Chiang Mai

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ghost Teen, 2009, ink-jet print, 29' 6“ × 49' 3”.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ghost Teen, 2009, ink-jet print, 29' 6“ × 49' 3”.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ghost Teen, 2009, ink-jet print, 29' 6“ × 49' 3”.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s survey exhibition—a noteworthy curatorial achievement by Gridthiya Gaweewong—inaugurated a new museum of contemporary art and a new cultural hub in the city where the artist now lives. The museum’s facade is covered with fragments of mirrors that refract and scatter light, a design inspired by Thai “spirit houses,” found in the entrances of homes and public buildings and intended to respectfully welcome previous inhabitants and their past lives. This architectural setting was a fitting prologue to one of Apichatpong’s strengths: the ability to unite a contemporary cosmopolitan aesthetic with regionally specific cultural values. Such a synthesis is deeply connected to the infinitude and multiplicity of memory, a theme that runs through the artist’s work and was an organizing feature of the exhibition, most overtly in the presentation of a vast collection of documentary materials.

One dimension of memory the exhibition explored was that of place, and specifically locations within Thailand of particular relevance to the country’s turbulent history. Works from the so-called Primitive Project, 2009, focus on the village of Nabua in the Nakhon Phanom Province, a site of bloody conflict between local communist factions and the Thai army in the 1960s. Other powerful sites from Apichatpong’s work include the Mekong River, Khon Kaen (where the artist grew up), and Mae Rim, in the Chiang Mai area (where he currently resides). The presence of these precise locations within the artist’s oeuvre, even when direct, is never didactic, but instead alludes to a complex relationship between personal memories and collective, historical reference points.

Locations and situations of privacy grant Apichatpong’s audience access to a different kind of space: the psychological space of the artist’s own experiences. Perhaps the most intimate of these is Video Diary: Father, 2014, in which the artist’s brother filmed their father being subjected to dialysis. Another work admirable in its sensitivity is Teem, a sensual three-channel video installation from 2003, in which the artist records the morning sleep of his partner. We reencountered Teem in a photograph (The Vapour of Melancholy, 2007) in which he lies in bed blowing smoke, fireworks in the background. One cannot underline enough the importance of sleep and dreams, of light and night, as Apichatpong’s way of evoking parallel lives.

In fact, the artist often uses light to explore perception, whether in his images or via a diversity of projection and illumination methods. The exhibition emphasized his experimentation with surrealism and his interest in American vanguard cinema, which he studied in Chicago after training as an architect—another influence that was visible in the highly creative installations throughout the exhibition. His experimental work with light was exemplified in his first-ever artistic video (Windows, 1999), in which, for seventeen minutes, a camera placed on the floor records the seemingly supernatural intensity of sunshine refracting through a pane of glass.

The show’s title, “The Serenity of Madness,” heightened the sense of inquietude and the flux between personal and societal memory. This was further accentuated by the constant oscillation of scale at play in the images and projections, such as the enormous photograph that opened the exhibition, Ghost Teen, 2009, which was enlarged to the size of an entire wall. A generic subject in a track jacket and sunglasses gazes into the distance, as if smiling, face obscured by a monster mask. We can imagine what was meant by the term serenity, which is such an essential aspect of the religious and cultural tradition that Apichatpong’s art depicts, and one that so emphasizes the monastic order and the practice of meditation. Far more difficult to see is the personal, social, or political madness that counterbalances such calm. But Apichatpong’s extraordinary images open paths toward discovering that madness—if almost always from the vantage point of composure. What face is found behind or within a face? What gaze is found behind or within a gaze?

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Cliff Landers.