On the evening of Thursday 16 October, around a stage covered with denim fabric, a young crowd huddled, anticipating Korakrit Arunanondchai’s mix of videos, performances and body painting, which was about to take place as part of the ICA’s off-site series of events at the disused Old Selfridges Hotel, in central London.
The evening opened with the first part of the Bangkok-born, New York-based artist’s film trilogy, 2012-2555 (2012), in which he documented his relationship with his grandparents in his homeland, over a 12-month period. The second video, 2556 (2013) was a response to a highly controversial media event in which a go-go dancer was paid to perform body painting, as a contestant on a Thai reality show, while topless, in an attempt to boost ratings. In this video the artist humorously reflects on the act of painting, its critique, and the nature of the artist as a spiritual being, while also bringing in the ideas of Italian artist Silpa Bhirasri, who was an influential visitor to Thailand in the 1930s.
For an artist who has admitted that he learned to paint from Microsoft Paint software, this was all part of his challenge to the history of painting and its performative value
At the end of this video, the 28-year-old artist, who has already shown at MoMA PS1 and Art Basel Miami, finally delivered his trademark – and pressed himself half naked and covered with paint against a tie-dyed denim fabric canvas, in front of a projection of him performing the same act. For an artist who has admitted that he learned to paint from Microsoft Paint software, this was all part of his challenge to the history of painting and its performative value.
The third video, Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names 2 (2557), Part 1, (2013), is a mock representation of a road trip the artist took with his twin brother to Thailand, in which they swapped roles and visited the surreal white Buddhist temple of Wat Rong Khun. This film moves between a smart pastiche of a Levi’s commercial and a parody of a religious sect’s promotional film, and is part of an installation at Carlos/Ishikawa gallery, London, until 15 November, where one can watch it while sitting in a huge tie-dyed denim massage chair.
From here the evening’s events escalated. The fourth video functioned as a backdrop of moving images for the artist to rap in front of, while his posse of associates, the ‘Bangkok Boys’, all dressed in denim outfits and smoking cigarettes, stood awkwardly behind him. It all culminated in a provocative, melodramatic short dance by the transgender performer boychild which, accompanied by flickering lights and heavy artificial white smoke, reminded of an impromtu performance at a rave party.
Packed with repeated motifs of denim fabrics, fire, religiousness, paint and references to Thai culture and tourism Arunanondchai’s narrative-less, semi-autobiographical films thread along with a gentle balance between cynicism and sentimentality, moving between genres and modes of expression. Like his films, Arunanondchai is also constantly on the move, between Thailand and the US, and often acknowledges that he feels this disconnect. By making reference to Western, male, Abstract-Expressionists painters, the ‘men with funny names’ in his film’s title, the artist is also moving back and forth through the history of painting, using the denim fabric as a backdrop, the material being a major symbol of Western influence in Thailand.
Another constant movement in the artist’s work is between ideas relating to Eastern spirituality and Western pragmatism. Arunanondchai has said that while he feels the connection between painting and spirituality, he doesn’t necessarily believe in it. This tension, that makes his filmic persona so effective, was missing from the live show, in which the artist’s gestures were straightforward but hollow. Rather than critiquing the themes dealt with in the films, the performance as a whole seemed to merely enact them.
Web exclusive published 28 October 2014