NEW MUSEUM | MAY 19 – JULY 3, 2011
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul embarked on an adventure. He was inspired by A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a little book given to him by a monk who wrote about Boonmee, a certain visitor to his temple (who apparently resembles Apichatpong’s father, and Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien). With his crew, he followed his instincts to the Northeast, where Boonmee’s spirit roams, and where Apichatpong himself grew up. Along their travels they came upon Nabua, a village which was occupied by the Thai military from the ’60s until the ’80s to combat communism. The farmers were interrogated and tortured, suspected of being or harboring communists; many were killed, or escaped to hide in the jungle. For Apichatpong, Nabua relates to Boonmee in that its contemporary inhabitants also live with repressed memories. Boonmee had the power to recall his past lives. He didn’t need cinema because he could see and remember. Apichatpong considers the rest of us primitive beings who require the cinematic medium in order to record, see, and understand. Through fictive scenarios and collaboration with the village youth, Apichatpong and his crew channelled these memories—the past lives and histories of those who came before. For five months Apichatpong lived in Nabua, and considers the experience a performance. The New Museum presents the American debut of Apichatpong’s exhibition Primitive (2009), composed of a two-channel video installation, seven single-channel videos, and two giclée prints. The selected works on display are glimpses of what was created in Nabua.
As I came off the elevator, and the light poured out corrupting the dark cinematic atmosphere of the main gallery, I was immediately drawn to Nabua. The camera slowly glides through the night, traversing the nocturnal landscapes of this rural village. With specter-like access, it hovers over fields, dirt roads, through farmhouses and temples, as special effects lightning is subtly administered. There is an insinuation of happenstance in our witnessing, while what is taking place is obviously orchestrated. Apichatpong takes care to exhibit the production and the crew creating the lightning. The villagers gather to observe this spectacle. An awareness of the mainstream cultural attraction to movie magic and explosions is read on a primal level: human attraction to the power of light. Apichatpong is interested in light as a nurturer and a destructive force. In a shot in which none of the production is apparent, an ethereal pan captures the magical moments of lightning illuminating the ancient temple. Although we know from the previous shots that this is artificial, there is a doubling: its first layer of impact is the basic awe and seduction of spectacle; the second is an appreciation of the power of artifice.
Phantoms of Nabua, situated in one of the three adjacent galleries, touches on the relationship between light and cinema, light and screen. This piece literally incorporates Nabua and takes it to the next level. It opens with a shot of silhouetted trees against a dark purple sky and a lone, incongruous fluorescent light pole, a recreation of one in Apichatpong’s hometown. You begin to recognize the flashing contours of the temple as the lightning strikes. The presence of a steady light from behind is curious. When the camera pans to reveal a seam, it becomes apparent that this is a rear projection of Nabua. Light in its destructive manifestation is seen here as the object of play—a fireball kicked around by the teens, as if playing soccer, eventually leads to the combustion of the screen. The image quickly evaporates; the spell is broken. The smoke reflects the light still emanating from the projector, conjuring Anthony McCalls’s use of projected light to activate spatial relationships. The final shot is a depiction of dueling cinematic forces—the vortex that is the camera, and the emanating power that is the projector. Light is the cinematic life source.
Transformation is another recurring theme in Primitive, embodied by the spaceship in A Dedicated Machine, a single-channel video in which a “space craft” slowly floats off the ground in dim twilight, and Making of the Spaceship, which documents the prop’s construction. Apichatpong collaborated with the teens of Nabua in creating this folk spaceship. Crafted of dark wood, over a structure of welded steel, it looks like a giant nut. Apichatpong says that the teens immediately took to it as an inebriation capsule at night, and after the project was over, the villagers used it to store grains. It would not be uprooted and enclosed within the white walls of a western museum as an art object; it has uses where it is. The interior of the “dedicated machine” glows red, echoing the red eyes of the monkey creature (from Uncle Boonmee), and the village elders’ memory of the red flares in the jungle that ominously lit the night sky, and of course the color of Mao’s tendentious little book. The spaceship comments on the present political climate in Thailand and connotes a promise of departure. “What better time to be able to leave Thailand?” he asks. This was a year before the mass killings in Bangkok. Through these projects Apichatpong succeeds in politicizing the quotidian circumstances of the village youth who have internalized their history—who are, in a sense, reincarnations of it.
Primitive, the eponymous two-channel video installation, is the culminating piece in the series. The simultaneity of the images, as both projections meet at a 90-degree corner, reads as an over-sized storybook. The synchronized videos converse and create synergistic meaning through juxtaposition, heightening the multi-layered complexities only hinted at in the previous works. On one screen you may see a white-cloaked ghostly figure wandering the fields, eventually becoming engulfed in flames, while on the other float images of what could be the sun, moon, or a projector—a beaming light, which again brings forth the bifurcated roles of light. The teens asleep in the red capsule are displayed alongside the portentous scrutiny of prowling flashlights in the jungle, signifying the search for those who are hiding. The voice-over adds a lyrical reading: when he (ostensibly Boonmee) was young he thought the lights were those of spirits and animals in the jungle, but later he realized they were the consciousness of his past lives. As he got older he could no longer see the light in the jungle, but would look up at the sun and close his eyes. “I saw the white orb in the darkness. Only that act could bring comfort because I always fear that one day when I open my eyes I will see nothing.” The lack of light signifies the end of cycles and rebirth. The fear of seeing nothing is combated by the creation and reassurance of light. Both life and cinema depend on the existence of light. Cinema, with light as its medium, is a form of reincarnation.
The works in Primitive are loyal to the illogical logic of dreams and memories; disparate stories connect that wouldn’t in reality. Apichatpong insists that his work is narrative. Much like his Palme d’Or winning feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), which is conceptually part of the Primitive project, these works are a form of expression that eschew summation. His manner of breaking up linearity and reordering stories isn’t solely obliged to a Brechtian deconstruction of narrative, rather it’s shaped by a Buddhist’s sense of cyclical time, in an inclusive, amalgamating form that is faithful to the idiosyncratic logic of its subject.
AILY NASH is a curator, writer, and filmmaker. She is currently curating and organizing Kinema Nippon, a series of benefit screenings of moving images works from Japan. She lives and works in Hudson and Brooklyn, NY.