The Thai artist updates the pioneering 1930 German silent film for our hypercompetitive, productivity-fetishising times
‘Leisure,’ wrote German philosopher Josef Pieper, is not the attitude of ‘someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and “go under”, almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go.’ In the serene opening section of Tulapop Saenjaroen’s trifurcated videowork, someone tries to ‘go under’ but fails. Birds chirp and cicadas drone as a young woman lies on a sun-dappled forest floor, one arm artfully arranged above her head. She is framed in meticulous repose, her body still, yet her eyes – refusing to sit still – tell us she is struggling to relax. The full minute that the camera lingers on this painterly scene is a chore, not a reverie.
And there’s more wooden am-dram where that came from. Soon she and three friends are sitting beside a stream in a Thai national park, randomly repeating hackneyed life-hacks between themselves: “Spend time with people important to you”; “Improve your abilities and knowledge”; “Set your weekly goals for future success”. This offbeat scene is followed by behind-the-scenes footage and a voiceover in which the actress explains that she feels “positive about” this “little vacation”-cum-film shoot, mainly because it is a chance to make “connections that might be useful in the future”.
The central conceit here – a reinterpretation, a response and a homage to Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s pioneering silent film Menschen Am Sonntag (1930) – is very on the nose. In the original, the nonactors, a group of ordinary Berliners playing themselves, fritter and frolic away their weekend in parks and streets with libertine abandon and unselfconscious naturalism. By contrast, the mechanical performances in this making of a remake are a clear sendup of workaholism in these hypercompetitive, productivity-fetishising times of ours. While the Berliners of the 1930s knew how to play at being at leisure in the wholly uncommodified and unmediated sense that Pieper so eloquently wrote about, Saenjaroen’s compulsively busy Bangkokians are too far gone. Real, replenishing downtime is so alien to these gig-economy workers that, for them to pass as the titular people on Sunday, they need to be manhandled like props, given stock phrases or plonked in front of colour meditation videos.
As with A Room with a Coconut View (2018), his Thai Short Film and Video Festival-winning sideswipe at the Kingdom’s tourist marketing-machine, Saenjaroen’s episodic structure, mordant caricatures and formal quirks – lurid visuals, jaunty Muzak, warbling sound effects – keep us in thrall and onside. Another segment features the inner ramblings of a scopophobic cameraman on behind-the-scenes duties. As the crew refuels and rests, he explains (in a disguised voice à la gangland documentary) how his fear of being watched has left him in a transactional work relationship with his own self.
Later, a world-weary freelance graphic artist explains how she likes to soak up random imagery in spare moments. She sits there in a Korean facemask, clutching a cuddly toy, worrying that “everything will drain out” if she ever stops gazing. It transpires, finally, that she gives online tutorials in editing meditation videos – this solitary figure so estranged from leisure is, paradoxically, a paid-up member of the leisure industry.
People on Sunday possesses none of the elusive or oneiric qualities for which Thai video artists have become best known. But beneath that cheeky and restless veneer lurk intriguing depths: Saenjaroen loosely sketches the dangers of not habitually reappraising our relationship with free time as we submit to the chase of extreme careerism. Squeezing the weekends-only online screening of it into my work-from-home schedule of recent weeks left me reflecting on my own hit-and-miss attempts to ‘go under’ – and grinning. If ‘work-life balance’ is, as poet-philosopher David Whyte has written, a ‘phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves’, then Saenjaroen has succeeded at comically amplifying the painful thwacking sound.
Tulapop Saenjaroen, People on Sunday, was on view at 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok, 19 December – 26 April (online screening 6–28 June)