The artist’s sojourns and social engagements prompt slow considerations of fast lives, finding selfhood amid movement
It’s late Saturday afternoon at Hua Lamphong train station, 4.30pm precisely. The concourse of Bangkok’s fading, Neo-Renaissance-style train station is busy, a mixture of masked Thais and tourists killing time, buying snacks, lugging bags. Here, I spot Orawan Arunrak milling around beneath the central clock, clad in the utilitarian attire of the snack hawkers who pace up and down the carriages: matching brown shirt and trousers, bright white plimsols. As I approach, she reaches into the large basket weighing down her left arm, hands me a portable audio player and bids me farewell as I head off gingerly at my own steam.
Over its roughly one-hour duration, the audio walk Rituals on Walking (2022) – the Thai-born, Berlin-based artist’s contribution to Ghost 2565, a video and performance art festival cofounded by Korakrit Arunanondchai – seems to satisfy many of the attributes of the dérive, Guy Debord’s influential strategy for playful drifting through urban ambiences. But while the choreographed route is clearly designed to have us study the terrain and renew our relations with the everyday environment, the whole experience is mediated by the voices of Arunrak, her friends and her family.
Its six stories, each beginning at a certain location that her prompts guide us to, each opening a gap between what we see and hear, are also prefaced by her family’s story: the tale of how her parents loved and laboured on and beside the tracks. “Dad and Mum started selling lozenges, inhalants and balm.” It is also the tale of a peripatetic childhood, split between Prachinburi province and weekend visits to the community beside Hua Lamphong where her parents lived, defined by the otherness of the perpetual newcomer: “I think this feeling of always being an outsider will always be present as long as there’s movement”. This confessional then ends with an invitation to the listener, to “wake, be awakened, be enlightened in places where I have always observed from the past to today”.
Selfhood – what it is to dwell, connect, listen, think, meander, take your time, belong, simply be – amid movement: this is the emotional core of Arunrak’s artmaking. Recent years have seen her using the little she began with – her own observations of the everyday world around her, shaded and coloured by her own itinerancy, and often delicately captured with pen and paper – in a run of residencies and research trips internationally. Indivisible from her sojourns, these projects have sought to create empathetic connections across cultures. For each, a slow process of social engagement in the urban centres of Cambodia, Vietnam and Germany, among other places, has resulted in playful installations and humble objects – drawings mostly, but also texts and videos that articulate feelings of crosscultural dislocation and translation, explore notions of home, test and trace the possibilities and limits of language.
Typically, an Anurak exhibition is a curious accumulation of personal experiences, associations, processes and labour – hers and hers alone, but hers to share in environments that sometimes possess an air of prefab domesticity. Centred on multilingual conversations with ten Berliners, from a Thai monk to a German anthropologist, Exit-Entrance (2017) at Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery offered up missing links, moments of being lost in translation, in a living room-like space where a balmy yellow paint scheme contrasted with a wallpaper of repeating, semiabstract forms. The hand-drawn shapes were at once elusive responses to the conversations and agreeable decoration.
However, not all her outings evoke mellow home life. Counting (2019) at Bangkok CityCity Gallery, by contrast, offered a warehouse-like inhospitableness. Twenty-one breezeblocks, sanded off by Arunrak in the yard of a concrete wholesaler, then inscribed with colour pencil drawings as passersby and staff looked on, were arranged in irregular columns across the harsh white space to create a conceptual mapping. Joined by 21 handwritten stories in English and Thai, the uneven stacks evoked cemeteries or the foundations of buildings.
For the artist Ho Rui An, writing in a conversational exhibition essay, the allusions of the chosen material in this context – wherein Arunrak’s words and drawings reassembled conversations and encounters over recent years – were key. ‘As that which builds houses but is in itself too rugged to evoke the domestic, concrete can thus be said to speak to the impossibility of migration constituting a home unto itself,’ he wrote. Our journey through the space, meanwhile, figuratively replicated literal states of moving and translation. ‘Drifting from one story to another,’ he added, ‘the details bleed into each other, gradually lending form to a kind of migratory way of being, a migratory aesthetic.’
“All my work relates to and connects with where I’m living at that moment,” the artist says when asked about this aesthetic. All are also indebted, she adds, to the experiences that predate her peregrinations, experiences that shaped not just the everyday materiality of her work but also calibrated her sensitivity to the audience’s reception of art. After studying printmaking at Bangkok’s King Mongkut University, Arunrak spent a couple of years as a volunteer, then an assistant curator, at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (bacc), the capital’s state-owned art institution. Discouraged by how superficial and fleeting most audience encounters were, she found herself craving work that “stopped people, made them stay or read, just for a moment”. All the while, she would head outside during breaks to draw, not big landmarks, but liminal spaces, found objects and peripheral details she felt deserved attention.
Her simple notepad sketches – the continuation of a love of drawing that stretches back through childhood, when she would draw for friends in exchange for toys – found their way into the group exhibition and broadsheet newspaper for Temporary Storage #01 (2012; a multi-platform BACC project curated by Chitti Kasemkitvatana). They also appeared in her first solo exhibition What Are They Doing Inside (2013, at Bangkok’s Speedy Grandma) and Breathing Bubbles (2013), within a display of clear glass bottles for a festival at Yokohama’s Kanagawa Arts Theatre. With the bottles containing, on closer inspection, simple black and white doodles on scraps of paper, the work, as art historian Roger Nelson writes, ‘could not be grasped through a quick or passing glance’ – implicitly the audience was being urged to slow down, take a while.
Looking back, however, Arunrak remembers Come In (2014), the outcome of a six-week residency at Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh, as a pivotal moment when she herself began slowing down to spend time with people across cultures. During her stay at the White Building – a since-demolished modern apartment block then home to hundreds of tenants, as well as Sa Sa – she placed self-portraits on the walls in the hope of garnering invitations into homes and lives. But after making little headway, she spent her days drawing architectural features and daily routines outside the building instead. Curious tenants and their children were soon having their portraits done, asking her in. Drawing became a language, a leveller, a form of exchange. Come In, an onsite display of these sketches presented alongside borrowed furniture, ran for one day only. “It was about visiting, not showing,” she recalls.
This experience set in train a series of regional residencies, to which she claims to have travelled light, metaphorically speaking. “I don’t carry the subject with me,” she says. After being struck at how close yet far, how familiar yet foreign, Cambodia felt, the goal was simply to embrace sameness and difference and explore chance connections across Asia – and to do it through drawing. “It helps me digest reality,” she says.
During a six-month residency at Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, she asked people from Vietnam’s north and south: ‘What place would you like to own?’ The whimsical question led to the 30 responses being displayed alongside sketches and fingerprints, all rendered in lurid pink in a veiled commentary on the quixotic fantasy amid Vietnam’s internal divides and breakneck development (The Owner, 2015). Other sojourns – to Chiang Mai, the Laotian capital Vientiane and a famous Bangkok Dharma learning centre, the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, where she installed a temporary drawing studio – fed into Zones and Verbs (2016) at Bangkok’s Cartel Art Space. Its four zones (Meditating, Painting; Cleaning, Praying; Keeping, Waiting, Hiding; Growing, Changing) collated her process, engagements and concerns up to that point.
The move to Berlin paused this pan-Asian trajectory, but has enriched her practice in unforeseen ways. Being marooned in her studio during the pandemic, for example, forced a wholesale change of methodology: unable to travel to Cambodia for Where Are You Living #1 (2021) at Sa Sa Art Projects, she used found packaging to create a dichromatic mental cartography of local places. For her, the cardboard packing materials that filled our lives during lockdowns, which she coloured, stencilled, rearranged and tore to form abstracted landscapes, also speak to migration and homemaking.
The move has also expanded her practice’s conceptual horizons, so to speak. Arunrak lives – for now – in a place where migration is a generalised condition, where almost everyone comes from somewhere else. But the cosmopolitan dream that fuels cities like Berlin – a dream rooted in the idea that migration is opportunity, a force for good that improves our lot in life – is probed and interrogated in her work, not unduly celebrated.
Based on conversations in Thai, German, English and Vietnamese (conversations that were not fully disclosed, except via a QR code on the wall that was joined by a request to ‘read and translate at home’), Exit-Entrance explored unconscious attitudes arising from the clash of different languages and cultures. Many of Counting’s 21 gnomic stories of people she met across different nations and localities obliquely remind us that movement often requires continuous labour – incessant translation and adjustments if we’re to feel at home away from home, and is not simply a clean or quick transcendence of circumstances:
The Aunty loves to learn English.
The Thai language has too many vowels, she says
English is clearer
These admittedly gauzy connecting threads extend to elements of Rituals on Walking. While Counting’s stories were paired with drawings – of Cambodian migrant workers at work, or a flask covered in German supermarket stickers – this audio tour’s six stories interface with our impressions, our movements, our bodies as we explore Hua Lamphong and its immediate environs: the place where generations of migrant dreams have started and Arunrak’s rootless itinerancy began.
In the second story, Living with the Body, Living with the Mind (read by Arunrak in the English version, her younger sister in the Thai), oratorical flourishes accompany the dissonant sights of Maitri Chit Road, a part of Chinatown where clear signs of gentrification such as boutique hotels and artisanal coffee shops contrast with derelict shophouses and a community of mature streetwalkers, many parked on plastic chairs. Each step resonates with what I hear – “A chair to make a living. A chair that wants wellbeing. A chair for visitors” – but some more than others.
Out of such gaps between my seeing and my hearing emerge the imagined legacies of movement past and present – thoughts about intersecting lives, belonging and alienation, cycles of travel and elusive self-realisation in endless motion. Casting aside her go-to artistic vocabulary, Rituals on Walking is a bravely minimal attempt at involving us in her work’s completion, at broadening the participatory potential of her migratory aesthetic. As we drift with open eyes and open mind around a zone of arrivals and departures, leaving and returning, Arunrak moves sensitively through us, not for us.