Prog Rak

New York

Left and Right: Performers from the Ramakien. (All photos: Chira Wichaisuthikul)

“The Ramakien,” writes artist (and, on this occasion, artistic director) Rirkrit Tiravanija in the program notes to his “rak opera” of the same name, which premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival last weekend, “questions what it is to be Thai, what it is to be Buddhist, and what it is to exist in contemporary conditions and elaborates on how desires are formed, how hopes are attained, how illusions are lost, and how to live together in this world.” An ancient tradition that is “part creation myth, part cautionary tale, and part celebration,” the Ramakien is an epic drama that was borrowed and adapted from India’s Ramayana by King Rama I of Siam at the turn of the nineteenth century. A hundred or so years later, it was whittled down, for the benefit of visiting Westerners, to a single, more manageable episode. Yet while modest compared to the days-long original, Tiravanija’s staging of this colorful myth still called on the talents of numerous performers and, according to the press materials, a cadre of “assorted Thai hipsters.”

Having blundered into some alarming footage of a recent Pink Floyd extravaganza on TV the night before, I set off for the Upper West Side with some trepidation, trying to keep in mind that, sometimes, more can be more. Shoehorning downtown Manhattan staple Arto Lindsay onto the same stage as “Thailand’s biggest rock star,” Sek Loso, and “Thailand’s Radiohead,” Modern Dog, for example, seemed frankly ill-advised on paper but, hey, it might just work. I arrived ten minutes ahead of the 8 PM curtain but, having snacked en route, elected to pass up the freebie Thai nibbles circulating in the lobby (they weren’t even Tiravanija’s own, popular Williamsburg eatery Sea having apparently muscled in on his act). The crowd was difficult to characterize, save for the recognizable art-world faces of the Public Art Fund’s Rochelle Steiner and artist Gabriel Orozco, but kept up an expectant buzz that continued as I took my seat. My neighbor was a dance critic and told me excitedly that she expected great things from the show’s choreographer, Pichet Klunchun, who was also slated to perform. I tried to elucidate Tiravanija’s standing in the art world—internationally exhibited, Hugo Boss Prize winner, tenured professor at Columbia University, a fine short-order cook—but ran into problems with his role in the project at hand. What to expect from him here? I had no idea, though a number of performers were already onstage as we spoke.

Left: Choreographer and performer Pichet Klunchun. Right: A performer from the Ramakien.

Once everyone was seated, but without any announcement, a singer launched into a histrionic vocal and we began to settle in for the duration. But was this the music, or just some music to take in while we waited for the main event? The song ended, to scattered applause, and another performer stepped up to do much the same thing. It was all very casual, and rather confusing. The house lights were still up, and the set, a double-height metal framework fronted by sheets of white fabric that acted as the screens for various projections, appeared to be still under construction. This went on for a good half hour until, at some unseen signal, the house lights dimmed. What followed was nothing if not unpredictable. A fight between two characters that looked uncannily real? Yep. Lindsay pairing a fabulously ornate traditional Thai costume with brand-new white sneakers? Uh-huh. Loso acting out an embarrassing Jimi Hendrix fantasy before flopping into an easy chair? You got it. A seemingly endless alternation of cacophonous multiartist jam sessions with ultraslow stylized dance routines? Afraid so. Ramakien suffered from exactly the tendency toward overripeness that I’d feared ever since my TV-screen encounter with Gilmour, Mason, et al. Tiravanija’s name seems set to remain in lights no matter what he signs off on, but on the basis of this well-intentioned but overambitious crosscultural enterprise, one would be hard-pressed to say why. My dance-critic compadre described the audience as “very sweet” for their enthusiasm, but about the performance itself remained tellingly silent.

Michael Wilson