A master of gentle deconstruction
ARTIST STATEMENT/ POSTCARD PROJECT OF THE HOUSE OF WORLD CULTURES 2007
´Retaining the faith in something that has no scientific proof amid the chaos´
In relation to ´Documenting Thailand as she is plunging into the abyss from now to the next decade.´
Born in Bangkok in Thailand in 1970, Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes videos and films of various lengths which cross between art and cinema. As popular at international film festivals as in museums, they are gently deconstructive with a mesmerising flouting of film grammar.
In making his first feature film ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’ (2000), the Siamese filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, adapted a method used by surrealists. A surrealist made a drawing, of which he showed a small part to a second person, who rounded it off, then showed a small part to a third and so on, producing a ‘corps exquisite’. Weerasethakul’s method consisted in roaming through Thailand for three years and showing Siamese villagers the start of a film whose tale he asked them to continue. ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’ shows them expanding and rounding it off and translates their words into pictures. Key features are the teacher, Dogfahr, a handicapped pupil and a ‘queer sphere’, which in one case turns out to be a youth and in another an extra-terrestrial. Indeed some versions vaunt a tiger, a tiger-witch and a mysterious reddening of the skin with ticklish consequences - motifs taken up and worked on in his later works.
’Mysterious Object at Noon’ flouts many of the conventions of continuity. For instance, a camera may pan from one place to an unlikely juxtaposition, as from a schoolyard to the study of a handicapped youth; then, no sooner do viewers adjust to the odd topography, than they find it shifting and changing. The relation between sounds and images is equally strange, since sounds sometimes come from thousands of miles away off screen.
Weerasethakul loves the surprise element. In his second feature film ‘Blissfully yours’ (2002) the titles are not shown until much of the film has been seen. Towards its end a bird’s eye view of the head and shoulders of a young man and woman in a glade lingers onscreen for ten or more minutes. In ‘Tropical Malady’ (2004), shown in the competition at Cannes, there is a blackout lasting for half a minute halfway through the film. Finally the painting of a tiger is faded in to mark the start of the second half, in which the love between two young men in present-day Thailand is fleshed out. A man, who may be either of the two main figures from the first half, penetrates a jungle in pursuit of a shaman who changes at night into a tiger and shreds villagers. The deeper the man penetrates, the less certain the roles of hunter and hunted become. Finally the man is told by a fluent ape: ‘The tiger is shadowing you, its prey and companion. Slay it, if you wish to free it from its world, or be its supper, if you wish to enter it.’
"Both sections have different titles, different styles, different
narratives, different colours, different editing,” says Apichatpong Weerasethakul, ‘and these are not meant to be together in one film. But somehow they need each other.
It´s like a man-man relationship from a conservative point of view: It is
not supposed to be together but somehow it fits and they need each other." (Quoted in the taz, 21.04.2005)
Weerasethakul was born on 16th July 1970 in Bangkok, but grew up in a town in the north of Thailand, where he watched Siamese genre films. This influence is evident in a spectacle he filmed withMichael Shaowanasai: ‘The Adventures of Iron Pussy’ (2003). Martial arts, musicals and transvestism, little seen in his other works, are found here in abundance. Though the Cannes’ film festival catalogue declines to mention the film, the bonus material in the DVD version insistently shows Michael Shaowanasai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul sitting comfortably together and discussing the film’s possibly homosexual aesthetic.
Due to the lack of a good film school in Bangkok, Weerasethakul first studied architecture and got to know the history of film by viewing videos. After completing his studies, he moved to Chicago to study experimental film at the Art Institute. “I tried many things like painting and writing, but only on turning to films, and especially to European films and American experimental ones, did I find a way to express my own concerns.” He began by using video and 16 mm and had the results of this work shown in various galleries. With the support of the French production firm, Anna Sanders, and the Netherlands’ Hubert Bals Fund, he was then able to finance his first feature film. “In art there’s a tendency towards narration, towards filming anyway,” says Weerasethakul. “There’s a kind of mingling of the fields of art and film, and I find myself more or less in the middle of this process, in the midst of this mingling.” (ibid)
Though flaunting the rules of film grammar in a defiantly gay manner, Weerasethakul does so without posturing. “I don’t want to shock. As a Buddhist I think that feelings, however shocking, may be expressed inoffensively.” Indeed his flaunting of rules is not heavy-handed but light-hearted: “My stance may be queer, but my manner is mild and mollifying, as in meeting folk face to face. Being yelled at only fags you out, wouldn’t you say? And strength can be shown without yelling.” (ibid)
On screen this gentle jousting has a fairytale fascination, drawing from fans and critics such accolades as ‘magical’ and ‘amazing’, as they marvel at the maverick second half of ‘Tropical Malady’, sucked in by the humid darkness, wooed by the murmuring jungle, swayed by eloquent beasts, lit by a luminous trunk and soothed by the full-screen smile of a cuddly tiger. The ingredients quiver and come to life like stone in the hands of a sculptor. This cocktail richly merits the tag ‘mesmerising’.
Weerasethakul’s images are ‘lingering sensations’ (ibid) like the after-image of the sun behind lowered eyelids. The images resonate deep within, akin to dreams, to the auguries of night. The hunter’s quest leads to more than a tiger: “By day in the jungle a tiger is sensed mainly through the eyes, but as vision falters at night, fantasy grows. The darkness draws one deeper into oneself. The deeper the man penetrates the jungle, the closer he comes to the bottom of his own heart.”
*1970 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Lives and works in Bangkok, Thailand.
Film / TV,
Feature film, Prix du Jury, Cannes Film Festival, Cannes, France
Film / TV,
Mysterious Object at Noon
Film / TV,
Debut feature film
Selected Group Exhibitions
Exhibition / Installation
„What? A Tale in Free Images”, Brügge Museum, Belgien
Politics of Fun, House of World Cultures, Berlin
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(01 March 07 - 31 December 08)
Contemporary Art from South East Asia
(30 September 05 - 20 November 05)