Korakrit Arunanondchai

Interview by
Andrea Lissoni
Issue 33 FW18/19

With characters and symbols borrowed from Buddhist myth, the Thai New York-based artist reflects on the duality of animism and technology, activating collective emotions through a ceremonial togetherness.

ANDREA LISSONI  You’re currently back in Bangkok, your native city, working on a new video and performance triennial which you’ve initiated, and of which you will co-curate the first edition this fall, “Ghost:2561” (2561 being the Buddhist calendar year for 2018.) Can you tell me a little bit about it?

KORAKRIT ARUNANONDCHAI  I started this project with my friend Op Sudasna, who runs a gallery called Bangkok CityCity. Ghost will exhibit work by eleven artists across six venues, four performances plus film screenings and a series of talks. The idea of taking the “ghost” as starting point came out of my own research as an artist, my own relationship towards spirituality and animism. It stemmed from growing up in a post-war Thailand where there’s a strong emphasis on Buddhist consciousness, perhaps in part as an anti-communist propaganda. Thailand was defining itself to the West as this sort of spirited land. So what I am trying to address with “Ghost” is this dichotomy of (Eastern) spirituality and (Western) technology.
I was trying to think of “ghosts” as a body of knowledge that is held together through collective subjectivities that passed through time—something very human that remains and can be used as a tool for storytelling. This loop happens between the construction of imagination and self-representation. I’m interested in these sort of in-between spaces. I’ve been traveling quite a bit in Northern Thailand, the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet—a gray area in the forest where national identity melts. It happened to also be the same area as the cave where the thirteen kids got stuck.

AL  Speaking of ghosts and caves, I cannot avoid to think of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the 2010 film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which ends with the protagonist’s last drips of life draining away in a cave. I’m curious about how you’re tracking back this field.

KA  This story about the boys in the cave has so many intersecting layers and readings. The military has been in control in Thailand for four years, and they’ve been promising an election, which is supposed to happen next February. So when this incident with the kids happened, it also became a really great opportunity of rebranding—this sort of hero narrative. Then there’s the fact that half the team are stateless people, who had crossed from Burma and essentially have no nationality. Also, there is a conspiracy theory because people say there’s a lot of drug smuggling through the channels of the cave, which provides this other layer of complication. It’s like—some of what they’ve been telling us is probably true, a lot of it is probably not. But what’s interesting is just the fact that it’s such a gray area. Spirituality is in fact really gray and things twist and turn and become other things. It’s in a constant state of becoming.

AL  You are not following the typical path that a filmmaker would—researching, scouting locations, visiting sites, observing, and then finally months after, sometimes years after, shooting. Do you have any idea on how, if at all, this story will become part of your new work?  

KA  I’m not sure yet. As you know in my practice, every work feeds off of the previous one. I have characters that I or other people play. There’s a combination of documentary-like footage and set-up performances or rituals staged for the camera.

My latest video, Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4 (2017), is built around the idea of a breath that remains post- human consciousness. I started thinking how at this time in the Anthropocene, we have this limitation or sort of lack of imagination where we are really unable to empathize towards other natural beings or systems. The problem is you can never escape the human lens. For example, I was talking to this PhD student at Yale who specializes in soils. He told me about this study by a Canadian plant scientist, who realized that there is a chemical exchange happening, deep down at the level of the roots, between the trees on the entire surface of the Earth. If you zoom out and look at this pattern and anthropomorphize it, it’s essentially like a human brain, as if all the trees were communicating.

AL  That makes complete sense when considering the environments created for your recent exhibitions at Clearing Gallery in New York and J1 in Marseille—filling the exhibition space with a soil made of sedimentary layers of loam, shells, seaweed and latex paint that glimmers of fuel.

KA  It started with the idea of a stage for the video installation and the performance. This earth almost feels like a prehistoric or post-historic setting. The ground became this space where you can feel that something has passed, but also about to form—a kind of potentiality, this memory of a place. An important ingredient to this earth is a bag of dirt that I received from going to the posthumous birthday of King Rama IX of Thailand last year—they gave a bag to the first 30,000 people that arrived. Apparently they collected dirt from every single province that he had stepped on, so it was this material that has archived the aura of this man, a certain magical touch formed through a historical narrative of an era.

This is where the idea of a consciousness post-existence sort of came into play, and I decided to have the audio track of the breathing sound from the video echo into the exhibition space. The entire video (With history….4) was edited to a musical score that is essentially breathing sounds. When you recognize your own breath in meditation, or in panic, that in itself is consciousness. Will it continue to exist beyond the point when you have a body that breathes; or may it have existed before, passing through you as a medium?

AL  In Marseille, the J1 hangar has large windows opening onto the sea, which you kept unobstructed for the viewers to be able to look out, as if the whole building was a docked ship. But in Geneva, where you will present a variation of this work at the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement (BIM), you are thinking of installing the work underground and making a sort of cave, or black hole. What are the reasons for such choices?

KA  In Marseille, there’s something really special about that site. On one side of the space, you have the sea, the sky, and the mountains in the distance. In front of you is the gate of the international port. Finally on the other side, you can see one of the most ancient churches in France. So it felt to me that the site rendered very well the duality that is at the heart of my work—showing the landscape transitioning into trade, civilization and religion. But also, I call it a stage, because when you step on it, it transports you to this other place, a simulated post-extinction space where the oceans have dried up, leaving this cracked ground behind. In a fictional “After all this”, what remains, or what has not been used up or taken away, will probably define and become humanity itself.

AL  I’m asking because in many interviews and critical texts about your work, fire emerges as a leading element, and it is indeed a recurring element in your videos and paintings. However, I’m rather fascinated by how water is always infiltrating your works. There is something about its ephemeral and transformative presence. Everything just spills and drifts from one stage to the other. There is never a proper wall; every division is kind of transpiring. Everything is porous, as if made of membranes. So I am curious about the choice of immersing yourself—almost going underground—for the BIM. Although, when I think about it, it’s not entirely new: for the 9th Berlin Biennale, you created a site-specific video installation on a boat that traveled up and down the Spree River; to enter the work, one had to go down—so when watching the video, the viewer wasn’t floating on the water, but was literally underwater. The experience was that of sneaking and finding refuge under a mangrove…

KA  Definitely. On the top of the boat, there were sculptural works that resembled trees, so the movie room underneath was almost like you were at the roots. For Geneva, I was thinking about ancient tombs or funeral rituals, specifically dating back to the Neanderthals or even great apes. There are millions of years between monkeys and homo sapiens, and scientists discovered that there was a moment when they started to develop a sense of beauty that connected to the sacred and perhaps an afterlife, in the way that they arranged objects in a ritualized manner. So I am trying to make these moments happen in a very subtle way

AL  There was a sculpture emerging towards the end of the exhibition space at J1—a gravestone, a reliquary, or a monument. What did it stand for? 

KA  In the video, boychild always plays this character, the Naga—a liquid, non-human character inspired by a mythological serpent in the Buddhist tradition. At the end of the video, like an agent of nature, she comes out and puts me to rest by wrapping my body in banana leaves—a ritualistic action gesturing towards this other world not so defined, as if saying “Our world is exhausted and transitioning.”

Human beings are always thinking about leaving something behind. A lot of times, that’s why temples and such are built—palaces, monuments, pyramids. So in the installation in Marseille, the end of the video gestures towards a transition of human breath and vitality into an unknown world. Perhaps, a world of gaia, where our old rules and systems no longer apply. When you finish the video and get to the next room, it’s like another epoch has passed. boychild’s Naga has already turned into a worshipping tomb. I wanted to use this sculpture to narrate a sense of time that belongs elsewhere, like mythical time.

AL  In the performance with boychild, titled Together in a room filled with people with funny names 4, you also employed a laser harp, which provided a sense of green verticality (and elevation) to the whole. Can you tell me more about this?

KA  It’s a little bit like a new ritual I’ve been performing. Factually, it’s like a musical instrument. When you touch each laser beam, there’s a sensor linked to a different MIDI controller, which activates each of the audio tracks from the score for With history… 4. One of my main collaborators is music composer Aaron David Ross, who composed the audio for my last few videos. I had finished History in a room filled with people with funny names 4, and I was thinking about a way to extend it into performance. I wanted to create a musical hardware out of something invisible or uncapturable, and sort of make a light sculpture out of it—which in turn, would then become music and a script for boychild to perform to. I said this to Aaron, and he was like, “Well, there’s this thing called a laser harp. You should get it and try it out.” It’s this light that you can essentially touch, making physical gesture into sound. 

A  Did you have a script for the performance? 

K  Yes, boychild and I wrote it together. It feels like a parallel journey to the video. boychild was performing a new character, which she calls the “bottom feeder,” picking up leftover pieces of prior self from prior performances. Alex Gvojic, another one of my long-time collaborators, was filming her as part of the performance. He played Chantri, the lens which archives and re-represent boychild’s movement by live-feeding it back into the main video screen I was reading from. So it created this loop between my voice, boychild’s movement, Alex’s camera back to me via the screen, all within the setting of the stage made from earth and the setting of Marseille’s port. When the video finished, I walked over to the other room and performed the laser harp script with her. There was this kind of déjà vu or time warp I really felt. I think the audience felt it, too. In a way, it’s like the boychild green tomb at the end of the exhibition in relationship to seeing her in the video—this kind of non-linear experience of time that started to happen, where what you saw on the screen and what you saw in the room starts to blend. It feels like you’ve almost just seen the future. It’s difficult to explain.

AL  Actually, I see exactly what you mean—it’s all about your working process. And it’s intriguing, because we started talking about how the project melts into the production, how the production spills into the actual work, and then again how the work becomes a site of production, and how the present work, the past work, and the future work feed off one another, dragging the wakes of all previous states. It seems you’ve found a way to stew constantly, to keep these threads ongoing from one work to the other. It’s very fascinating. It’s like a never-ending dialogue between animation and reanimation. So, after all, what’s a ghost then? In Western culture, it’s always like a vertical presence, overseeing and surrounding us almost as if it were a person. It’s not inhabiting things, rather artifacts. Above all, it’s never horizontal. 

KA  I guess the whole idea about ghosts in my work, whether it is the Naga or the idea of a collective subjectivity, is that it is horizontal in the way you’re saying. I’ve grown up kind of being scared of ghosts and feeling like I have no agency in deciding the fabric of belief, and in a country that’s so animistic, that kind of becomes the fabric of reality. So maybe what we’re trying to do with “Ghost:2561” is to use this fear and try to understand it.

AL  It reminds me of the drone Chantri in your previous videos, which offered a surprising update of an historically stereotyped vision of the ghost. To paraphrase Gilbert Ryle, I will say that in your work, the ghost is no longer in the machine—the ghost is the machine, and we are the machine to some extent as well. It’s not something that is within; it’s beyond and everywhere.

KA  Definitely. I grew up with the opposition of Western enlightenment/empiricism and Eastern spiritualism; a technologically advanced, future-forward West and an East stuck in old traditions. What I’m trying to do is not be in-between those two, but at least find a new way to engage with history and the present.

Korakrit Arunanondchai (Thai, b. 1986) lives and works in Bangkok and New York. He is set to open a solo exhibition at Spazio Maiocchi, Milan, in February 2019.
Andrea Lissoni is Senior Curator of International Art (Film) at Tate Modern, London. Together with Andrea Bellini, he will co-curate the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2018, held at Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève from November 2018 through February 2019.

Photography by Nick Sethi.
Images courtesy of the artist, Carlos/Ishikawa, London and C-L-E-A-R-I-N-G, New York/Brussels.

Back to Top