The Surreal Lens of Apichatpong Weerasethakul
As I was prowling through the rooms of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, searching for an artist to present on, one name kept coming up in front of me: Apichatpong Weersethakul. Perhaps one of the artists with the most amount of commissions and, thus, exposure in this year’s show, Weersethakul’s work was everywhere from the Giardini to the Arsenale. The 49 year old Thai film director had his film stills and photography exhibited in Venice as well as a multimedia piece done in collaboration with Japanese installation artist Tsuyoshi Hisakado. I was immediately intrigued by the sharp contrasts and the otherworldly quality of his oeuvre and decided to look into his art and personal history.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul was born in Bangkok, Thailand on the 16th of July 1970. Both his parents were doctors who worked at a hospital in Khon Kaen, where Apichatpong attended university to study architecture. His interest in film began while he was a student there, as he made his first short movie, Bullet, in 1993, a year before he graduated. After getting his diploma in architecture, he moved to the US to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he began to study filmmaking. After getting his MFA in 1997, he cofounded a production company called “Kick the Machine” which allowed him to independently source his movies. With his own company, Weerasethakul enjoys much freedom in his artistic choices. The website acts more like a database or portfolio of all his projects whether they are film related or not. Weerasethakul works outside of the traditional Thai studio system and his style is more unconventional as he usually uses people who aren’t actors and sometimes will put the credits in the middle of the movie.
Weerasethakul started making longer length feature films in 2000, starting with an experimental documentary titled Mysterious Object at Noon. He was inspired by the Surrealists and a game they liked to play called exquisite corpse. This game is based on the idea of collective yet independent creation which is better understood when one actually participates in the practise. To summarize, the game requires you to draw a part of a body on a piece of paper, then fold it and hand it over to the next participant. The next person repeats the same thing but nobody can see what the previous players have drawn or written on the paper. Once the game is over, you end up with a creature made out of the collective imagination of a group of people who were unaware of each other’s contributions. In Weerasethakul’s movie this sort of independent collaboration was made possible by interviews with real people across Thailand. Each interviewee was asked to add their own part to a story. Different to the exquisite corpse, the participants were also allowed to freely edit, erase and expand on parts of the story. The final product was an unscripted, collectively told tale that hints at the formation and spread of local oral traditions and folklore.
By 2002, Apichatpong’s work had already won an award at the Cannes film festival. Since then he has won a total of three awards at Cannes, one of which is the most prestigious prize given by the festival, the Palme d’Or. The award was given to his 2010 movie about a man who is about to die and is contemplating on his past lives and reincarnations called Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The old man faces people and memories from his past such as the ghost of his dead wife and converses with them in peace. Although it is surreal and sounds like it should be tense or scary, the movie is a rather peaceful and light hearted way in which a person says goodbye to his current life.
The film is actually part of Weerasethakul’s larger, multi-platform project titled Primitive. The focus of Primitive lies on a town called Nabua which is within the larger Isan region of Northeastern Thailand. Nabua was a “red zone”, meaning that Mao-influenced communists hid in the jungles surrounding the area during the height of their persecution. The Thai government saw locals as communist sympathizers and in 1965 there was a brutal military attack in the area. Just like the movie’s exploration of topics such as transformation, memories and extinction, Primitive also dives into these areas but within a more political context. The entire project consists of several parts: short movies that feature natural scenes from Nabua, interviews with the teens of the town who descend from the murdered locals, the building of a spacecraft by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the community, a music video etc. Despite his handling of local subjects and political content, Weerasethakul’s international acclaim unfortunately doesn’t reflect into his home country. Thai viewers aren’t familiar with his work and his films have been censored in the past. Perhaps this might be one of the reasons why his work is exhibited as part of the group shows of the Biennale but not under the Thailand Pavilion.
As part of the abovementioned group shows, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has one collaboration piece in the Arsenale titled Synchronicity. Whereas in the Giardini he has multiple pieces featured in multiple rooms. These are mostly film stills from his movies or research photographs for his movies.
Synchronicity, is a collaborative work done in 2018 by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsuyoshi Hisakado. Originally created for the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Synchronicity is an installation piece that combines Weerasethakul’s video and audio productions with Hisakado’s three dimensional installation art. Hisakado creates an intimate space by placing a bunch of warm toned light bulbs behind a diagonal panel onto which Weersethakul’s movie is projected. The panel has a circular void on it that exposes a single dangling lightbulb behind it. The effect of all the light coming from behind the panel creates this ethereal ambience. Weersethakul’s movie, titled Blue, features two parts with no linear narrative and parts that seem unrelated. The first part shows a woman troubled by auditory hallucinations as she tries to fall asleep. Images of fire flames are superimposed onto this struggling sleeper. Weerasethakul’s work tends to show repetitive figures and emerging troubles; here we see the repetitiveness in the constant turns of the sleeper and the never ending auditory stimulants. The emerging trouble is signaled by the flame which is slowly expanding, bringing in a certain tension which makes the viewer anticipate some sort of danger.
The second part of Blue is a series of backdrops that are normally used in likay performances, a traditional Thai form of folk theatre. Likay is meant to be an interpretive performance where a lot is left to the discretion of the actors and viewers. Similarly, Synchronicity is a lot about the viewer’s subjective experience of the space. To get a full view or sense of the work, you are required to walk around the room, come closer to the diagonal panel and peep through the huge hole. The warm light shining through the back of the panel draws you in and makes you want to look around the corner. If you complete the action that the demands, and walk to the backside, you find the walls and ceiling covered in brass. The brass lets the soft and warm light of the lightbulbs reflect gently around you. As you experience the installation many of your senses are alerted from vision to hearing to touch. Furthermore, you become part of the spectacle as your shadow is added into the composition. This way the artist duo includes their audience within their practice and create a collective piece.
As we cross into the Giardini space, and see Weerasethakul’s work displayed in many rooms; we also see that his interests have expanded into new geographic areas. His latest project titled Memoria takes place outside of Thailand, in Colombia. The reason for this uncharacteristic filming location stems from the affinity of the amazon rainforest to the Thai jungle as well as similar historic traumas among the two countries. Weerasethakul is inspired by the natural topography and political past of Colombia and has been filming here since 2017. By dislocating his camera lens, Weerasethkul opens up his questions about collective memories to new territories. The exclusive nature of his authentically Thai films are now abandoned as they include Colombian counterparts. With this cultural expansion one realises that collective memory truly crosses national borders: we hear the same stories, repeated endlessly, in vastly different areas by “different” people. This break down of cultural and national barriers is emphasized further by the artist’s choice to feature a Canadian actor as the lonely protagonist of the short film. One question comes up to my mind when I consider the suddenly international quality of Weersethakul’s work: is this what makes an artist truly “global” in the way the art world is demanding from them today? For someone to become internationally established must they adapt their lens to satisfy the taste of a multitude of identities and backgrounds? And is the artist required to stick to their “authentic” roots while they explore new territories to be able to stay legitimate?
Another series that is featured heavily within the Biennale complex is the Fireworks group. Here, we see people from the artist’s own life meshed together with forms of light and fire. Weerasethakul again takes on the topic of memory, this time recollecting both remnants from his own past and his native county’s collective past. The stills that are exhibited in Venice feature religious motifs from Thailand, images from current pop culture and light effects achieved through pyrotechnics. All of these images feature a deep contrast with the dark backgrounds interrupted abruptly by streaks of fireworks and gleaming lights. One such image, called the Vapor of Melancholy, features Weerasethakul’s partner lying in bed with smoke coming out of his mouth. On top of this image is superimposed the glow of many fireworks, all lit together. Fireworks are something enjoyed in big groups and open spaces while a melancholic moment with a lover is usually enjoyed in the opposite way. Suddenly, the closed space of an intimate bedroom, full of personal memories, is opened up to the public as spectacle. A moment from this private relationship explodes as it becomes the fireworks that are meant to entertain, or shock, a large crowd.
According to Apichatpong Weerasethakul himself, the North regions of Thailand that he was born and raised in were oppressed by the capital to such an extent that the people were forced to dream beyond their current realities. He carries this idea into his work by showcasing the local and personal mythologies created by these people in a dreamlike manner. The almost hallucinatory style of his films and stills makes one question where the border between reality and fiction lies. Especially for people who have not been allowed to live their reality freely, how much of their fiction has had to become their truth?
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Kwai, W. (2010, April 20). The late, great Apichatpong. The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/04/20/life/The-late-great-Apichatpong-30127420.html
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Hille, K. (2018, August 9). An exercise in mindfulness: Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hisakado Tsuyoshi in “Synchronicity” at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Retrieved from https://artradarjournal.com/2018/09/08/apichatpong-weerasethakul-and-hisakado-tsuyoshi-in-synchronicity/.
Memoria, Boy at Sea. (n.d.). Retrieved December 9, 2019, from http://www.kickthemachine.com/page80/page22/page-4/index.html.
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