New York

Top Changtrakul

Lance Fung Gallery

NOT LONG AGO, uniformed Thai policemen raided Top Changtrakul's tiny studio in the countryside outside Bangkok, confiscated most of his equipment, and hauled him off to jail. Or did they? A video included as part of this show documents the arrest, but the footage was gleefully melodramatic, and the monitor was displayed sideways, hinting that the incident was something the artist might have dreamed up while lying down. Moreover, it was all too easy to recognize Changtrakul's “studio” as another sort of facility: an outhouse.

The spectacle of heavily armed cops staking out a privy may not be everyone's idea of funny, but its Keystone silliness set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Around the outhouse/studio—imported from Thailand for the occasion—was a gamut of puzzling, often jokey, generally haphazard constructions, ranging from a freestanding wall covered with periodic table-style notations (My Theory, 2001) to a shapeless forty-foot-long memoir (Something from my notebook, 2001), composed of snapshots, narcissistic reflections, and pleading missives to an ex-girlfriend (“As I said in my last letter, you were right about everything”). If the former suggested a slacker parody of Neo-Geo, the latter made Changtrakul look like a disorganized Sean Landers, with neater, more schoolboyish penmanship.

The most distinctive pieces were eleven smallish “gadgets,” unassumingly displayed on a piece of cardboard on the floor. Cobbled together from flashlights, rubber gloves, combs, bicycle handles, and AA batteries, these flea-market magic kits had a whimsical Dada flavor. Each promised the impossible: Users could change their race, create a holiday, or select a future life. A typically blithe caption read, “By simply strapping the leather around the user's neck and walking west until the battery runs out, the SL 600 will automatically locate the user's soul mate. It is equipped to find the perfect personality match and is 100% error free. Unfortunately, due to the complications of the process, the user will lose one of the five senses.”

The artist's 1999 show at Fung had included an earlier series of gadgets with similar caveats: The DS300, 1999, for instance, allowed users to change their destinies by burning off their palm lines, but lacked a “destiny controller” that could replace the discarded futures with preferable alternatives. In both shows, Changtrakul's deftly hedged fantasies perfectly suited his modest materials. Together, they evoked a temperament at once bruised, humorous, and innocent, in which one could read a combination of sci-fi and snake oil, of Western warning labels and Buddhist folklore.

What was new here was the tenor of the presentation. Earlier, each gadget was hung separately on the wall; this time they were displayed as a virtual sidewalk sale, in an arrangement so casual as to seem almost apologetic. One inferred that Changtrakul was eager to downplay his works' wry likability. A savvy choice, maybe, for an artist who seems more interested in establishing a persona than a product line. For the moment, though, that persona, like the quasi-scientific gadgets themselves, offered a tantalizingly partial promise.

Alexi Worth