A travelling exhibition of the Thai artist and filmmaker co-organised by ICI Curators International is now at Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM and will soon move to Hong Kong’s Para Site.
On the occasion of MAIIAM’s inaugural exhibition dedicated to the oeuvre of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Art Radar looks at the artist’s oeuvre presented in the show until 10 September, later featuring at Para Site in Hong Kong from 18 September 2016.
Oniric atmospheres and lyrical rural landscapes, surreal imagery reflecting lost memories and superstitions, karmic events and a sensual, languid pace mark the oeuvre of renowned and acclaimed Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Born in 1970 in Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand, Weerasethakul now lives and works in Chiang Mai. He studied architecture before graduating in Film from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997. With Gridthiya Gaweewong – the curator of his current travelling exhibition “The Serenity of Madness” produced by New York’s Independent Curators International (ICI) – he founded and organised the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival in 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2008. Working independently in the Thai commercial film industry, he is active in promoting experimental and independent filmmaking through his company Kick the Machine, founded in 1999.
Weerasethakul has presented his work widely in international art and film contexts, including the Sharjah Biennial 11 in the UAE (2013), where he and fellow Kick The Machine artist Chai Siri received the Sharjah Biennial Prize, dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012), Liverpool Biennial (2006), Busan Biennale (2004), the Istanbul Biennial (2001), and in solo and group exhibitions at art spaces such as Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany; Hangar Bicocca, Milan, Italy; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; New Museum, New York; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; and Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris. In April 2016, Tate Modern in London held an all-night screening of his oeuvre at the Starr Cinema.
He is the recipient of numerous accolades, such as Thailand’s most prestigious award, Silpatorn, awarded by the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2005. In 2008, the French Minister of Culture bestowed on him the medal of Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des letter (Knight of the Order of Arts and Literature), and in 2011, he received another honour in the same field with an Officier Medal. He is the recipient of the Yanghyun Foundation Prize, Korea, (2014) and the Fukuoka Prize, Japan (2013), as well as a Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (2010). On 6 September 2016, the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development announced that Weerasethakul will be awarded with the 2016 Principal Prince Claus Award on 15 December.
The surreal lyricism of “slow cinema”
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a master of “slow cinema”, characterised by long, contemplative shots and minimalist dialogue. His feature films include his most recent Cemetery of Splendour (2015), which the artist calls “A farewell letter to Thailand”. The film, premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim, speaks of a group of soldiers who fall ill with a mysterious form of narcolepsy and has been seen as a metaphor for Thailand’s socio-political travails.
For this reason, the film has yet to be shown in his native Thailand, where he would be required to self-censor, as he revealed in an interview with The Guardian:
Whatever movies we have produced, we don’t want to show it to Thai audiences, because in the current situation we don’t have genuine freedom. I don’t want to be part of a system where the movie director has to exercise self-censorship. […] I feel there is more violence in our country than in others that are in similar situations. […] And I am sad to see that I don’t have any power or rights to speak, because I know if I speak, harm will come to me.
The 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) won him the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or, and in his unique and distinctive “realist-surrealist” style, as ICI calls it, tells the tale of Uncle Boonmee, a man whose life is coming to an end and sees apparitions of his dead wife’s and his lost son’s spirits, guiding him through past incarnations.
A son of two doctors, hospitals and medical procedures often feature in his films, such as in Syndromes and a Century (2006) (watch trailer here), which premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival and was the first Thai film to be entered in competition to date. The film takes place in a countryside hospital and a modern facility in Bangkok, where work colleagues express affections and emotional attachment to each other, but end up not consummating their ‘love’.
Tropical Malady (2004), which won a jury prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, combines Weerasethakul’s favourite settings – the lush verdant expanses of rural Thailand – with a romance between a symbol of power, the soldier, and of innocence, the rural worker. As BFI has pointed out before, nature in his films seems to exercise and represent an “eroticised force” that lures people in and pushes them to get better acquainted with and connect with their desires.
As for the military as symbols of power, Weerasethakul comments to The Guardian:
I like to show uniforms anyway, but in the course of the last 10 years the role of the army has got more and more difficult. I have shifted from symbolic uses to do with power, like being a sexual predator, to more reflect the political involvement they have had for a long time.
The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003) is a budget, digital film production that Weerasethakul created to keep his film company afloat during hard times, and is a spoof of Thai action films of the 1960s and 1970s. In Blissfully Yours (2002), which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard programme at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the artist recounts a relaxing afternoon getaway in the countryside of an illegal Burmese immigrant, her older Thai lover and a married friend. The film makes reference to the continued disputes between Myanmar and Thailand on their bordering region.
Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) (watch an extract on YouTube here) is an early experimental documentary film, which uses an element of collective storytelling that, as The New York Times wrote at the time, turns the work into
a piece of chamber music slowly, deftly expanding into a full symphonic movement; to watch it is to enter a fugue state that has the music and rhythms of another culture. It’s really a movie that requires listening, reminding us that the medium did become talking pictures at one point.
The artist: serenity in madness
Weerasethakul turned to showing his visual art only recently, being before almost exclusively concentrated on displaying the results of his filmmaking production to a cinema audience. Now his film and art practices, although conducted separately at the same time, are integral to one another. His unique approach to filmmaking is evident in his artistic oeuvre, which comprises video and experimental short films, photography and video installation.
His latest exhibition “The Serenity of Madness”, which inaugurated the opening of Chiang Mai’s new museum MAIIAM, features almost 20 works of art created from 1994 to date, including videos and short films, video installations, photographs and a collection of archival and reference materials from the making of his films Mysterious Object At Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours (2002) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), scripts and production sketches for films and videos, as well as works by collaborating artists and illustrators, such as Daen Sudsakhon and Freddy Nadolny.
In addition, MAIIAM has been presenting his newly re-mastered 30 short films in four screening programmes throughout the exhibition, closing on 10 September 2016.
As the MAIIAM press release reveals, the exhibition uncovers an “unseen dimension” of Weerasethakul’s working process, following a “semi-chronological and non-linear approach”, such as the one he uses in his films, starting from his “explorations of lighting, time and space both in reality and fantasy, and culminating with recent works engaged with the social reality in his homeland”. MAIIAM writes about the artist’s work:
For the past twenty years, Weerasethakul’s reflexive and non-linear works have explored the themes of memory, animism, Buddhism, haunting, and rebirth largely channeled through the narrative traditions of his native Isan region (the northeastern part of Thailand). The stories he conceives are filtered through diverse literary and cinematic genres including science fiction, adventure, and myth, as well as the tradition of American experimental film. In his films and vi- sual art works, memory is often juxtaposed alongside ephemeral and supernatural elements, such as light and phantoms, suggesting a fluidity and distortion in history and storytelling.
The exhibition opens with a giant photograph entitled Ghost Teen, of a teenager donning a ghost or skeleton mask and sunglasses. In his opening speech Weerasethakul said to the audience: “Let this boy be the witness to this.” The boy in the photographic portrait, as Kaona Pongpipat writes in the Bangkok Post,
epitomises the essence in Apichatpong’s oeuvre madness […] whether it’s the use of non-actor nobodies as his lead characters, the tales of ghosts and reincarnation or the people of the present generation haunted by the past.
The beginnings of video art and Primitive
Among the works on show at MAIIAM are 17 of his videos, most of which have never been shown in Thailand before. One of them is Weerasethakul’s seminal black and white short film Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (Mae Ya Nang) (1994), originally shot on 16 mm film, re-edited and transferred to digital in 1996. Entirely shot in black and white, this is one of the first experimental films that the artist made while still studying filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the time, he was experimenting and trying to find his own voice and visual style, with a shifting focus on images and sound and a non-linear approach to narratives. The latter resulted broken, improvised, while at times rigidly structured. Weerasethakul displayed in this work a strong interest in the mood and ambience rather than the plot. From this early time, the artist’s work already bore evident signs of his fascination with memory, myth and reincarnation, which became recurrent themes in his filmic and artistic oeuvre.
Another early work, Windows (1999), is a silent digital video, the first of his video art as such, and is an improvisation shot by using a little physical movement to capture natural phenomena through the camera eye’s mechanism.
Weerasethakul’s first ever exhibition of visual art was held in 2009 and was dedicated to showing his project entitled Primitive, commissioned by Haus der Kunst, Munich with FACT Liverpool and Animate Projects, and produced by Illuminations Films, London with Kick the Machine, Bangkok.
Primitive is a multiple screen video installation, created specifically for display within a gallery, and consists of seven videos of differing durations, including Primitive (two projections on two synchronised screens, 29 min. 34 sec.), Nabua (9 min. 11 sec.), Making of the Spaceship (28 min. 13 sec.), A Dedicated Machine (1 min.), An Evening Shoot (4 min. 10 sec.), I’m Still Breathing (music video, 11 min.) and Nabua Song (music video, 4 min. 12 sec.). The videos recount the history of the border town of Nabua, in northeast Thailand, and re-imagine it as “an elusive science fiction ghost story rooted in Thai folklore”.
Quoted by Tate, who collected the work in 2011, the same year it was presented in Weerasethakul’s first ever exhibition in New York at the New Museum, the artist said of the installation:
[Primitive is] a reincarnation of presence (and absence). It’s also a reincarnation of cinema as a means of transportation as it was in the time of the early cinema innovator Georges Méliès: the “motion picture” carries us from our own world. Primitive is a meditation on those voyages in fabulous vehicles that bring about the transformation of people and of light.
On show at MAIIAM, in addition to the Ghost Teen photograph taken from the project, are three of the Primitive videos: Nabua, Phantom of Nabua and An Evening Shot.
Nabua was created during the production of his feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Nabua had been an important site of memory during Thailand’s Cold War socio-political history, as it represents the first time that the military fought with the comrade farmers. Local farmers had to migrate to the ‘forest’ to join the communist parties and eventually became the resistance. Weerasethakul used the camera to document the site of Nabua and its open spaces at night, making the video as a visual study of its landscape.
In Phantom of Nabua, the artist created a film setting with a rear projection of Nabua and a recreation of a fluorescent light pole from his hometown, a ubiquitous lighting choice in Asian homes. Quoted by MAIIAM, the artist says:
I used this setting as a playground for the teens who emerged from the dark with a football raging with fire. They took turns kicking the ball that left illuminated trails on the grass. Finally they burned the screen revealing behind it the ghostly white beam of a projector.
An Evening Shoot shows a group of teens gathering at a house near a rice field. On the second floor, they dress up as soldiers, supposedly for the shooting of an unknown movie. Their target is a young man who miraculously returns to life after being shot.
The Video Diaries: documentation for filmmaking
Weerasethakul has produced shorts, feature films and video installations, and over the years, during the creative process, he has also made numerous video ‘sketches and studies’ with a tiny camera that he often carries around. Some of his ‘video diaries’ ended up being reproduced in or influenced his films.
In Video Diary: Haiku (2009), for example, he documented the time machine set during the making of Primitive in Nabua, while the teenagers were hypnotised and slept inside it. Video Diary: One Water (2013) sees the artist’s longtime friend and collaborator, British actress Tilda Swinton, recall her dreams in front of his camera, while Video Diary: TON (2004) is a video in which Weerasethakul’s collaborator Ton documents his visit to the army outpost in the area of Kaeng Krajan Dam to study the soldier’s daily lives and routines, as research for his film Tropical Malady.
In addition to the ‘Video Diaries’ series, Weerasethakul shot other video works that were influential for his filmmaking. A constant source of inspiration is his partner Teem. In the exhibition, TEEM (2007), a three-channel video installation, shows three different projections of videos taken on three different days: A.TEEM Nov 20, 9:53 mins, B.TEEM Nov 21, 22:38 mins and C.TEEM Nov 22, 27:31 mins.
Each video is a morning portrait of Teem. As winter approached in Thailand, Teem informed the artist that he would start to hibernate until February 2008. As a result, the man sleept a lot during this time, while Weerasethakul observed him and sometimes disrupted his partner’s mission with a mobile phone.
Acclaimed video commissions
Among Weerasethakul’s acclaimed works is Dilbar, a 2013 collaboration with Chai Siris for the Sharjah Biennale 11, which won them the Biennial Prize. The work explores the notion of spiritual displacement and migration due to the global economic context, by working with a Bengali construction worker named Dilbar (‘full of hearts’), who was part of the crew who built the new Sharjah Art Foundation Art Space. Apichatpong intended to exhibit this piece here because the piece responded to another newly constructed art institution like the one in Sharjah.
Weerasethakul created a number of other commissioned projects for various entities, including the Louis Vuitton Foundation, for whom he made Vampire (Sud Vikal) (2008), a story of the search for the imagined ghost bird Nok Phii in the mountain area on the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Another example of a commission is Ashes (2012), for which he worked with the Austrian company Lomo using its Lomo camera with 35 mm still films to capture moving images. The company, in cooperation with Mubi, released the camera’s limited edition under his name. The short is about the intimacy of daily routines, juxtaposed with the destruction of memories and observations of the dark side of Thailand’s social reality.
In an interview with Mubi, Weerasethakul revealed why, while the entirety of the film was shot in analogue, he chose to shoot the last scene in digital, and why this technical choice can relate to Thailand’s circumstances today:
I didn’t know I would at the beginning, but eventually I just wanted to try, to see if they could go together. And I think it does, the digital and the analog co-existing. In a movie that talks about the transformation, the…how do you say…the passing of something, in a situation that’s quite hopeless. The memory of something that’s gone. The last scene with the fireworks is a funeral. I think this says something about the medium itself, it is transforming or dying. […] I always think Thailand is going through a very interesting time, in a negative way. She…she’s like a ship that is slowly sinking.
Fireworks: art, memory and archive
A highlight of both the exhibition and Weerasethakul’s artistic practice so far is represented by the video installation Fireworks (Archives) (2014), in which the artist consolidates his continued collaboration with local actors. The video was produced after the acclaimed Cemetery of Splendour, and functions as a “hallucinatory memory machine”. It catalogues the animal sculptures at a temple in the small town of Wat Kaewku, Nong Khai, on the border between Laos and Thailand, created by the temple’s founder based on fantasy, folk tales and political myth, in order to unravel his belief in Buddhist teachings about love and life, as well as myth and reincarnation. As a result, the temple’s founder was accused of being a communist during the cold war period.
The sculptures, symbols of resistance, are filmed in the dark of night, a space in which the artist plays with light and shadow as well as the collage of memories and archives. In an interview with Bomb Magazine, the artist said of the video:
Fireworks (Archives) is the first in a series of works I’m making that survey relationships between light and political memory. The next will be called Fireworks (Love). Light has different meaning to different people. It can represent fear or beauty. Sometimes the same light can evoke different meanings. In this case, “archive” is related to an archive of memory, of things, and of different states of being. Fireworks themselves have many connotations. They can suggest a celebration of something and express a feeling liberation. But they are also violent in nature and can feel destructive as well. I feel this piece could be a dream or a nightmare.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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