Life on the Mekong and Mississippi

Two video artworks navigate the imperilled state of waterways at opposite sides of the world

Inside ‘Rivers Of Life’ at ICONSIAM. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

To celebrate 190 years of US-Thai diplomatic relations, the art exhibition "Rivers Of Life" has been organised by the US embassy, ICONSIAM and the Chiang Khong community of Chiang Rai. On view at ICONSIAM, the exhibition features two videos -- I See That You Don't See created by Montika Kam-On, a young Thai moving image artist, and A Tale Of Two Rivers created by Alexis Karl, a US filmmaker and perfume artist. Both aim to raise awareness about environmental issues related to the two rivers -- the Mekong and the Mississippi.

"The US embassy in Bangkok did research and discovered that Thai people may be less interested in environmental issues than other issues, so they contacted Niwat Roykaew -- a teacher and an activist in Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai -- who has campaigned to protect the Mekong River ecosystem for two decades," explained Montika. "I met with Niwat who received the Goldman Environmental Prize last year. Alexis and I participated in activities related to music, dance and film together in Chiang Khong. The embassy hopes to raise awareness among local people in the community as well as Bangkokians to help affect changes in river ecology."

Both the Mekong and Mississippi have been harmed by dams that have caused altered flow patterns and ecological change to the two rivers. While dams that caused negative effects to the Mekong were built by China, dams in many locations on the Mississippi were built by various organisations and government agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Montika filmed I See That You Don't See in Chiang Khong. The theme of the film was inspired by spirits.

"In Chiang Khong, I found the Mekong River and its surroundings to be spectacular. The beauty of the area made it difficult for people to be aware of the environmental issues there. Since I am interested in hidden issues, the video focuses on spirits because they are unseen forces. Spirits can refer to two different things -- supernatural spirits and the spirits of people in the community who protect the river," said Montika.

As for Karl's A Tale Of Two Rivers, it was made on the Mekong and the Mississippi and the filmmaker says her aim is to connect the two rivers through cinematic techniques.

"The film reflects the understanding that we are dependent on and connected to the land and water. Thus, it is a contemplation of landscape and its people. It marks the fragility and great power of both rivers -- embracing their myths and legends, their histories and future. I wish for the film to be a cinematic meditation," said Karl.

Montika and Karl spoke to Life about environmental issues related to the Mekong and the Mississippi and their creative ideas behind each film.

I See That You Don't See

Montika Kam-On

When Montika met the teacher/activist Niwat in Chiang Khong, she learned more about environmental issues relating to the Mekong and took interest in movements to protect the river.

I See That You Don't See. (Photo courtesy of Montika Kam-On)

"It was only in recent years I'd heard about protests against dams on the Mekong, but Niwat and local people had initiated the movement to protect the river more than 20 years ago. Since they are far away from the capital and media, most people haven't known about the Mekong situation and many don't even know where Chiang Khong is," said Montika.

The dams constructed by China have changed the rise-and-fall patterns of tides. As a result, birds that used to lay eggs along the river banks cannot do so as usual because water from the dam can be released at any time. Kai, or riverweed, that used to grow around islets does not flourish as it used to. This change causes hardship for local people who collect and bake riverweed to sell because it is a source of income for them.

"China also wanted to blast islets so that its large cargo ships could pass through to Thailand more easily. Niwat and the people in Chiang Khong started a movement against the blasting and as a result, China put its plan on hold," she said.

Montika Kam-On. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The video art I See That You Don't See tells a story of the Mekong through the eyes of the Lahu (also called Muser) hilltribe who retain the custom of paying respect to supernatural spirits. Montika sees in the practice not only a respect of nature but also the Lahu's belief that they do not consider people as the centre of the universe, and in fact are lower than nature. During their New Year celebration, the Lahu has a tradition of cutting one tree. Before doing that, they honour forest deities and spirits by lighting a fire and playing a local instrument called a khaen.

The artist said meeting Niwat while she worked on the project was an invaluable experience.

"Niwat has fought for what he loves throughout two decades. I want more people to know about him. I have more footage of Niwat and plan to film more activists in Isan who are fighting for the Mekong. Indeed I'm in the process of requesting funds for the next project," said Montika.

A Tale Of Two Rivers

Alexis Karl

While it was the US embassy that suggested a project involving the Mississippi River to Karl, she already had interest in the subject having once lived in New Orleans. She also was familiar with negative effects that mismanagement of the river has had on the city of New Orleans. While filming on the Mississippi, Karl talked to a boat captain who explained that the surrounding swampland used to take on flow from the Mississippi, yet with new levees constructed after hurricane Katrina the flow has been redirected, and swampland is now filled instead with water from Lake Pontchartrain. As someone who boats along the swamps in the Louisiana Bayou daily, the captain has seen such effects not only on land and water level but likewise in the air, namely in bird migration patterns that have changed in response to water flow alterations.

Alexis Karl. (Photo courtesy of Iconsiam)

A Tale Of Two Rivers opens with a view from a boat, so people feel like they are in the boat with the filmmaker and see what she sees. The link between the Mississippi and the Mekong is depicted through three visual storytelling techniques -- waterscape, portraits and dance -- with the dancers being Karl's narrators and characters while the portraits provide statements about the strength of human character.

"Dancers narrate the legends of the rivers in their symbolic movements. They play the gods and goddesses of the river as well as the forest, who sometimes are depicted as benevolent and sometimes frightfully powerful. Other times they react to the landscape: a movement allows us to see the river's flow through the gesture of a hand. Regarding the slow-motion portraits, I wanted viewers to see the face of a boat captain, a farmer, a weaver, a nun -- and honour them. Before I filmed them, we got to know one another and felt connected," said Karl.

A perfume artist, Karl also created scents for the exhibition.

A Tale Of Two Rivers. (Photo courtesy of Alexis Karl)

"I collected botanical essential oils in Thailand made throughout the northern region. I composed a scent of cork wood, bamboo, Thai jasmine and Louisiana night blooming jasmine, ylang ylang and moke flower: an over-arching scent and one meant to blend with the hanging fabric infused with incense adorning temples in the North." The filmmaker hopes the exhibition can raise awareness about environmental issues related to both rivers.

"I certainly hope the exhibition raises awareness, and that visitors are encouraged to take time within the show… to become fully immersed in the sensorial environment."

She further explained the films unfold the tales of the Mekong and in her case the Mississippi just the same. These tales can be of a dancer's upturned face drenched in sunlight, a crystal ball of a temple reflecting the Mekong in its glass, the orange fabric of monk robes wound around a tree, the effortless flow of water through twisted cypress trees on the bayou.

"With watching and listening comes understanding and awareness," concluded Karl.

"Rivers Of Life" runs at Iconluxe Pop Up Space, 1st floor of ICONSIAM until March 26. Admission is free. For more information visit

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