Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness

Adeline Chia reviews the Thai artist’s first retrospective in his homeland, in Chiang Mai’s Maiiam museum

By Adeline Chia

Fireworks (Archive), 2014, single-channel video installation, colour, sound, 6 min 40 sec. Photo: Soopakorn Srisakul. Courtesy Maiiam, Chiang Mai

Maiiam Museum of Contemporary Art, Chiang Mai, 4 July – 10 September 2016

If anyone can make you lose your mind in a relaxing way, it’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Memories, ghosts, reincarnation, Thai history and a reality-loosening, faculty-scrambling sense of joy and wonderment come together so sweetly in this midcareer survey of the critically acclaimed filmmaker’s short films and video installations that the experience is, as the title suggests, a kind of safe letting go. Cynics would look at the content and say that it’s more of the same, but when the same’s so good, can you bring yourself to complain?

The Serenity of Madness brings together the ‘gallery work’ of the Thai auteur best known for the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Over the years, he’s built up a reputation on both the film-festival and biennial circuits, but his output for the latter remains scattered and unconsolidated, and often portrayed as the interesting but poorer cousin of his movie career. Hopefully, this exhibition will provide some corrective reimagining of the relation-ship between the two halves of his life. Another artist-filmmaker, Steve McQueen, once said his work was ‘all one thing, as if film was the novel and visual art is poetry’; Weerasethakul’s pieces have a similar kinship. The shorter ones are koans.

Made before, during and after his films, his videos and installations may be spinoffs, sketches or one-off commissions, but most of them stand alone quite proudly. Curator Gridthiya Gaweewong designed the exhibition to show the breadth of Weerasethakul’s practice, and so there is a necessary amount of excerpting and chronological jumps, which creates an easygoing environment consistent with the genial, free-flowing genealogy of his methods. Primitive (2009), originally a seven-video installation at Haus der Kunst, Munich, receives three video extracts here, spread out across the exhibition grounds as recurrent, free-associative echoes. A ‘lite’ version of the infrared dogs in Taipei’s National Palace Museum’s 2007 installation The Palace (Pipittapan Tee Taipei) appears too. The projections have been released from their original glass cases and left to pace the walls like the ghostly guards of another video, Sakda (Rousseau) (2012), in the same room.

There are a couple of patchy spots. Some of Weerasethakul’s photography is up on the walls, but the still images, after you have savoured the richness of his moving ones, are weak tea. They are either formal experiments with prettified technical effects, such as the digitally painted explosion in Mr Electrico (For Ray Bradbury) (2014), or thin collectable stand-ins for larger projects, such as the stills for those in the sprawling multidisciplinary For Tomorrow For Tonight (2011), first shown in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Thankfully, the meat of the exhibition is in the short films and video installations. Many of them incubate tropes that would be seeded into feature-length work. Seen in isolation, they have the punch of the single image or idea. For example, the six-minute, haiku-esque Sakda (Rousseau) could well have been a deleted scene from the doodly and meandering hourlong feature Mekong Hotel (2012). Standing alone, the short film has a sharper, more decisive outline. This has something to do with the brief: the short was commissioned for the centennial celebrations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birth, and Weerasethakul, with a mix of practicality and wryness, has made his regular gay Thai actor a reincarnation of the French philosopher. “I used to be a man called Rousseau,” Sakda Kaewbuadee says while a guitar strums tenderly in the background, “but today my name is Sakda.” He goes on to talk about his boyfriend Laurent, and about his body not belonging to anyone, not even him. Abrupt cut to a riverside veranda, from which a radio broadcasts the same recorded message to the dusky pink of the Mekong River. “Will I remember the freedom?” the fuzzy voice asks. The melancholy resignation of this piece, combined with its keen attentiveness to beauty, seems to float, in the gentlest of ways, a challenge to Rousseau: could man be everywhere in chains and free?

It is notable that this is Weerasethakul’s first major retrospective in his homeland. His long tussle with the authorities has culminated in his refusal to submit his latest film, Cemetery of Splendour (2015) to the censor board, and the film has had no domestic release as a result. Why did he put this show on? Do censors close one eye to art exhibitions? Who knows? Judging by Serenity…, politics runs through Weerasethakul’s nervous system, either as a kind of muscle memory or surfacing like hives. The exhibition is not so much a critique of Thai politics as a description of a state of mind under the regime, a negative-capability zone between submission and rebellion, between Sakda and Rousseau. For example, in Ashes (2012), gently diaristic images of daily life – friends walking a dog, Weerasethakul calling his lover for dinner – are interrupted by a sequence showing protesters outside Thailand’s political prisons. The film then circles back to the everyday, with a dislocating sequence showing the funeral pyre of a monk in a temple.

Two videoworks in the exhibition, though, suggest a growing sense of urgency and subversion. One of Weerasethakul’s central preoccupations is light in all its forms: the sun, fire, lightning, fluorescent tubes – not to mention that witness, mediator and reproducer of all the photo phenomena, the bright eye of the film projector. Light is often associated with joy and life, but increasingly, Weerasethakul is paying attention to its other face: that of terror and death. This tension can be traced back to Phantoms of Nabua (2009). The 11-minute video was part of the larger Primitive project, for which he collaborated with teenagers in Nabua, a village in the north of Thailand where the massacre of a generation of farmers accused of being communists was buried and forgotten. Weerasethakul took a mildly interventionist approach with the sons of these dead farmers: making them roleplay their elders, write songs and tell stories. From these activities, he made short films and installations.

Phantoms is the strongest of the lot. It has a pyromaniac’s sense of liberation. In the video, the boys kick a burning ball around a dark field. At the back of the field is a white screen, showing a film about a simulated lightning strike. After several passes, the ball hits the screen. For a while we are uncertain if the screen is showing flames, or actually on fire, until the cloth burns away to nothing, and reveals a sputtering, spitting ball of light. It is the projector still going strong. This is the kind of totalitarian culminating shot he has deployed before, in Syndromes and a Century (2006). There, the camera lingered on a ventilator slowly inhaling smoke into its cavernous mouth; but here, calm suction turns to feverish repulsion, a black hole into a death star.

The tension between life- and death-giving forces of light reappears in another retina-burn of an installation, called Fireworks (Archive) (2014). In flares of light accompanied by sharp cracks of gunfire, the camera strobes images of a temple’s stone statues: a monkey with a gun, a pack of dogs on scooters and human skeletons embracing on a bench. Through the pyrotechnics, a pair of spectral lovers stroll. One of them is regular actress Jenjira Pongpas on crutches, dragging her bad leg, once memorably described by Thai critic Kong Rithdee as ‘the saddest leg in all cinema’.

On one level, you could read this as a film about political persecution and resistance. There is the militarised bestiary, the explosive soundtrack and the location: the video was filmed in a temple in Nong Khai, built by a Thai mystic-cum-sculptor who, accused of being a communist during the Cold War, fled to Laos. But as with all of Weerasethakul’s works, the political reading is just one of its many lives. The man himself calls Fireworks a ‘hallucinatory memory machine’. If so, its technology is so alien and advanced that I can only describe it in the most ‘primitive’ of vocabularies: visitations by ghosts and gods. For I found it more like a powerful haunting, a jolt of lucid sympathy I imagine a medium would get at a scene of a violent event. And for a long time after leaving the room, I was still blinking the blaze out of my eyes.

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