his father when the artist discovered, two years ago, that his dad used to be a soldier during the civil war. Like many men of his generation, he had chosen to move on and to forget about this period of Lao history. With the help of villagers, Photyzan installed the first edition of the work in his parents’ garden in Champasak. While they worked together, his father’s friends started to tell their stories as well, and the installation became a place where the construction of a renewed collective history was built. The country has long been marked by both division and trauma. With his practice, the artist has activated acts of remembrance and initiated a healing process, opening a pathway to the historical reconciliation that will be needed in future. The choice made by Erin Gleeson to open her exhibition with such an installation reflects this symbolic meaning. Despite the soil’s ungrateful aridity, the bombshells seem to spring from it. This is a strong visual image that embodies both Laos’s past resilience and current resurgence.

Working within a community is the best way for Photyzan to engage with discussions and to propose innovative paths for sharing knowledge. In 2013, he went to the riverbanks of the Mekong in central Laos to collaborate with almost all the Phnonkham villagers to create an immense land art installation, entitled We Live (2013). Exhibited at the 2013 Singapore Biennale, it addresses the deep ecological changes that affect the region, particularly the intense deforestation that is impacting on the balance of the local ecosystem. For centuries, semi-nomadic farming techniques have prevailed in the region. This consists of cutting and burning trees in order to plant rice. It is a practice common in Southeast Asia and lies at the core of the region’s current environmental problems, since there is not enough land to perpetuate it. The farmers, thus, need to abandon their traditional ways of farming and adapt to new constraints. However, they are not aware of the issue, according to Phozyzan, and continue to cut down the trees. He, thus, invited them to collect pieces of dead trees and created a huge fish skeleton with them, as a symbol of the river drying up. While working together, he opened up the debate and invited the farmers to change. While they might not understand art, they were able to grasp the issue through this collective commitment.

These farming practices are not the only environmental threats found in Laos. Photyzan’s land art piece, Red House (2015 & 2016), shows three red tents built in an immense field and reflects the growing tension between the Lao people and China, particularly the problems caused by increased Chinese investment in land properties. The red fabric hints at a new form of colonialism and at the persistence of communism in Laos, although this concern cannot be addressed directly. The houses, lighted up in the night and standing like eternal shelters, are also a poetic representation of the deep link that binds the people with their land. Today, however, the development of capitalism drives the farmers out of their fields. Red Carpet (2015) is a huge installation that represents an immensely long red fabric unfolded in the field that leads into the city and symbolizes this route. This is a hidden reference to the famous Chinese project, ‘One road, one belt’, and encapsulates in one powerful image all the complex questions raised by the current development of the country. Interestingly, and from a different, more political perspective, it also echoes the end of the video, Red (2008), by the Chinese artist Gao Shiqiang, when the former Red Guard sits in the middle of a patchwork of pieces of red fabric which have been left disorderly on the soil, as if they are facing the fate of the Chinese revolution. What is left from the ideology if the symbolic red fabric turns into a catwalk that crushes the land and drives farmers into urban centers?

 

Bounpaul Phothyzan, Red Houses, 2015 & 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.
Bounpaul Phothyzan, Red Carpet, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.

 

Deforestation and land issues are increasingly addressed by artists from the region, but Photyzan is the first one in Laos, to develop socially-engaged works and installations that aim to raise people’s awareness about these pressing questions. In Gleeson’s exhibition, his work pertinently dialogues with a series of landscape photographs by the Filipino artist Wawi Navarozza, river drawings by Cambodian artist Than Sok and with the 3-channel video, When Need Moves the Earth (2014), by the Thai artist Sutthirat Supaparinya. This documents, in particular, the building of the Srinakarin dam in Thailand, a project very similar to the controversial dam construction projects happening today in Laos. None of these artists are activists, yet their works reflect their new role as producers of emancipatory modes of knowledge; a role that is being played increasingly by artists in the region.

 

Installation View of Sutthirat Supaparinya’s When Need Moves the Earth. Courtesy of the artist and Elevations Laos.

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specialized in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Ha Thuc spent two years in Tokyo and published Nouvel Art Contemporain Japonais (Nouvelles Editions Scala 2012) about the post-Murakami Japanese art scene. Her book Contemporary Art in Hong Kong (Asia One, 2013), which was first published in France (Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013) provides essential keys to apprehend the city’s vibrant contemporary landscape and exposes the countless links between art, history, culture and identity. She recently published a book about Chinese contemporary art analysing the interactions between the art scene and China’s rapidly changing society (After 2000 : Contemporary Art in China published in French language Nouvelles Editions Scala, France 2014 & MIP, Hong Kong 2015 for the English and comprehensive version).  

As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her recent exhibitions include Radiance (French May, Hong Kong, 2014), Hong Kong Bestiary (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), Shelters of Resistance an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), The Human Body : Measure and Norms (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015) and Carnival (Hong Kong February 2017). She is on the International Curatorial Advisory Board of the Open Sky Gallery in Hong Kong and curated the 5th Large-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016.

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply