All that's solid melts into air (Karl Marx)
Vong Phaophanit was born in 1961 in Savannakhet, Laos. He left in 1971, going back for summer holidays the following two years, not to return again until 1996. He currently lives in London. Exploring the unnoticed fabric of our everyday environment, his sculptural works, installations, and films quietly capture the viewer’s attention and slowly reveal multiple layers of often contradictory meanings.
Phaophanit’s very first visit to Luang Prabang was in April 2005. He shot his film All that’s solid melts into air (Karl Marx) on this visit and on a subsequent visit in April 2006. Some locations were inspired by the local art students Sone Khounapseuth, Khamla Panyasith, and Bargon Heugangnakone, who, over the course of several months, selected and photographed sites based on themes he suggested. 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 impermanence. The text of the film, written by Claire Oboussier, translated into Lao by Soradetj Bannavong, and read by the narrator, flows in rhythm with the images. Just as the text evocatively opens up the meanings of the images, the images open up the meanings of the text. Indeed, the film evokes a constellation of referents, including Marxist conceptions of modernity, the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, the ruminations of Romantic and Symbolist poets on the ephemeral and the decayed, and the critical discourse on photography and death, 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.
The film’s title invokes a passage from the Communist Manifesto, in which Karl Marx describes the bourgeois order as a continually evolving system of social relations progressing toward its inevitable perfection in communism. “All that is solid melts into air,” he concludes, “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” In this view, modernity is characterized by perpetual change, uncertainty, and agitation, as old systems dissolve and new ones coalesce. The writer Marshall Berman amplified this view in his influential book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1988). Describing the experience of being modern as living “a life of paradox and contradiction . . . , longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts,” he characterized modernity as a “maelstrom . . . in a state of perpetual becoming” (13, 14, 16), which has nourished modern artists seeking to make sense of their changing world. And the scholar Grant Evans applied the passage to the Lao context in The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975 (1998). But in this book, he observes that “human societies cannot tolerate . . . ephemeralness” (191), a line the film’s narrator recites, and that rituals are one of the means by which humans attempt to cope with constant change. Phaophanit filters this conception of modernity through the Buddhist concept of impermanence, which describes all phenomena as existing in a state of constant flux.
Images of impermanence are woven throughout the film, which is framed by two sequences showing the spectacle of a Chinese television crew filming a group of traditionally dressed Lao beauties near Vat Xieng Thong around the time of Lao New Year. In the first, a camera mounted on a long boom prowling over the temple’s roof signifies the infiltration of a new system of social relations, where elements of traditional culture are transformed into commodities and images disseminated by mass media mediate experience. Indeed, the following sequence features shots of windows, doorways, and openings framing views of the town into pictures, suggesting the blurring of the distinction between reality and representation. Tellingly, the last shot is a view through an opening in a wall of a brewing thunderstorm agitating the foliage of a tree, the celestial equivalent of the maelstrom, Berman’s emblem of modernity.
Within these bookends, Phaophanit weaves a web of images showing decayed or abandoned sites throughout Luang Prabang, signs of a past slipping away. The camera proceeds through a crumbling meditation hall, which dissolves into a restored one, as the narrator observes, “The Lao say that in order to create something you must lose something.” It pans the empty rooms of Xiengkeo Palace, once occupied by Prince Phetsarath Rattanavongsa (1890–1959), a champion of Lao independence who led the Lao Issara (Free Laos) movement in the 1940s—rooms now on the grounds of a luxury resort for wealthy foreigners. It lingers over the library of Vat Non Sa Keo, originally a depository for Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts built above a stagnant green pond, now empty. And it shows the slipping away of aspects of immaterial culture: a tourist photographing the morning almsround as if it were a spectacle; another vainly struggling to free a caged bird as he tries to perform a Buddhist tradition signifying the release of sorrows, rendering the tradition meaningless; a narrative, spoken but not shown, of a woman who takes a call on her mobile phone while desultorily performing a ritual in a temple.
Some sequences link the concept of impermanence to death. In one, the camera wanders through a cremation ground outside Luang Prabang. In Theravada Buddhism, cremation is the culmination of a series of funerary rituals designed to ease the liberation of the soul of the deceased from the body, a corporeal envelope that is the soul’s impermanent home. In the film, the camera is visually seduced by the lushly overgrown cremation ground, strewn with the debris-like remains of offerings to the dead, including ashes, flowers, and incense. Evoking the passage of the body from one state to another, these images could illustrate a Romantic poem by Shelley on the ephemeral or a Symbolist tale by Huysman on the decayed. “He told us that as long as the people hold the memory of that person in their minds it is of relevance and exists,” the narrator states. “When it effaces itself in the memory, it has ceased to be of importance, and is let go.”
In another sequence near the film’s end, death is evoked through the trope of absence. This sequence focuses on the life of workers who make their living during the dry season by gathering gravel from the barren bed of the Mekong River, where they also live. At one point, the camera pauses on a tent that has been erected on the river bed, the home of unseen inhabitants. Their absence foreshadows the day when they will be gone—when they will abandon their modest home, which will be washed away when the river rises as it does every year. In this respect, this home is like an ephemeral tomb that memorializes the individuals who once lived and worked in this place but who will ultimately disappear without a trace.
These sequences in particular and the film in general encourage the viewer to reflect not only on the inevitability of impermanence, decay, and death, but also on the relationship between death and photography/film. Through poetic images of transience, ruin, and absence, the film becomes an elegy mourning not just the death of individuals, but the death of aspects of a culture populated with ghosts. As Eduardo Calava writes in his insightful study of Walter Benjamin’s work on photography, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (1997), “[a]lthough what the photograph photographs is no longer present or living, its having-been-there now forms part of the referential structure of our relationship to the photograph. Nevertheless, the return of what was once there takes the form of a haunting. As Benjamin suggests in his 1916 essay on the Trauerspiel, ‘the dead become ghosts’ . . . . The possibility of the photographic image requires that there be such things as ghosts and phantoms” (11). Indeed, the film suggests, Luang Prabang at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a culture haunted by the ghosts of the old social order that is waning and the new one that is waxing.