We all live in an age inundated with technology. In fact, you are probably reading this post on a computer, smartphone or tablet, and not a hardcopy printout. Technology has also infiltrated the world of art in many ways, from the conception and creation of works to the audience reception of those works. In this edition of Bangkok Boogie, I bring you two young Thai artists’ engagements with technology, one using technology to create video works and the other thinking about technology as a subject in his oil paintings.
2012-2555, 2556, 2557
Our first stop is the Jim Thompson Art Centre, housed within the premise of the Jim Thompson House Museum. When I was there, New York based Korakrit Arunanondchai was having his solo show titled 2012-2555, 2556, 2557 in the gallery.
Korakrit is no unfamiliar name in the international circuit, having exhibited in MoMA PS1 (New York), Palais de Tokyo (Paris) and UCCA Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (Beijing). However, this is his first solo show in Thailand.
The exhibition title is derived from the three video works named after the year of each work. (note: in Thailand, the Buddhist calendar is still in use – this calendar is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar e.g. the year 2012 would be 2555 in the Buddhist calendar.)
2012-2555 is a video work which references Korakrit’s memories of the United States and Thailand, as well as his experience of the intercultural interactions and differences. In this video, the screen is split down the middle with different clips running on the two halves, almost as a visual metaphor to the split between two cultures and the cultural befuddlement arising from living in two distinct countries.
In the last part of this video, a character from one clip crosses over to the other side while an elderly couple continue to watch the other clip on their television set. A perplexing sense of mise en abyme occurs as we are watching a clip, while watching a couple watch that clip, in the same time that we are watching it (yes, this is the kind of mental gymnastics that ends up in a migraine). It all comes down to a strange sense of feeling something familiar amidst all the unfamiliarity – is that what it feels like to be living in two cultures simultaneously? One could also read in this work a commentary on the performative nature of felt reality and how it crosses over to virtual reality sometimes.
The second work 2556 takes a controversial performance by Duangjai Jansaonoi in the television show Thailand’s Got Talent as its point of departure and questions what art is. In 2012, Duangjai stripped on the stage and painted with her breasts live on the show. This performance drew much flak and heated discussions on what art (or good art) is. For this work, Korakrit has included clips of Duangjai’s performance and of an animated conversation between a reporter and established Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat on how terrible her “art” was. As an interesting counterpoint, quotes from Silpa Bhirasri, a figure known as the father of modern art in Thailand, are also inserted in the video, presumably to represent the institutional academic definition of art.
The last work of the trilogy, 2557 (also titled Painting with History in a Room Filled with Men with Funny Names 2) features Korakrit’s twin, Korapat, as the couple make their way to Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) in the Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. And in addition to this trilogy, Painting with History in a room filled with men with funny names, a work produced between 2011 and 2013 is also exhibited. This video juxtaposes clips of artists at work with clips of Korakrit and his friends dressed in denim smoking in a room. For Korakrit, the denim is significant as the new mark of globalisation and western appropriation. As such this material features strongly in his work as he wears it, paints with it and burns it.
These videos were shown on huge screens within the darkened spaces of the gallery. Big comfortable cushions were provided but while I was there, many people stayed for less than five minutes before leaving. A group of students lounged on the cushions for a while but their eyes were fixed on the much tinier screens of their smartphones rather than what was playing on the big screens.
And this is unfortunately rather common when it comes to video art. The natural impulse is to interpret the works based on what we are familiar with. Hence, filmic conventions, such as narrative, plot structure and character development, are unconsciously applied to video art, mostly to dismal results. Truth be told, video art often disrupts the experience of viewing by being fragmented. As it sits uncomfortably outside the categories of documentary and movies, we are unable to make sense of it and quickly move on.
But consider video art as art which has an added dimension of time, where unlike paintings, sculptures or photographs, the image moves at a pace that is predetermined by the artist. By liberating your mind from the shackles of a narrative, the invitation is to focus on visual elements, which are often not closely studied when we watch mainstream movies or television programmes because we are too focused on the narrative. Arguably, this medium offers the artist more control in focusing audience attention on a specific image, to a specific sound, and for a specific duration. This is different from the painting, installation or sculpture where one is usually free to look anywhere for any duration. Does it mean that this “guidance” makes video art easier to understand?
Yet at the same time, one can also say that video art is more difficult because instead of being a single painting, multiple images are presented, moving at a pace which might hinder full appreciation (unless you have the means to pause the video). Taken as a whole, one cannot deny that video art, because of its added dimensions of time, sound and moving image, offer many possibilities for artists, not just as a standalone medium but also in how it can be part of other installations or performance works.
Other Thai artists who have done video works include Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Sakarin Krue-on (both mentioned in the last post), Michael Shaowanasai, Navin Rawanchaikul, Kamol Phaosavasdi, Amrit Chusuwan and Apinan Poshyananda (you might know Apinan as a curator and bureaucrat but he was first trained as an artist and created a video installation titled How to Explain Art to a Bangkok Cock in 1985).
If we expand our scope a little, film directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul also straddle the fine line between film and video art as they often use unconventional narrative styles and do not necessarily follow a linear structure that one expects of mainstream cinema. For instance, Apichatpong’s recent movie Cemetery of Splendour is a wonderful exposition of Thai history and politics but not easily digestible if you are only keen on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters. If you prefer a more light-hearted example of such crossovers, check out his earlier film The Adventure of Iron Pussy, where the main character was initially developed and eventually played by artist Michael Shaowanasai.
Even if video art is not your thing, it does not mean that you cannot engage with technology in art. Sarawut Yasamut deals with the increasing influence of technology through the traditional medium of oil on canvas in his exhibition Oneness at S Gallery.
This exhibition comprises portraits but none of the faces can be seen clearly as they are pixilated and blurred. Facial features remain indistinguishable although they look vaguely human. Most of the works are either untitled or have titles related to technology (e.g. virtual people, settings, and hang error).
These paintings are results of Sarawut’s self-confessed obsession with online media. The title of the exhibition, Oneness, alludes to the union of the virtual and real worlds coalescing to create the spaces that we live in today. This fusion, however, is uncomfortable as we still have to navigate between both worlds and we often create online identities while we are residing in the virtual world.
Sometimes we get so obsessed with our online identities that it is unclear which is the real “us.” Occasionally, Sarawut’s virtual people look like cyborgs from a movie but at other times, they appear grotesque, almost as if their faces have been marred by freak accidents. This is in stark contrast to how we try to present an idealised version of ourselves online by what we say or post (read: heavily filtered selfies). The uncomfortable issue is this: have we gone so far to create another version of ourselves online that we prefer to lead our lives in that perfect persona?
Other pieces like Hang error 3 are visually similar to the detestable computer error screen. At the same time, the furious brushstrokes and chaotic crisscrossing lines also allude to the frustration one experiences when faced with a computer malfunction.
Although Sarawut’s portraits resemble liveless and post-apocalyptic humanoids, it does not seem that he is critical of the phenomenon. Rather, this is simply a personal expression of his emotions and thoughts while spending huge amounts of time maneuvering the endless virtual world. In fact, some of his works presented in other exhibitions have embedded QR codes leading to specific links, thereby encouraging viewers to join him in the virtual world.
Before I leave you to check your latest Instagram, Facebook and Twitter updates, consider this: if you are a follower of Instagrammers who unfailingly post perfect pictures with amazing angles, have you ever wondered how they do it all the time? Well, Instagram Husband would tell you: “behind every cute girl on Instagram is a guy like me, and a brick wall.” This is a funny but totally appropriate illustration of the discrepancies between the virtual and the real – something to think about when you scroll through your Instagram feed next time.
Bangkok Boogie: The Colour Edition will be coming your way soon. Watch out for it!
Written by: L