Art Radar speaks to the Thai artist about her latest show and her practice merging art and writing.
Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s ongoing exhibition in her home country at 100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok sheds light on where her art-making and writing merge.
Last June, Art Radar profiled and interviewed renowned Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook about her solo exhibition at the Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York. “Jaonua: The Nothingness & Sanook Dee Museum” has allowed us to explore much of her oeuvre – the way she employs the language of film, integrates her sculptural pieces to her installations, and the themes and visual motifs that recur in her work. However, there are still many aspects about Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s long career that remain unrecognised, despite her making several headlines in the art world due to her critiquing and piercing visuals.
Among the downplayed aspects of her work is the activity of writing, which as the artist claims plays a huge role in developing ideas for her artworks. Moreover, unknown to many, this renowned art has an impressive publishing history: she has been writing novels, columns, art-related articles since she turned 30 and stopped only three years ago, for she wanted to create art without having to worry about deadlines. Now she attempts to bask in writing once more, which has resulted in a riveting exhibition entitled “An Artist is Trying to Return to ‘Being a Writer’”.
On view until 14 January 2018 at the 100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok, this exhibition inspects the state of art-making and writing converging through unified installation, video and sculptural works. The exhibition collection puts forward themes and motifs that Araya is associated with: criticising how close-minded Thai society is towards her art, dreamscapes featuring mundane activities and the relation of man and animal, and subjects dealing with being a woman, birth and death, and state of in-between-ness.
For this interview, Art Radar seeks to know more about Araya the writer, the place of her published texts in a restrictive society, how things in academia and the contemporary Thai world have changed and what is currently on her writing board.
I am curious about the phrase “Trying to Return” in the exhibition title “An Artist is Trying to Return to ‘Being a Writer’”. Does “return” here mean that you once abandoned or set aside writing?
I began to write and distribute my writings when I was a freshman in university. It was first published in an orientation booklet for new freshmen. When I turned 30, my short stories got published in a popular women’s magazine called Lalana and I started to write more when I went to study abroad in Germany for three years.
[I was writing] interview columns, as well as having my articles published monthly in several magazines. For years I wrote about seven columns per month: some are novels, some are non-fictional, and some are articles on art. I ceased [writing] three years ago, because I want to make art without having to worry about the deadlines, so the word “return” is as it’s written or maybe (it means that) I have never gotten serious with it; therefore, I want to be more earnest with it.
Can you still recall which came first in your life: the joy of writing stories or creating visual art? Or did both practices arrive at the same time?
The writings came later. As when I was young, I drew pictures and didn’t know many words back then. I studied art at a technical college for three years, then I started to write when [I] entered the first year of university, so it seems like the writing began about four years later than art.
Could you talk a bit about your writing habits, especially since you once expressed that you develop ideas “between writing and art”? Do you ever face that conflict of which practice (writing versus art) to use in order to send your message across?
I’m always [more] touched by words than by pictures. On how the words came about or phrased rather than sketching or drawing out ideas in form of images. By using words to induce and rouse imaginations, using it as a post and sometimes the words start to knead with pictures and become indistinguishable.
Writing versus art came when I realised I used lots of text in my art (but the use of texts also came from my profession as a lecturer as seen in The Class and Death Seminar.
Your novels and other written works echo your art’s characteristics – provocative, aggressive and exploratory of societal constructs. Could you talk a bit about how your writings are received by Thai society? Do professors’ critiques differ from what they have to say about your visual art? Or are they more forgiving since writing does not have a “quick” impact?
Some people commented that my writings are softer than my art. Maybe because the procedure is more elaborate, while art can arise from strong emotions. But in Thai society, women don’t have many options. There was a time when many female writers started to write erotic stories and I was put into the same categories with them. But when I looked back at it, I realised it was a way out for a proper girl like me; I thought of myself as a proper girl, a good daughter and the most attentive student in class. As a reaction to my raging hormonal phase and the bursting needs to challenge the gender norm, I therefore didn’t hesitate to write what was considered as a taboo. I realised that writing and art are ways to convey the truth as a human, while the society restricted and refracted it under propriety.
My writings titled I’m (pronoun in Thai language signaled “I” in a male form) An Artist was published in a magazine during the course of one year. It angered the Thai art world and accordingly I had to take many consequences for it.
In Thailand, writings are more accessible than art, especially for political magazines that featured fictions. While writing it, I received an email virus that instantly deleted everything. I endured it and started to rewrite the whole stories again and get it to the publisher on time.
Art that challenges the societal norms is criticised within the academic circle and was viewed as unethical, while you cannot evaluate writings as unethical. Does it mean writings and writers’ circles are more open minded?
Speaking of reactions towards your work The Cruel… reminds me of an interview you did back in 2007 with Brian Curtin for Art Signal. You mentioned that working in the academe is “Boring. The Work Environment is not for Art.” (PDF download) Now that ten years have passed, are there any improvements in the area of academia and contemporary art?
It’s strange that writings are more accessible than art, and at the same time, people are more compromising with it. I’m referring to what happened in The Cruel…
The academic work is boring, so I decided to set up an integrated course for [the] graduate programme (with no boundaries between media), as well as [a] multidisciplinary art department for undergraduates (still [with] no boundaries between media or methodologies). The programme is based on the way things go and the way we live now (which is time, space and place). I felt [that I] loosened up a bit and [became] more comfortable to teach after I founded these two courses. That is my answer on how I link the area of academe and contemporaneity (not just contemporary art but the contemporary ways of living).
However, I always yearn for the past. There was a time in a museum, in Normandy, where I was admiring Impressionist prints while listening to classical music, and [was] captivated by a small painting of a painter laying down on the grass in front of the house during sundown. There was a pink pig standing under a tree while the sun is setting. I think, while I have the responsibility to take care of the department, I still keep hold of the past within the bounds of personal preference. Therefore, the system may seem totally opposite to my taste, which progresses constantly due to new experiences and the way I see the world. [It’s] for that reason I thought it was boring. [In] my return to writing this time, I am dancing in the midst of nostalgia with my unfamiliar self.
Moreover, now that you are internationally-acclaimed, do Thai professors still question the ethics behind your work? Or do they already focus on art creation?
I think art and religion are alike in terms of beliefs and faiths as well as benefits (especially the benefits that affect the artist, both internally and externally). Therefore, the idea of art for them is nearly immutable, just like the Thai idiom “Saw off your own chair.” Will you keep the rigid form of the chair or will you pay attention to the sawdust [that has] fallen?
Even though some of them may see a great number of art, in the end, they will keep their accustomed authority close to themselves. The day the world is turned or the earth is crumbling, they can’t go anywhere because the device to adjust their perspectives is not working. Therefore, “persistence” is an unsteady tool that doesn’t appear to be a core or something opposite of what was here before. It’s awkwardly sloppy. When a Thai says “it is not as good as/it didn’t come close to,” it means they are unaccustomed to it.
This may seem like a funny question, but we are curious to know the most significant thing you learned from taking care of dogs. Through the years, authors have claimed that their pets whisper story ideas to them. Do you experience this with your dogs? Has creating art about dogs helped you understand your ‘kids’ better?
When I got older, I liked to talk about dogs more than art. (The tone is more silly rather than serious, Should we still be serious about art?) So I don’t have to justify for such question.
I’m taking care of dogs because my level of sympathy is easily touched or I can say [that] I have “sensitive gland towards animals”. I will be upset if I don’t do anything, even if it means spending more time, more responsibilities, more money and more sorrow for the fate of those who can’t take care of themselves. Just like when I founded the interdisciplinary programme at the university […] which made many of my colleagues who didn’t want to adapt to change get distressed. In my next life, I would have to find another job if my colleagues were to recall what I have done.
Your question refer to ideas that arise in animal’s thoughts, I don’t dare to use such perceptive or intelligent words for them because I want them to be “kids” in my eyes rather than an inspiration. I have never hoped I would gain any career-related thing from dogs – [this applies to] both [my] art and writings. If the animals are to be there it is because I cannot help it. The emotions took charge of me just like when someone falls in love. In which I treat myself as their feeder, taking care of them and giving the happiness just like those you hold dear, provide beds and mattresses that are clean (stray dogs never have this) and [bring them to the] vet when they are sick. There’s a dog that is currently in chemotherapy and it saddens me, because it is [having] difficulty breathing and [there’s] pus and blood oozing constantly.
In conclusion, helping them makes me more fulfilled as a human. There’s one dog that every time I saw her, she would hide in a watercourse so I carried her home, thinking that life can stand on four feet. I found that she’s afraid of broomsticks, which may [have] caused her distorted leg.
Your pieces in “An Artist is Trying to Return to ‘Being a Writer’” in 100 Tonson are highly personal. Audiences see here how Thai society is not embracing your art, your deep concern for strays, the bond that exists between a dog and its human, and subjects that you are interested in: death, birth, being a women, etc. What would you like audiences to take away from this exhibition?
I think it’s difficult to answer [with] a specific work in the exhibition, because I think of it as a whole, and as the name suggests, when the installation is done, I started to return to being a writer and I work just like a professional writer. I get myself out of all the meetings or any meeting that uses a different course of language that I use in the novel. It might mean that I will do as I please from now on, which connects to your question about the exhibition being “highly personal”. What do you expect from an old woman? Can’t you just let her reminisce about her past? Don’t get in too much with her thoughts.
These writings are more strenuous than what I had written in the past 30 years; because while everything moves fast and facile, I have to sit still and move only my own thoughts and the fingers that are typing.
During the preparation for the exhibition, I moved a lot, I can drive to many places in a day and during [the] night, I still lighten the works and continuously walk around them. There’s still the physical movements that echoes other physicals. When I start writing I realised that “I’m turning into a rock.” The visitors in the exhibition may not realise that the artist is turning into a rock, which still can take care of dogs and still can get a headache.
And, what would you like to be remembered for as an artist?
In one of my writings, I found that one of my dogs who travels long distance with me tries to jump into a fight with a wooden tiger statue with the eyes made out of marble in front of a shabu shabu restaurant, and barks ferociously at Colonel Sanders in front of KFC. It makes all the foreigners on a bus tour burst out laughing. During the evening, when we would walk together in the village, [my dog] would try to ambush a scarecrow just like it’s going to hunt. I figured that it must be an artist in his past life, and it gives in to be a dog in this life, so it doesn’t have to be an artist anymore.
Human’s memories are strange. There’s a Thai curator who went to see my exhibition and mentioned only the erotic writings I did. She thinks [that] in my 60s I still might have a girl’s hormones within me.
Do we believe in memories? I incorporated [memories] a lot in my work, but never trust them, especially when it is another’s memories – this may imply their own existence. [Though] I might have to believe in my own memories, because one of my friends, who is a writer, is amazed by my description of the details of the past, while she can’t recall with immaculate detail.
Will you be writing any books soon? If yes, what issues will it tackle?
I’m writing the second chapter [to the] now titled Suti-Apree-Vej (a play on words ‘gynecology’ with ‘inauspicious’) which includes Department of despondency (a play on words “family planning service” and turbid–ness).
“An Artist is Trying to Return to ‘Being a Writer’” by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook is on view from 28 June 2017 to 14 January 2018 at 100 Tonson Gallery, 100 Soi Tonson, Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok, 10330 Thailand.
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