Born By The River^

Los Angeles . Autumn 2012

by Nuttaphol Ma
I am a nomad. I journey through my dreams, my consciousness, my past and perhaps my embedded future wandering in the subconscious; at times, sprouting through the conscious. The circular road is round and about meanderings. Periodically, I stop. I write recollections from my dreams and unfolding events from the everyday, the mundane. I labor their connections to construct stories about the shaping of our cultural identity, cultural dislocation at the price of loss, longing and memory, about turning the chaos around to re-tell empowering stories about becoming, about flowers blossoming from solitude.

On May Day 2011, I embarked on a long walk. I titled my walk Born by the River. For over five days, I walked. I walked. I walked. I walked from Badwater Basin in Death Valley to Whitney Portal located at the trail head of Mount Whitney with a handcrafted boat over my head. The humble action merely shadows other walks – some heroic, some unheroic; however, both equal in stature. Countless stories of families, orphans trekking through the land to reach another place abound. They wash the fabric of our cultural identity. My first interaction with such story came at a young age. I was nine; newly arrived to the US. We had just finished dinner. My mother’s colleague from work and her sister visited. They recounted their trek through the jungle from Vietnam through Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand. I recalled one image; that was of the two sisters drinking dew drops from a leaf.

Other journeys spark movements. Gandhi’s twenty-four day march from Almedabad to a costal village of Dandi where he harvested salt from the sea in protest against the British imposed salt tax touched the spirits of a nation under colonial rule and led to an unrelenting shift towards independence. In a different generation, though only one mile apart, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial staged a sea of marchers, singing to the anthem of civil rights. I cannot even begin to understand the shear will and longing connected with such arrivals and departures but to embark on one myself. From Badwater Road to Highway 190 to Highway 395 to Whiney Portal Road, I set one foot in front of another, my face veiled inside an upended boat, I steer myself as a mobile memorial, commemorating those who employ such humble actions as a means of survival, as a means of questioning the current power structure placed upon the powerless.

Flow to sea Born by the River did not start from an ah-ha moment. Quite the contrary, composted layers of thoughts, events and dreams led to my disembarkment to Badwater Basin. These non-linear blocks of time within multiple spaces interweave themselves to cultivate the work. March 2009, I camped out near Furnace Creek. My maiden trip to Death Valley bore semblance to that of a typical tourist; camped at Furnace Creek, drove to Badwater Basin, visited sand dunes, took my afternoon tea at a local resort. What snapped the allurement of my Disneyfied experience was my chance encounter in the Borax Museum. There, in the midst of all the artifacts, tools, photographs hung salon-style, one image stood out and cried my name. The black and white photo was of a Chinese migrant working in the fields. Next to the photo read a caption: Chinese laborers hired by Coleman to gather cottonball from the valley near Harmony Borax Works @ 1885. I left speechless, numbed.

The contact with the unknown Chinese laborer lives within my notebook. Photos and writings from the experience stored away. I continued with my daily routine. I got up, brushed my teeth, washed my face, took breakfast, drove in traffic, parked my car, clocked in my time at work, stood on the sales floor, greeted customers, sold merchandise, clocked out for lunch, clocked in from lunch, drove home. My art practice weaves within the confines of the clocking in and clocking out; intermittently, the ritual is broken by an installation work or a performance piece. In the case of Born by the River, my routine was disrupted by a dream and a jarring event that took place on the sales floor. Perhaps it was the incubated experience with the Chinese migrant worker hatching through my subconscious; who knows.

On the morning of 15 January 2010, I woke up from a dream. I dreamt that my body rested inside a boat that washed ashore. Steps led up a mountain side accompanied by two naga figures. I heard sounds; drums, wooden sticks tapping on a big hollow seashell. I ascended half way only to realize that my physical body remained in the boat by the riverbank. I retraced back. I asked passerby to help me carry the boat up. We reached the top of what I recalled being an open field. I woke up.

The second catalytic event occurred at my workplace. I cannot recall the exact date except that the event took place on a busy Sunday afternoon autumn 2010. I was working on the sales floor, helping customers. One of my colleague approached me looking deeply distraught. I asked her what happened. She said, “Nuttaphol, they’re watching us.” I said, “Who’s watching us?”. “The managers [they were watching us] on the computer monitor in the office. I saw. The door was opened.” I placed my hand on her shoulder. Our distressed eyes consoled the moment. I left the conversation numbed, angered. I woke up feeling like a grain of rice under a microscope.

Winter 2010 settled. I exhausted my emotions. I began to question the power structure which prescribed my being; namely the shopping mall – the place where I work – and the corporation – the system which employs me and finances my everyday cost of living. While existing under this structure, I set out to create my own structure. Though my gesture is a small individual act and unlikely to change my situation, I constructed the very boat from my dream. Using measurements of my body parts, I shaped the boat’s bamboo frame, sewn each joint together and weaved processed threads made from castoff plastic bags within the bamboo shell. Upon completing the boat, I struggled with the object’s presence as it reflected both my dream and my naked reality.

I absorbed back to my encounter with the Chinese migrant worker, I took refuge within my imagined systems and environment that prescribed his being. On May Day 2011, I drew upon his courage and decided to set sail with the handcrafted boat over my head within close proximity to where he once worked. The walk reenacted my prophetic dream; only in this reality, the riverbank becomes the blinding white desert floor 282 feet below sea level, the open courtyard becomes the trailhead of Mount Whitney, a doorway to the highest point of continental US. The structure which I constructed becomes my shelter from the sun and the unforgiving wind.

The sky becomes the sea, the wind becomes waves, the boat becomes a container of lost emotions. I propelled on with a great deal of time to reflect. I pondered on my dual realities; one being my mundane retail world and everyday routine. While the other rests within my long walk and surroundings. Both are harsh environments which I find myself treading carefully with each step. Working within conditions consumed by the time clock, the shopping mall and the corporation do not by any means exude beauty. The vast desert sea, the mountain, the empty lakebed, conversely, hark back to the sublime. My walk taps into the power structure of the landscape – one that eclipses all the malls and corporations put together. I asked myself, “how can I draw strength and beauty from such a vast vast place?”

I walked. I walked. I walked. I imagined my boat, my body from an aerial view mirroring an ant carrying a grain of rice marching through the landscape. At one point, two fighter jets carried out maneuvers 10 feet above my head; not once but twice. The third flyover flew adjacent to myself and highway 190. I wonder if the China Lake Naval Base located nearby picked up on an ant carrying a grain of rice from their satellites footage that sparked the surveillance maneuvers. I will never know.

I hummed Sam Cooke’s song A Change is Gonna Come. I thought about the Chinese laborer from the 1800s. I thought about the migrant workers laboring in the fields of Central California. I walked. I walked. I walked. My vantage pointed downwards, veiled by the upended boat. I saw dirt, gravel, the white line on the asphalt; at times, specks of color from wild flowers broke through. I stopped around midway; collected a bouquet of wild yellow and pink flowers. I placed them at the bow. I continued my walk.

Born by the River has since been screened at the following locations:  a) Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (2011); b) Santa Fe Art Institute (2018)