Portrait Korakrit Arunanondchai
With his denim installations, colourful body paintings, and dreamy videos, Korakrit Arunanondchai has achieved a quick and controversial success on the art world's stage. By Harry Burke.
In June 2012, Thailand’s Got Talent contestant Duangjai Jansaunoi sparked controversy when she removed her button-down shirt on live television and began painting a canvas with her bare breasts. The crowd was excited, but judge Pornchita Na Songkhla walked off set, while Minister of Culture Sukumol Kunplome declared that nudity on television was considered inappropriate. Jansaunoi later issued a public apology.
Footage of this incident appears in Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s film 2556 (2013), and Jansaunoi’s painting inspires the compositions for his colourful, burnt-denim body paintings. Jansaunoi’s TGT experience could be compared to that of the young artist entering the art world, obliged to invest their whole body in what they are doing, and watched and judged from their first move on. Arunanondchai seems hyperaware of this. At institutions like MoMA PS1 and ICA London, he restages Jansaunoi’s body paintings in performances that also feature him rapping and the artist boychild performing in body paint on a smoky platform. Structurally, they’re like a baroque extrapolation of the experience of posting to Instagram:
you make your audience and you perform to it.
There’s a lingering European mindset that wants a deep commitment to history in its art; where painting is respectful to the canon of painting, and critique to the canon of critique. Again, Arunanondchai is not unaware of this. To title his works as well as exhibitions, Arunanondchai repeatedly plays with Painting with history in a room full of men with funny names. (“Funny names” implies how a European mind sees Thai names as complicated or unmemorable – so outside of the European tradition – but also, as Arunanondchai has said, how a name like Yves Klein seems funny to a Thai person.) Yet his artistic references seem so immediate, as if history went back no further than 2012 or maybe 2009, when Arunanondchai was at art school; or maybe, at a stretch, some childhood memories of his grandparents. You’re like: OK, you’re in your own video. Isn’t everybody?
Walking into one of Arunanondchai’s exhibitions, you’re struck that they’re immediately colour-filled and comfortable. You fall down onto a beanbag or into a massage chair. What do you look at, your phone? The video, for a bit? Ok. Maybe these paintings, but you’ve seen them before. Then you realise: you don’t really know. Maybe it’s just nice sitting down. But what is this, apathy?
Arunanondchai’s practice is difficult to grasp through any one object or event. His paintings are derivative and super stylized, just something brought into the performance or gallery space. Yet if you’re not leaving the exhibition, you’re drawn to something that’s holding everything together.
If we’re not looking at objects or events, or if we’re looking beyond them, what are we looking at?
Arunanondchai works across video, sculpture, painting, music, and performance – there’s a lot going on. He picks up on certain themes that he inhabits, builds up, and threads through his works, like memories in a conversation. One such theme is body painting. Another is denim, which he and his crew wear in performances, and which is used as a background for both his body paintings and installations.
Previously an expensive luxury, denim became pervasive in Thailand in the 1970s, when local industrialization made the material affordable. As an icon of American subculture turned worldwide export, it evokes globalization. Yet it also evokes locality through its subcultural customizations in different markets – stalls in Bangkok sell Thai-style denim modified with sequins and Disney characters. On a less analytical level, it is also just a commonplace fabric. Arunanondchai says he started using it because he saw it everywhere.
It is this idea of ubiquitous fabric that offers the most compelling, even poetic, metaphor in Arunanondchai’s work. The camerawork in his videos is expansive: it drifts along urban roads and through forests, focusing on the hair of a dog, a person, some clouds, some fish swimming, a scene of a party, or Arunanondchai with his friends or grandparents. The material is luscious, evocative, easy – these things are nice. They don’t offer a specific text or context, but a texture.
In gallery presentations, Arunanondchai fleshes these videos out into immersive installations. They are like stages, and to walk into one is to feel you are on set. The installations extend the logic of the videos; they don’t feel like they’re trying to tell you anything, they’re creating an environment. The colours are bright and overlapping, like a t-shirt from Brooklyn or a Bangkok market stall. They are populated by sculptures that literalise the video’s themes. Manchester United – another symbol of globalization, but also a motif that evokes team spirit, collectivity, and a somewhat abstract idea of “being together” – is represented via mannequins in Man U football uniforms. The poses are affected, lifeless. They might be surrounded by formations of pillows that look like denim-clad clouds, often patterned with fire. These installations are difficult to address in terms of images, objects, or performances. Again: they are reducible to textures.
These textures suppose a way of looking beyond the object or event, and into the circulation of things surrounding and shaping objects or events. They try to find a fabric beyond what’s right at hand.
For the 2015 Frieze Projects programme in New York, the artist will produce denim massage chairs in which visitors can listen to audio of a conversation he recorded with his brother (who isn’t an artist) at Frieze London in 2014. It’s moments such as this that bare the problematic aspects of the work: not least, its profiting from otherness in the Western art market. One can imagine that most people up to date on art theory will roll their eyes and slam their buzzer; that is, if they remain too cool to walk off the set. But In a sense, the work’s lack of antagonism only affirms the structural antagonism surrounding it. A press release on the Frieze website claims that this work “will interrupt the fabric of the fair itself”. This isn’t true – the work will immediately constitute the fabric of the art fair, and likewise that of the television studio, and, likewise, the violent and imbricated routes of post-colonial capitalism. There’s no interruption, only the existing social fabric.
What are we left to do? Expanded art practices like Arunanondchai’s have appeared at a moment when it seems impossible to escape total social control. There’s no door out of this, literally, tragicomically; just a chair to sit on whilst we’re there.
Harry Burke is a writer and assistant curator and web editor of Artist Space in New York. He edited the poetry anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (Test Centre, 2014) and published City of God, an ebook of his poems (Version House, 2014).
Korakrit Arunanondchai, born 1986 in Thailand, lives in New York and Bangkok.
Exhibitions: Private Settings. Art After the Internet, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; Beware Wet Paint, ICA, London; 2557 (Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names 2) (with Korapat Arunanondchai), Carlos/Ishikawa, London (solo); Letters to Chantri #1: The lady at the door/The gift that keeps on giving (in collaboration with Boychild), The Mistake Room, Los Angeles (solo); MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY (solo) (2014); High Desert Test Site 2013, Joshua Tree; Muen Kuey (It's always the same), Clearing, Brussels; Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names, Clearing, New York (2013); Double Life, Sculpture Center, New York.
Represented by Carlos/Ishikawa, London; Clearing, New York/Brussels.