Most of my travels are art-related – on the track of another Biennale or a major retrospective. Last month I undertook a very different trip, visiting Laos as a guest of the mining company, PanAust. There was an ostensible art excuse: PanAust had sponsored an artist’s residency for Peter Churcher, who came back with a sizeable body of paintings. In quick time the company published a catalogue, produced a short film and hosted exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney and Vientiane. This suggests a level of efficiency far in advance of the average public gallery.
The conversation I had with CEO, Gary Stafford, was all about extending the project – finding ways to develop the art connection between Australia and Laos. But first there was an image problem to overcome. Mining companies are often portrayed as international vandals and exploiters. There have been plenty of big firms that have deserved that reputation, not to mention figures such as Gina Rinehart, whose public pronouncements have done little to elicit public sympathy.
Gary and his colleagues feel the miners are too easily characterised as corporate villains. Part of the idea behind visiting Laos was to see what PanAust, had done for the local communities. This included the provision of clean water and electricity; the improvement of roads; restoration of community buildings and temples; establishment of food co-operatives, technical schools and scholarships; and assistance with new businesses. If it all sounds too good to be true, it’s not merely a matter of philanthropy. Giving something to the local villages by way of skills and infrastructre that will remain when the mines are gone is also a pragmatic way of making life easier for oneself. It’s a means of ensuring co-operation at many levels.
The effects of this policy are only too evident in the way the PanAust representatives are greeted when they enter one of the villages. There is a formal show of thanks, a feast, and a request for the next level of assistance. The company employ full-time liaison officers to deal with the communities.
As for Laos itself – I’ve never been to a country where people have so many reasons to be angry and resentful, but manage to be relentlessly cheerful. Laos is the poorest country in South-East Asia, currently laying plans for its first-ever railroad. Between 1964-73 it was bombed into oblivion by the Americans, as part of the so-called ‘Secret War’. The stats are unbelievable: 580,000 bombing missions which dropped two million tons of ordnance – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for a period of nine years. As many as 90 million cluster bombs failed to explode, leading to the deaths of 20,000 civilians since the end of the Vietnam conflict.
Even today, people are regularly killed or maimed by ordnance that has lain dormant in fields in forests. Before any building or farming is done the ground has to be combed for bombs that have disappeared beneath layers of earth. It’s a fact of life in Laos, and a huge economic cost. One of the essential things to do in Vientiane is to visit COPE, the charitable agency that distributes prosthetic limbs to bomb victims. In the countryside near Ponsovan, we also visited a Lao bomb disposal headquarters. Underfunded and understaffed, it will be a lifetime occupation for generations to come.
The less tragic part of the trip saw us flying in helicopters and cruising down pristine rivers in small motor boats. We looked at huge open cut mines, and went into the control rooms to see how very aspect of the digging, which goes on all day and night, was measured and monitored. For someone who spends their life in museums and cinemas it was an eye-opener. Laos is almost as far from the art world as it’s possible to be, although Vientiane now has a handful of promising commercial galleries. The Rocket, the first ever feature-length film using Lao actors and language, was released earlier this year. The director was an Australian, Kim Mordaunt.
While PanAust obviously wanted to make a good impression with this brief tour, there was no disguising the affection its employees felt for Laos. In this nominally Communist country where a little goes a long way, an injection of funds or a new cultural initiative makes a huge difference. Within a few years, according to the old hands, many Lao communities, especially Vientiane, have been transformed, with higher standards of living and expectations of more to follow. There’s an enthusiasm among the population that’s almost tangible. Indeed, it’s one of the few places without a hint of world-weariness. There’s simply no room for cynicsm when you’re primed for a great adventure.