Remembering the Dead in
Vietnam and Cambodia
The Art of Binh Danh
Binh Danh received his MFA from Stanford University in 2004 and has emerged as an artist of national importance with work that investigates his Vietnamese heritage and our collective memory of war, both in Viet Nam and Cambodia—work that, in his own words, deals with "mortality, memory, history, landscape, justice, evidence, and spirituality." His technique incorporates his invention of the chlorophyll printing process, in which photographic images appear embedded in leaves through the action of photosynthesis.
-- -- From Binh Danh's website. Click here
An Appreciation of Ancestor Veneration
by Jay McDaniel
We cannot bring the dead back to life, at least in the way they were once alive. But we can do three things.
We can hope that their journey continues after death and that they find the wholeness they seek, after which they -- like us -- can melt back into the ocean of life. No one needs to live forever, but it would be good if the soul of each human being survives physical death, including violent death, until peace of mind is found.
And even if the soul's journey does not continue in this way, we can trust that every minute of every person's life is retained in the deep memory of God, apprehended for its preciousness, its joys and its sufferings. Yes, we can trust that there is a Journey in whose heart all journeys are remembered forevermore.
But this is not really enough for us. If spirituality has anything to do with being connected with others, then it must involve our remembering of them as we, the living, long for their continuation. We see photographs of them and are reminded of how they were, but are no longer. We wish they were with us but they are dead.
Or are they? For those of us influenced by process thinking, the people who died during war -- indeed the people who died under any circumstances -- are not exactly dead. They are just living in another way, namely as objectively immortal in our memories, consciously and unconsciously. So the question becomes: How can we memorialize them?
Binh Dahn offers a possibility. Let our images of them appear embedded in leaves of love, with the light of life shining through the memories. The leaves become living memories. There's a light that shines through them.
There is spirituality in all of this. There is an animating impulse by which the suffering of those who died is creatively transformed into our remembrance, so that we can better hope that, in time, they find precisely that peace for which they yearned. Our memory becomes a form of worship. It is ancestor veneration in the deepest sense: a veneration of those who came before us, and whose memories form the very substance of our lives. Let there be more of this worship. It is one way of participating in the very life of the Journey in whose memory all memories live. Ancestor veneration is an an act of love and hope. It is a way of worshiping the One in whose heart no journey is forgotten.
In 1975-79, almost 2 million people lost their lives to murder and famine when the Khmer Rouge forced the urban population into the countryside to fulfill their ideal of an agrarian society. The Khmer Rouge—organized by their leader Pol Pot—arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed "enemies," such as foreigners who were ethnic Vietnamese. In a Security Prison coded-named S-21, which was once a schoolhouse, 14,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed. Their testimony was meticulously documented to justify their execution. When Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, barely a dozen survived S-21.
While visiting this museum, I documented much of the interior. I roamed the rooms and hallways and imagined the horror taking place in front of me. As part of the the victims' testimony, photographs were made of them. Today, what is left of the memories of these people are rooms and rooms of those portraits. The portraits are witnesses to history and they speak to us, holding us accountable. To honor these lives, I made altars of the dead—a place where we can meditate on history, the present moment, and our own mortality. I believe that even when faced with the truth that we will die someday, we can live a good life and do good for others.
-- From Binh Danh's website. Click here.