SEPTEMBER 28, 2020
FROM 1964 TO 1973, the United States dropped two million tons of cluster bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Mines Advisory Group International (MAG) estimates that 30 percent of the munitions failed to detonate, remaining a hazard to this day. As part of their efforts to clear farmland, Laotian villagers have taken to melting down deactivated bombs to turn into spoons.
Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong first learned about the Laoitian villagers’ transformation of these weapons from friends traveling to the Plain of Jars, the site of thousands of Iron Age megalithic stone jars in Laos. Meeting with the villagers himself, Phinthong was inspired to create a collaborative sculpture, Spoon. The unassuming, mirror-like plate of lead and tin was made by Phinthong and the villagers with techniques similar to the ones used by locals to turn the Vietnam War–era cluster bombs intended for North Vietnamese and indigenous Pathet Lao guerrillas into utensils.
I recently spoke with Phinthong about Spoon, the collaborative process, and the work’s reception at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as in Laos.
ARVIND DILAWAR: How did you first become aware that Laotian villagers were using disarmed cluster bombs to make spoons?
PRATCHAYA PHINTHONG: I heard a story about the spoons from friends who went to the Plain of Jars in the Xiangkhoang Plateau in Laos. On their way, there was a restaurant that used spoons made from the bombs that the US Air Force used against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces. I’m not sure how it started or who initiated it.
Can you describe the spoon-making process? Do the villagers disarm the bombs themselves?
I learned from the villagers that they buy scraps from local sellers, who collect disarmed bombs from the sites MAG operates in. The production process is simple. First step: Put pieces of metal scrap to melt in a kiln. Once melted, pour into a mold through a small hole at the top. The mold is made locally — a wooden frame filled with a mixture of soil, ash, and water, dried in the sun. An existing spoon is used for the shape. The molds can be quickly reused.
What attracted you to the idea of making your own spoon, so to speak?
I was born in the Ubon Ratchathani province, where we have the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, which is one of the airbases the Thai government allowed the United States to covertly use beginning in 1961 to fly over Laos. I learned that, almost every 10 minutes, there were flights carrying bombs to drop on Laos from Ubon airbase. Later, I visited the Ban Napia village in Laos and met a lovely family who showed me how they cast the spoons. I had the idea to collaborate with them, to help the family and other villagers by making a souvenir. I decided to create a simple, rounded shape about palm size and polish it to a mirror for sale at the SFMOMA shop. I wanted to do something to reflect this daily threat that Laotians have been facing for generations. At the same time, I also challenged myself, asking how art could speak for others and how the same material that killed could find a better form to recollect our memories.
Besides the mirror-like plate of lead and tin, Spoon also includes a postcard from Laos, which pictures crops grown on land recently cleared of cluster bombs. Why was it important to you to include the postcard?
I went to the MAG Unexploded Ordnance Visitor Centre to learn more about clearance in Laos. They have daily film showings and photo exhibits. The postcard was for charity — you could purchase it at the counter. It was such a beautiful image of the cotton flower, which is light and peaceful, growing from the cleared land.
What’s been the response to Spoon from both viewers and the Laotian villagers themselves?
I was hoping that the work would raise some meaningful thoughts from visitors at SFMOMA, and they have been very enthusiastic about it. For the villagers, I called and explained how I showed the work. After the exhibition finished, I also sent them the money from the sales at the shop. We’re still collaborating.
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, the Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.
Banner image: “20171115 Plain of Jars – archaeological site number 1 – Laos – 2519 DxO” by Jakub Hałun is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.