Navin Rawanchaikul

The Thai artist's latest work pushes on from issues of branding identity to confront personal emotions, ghosts of the past and the interconnected histories of South , East and Southeast Asia

By Adeline Chia

Places of Rebirth, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 220 x 720 cm. Collection Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Courtesy the artist Tales of Navin #1, 2013–15, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 250 cm. Courtesy the artist Mission Navinland, 2011, painted fibreglass, book and flag, 180 x 180 x 245 cm, edition 1/5. DC Collection, Chiang Mai. Courtesy the artist

In Thailand, there is a ritual involving people paying to lie in a coffin in a temple for a few minutes. The thinking is, after five minutes of simulated death, you rise again with the past melted away, bad luck dissipated – you’re box-fresh, so to speak. This self-imposed sense of rebirth is in the air at Navin Rawanchaikul’s new studio on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he has created a cycle of paintings imagining his own funeral. Titled Tales of Navin (2013–5), the first work in the series shows a funeral parlour, with all the mourners and attendees being avatars of himself. There’s him as a toddler, a schoolboy, an art- school graduate and a monk (a monastic stint is a customary rite of passage for many young men in Thailand). Other guests are Rawanchaikul’s various fictional ‘selves’, including the goofy recruiter for his Navin Party (2006) project, for which he invited people from around the world who shared his first name to join a pseudo-political party.

If Rawanchaikul’s funeral fantasy is a sort of self-reckoning, the final judgement is ambiguous. On the one hand, there is a sense of celebration of a fruitful career, peopled with imaginative creations now gathered round to send off their maker. On the other hand there’s a certain sorrow that comes with being the subject of a funeral attended only by versions of yourself.

Last year was an important year for Rawanchaikul, a prominent Thai artist of Punjabi-Indian descent known for playful works exploring issues of cultural identity. But it was also a year stalked by crisis. Navin Production, the workshop-factory-company based in his hometown, celebrated its twentieth anniversary. To mark the occasion, three venues hosted special exhibitions. The first was at the artist’s 1,500sqm studiok, a tastefully minimalist concrete structure that seemed like a good idea in the beginning, but the actual building of which, Rawanchaikul said, filled him with doubt: the financial burden aside, he was also worried that others might see it as a self-aggrandising ‘Navin Palace’.

The second exhibition was a small retrospective, also at posh digs, in Thai collector Disaphol Chansiri’s house, which lies on leafy grounds shared by a former residence of a Chiang Mai prince. On show were key works from Rawanchaikul’s career drawn from Chansiri’s private collection, including the Navinland Checkpoint from the Thai Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The last exhibition, and the most important, took place in the humblest venue: a dingy shophouse deep in the tuk-tuk-clogged mercantile heart of town and its biggest bazaar, the sprawling Warorot Market.

For the past 70 years or so, Rawanchaikul’s family has run a textile business called the O. K. Shop, including 45 years in the same ground-floor shophouse it occupies today. Up until 1983, the upper floors had been their family home. To put on the exhibition A Tale of Two Homes (2015), which was spread out across all five floors of the building, Rawanchaikul and his assistants spent two years cleaning out junk and salvaging key artefacts. Next, he filled the house with paintings, videos and installations all centred on his family.

You felt as if you were attending some funeral, though it was unclear whose. But for Rawanchaikul, the show was a cause for celebration. Several times during our meeting last August, he expressed his satisfaction with the exhibition in his family home, going so far as to say: “It is my peak.”

Private and idiosyncratic, the show was an odd mixture of honesty and performance. The self-conscious, staged aspects could be seen in the scrupulous display of significant heirlooms – his great-grandfather’s walking stick, for example – or the framed letters penned to various relatives. At points, the memorialisation went one step further into theatrical reenactment. His parents’ bedroom, for example, was done up as if for their honeymoon night. A painting of the newlyweds, in Indian-wedding-card-style, hung on the wall, while rose petals were scattered on the bed in a heart-shaped pile.

Narrow, rickety and stale-aired the way old houses are, and filled with the possessions of family members dead and alive, the place coffined the viewer. You felt as if you were attending some funeral, though it was unclear whose. But for Rawanchaikul, the show was a cause for celebration. Several times during our meeting last August, he expressed his satisfaction with the exhibition in his family home, going so far as to say: “It is my peak.”

Putting aside the morbid considerations, I tend to agree. Despite its moments of staginess and peculiarity, this show, suffused as it was with midlife preoccupations with mortality and time, had an emotional weight hitherto unseen in Rawanchaikul’s work. Haunting the show were many kinds of ghosts: those of inhabitants now deceased, the memories of an irretrievable past and the absences of loved ones. His art seemed to call them back together, but never quite pinned them down. For once, his family and diasporic background became more than just an easy personal brand. There appeared to be some serious grappling with it, and no easy conclusions.

This interestingly unresolved quality could be seen especially in the many family portraits. Executed by his team of assistants, these paintings attempted to bridge the geographical and cultural distances between his kin. The ‘two homes’ in the title refers to the fact that he shuttles between Chiang Mai and Fukuoka, in Japan, where his Japanese wife and daughter have lived for many years. But the artist’s family history also involves another kind of forced separation: more than 60 years ago, his own grandparents and parents had fled Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) during the India–Pakistan partition to settle in Thailand.

In one painting he imagined himself the same age as his daughter, both of them as school-children holding hands, as if in some weird Haruki Murakami ghost story. In another work he united the disparate strands of his family tree, brought together, smiling, in one place... at least in art.

To create his family portraits, the various subjects were stitched together from different photos. This no-tech Photoshop became a stark depiction of his hopes and dreams. Occasionally the dead were paired with the living, such as in the portrait of his late mother in a sari standing next to his daughter in a kimono. The two never met in real life. Elsewhere, his works travel in time. In one painting he imagined himself the same age as his daughter, both of them as school-children holding hands, as if in some weird Haruki Murakami ghost story. In another work he united the disparate strands of his family tree. Granduncles and -aunts, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, cousins, in-laws, all of them brought together, smiling, in one place... at least in art.

These imagined reunions and impossible collages were bitter-sweet the way Rawanchaikul’s other autobiographical projects seldom were. There was no space for sadness in his earlier work; if anything, it had a cheerful entrepreneurship about it: that his personal identity was a story worth telling and selling. And indeed, it was convenient for curators interested in cross-cultural intersections that his heritage was emblematic of the population drifts of Southeast Asia, which is sandwiched between the two great civilisations of India and China, and permeable to its cultures and peoples.

Places of Rebirth (2009), for example, included in No Country (2013), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s show of South and Southeast Asian art, animates his family history in the style of a psychedelic movie poster. It shows people from his parents’ native Gujranwala, historic images of the Partition and old family photos. Riding down the centre of the painting, along the Wagah border between the two territories, is Rawanchaikul in a tuk-tuk.

Arguably, his outsider status has also contributed to a curator-friendly view of art as a means of individual connection that rises above political, social or economic categories. From the very start, his work stressed accessibility and community interventions. One of his first projects was Navin Gallery Bangkok (1995–8), for which he converted a taxi into a roving art gallery and invited artists to exhibit in it. Its success prompted several versions of the taxi gallery, which he implemented in places such as Sydney, London and New York.

The artist’s philosophy got its fullest utopian articulation at the Thai Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, for which he created Navinland, a new, borderless ‘Friends of Navin’ nation that had its own checkpoint, passport and flag. Part of the exhibit was Mission Navinland, a lifesize sculpture of the artist and his daughter holding the Navinland passport and flag, and kicking their legs high in the ceremonial poses of Indian and Pakistani soldiers on the Wagah border. Thus, a gesture representing historical enmity gets transformed into a joyous game between father and daughter.

In their manner of presentation, the artist’s fantasies have always been exuberant and kitschy, borrowing from comics, cartoons, music videos and Bollywood billboards. The gigantic composite image becomes a recurring feature. In SUPER(M)ART (2004), the Thai art glitterati are portrayed on a technicolour canvas packed with artists, curators, critics, dealers and collectors. For the Art Stage Singapore fair in 2012, he created a 12m-long We Are Asia!, a maniacally detailed panorama depicting a who’s who of Asian art. At 2014’s Art Dubai, he turned to the Indian and Pakistani migrant community for inspiration, posing these construction workers, cab drivers, fishermen and tailors against a patchwork background of the city’s key sights.

Cynics can identify a certain formula in his works here – big, brash, busy – which makes the sombre A Tale of Two Homes such a departure from Rawanchaikul’s usual style. The circumstances that resulted in his multicultural family had always been given a shiny makeover, but in that exhibition they were left open-ended and tinged with melancholy. Gone was the uncomplicated optimism; in its place was introspection.

Some works yearned for the past, such as the painting of a singlet and a radio made with dust gathered from the floor. Rawanchaikul told me that in his younger days, his father’s routine was to get up before dawn, put on his vest and go for a run. Upon his return, he would blast the morning news to get the entire house up. The radio and the old singlet are both gone, but Rawanchaikul reconstructed them from memory in this work. Faint and tentative, made from dust and water, this painting called back those lost mornings with ashen tenderness.

Despite the wistfulness, there was also a sense of regeneration here. Hanging in the playroom was an intriguing 2008 painting called Mario Sisters. In the foreground, Rawanchaikul’s daughter was shown riding on a seesaw with a yellow Super Mario hat – a scene he photographed in Japan while on the other end of the plank. Behind her, he super-imposed the train station in Gujranwala. In the background, you could hear a recording of his wife telling his daughter a bedtime story in Japanese.

Flung from Punjab to Thailand and later to Japan, his family is a minor miracle of survival, and the painting captured that. The departures of his ancestors, made under such exigency a generation earlier due to the pinballing of fate, have resulted in an arrival of unexpected grace: a girl in Japan, in a jokey hat, on a seesaw; or tucked in bed, listening to a story.

Perhaps the clearest embodiment of hope came in a work that was the most easily missed. Displayed in his parents’ room, and commisioned by the artist, it was a special silver necklace with a flower pendant; in the centre, amid the petals, was a cast of his mother’s molar. His daughter’s name, Mari, means ‘jasmine’ in Thai, and the work linked the generations beautifully: a flower had sprung from a tooth. Now that is some rebirth.

Work by Navin Rawanchaikul is included in the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane, Australia, on show through 10 April 

This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia.