(originally posted November 9, 2017 at http://sites.northwestern.edu/artpolitics/)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness, Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, until December 8
Sakda (Rousseau), 2012
Chicago is very fortunate to have the Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s exhibition of video work, The Serenity of Madness (curated by Bangkok-based, likewise SAIC-trained curator Gridthiya Gaweewong) up for another month at the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Seeing this show provided me with an opportunity to revisit some writing I did years ago about the first film he released, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), and to reflect on how its themes reappear in later work in the exhibition.
On the one hand, Mysterious Object at Noon, made shortly after Weerasethakul’s completion of his MFA at the School of the Art Institute, engages with themes that continue to be eminently recognizable in the contemporary art world: collaboration, performance, documentation and the place of the object. It raises other questions too – as does his more recent work – about how to make sense of changing political realities and personal and political loss. Though Thailand’s political situation has many particularities, Thais have been dealing in concrete ways for much longer with questions of authoritarian rule and rightwing populism that are now being posed in the United States.
Mysterious Object at Noon is a filmed exquisite corpse. Invented by the Surrealists in the early twentieth century, the form imposes sequential, blind collaboration, meant, as with many surrealist exercises, to highlight the contribution of the unconscious. In this case it is a collective unconscious. In the classic form, one participant begins a drawing and folds the sheet of paper over so that the next participant must begin with only a few of its lines – and so on until the paper is filled. Mysterious Object gives us the product – a sequentially told story in which each teller picks up where the last left off – alternating with a very partial account of its production. One might also suppose, with the avowed surrealist inspiration of the film, that its English title also relates to Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. Here, however, the object is not so much an object of desire so much as the story itself, constantly changing in unexpected ways.
This film has often been classified as a documentary: filmed in 16mm black and white, with numerous shots of Thai countryside and cityscape and interviews with ordinary people, it has the look of one. We could also think of it as the filmed documentation of a social art project. As documentation (as opposed to documentary) the film might appear to collapse the distinction between object and performance. Event and document seem to flip back and forth undecidably. What do we retain from each moment, from each new storyteller and situation?
In 2003 I was in Thailand with a plan to investigate the relationship of documentation to performance art in Chiang Mai, where festivals like Eukabeuk often brought Thais and foreigners together in collaborative performance. It had seemed to me on a previous visit that (in part because of the Buddhist context), ephemerality and impermanence were a key element of the performance art projects I had seen, and thus, that documentation might be antithetical to their intentions, or at least problematic. And it had seemed to me that western artists were appearing, doing projects they could have done anywhere, documenting them intensively, leaving nothing behind and going home with their documentation – artistic tourism providing cultural cachet. Thus, I thought I had detected a typically neocolonialist inequity in which some careers were furthered more than others by such encounters, and at the expense of the spirit of the event.
When I arrived for a second visit it seemed immediately that I had misread the situation. At many events, including those that were not especially cross-cultural – i.e. art events produced by Thais for Thais – there were as many people holding cameras as there were performers. Documentation, far from being the exclusive property of westerners, was in exhaustive use. Not only were events being filmed, but CDs were quickly produced and distributed. The course lectures I was doing in a basic course on media theory were also being taped intensively and video CDs were quickly produced as course materials for students. I was being documented, collected and put to further use. It might not be too far to go to say that the event mattered inasmuch as it was documented: it felt, oddly, as if my lectures existed in order to produce the CDs.
We might think of Mysterious Object as a product that is doubled in this same way, documenting a work – one that its both object and performance – and the collaborative making of the work. Many visual artists in Thailand use medium-specific opportunities to play with voids, reflections, and reversal. For instance, artists often juxtapose the hollow shell used for making a bronze or plaster cast with the end product, presenting them as doubles or reflections of one another. These works display and do not hide their emptiness. They also foreground the way in which they were made. And technology plays a role in revitalizing the sense of the world of spirits that is part of Thai Buddhism, but this is, perhaps, more anxiety-producing than comforting. We might say the story in Mysterious Object is folded, in that there is a constant motion, a zigging and zagging, between the fiction and its making. In the end, the mysterious object is not a “mystery” in the sense of a hidden depth to be plumbed, or a mystery to be solved. One may make out the contours of the story but one does not unravel any mystery. The object is always partial, never complete. Disagreement between “authors” about the course of the story never becomes an object of discussion; differences are not disagreements so much as seams in the story. There is no act of collating or explaining (or explaining away) the course of the story.
Mysterious Object travels through Thailand, using various vehicles – bus, train, truck. During the opening credits, the camera travels along Bangkok highways, accompanied by a voice-over from a popular soap opera about a man seeking his lost love. Then we follow a slow-moving fishmonger’s truck that travels through the city with a loudspeaker, exhorting customers to come out to the street to buy. The truck stops, and customers mill about, making purchases and discussing the offerings. Then the camera cuts to a closeup of a young woman who speaks directly to the camera, interview-style, and tells a story from her own life history, of being sent to work in the home of relatives as a teenager. While she speaks, shots of nearby political posters enlist blandly paternalistic politicians to play the characters of father and uncle. When she begins to cry, the interviewer prompts her to tell another story, maybe one from a book, true or fictional. This is an awkward moment. Perhaps they are hesitating to appropriate her own life story as the subject of their film, or embarrassed by her emotion. Finally, they want the story – the film – to go on. In response to the prompt, she laughs, gives them a somewhat sarcastic look. “A book?” Then she adds, morosely, “What story do I have to tell – real or fake?” To her, her own story is the only one she has.
But she then begins, haltingly, to sketch out a setting and two characters who will traverse the film’s fiction. They are a young wheelchair-bound boy and the teacher who comes to tutor him and tell him of the outside world. At first, the film alternates the series of “authors” with the portions of the story they tell, acted out by actors; but the style quickly diversifies, using found footage and a “command performance” by a troupe of traditional Thai theater actors. While Apichatpong stages and manipulates parts of the film, his approach is to allow illogical and contradictory events and magical mutations to occur as called for by the participants. The black and white film resists the visual beauty of its settings. This is perhaps what has caused it to be described as a documentary. Even as it solicits intimate revelations, it doesn’t make any claims to truth. It cannot claim to be telling the truth about anything in particular: not its characters, not Thai culture, not individuals’ lives, not storytelling conventions or interview styles, not emotion. The film avoids any temptation to narrativize or romanticize the emotion of this scene, and shows the same restraint throughout. But it’s the open-ended, malleable, mysterious object-quality of the story, rather than the self-restraint of the maker, that finally is its subject.
The teacher, Dokfa, gives her name to the title: the Thai title translates literally as Dokfa in the Devil’s Hand. The hand in which she finds herself is the collective hand of the authors. As the story progresses, the teacher collapses and a mysterious object falls from her skirt. (What kinds of mysterious objects fall from skirts?) The mysterious object, which seems at first like a small ball, unfolds into a parentless star-child who is by turns – as the tellers change – good and evil. He seems to substitute for Dokfa; he drags her across the room to hide her in a plastic wardrobe, zipping her in with great difficulty. The unwieldiness of her lifeless body is palpable; it breaks the zipper of the improvised receptacle. The star-child transforms himself into a double of Dokfa and then back into a boy; she herself reappears. The boys, Dokfa and a kindly neighbor take a trip to Bangkok; they run out of money; the neighbor turns evil and has to be killed; Dokfa must work in a dance club; a witch-tiger finally eats her when the story falls into the hands of a boisterous group of schoolchildren. The tuna truck weaves in and out of the story, which itself takes absurd turns as interpretations struggle with each other and as new actors come to play already established parts. Dokfa – or is it the actress who plays her? – goes to the doctor with her aging, deaf father; she has a portentous red line on her neck (perhaps the results of her rough handling by the star-child?). She and another actor discuss the frustrations of acting in a story that seems to have no direction. Informal talk with the individual and group storytellers punctuates the sequences of the fictional narrative; they – old women, groups of teenage boys, the theater troupe, the group of schoolchildren – joke and discuss their doubts and hesitations about the unfinished story that has been presented to them. Political events intertwine with the world of myth as a radio broadcast urges Thai citizens to welcome U.S. soldiers after the conclusion of the “Pacific War.”
The film also provides other vignettes that might be considered reflections upon the story as itself an object that is no one’s property in particular. Balls are batted about in soccer and volleyball games; the story ends with another group of children tying a toy to a dog’s tail, which terrifies the dog as it clatters about. As with the young woman whose interview opens the film, the real people and characters in the story are not in positions of power, but are poor, disabled, deaf, or sick – or they are magical creatures, but this does not necessarily mean they are powerful. The star-child who has neither mother nor father falls from the stars; another (or the same one?) mysteriously survives a plane crash that kills his mother. The notion of falling suggests the way in which the story is presented to each new author: a malleable and mysterious thing falls into their brief and partial possession, and they must do something with it.
Mysterious Object at Noon gives us a lot to think about, but not much to hold onto except the feeling of not being able to hold on. I feel the poignancy of this not holding on more now, in 2017, and I feel it throughout Weerasethakul’s body of work. Perhaps the dissociation of fact and fiction seemed more a matter of postmodern aesthetics and less a matter of politics in 2000, or 2003. But it was political all the same. Coming from a western perspective, coming to cultural work shaped by the philosophical context of an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, I might ask: “am I simply supposed to be OK with just letting this story – let’s say, the story of the girl sent into virtual slavery with her relatives – go?” But if the openness is coupled with unease – unease about the difficult and distressing personal, social, and political situations that are alluded to without being developed – I think this is part of the point.
If Weerasethakul’s films – and I turn here to several of those exhibited as part of The Serenity of Madness – blur the boundary between reality as lived and reality as mediated, they do not deny experience, but rather reveal the threads in it that are mournful from the start, even when it is also joyful. The staccato flicker of clicking, jarring, blurring freeze frame in Ashes (2012) plays creatively with the medium, but also distances the viewer, making us more fully aware of what we can’t see, of the instants unrecorded, unremembered in between – a basic condition of all filmmaking, and at the same time a more specific point about memory, loss, and the rhythms of daily life. In Invisibility (2016), a piece whose quiet – apart from live sound created by shutters in the gallery – is sometimes terrifying, Weerasethakul uses a split screen, doubling, refracting, and blurring his subjects, creating scenes that differ so slightly from the other that it’s hard to tell whether they are exact duplicates or not. One or both sides are often fully dark. The scenes that unfold on either side are shadows of near stillness – often the leaves of trees are the only things that move – of a woman sitting, a sewing machine, a hospital bed equipped with an IV drip, drawing on characters from Weerasethakul’s recent feature films, Cemetery of Splendor and Fever Room (I haven’t seen them, but Invisibility is still powerful on its own). The camera pans to begin to establish a relationship between the two shots, but cuts away, leaving it undeveloped. Invisibility begins with darkness, and then the words “I remember” on the left side: “I remember a storm of light that moved the trees” After a pause the right side of the screen counters with “and the shadows to revolt,” with that added “to revolt” changing utterly what might have been our first understanding of “moved.”
Though it is very short, Sakda (Rousseau) crystallizes some key themes. We begin in the midst of things – a nighttime scene, ordinary life on the verge of being made magical by the constellation of lantern lights spinning above. The scene Sakda opens with bears some resemblance to another piece in Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, Nabua Song, in which we see a man in a social gathering listening – his face showing little or no emotion – to a song about a massacre in which members of Thailand’s Communist Party, including his grandfather, were killed by Thai government forces. Here, though, a recording is being made. A man named Sakda (apparently the actor’s name as well as the character’s), sits before a microphone, eyes downcast, as two guitar players, only one of whom can be seen, play a casual, sweet tune and converse nearby, laughing occasionally. Sakda begins to speak, slowly, over the music, explaining that he used to be a man named Rousseau, but now (at this point his eyes flicker upward and fix on the camera) is called Sakda. He has a boyfriend named Laurent, who is a specialist in rubber trees. From now on, however, he will no longer be called Sakda, because (he looks at the camera again) his body does not belong to anyone, not even himself. “But I will remember the freedom,” he says. What do we bring with us into a new life – whether that new life comes through reincarnation, cataclysmic political change, or a technical change of medium (with all that might imply about the impulse to archive and document)? What do we retain, and what do we lose? The film cuts to a shot of an audio device on a balcony overlooking a river. It’s morning. Is it all that’s left? Is it playing or recording? We hear Sakda speaking again, off camera or from the device, and the words are similar yet subtly different. Does Sakda’s Sakda-ness live on in a recording – whether an audio recording, or a video or film? Once again, there are small discrepancies; his words start later in the story, and some of the details of the wording have changed. Will I remember the knowledge of rubber trees, he asks, and – no longer confident – “Will I remember the freedom?” The film cuts briefly to the three characters once again before concluding with a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Sakda was one of 50 films in a Geneva-based collaborative commission on the legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau called La Faute à Rousseau (Rousseau’s Fault), commemorating the 300th anniversary of his birth. The quote the film ends with is telling: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” a famous quote from The Social Contract.
It plunges us back into a more political reality, and into the sense that we might turn to the sweetness of the everyday to find freedom – to capture and hold it in its ongoingness, if only to record it for an unknown future – and find only the reminder of what we have lost.