Jane DeBevoise (JD): First of all, I just want to thank everybody for coming tonight and to have the opportunity to introduce June Yap who will in turn introduce Arin Rungjang.
June Yap is also probably well known to many of you but for those who don’t know her, June is an independent curator based in Singapore who has recently had the opportunity to participate in a two year curatorial residency at the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim has launched, with the support of UBS Bank, a program called MAP which is intended to expand its own horizons – in terms of its collecting and exhibiting – to include works from Southeast Asia, as well as Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, regions that have in general been under-explored in Western museums. June is the Guggenheim MAP program’s first curator. Before coming to New York, June has been involved in many projects, including curating the Singapore pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. I am going to leave it to June to introduce Arin, but I want to thank you June very much for making this evening possible, because tonight’s event would not have happened without your energy and introduction.
June Yap (JY): Thank you Jane for the very kind introduction. We would also like to thank you very much for doing this on such a short notice because Arin is here really only for a month. So we are really grateful for your putting this together. Arin was born in Korat, also known as Nakhon Ratchasima, which is the northeastern part of Thailand and historically the area between Laos and Siam. He is here in New York for a residency with CEC ArtsLink, which facilitates collaborative projects between artists who are from other regions and artists in New York. Arin is collaborating with Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, an artist from Puerto Rico. There will be an exhibition opening on November 2. If you are able to come to the opening, we would be very grateful.
I would like to highlight a bit of Arin’s practice. Recent exhibitions he has been involved in include the Singapore Biennale in 2011 with an artwork entitled Unequal Exchange, No Exchange Can Be Unequal, which entailed discussions with Thai migrant workers in Singapore. In the exhibition, there was an installation of home furnishing from IKEA. What Arin did was that he invited the Thai workers with whom he had been in discussion to trade their used furniture with the IKEA furniture in his exhibition installation. The recent 18th Sydney Biennale was another exhibition Arin was part of. This exhibition included a work he will be speaking about tonight. This work grew out of a residency that he had in Belgium, and a film that he shot in Rwanda during a workshop with Kigali teens. Something that I find quite interesting in relation to his practice is that it very much extends beyond Thailand and beyond Asia itself. I guess for me Arin’s practice is particularly interesting because it is about relationships and about the ways in which we communicate in contemporary society. The project he is involved with how, with the CEC program, is collaborative. It is an art practice and an artwork that doesn’t just involve individuals as the producers of aesthetic expression. Rather it’s a process of exchange, in which he invites dialogue and participation. This, I think, is key to his work. Importantly, this exchange and collaboration is an avenue for sharing difference, which I think is something that [is interesting because so often] when we look at what artists are doing today, we end up identifying [differences] instead of ways in which we can connect. The ones that thread through Arin’s work include issues of differences – of experience, history, approach, memory, and understanding. So I’ll leave Arin to talk a bit about his work. Hopefully that’s an accurate depiction of his practice.
Arin Rungjang (AR): Thank you June. Now I’ll get started. The first work I will show tonight was made in 2009 in Bangkok and exhibited at Ver Gallery. In this work you will see a video projected on the wall. This video was actually shot through the window glass of a tall building in Bangkok. This building is called the Dusit Thani, and [when built in the early 1970s] it was the tallest building in Bangkok. The building was named after the city created by King Rama VI (1881-1925) when our government system was developing from a monarchy into a democracy. King Rama VI made this miniature city, a simulacra city [in which to teach his people about the system of democracy], so the name Dusit Thani was given to the highest building in Bangkok. The Dusit Thani is a hotel and my mother worked at that hotel. This is the view from a top floor of the hotel. My mother once told me that when she was feeling sad, she would take the elevator to the top floor and look through the window to the city. It relieved her feelings. My mother also told me that her bad feelings were due to losing her husband. My father was an engineer. He worked on a ship and traveled around the world. In 1977 he went to Germany where he was beaten by some German people. [A year before he was beaten, my mother and he had gone to the hospital in Thailand to donate blood for one of their friends who needed an emergency transfusion. My father's blood was rejected, but at the time they weren’t able to investigate why, because my father had to rush back to work. He shipped out the same month. According to my mother, upon docking in Germany, my father went into town alone for a drink. That’s when he was beaten. He passed out on the street where he lay for two nights before he managed to get back to the ship. The ship continued to travel to France where a doctor diagnosed him with internal injuries. That was his last trip before he returned to Thailand. Back in Thailand he stayed in bed for eight months, suffering from both his internal injuries and cancer until he passed away. My mother told me that my father said the Germans who beat him thought he was from the Philippines. This was how my father tried to understand the situation. Why if they didn't know him would they want to hurt him? His conclusion draws on collective memories, of global images, resulting in his misidentification as a Pinoy. That was his excuse for being hurt by neo-Nazis.] Here you can see the itinerary of history, the human concern with ideology, place, and stories. We cannot predict. This kind of thing is circular. It’s not about progress, but circulation. So I went up [to the top of the Dusit Thani] in front of the window my mother had stared through, and I made this work, this portrait of my mother standing in front of the window, but the view of the city has changed a lot since then. The title is From my Mother’s Memory and reflects a dislocation of history and a story in the present time and in the past.
This is an image of the installation. The curtain was inspired by one in my house when I was a child. Some friends asked me why it was orange… is it related to [the saffron colored robes that] monks [wear]? My reason is simple, private, and intimate, but my work is always connected to the collective memory and collective history.
The next work I am going to show is from an exhibition in Thailand called ‘Imagine Peace.’ This exhibition was developed in response to a very chaotic moment in Thailand when there were a lot of protests and the burning down of a department store. The Ministry of Culture organized this exhibition as a way of reconciliation, to unite people together, to show that we can live together peacefully. In my work I used carpet, the kind of carpet that is used [at museum openings] for privileged people, like the King, the Queen, and the Princess.
JY: What is the title of the work?
AR: The title of this work is “Art as space for politics without space”.
JY: These are the VIP carpets [red carpets] that are used when exhibitions open. After they are used, they are often get tossed out.
AR: I found this carpet in the storage room of the museum. There was a lot of carpet [in this storage room]. So I brought all of it up and leaned it against this [structural] pillar. In that way it responded to the exhibition title ‘Imagine Peace.’ What we lack in Thailand is the right to express our freedom. We don’t have real freedom of speech. There is lots of censorship. We need to fight. There is a story I like by the writer Zizek. It’s about two friends, one who worked in Germany and the other went to work in Russia. In Russia under Communism there was a lot of censorship, so they developed a code. When they wrote to each other, if the ink was blue, it meant what they were writing was true; if the ink was red, it meant what they were writing was false. This is the situation in Bangkok. We don’t have the right to express our freedom, and it’s a problem even now.
Audience member: Did this develop after the 2010 problems, the red shirts versus yellow shirts?
AR: It goes back before that. It’s actually not just a contemporary issue; it’s been happening for a while.
JY: There’s a complicated history that perhaps we can talk about later.
AR: Yes, very complicated. The title of this work is The Reality is… I Only Did All This to Get Close to You. It comprises of illustrations from old newspapers from 1864 which I found in Paris. On the front page of one of these newspapers appeared an illustration of the ambassador from Thailand meeting Napoleon the Third. During this time the West was invading Asia. They went to China and they burnt down [buildings]. They went to Vietnam and many priests were captured and killed. At that time [the Siamese] King Rama IV thought we shouldn’t fight, that we should do something different. In this picture you will see someone holding a Siamese crown. It’s a real crown with all the right decoration, the right jewels, the right style for the King, but it was not [the King’s actual crown]. It was a gift for Napoleon (on July 29, 1861). In this way the King was saying, ‘Don’t invade us.’ [laughter]
Audience member: A conciliatory gift?
AR: A domestic strategy?
Audience member: It looks like the newspaper has a series of dots…
AR: What I did was, I took the newspaper and punched holes in it.
JY: Do you see the piles of little pieces of paper on the shelf below the work? They are made from holes that were punched out of the paper.
AR: It’s not a complete image, positive, negative. We cannot even find the truth from history. The next image is [a portrait of a man named] Inspector Grosgurin. He was a French inspector [of the Vietnamese militia] who had been ordered to control an area [called Kieng Chek Kham Muon district] which was located at the border between Thailand and Indo-China. We already had a person controlling that area, and I am not sure what happened, but the rumor is that someone killed the Frenchman, that he was assassinated by a Thai person, and this became the reason for the Franco-Siamese War (in 1893).
Moving ahead forty years, the next image is of a painting [created] by a British painter Joseph Nash Jr. who was in the British navy. At the time of the Franco-Siamese war (in 1893) the French sent a warship to attack Thailand but we fought back and sank two of their ships in the sea of Thailand. The incident was recorded by this British painter. This British painter [reportedly] inspired Van Gogh. You can find reference to this in the book Letters to Theodore in which Van Gogh referred to this artist in one chapter. Van Gogh was interested in [aspects of] death and [and in particular] how this artist painted a dead body on a ship. You can find it online. It’s quite amazing.
Another part [of this project] is a sound recording of my French ex-lover who now lives in Canada and is married to a Vietnamese. I sent questions to my ex-lover about his life, about this Vietnamese person who migrated to Canada, and how they fell in love with each other. The sound recording tells this history, so it’s kind of painful for me.
JY: I guess it’s also a metaphor for colonization. You know, you go to another place, you fall in love, and you never leave. (laughter)
AR: The problem with human beings is that we don’t know why we want to go and intrude [on other people, other countries]. This question has never been answered in the right way. We don’t know why we don’t want to stay at home; why we always want to go somewhere else. We are always looking for something. He wanted to find love and he found it… in Canada.
This next work was made in Paris and is entitled My Knees are Cold because It Is Winter in Paris. I got the title from Marcel Duchamp. It was a play-on-words, but I just quoted it in a straight-forward way. I also included a book by Michael Foucault called The Order of Things and (later when the exhibition finished) I marked it with black ink. This installation also included letters that you could read about the story of my father who was beaten in Germany. I erased the [part of the letters] and put it together into my story.
In the next slide you see a series of framed works. These are made up of pages from an interview with Pier Luigi Tazzi [an Italian curator], in which he was asked about the history of Western art. He talks about how paintings moved from the church to the home and how dealers were created in order to sell works. He also talked about museums, the kunsthalle, how he was introduced into the art world, and about Documenta [he was involved with Documenta in 1997]. Pier Luigi Tazzi is the person who introduced me to Western history.
In the next slide you see furniture from a shop called Neptune. This shop is run by an organization that helps unemployed and homeless people by giving them jobs fixing broken furniture that have been discarded and collected from the street. The repaired furniture is then sold at that shop. I went to Neptune and asked if I could rent some furniture for two months to install as art. I rented from them and after the show, I returned the furniture. This was shown at Kadist Foundation in Paris.
The next slide shows works from an exhibition at Gallery Biagiotti in Florence. They include pictures of my father in several places in Europe, in Germany, in France, and in Italy.
These other pieces are related to the Pieta (by Michelangelo). The curator Pier Luigi Tazzi who is from Italy suggested I make these editions in Florence. There is something that connects me to Florence and it is a paperweight my father brought [back to Thailand] from Italy over thirty years ago. It was a [replica of the]Pieta that we used at home as a paperweight. It’s broken [now], but I have kept these two little pieces of the arms. So I sent the broken pieces [of the paperweight] to a sculptor to make life-size replicas.
In the exhibition, I exhibited these broken pieces of the Pieta, which were from the paperweight in my house, and the image of my father. I asked a person who worked in the gallery to translate [my telling] my father’s story (into an Italian) which I then installed as sound installation with two speakers on the ceiling. The title of this work is The Scars of Your Love, They Leave Me Breathless.
This next work was shown in the Netherlands and is entitled Let’s Make Sense which is a combination of the Phillips Company’s two [corporate] slogans “Let’s make things better” and “Sense and simplicity”). I used [the combination of] these slogans as the title of the exhibition because Phillips is a Dutch company. I invited five friends to participate in this exhibition. We wanted to do something that ‘makes sense’ in the gallery so we decided to create a dining space, for which we needed a table, a bouquet of flowers, invitation cards and food.
So I contacted Rirkrit Tiravanija because his specialty is making food. [laughter] He sent me three recipes. But we were not going to make the food ourselves as we wanted to step back from the work. So we sent the recipes to the gallery, and they asked [around to see] if there was anyone in the neighborhood wanted to learn to prepare Thai food. The gallery in the end gave Rirkirt’s recipes to two artists who used them to learn how to cook. They went to the Asian market and started to learn how to cook Thai food.
Then I contacted Shooshie Sulaiman, the Malaysian artist, about how we could get the bouquet of flowers. She went to Melaka (in Malaysia) and found a Chinese shop that sells paintings. All the paintings in this shop [looked to her] like Dutch paintings from 500 years ago. She thought these Chinese paintings must be imitations of Dutch paintings because the flowers in them are really rare. So the painting was sent to the gallery and then we went to all the flower shops in the Netherlands to find these flowers. We collected the flowers one by one. It was a really nice process; one shop owner told us that these flowers must be in the sun for two days and others must be left in the dark.
For the table, I talked to [an artist friend] Chitti Kasemkitvatana, and he said we should have five things from a grocery store. So went to the local grocery stores nearby the gallery, and day by day, we collected boxes that came [packed with goods] from Asia to sell. So we used them to make our table. Then we created a video from the opening.
The next is a project I did for the Singapore Biennale. IKEA planned to open in Thailand that year; it was going to be nice to have IKEA there. So the Biennale team talked to IKEA and asked for sponsorship. I worked with IKEA (for my work) to have their furniture installed in the exhibition space.
Previously I had visited Singapore where I had meetings with Thai people who lived there. There is a place (in Singapore) called the Golden Mile Complex. [The people who gather] there are working people-laborers, hairdressers… they are not from the middle class; they are quite poor. I talked to them and asked where they came from. I got a list of the names of these Thai [migrant] workers and their addresses, as well as their addresses in Thailand.
I asked them to bring the broken furniture from their houses to exchange with the new IKEA furniture [in my installation]. Some people asked me whether they needed to pay, but I said no. It was April which is the Thai new year and I wanted to do [these people] a favor as an artist. I wanted them to have something from the Biennale. Some said they knew about the Biennale, but they had never been, because they were not sure about art. But [they went and] this time they loved it.
Actually in the installation, there was a hidden message. I only invited Thai people. If you were Singaporean or Australian, for example, you could not swap [furniture]; you could only observe. In the installation there is a video of interviews of the people living in the villages that the Thais I met [at the Golden Mile Complex] had left. In this video, one girl said, ‘We have everything. The only thing we need is people. They just went away.’ That was a message for Thai people who live in Singapore.
The interesting part is that they came with trucks, cars and so on. In the end, 70% of the furniture was swapped, only 30% remained.
The next slide is from my project at the Sydney Biennale a few months ago in July of this year. I went to Rwanda to the city of Kigali and worked with 13 orphaned children whose parents had died during the genocide.
The [intention in the] relationship between me and them was not to take advantage of that trauma. As you can see from my work, I am interested in the idea that this [kind of event] does not become unimportant if we still think it is important. We rely on history as it is. But we never get into the history. [I have once compared this to a zoo. We want to see animals in the forest so we create a simulacrum called a zoo. It is like history. We can not travel back time. Time travel is impossible, so we create a simulacrum that is history; we create the image of history, which takes different forms, in different media. In a sense this could relate to what Baudrillard said about the paintings in the Lascaux caves. Visitors are no longer allowed inside the real caves. Instead they visit simulated caves which have been built with counterfeit rocks stones and paintings that imitate the original caves. My work is not purely conceptual. It’s between knowledge and sentient experience. [For me, knowledge is dialectical. It is not universal. It is based on a process of thesis, synthesis and antithesis, as one way of formulation. History is the same. It is dialectical and not universal. But in fact, not all history can be formulated. Based my own experience in South East Asia, many aspects of history, pre-modern history, have never been registered in any archive. Rather this history has been transmitted orally, to be re-collected in modern times and then institutionalized.] I told the kids that their tragic story was not that far from mine. We were both victims of misunderstandings stemming from different ideologies.
But we are not leaving and we are not living life through hatred. We are [embracing] life. They gave me really meaningful answers and were creatively involved in my project. They created a pottery vessel in a factory in Kigali that was installed at the Sydney Biennale. The project was not sad at all. We worked together. It was really happy. The learning center was part of my project. We asked teenagers in Sydney to look at this work and respond to it. The kids each wrote something and that became part of the project. Some children wrote about the opportunities in their lives, some about their responses to the work; some cried; some were angry. This is a moment I had with them…
JY: You might want to talk a little bit about your plans for the residency here.
AR: I have begun to work with a Puerto Rican artist. What we found really interesting was how Bomba, the dance, was created about 500 years ago during the colonial period in a city called Mayagüez in Puerto Rico. At that time Tainos, Spanish, and Africans worked together in a sugarcane mill but they didn’t know how to communicate with each other, so they created this dance called Bomba. So we started to think about the Bomba idea. Then I met a Thai girl and we talked about this desert called Thong Yod. Thong means golden and Yod means teardrop. The name comes from its color and shape. It’s made with egg yolk and cream and a little sugar. You boil sugar into syrup and just drop in the egg yolk and cream mixture. I am going to combine the two ideas because they are related; the dessert was created over 300 years ago in Thailand, but it was actually Portuguese. People from Thailand know it well.
JY: They also say that it cannot be found in New York. So if you want to try it, please come to the opening.
Audience member: I have a question, which may be slightly contentious. But I think I should ask you because it intrigued me when I listened to your presentation. It looks to me, and of course all artists today are contemporary global citizens, that your work in particular reaches outside of Thailand. The first work that you showed was shot at the Dusit Thani and had its roots in Thailand, as was the next work, the installation where you included the French gentleman who had been assassinated. But other than that it looks like you are sort of running away from Thailand. I am curious whether you see it that way or whether I am misrepresenting your thinking. My question is are you really a Thai artist or something else? What does it mean to be a “global citizen”?
AR: If you are looking for Thai-ness, I would like to ask you what is Thai-ness, where is Thailand? If you look at the map, we can find a shape called Thailand, but 200 years before, it was a different shape. If you look at the map 500 years before that, again it’s a different shape. If you farther look back, “Thailand” was just a place where a tiny group of people lived together.
JY: In fact, the (widely held) perception that Thai people have never having been colonized is very interesting. In fact, the border of Thailand has shifted over time. Parts of it were ceded to Malaysia, in part by Britain; parts of it were ceded to the French. What you see today as the contemporary nation-state does not reflect what it once was. There is always an interesting contest about what Thai identity and representation are. For example, if you shift down south to the Malay Archipelago, which now belongs in parts by Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, that territory used to be part of Thailand, and it was only after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824 that the region was divided between the Dutch and the British, and only since then do we now have something called Malaysia and something called Indonesia. It was once a shared culture, but now people feel compelled to define their distinctions and differences. For instance, someone might say, ‘this is a national Malaysian dish’, but that’s enough to incite a small an uprising among Indonesians. ‘What do you mean that’s Malaysian? That’s not Malaysian, that’s ours.’ It’s very interesting to talk about Southeast Asia. Perhaps that affects how Arin feels about what Thai-ness is. There is a certain exoticism that we come to expect, I guess.
AR: You see I lost my father when I young. He was beaten up in Germany. But when I was a little boy, I didn’t have any knowledge about nationalism, democracy, communism, and all those ideologies that people create. I didn’t know why and what happened when people killed each other. That (search) is part of my work.
JY: Arin’s father was beaten up when he was in Germany by what we call today white supremacists. And that story was relayed to him by his mother. He never quite understood why. What was the reason for this inflicting harm on the other?
AR: So I try to interrogate this itinerary of history, objects, places, people… I say that I am a human being first, and then an artist – because that’s my career — and then I am a Thai. It’s really difficult for people with Thai passports to come to the US these days. So I don’t want to put it as my first priority. [laughter]
JD: Normally we would have a longer Q&A, but we are running a little late, so maybe what we can do is ask more questions while we eat which of course is not inconsistent with Arin’s work [laughter]. Thank you, Arin for the great presentation.