Light Therapy

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness
MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand
04.07.16 – 10.09.16

If anyone can make you lose your mind in a relaxing way, it’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Memories, ghosts, reincarnation, Thai history and a reality-loosening, faculty-scrambling sense of joy and wonderment come together so sweetly in this mid-career survey of the critically acclaimed filmmaker’s short films and video installations that the experience is, as the title suggests, a kind of safe letting-go. Cynics would look at the content and say that it’s more of the same, but when the same’s so good, can you bring yourself to complain?

The Serenity of Madness brings together the ‘gallery work’ of the Thai auteur best known for the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ( 2010 ). Over the years, Weerasethakul has built up a reputation on both the film festival and art biennial circuits, but his output for the latter remains scattered and unconsolidated, and often portrayed as the interesting, but poorer, cousin of his movie career. Hopefully, this exhibition will provide some corrective re-imagining of the relationship between the two halves of his life. Steve McQueen, another artist-filmmaker, once said that his work was ‘all one thing, as if film was the novel and visual art is poetry’; Weerasethakul’s pieces have a similar kinship, while the shorter ones are koans.

The gallery format is also more conducive to their appreciation than a movie theatre. ( A few months ago, Tate Modern held an all-night, 14-hour screening of his works, which frankly sounds less like a celebration than a hostage situation. ) The MAIIAM exhibition is a more manageable immersion, where the viewer has more control: she wanders through the works to her own time. In his writings and interviews, Weerasethakul has variously compared the cinema to a cave, a womb and a coffin, where a film is projected to a captive, zombie-like audience, with the images moving through a passive viewership. A gallery setup reverses the direction of travel: the viewer moves through the images.

Made before, during and after his films, Weerasethakul’s videos and installations may be spin-offs, sketches or one-off commissions, but most of them stand alone quite proudly. Curator Gridthiya Gaweewong designed the exhibition to show the breadth of Weerasethakul’s practice, and so there is a necessary amount of excerpting and sampling, which creates an easygoing environment consistent with the genial, free-flowing genealogy of his methods. Primitive ( 2009 ), originally a seven-video installation at Haus der Kunst, Munich, receives three video extracts here, spread out across the exhibition grounds as recurrent, free-associative echoes. A ‘lite’ version of the infrared dogs in Taipei’s National Palace Museum’s 2007 installation The Palace ( Pipittapan Tee Taipei ) appears too. The projections have been released from their original glass cases and left to pace the walls like the ghostly guards of another video, Sakda ( Rousseau ) ( 2012 ), in the same room.

There are a couple of patchy spots, though. Some of Weerasethakul’s photography is shown on the walls, but after you have savoured the richness of his moving images, the still ones are weak tea. They are either formal experiments with prettified technical effects, such as the digitally painted explosion in Mr. Electrico ( for Ray Bradbury ) ( 2014 ), or thin collectable stand-ins for larger projects, such as the stills for those in the sprawling, multidisciplinary For Tomorrow For Tonight ( 2011 ), first shown in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. I could also have done without the few over-generous concessions to friends, such as the tribute to Tilda Swinton in photogenic close-up ( Video Diary: One Water, 2013 ) or the section showing French cartoonist Freddy Nadolny’s nondescript black-and-white drawings, supposedly inspired by Weerasethakul’s films.

Thankfully, the meat of the exhibition is in the short films and video installations. Many of them incubate tropes that would be seeded into feature-length work. Seen in isolation, they have the punch of the single image, or idea. For example, the six-minute, haiku-esque Sakda ( Rousseau )  ( 2012 ) could well have been a deleted scene from the doodly and meandering hour-long feature Mekong Hotel ( 2012 ). Standing alone, the short film has a sharper, more decisive outline. This has something to do with the brief: the short was commissioned for the tricentennial celebrations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birth, and Weerasethakul, with a mix of practicality and wryness, has made his regular gay Thai actor a reincarnation of the French philosopher. ‘I used to be a man called Rousseau,’ Sakda Kaewbuadee says, while a guitar strums tenderly in the background, ‘but today my name is Sakda.’ He goes on to talk about his boyfriend, Laurent, and about his body not belonging to anyone, not even him. Abrupt cut to a riverside veranda, from which a radio broadcasts the same recorded message to the dusky pink of the Mekong River. ‘Will I remember the freedom?,’ the fuzzy voice asks. The melancholy resignation of this piece, combined with its keen attentiveness to beauty, seems, in the gentlest of ways, to float a challenge to Rousseau: could man be everywhere in chains, and free?

It is notable that this is Weerasethakul’s first major retrospective in his homeland. His long tussle with the authorities has culminated in his refusal to submit his latest film, Cemetery of Splendour ( 2015 ), to the board of censors, and the film had no domestic release as a result. Why did he put on this show? Do censors close one eye to art exhibitions? Who knows? Judging by The Serenity of Madness, politics runs through his nervous system, either as a kind of muscle memory or surfacing, like hives. The exhibition is not so much a critique of Thai politics as a description of a state of mind under the regime, a negative-capability zone between submission and rebellion, between Sakda and Rousseau. For example, in Ashes ( 2012 ), gently diaristic images of daily life – friends walking a dog, Weerasethakul calling his lover for dinner – are interrupted by a sequence showing protesters outside Thailand’s political prisons. The film then circles back to the everyday, with a dislocating sequence showing the funeral pyre of a monk in a temple.

Two video works in the exhibition, though, suggest a growing sense of urgency and subversion. One of Weerasethakul’s central preoccupations is light, in all its forms: the sun, fire, fireworks, lightning, fluorescent tubes – not to mention that witness, mediator and reproducer of all photo phenomena, the bright eye of the film projector. Light is often associated with joy and life, but increasingly he is paying attention to its other face: that of terror and death. This tension can be traced back to Phantoms of Nabua ( 2009 ). The 11-minute video was part of the larger Primitive project, for which he collaborated with teenagers in Nabua, a village in the north of Thailand, where the massacre of a generation of farmers accused of being communists was buried and forgotten. Weerasethakul took a mildly interventionist approach with the sons of these dead farmers, making them role-play their elders, write songs and tell stories. From these activities, he made short films and installations.

Phantoms is the strongest of the lot. It has a pyromaniac’s sense of liberation. In the video, the boys kick a burning ball around a dark field. At the back of the field is a white screen, showing a film about a simulated lightning strike. After several passes, the ball hits the screen. For a while we are uncertain if the screen is showing flames, or is actually on fire, until the cloth burns away to nothing. What’s left is a sputtering, spitting ball of light. It is the projector still going strong. This is the kind of totalitarian culminating shot Weerasethakul has deployed before, in Syndromes and a Century ( 2006 ). There, the camera lingered on a ventilator slowly inhaling smoke into its cavernous mouth; but here, calm suction turns to feverish repulsion, a black hole into a death star.

The tension between life-giving and death-giving forces of light reappears in another retina-burn of an installation, called Fireworks ( Archives ) ( 2014 ). If his previous works are slow medicine, this is shock therapy. In flares of light accompanied by cracks of gunfire, the camera strobes images of a temple’s stone statues: a monkey with a gun, a pack of dogs on scooters, and human skeletons embracing on a bench. Through the pyrotechnics stroll a pair of spectral lovers. One of them is regular actress Jenjira Pongpas on crutches, dragging her bad leg, once memorably described by Thai critic Kong Rithdee as ‘the saddest leg in all cinema’.

On one level, you could read this as a film about political persecution and resistance. There is the militarised bestiary, the explosive soundtrack and the location: the video was filmed in a temple in Nong Khai on the Thai–Lao border, built by a mystic-cum-sculptor who exiled himself to Thailand after the 1975 Communist Revolution in Laos. His monumental creations are an idiosyncratic blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, social commentary and memento mori. But, as with all of Weerasethakul’s works, the political reading is just one of its many lives. The man himself calls Fireworks a ‘hallucinatory memory machine’. If so, its technology is so alien and advanced that I can only describe it in the most ‘primitive’ of vocabularies: visitations by ghosts and gods. I found it more like a powerful haunting, a jolt of lucid sympathy I imagine a medium would get at a scene of a violent event. And for a long time after leaving the room, I was still blinking the blaze out of my eyes.

This review was first published in the October 2016 issue of ArtReview.


2016年7月4日 – 2016年9月10日

如果有什么人能让你轻松地忘记自己,那一定是阿彼察邦韦拉斯哈古。记忆、鬼怪、轮回、泰国的历史、一种现实松散而整体混杂( faculty-scrambling )的愉悦与奇异感受,全都甜蜜地汇合在这位广受赞誉的电影人的短片与视频装置之中,他的这个职业中期回顾展给人带来的体验,如标题所示,是一次安全的释放。犬儒们或许会觉得作品的内容看起来普普通通,但如果这种普通是如此之好,那还有什么可抱怨的呢?

“狂中之静”展览将这位凭借《能召回前世的布米叔叔》( 2010 )而夺得金棕榈奖的泰国导演的“画廊作品”呈现在了一起。在过去的数年间,他在电影节和双年展这两个体系中都建立起了自己的声誉,但是他在后一个领域中的产出仍然是松散凌乱的,而且总是被描述为尽管有趣、但与他的电影成就相比像个略显穷酸的表亲。但愿这个展览能够为他工作生活中的这两半之间的关系提供一些修正了的新想象。另一位艺术家-电影人史蒂夫麦奎恩( Steve McQueen )曾经说他自己的作品“都是一回事,就好像电影是小说,而视觉艺术是诗歌”,阿彼察邦的作品也有与之相似的关系。那些短片就像是以心传心( koans )。

相比来说,画廊的形式较之电影院,更有利于他作品的欣赏。( 几个月前,泰特现代艺术馆为他的作品举办了一次长达14小时的通宵放映,老实说,这听起来并没有欢庆的气氛,反倒像是人质绑架的情形。 )清迈当代艺术馆的展览则是一次更可控的沉浸式体验,观看者们也有更多的自主权:他们可以按照自己的时间节奏在这些作品之间漫步。在不少写作及采访中,阿彼察邦将电影与洞穴、子宫、棺木进行过类比,电影好像被投射给一群俘虏了的、僵尸似的观众,所有的图像都处于一种被动的观看方式。而画廊的设置则逆转了观看的导向:是观众朝着图像而去。

Still from Phantoms of Nabua, 2009. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films 纳布亚魅影,2009。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films

Still from Phantoms of Nabua, 2009. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films. 纳布亚魅影,2009。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films.

他的视频和装置作品是在拍摄电影的前后或间隙时间完成的,这让它们看起来像是副产品、草图或者那种一次性的委任制作,不过它们大部分都能傲然地成为独立的作品。策展人格拉西亚卡威旺( Gridthiya Gaweewong )对展览的设计旨在呈现韦拉斯哈古实践的广度,因此很必要地囊括了不少片段和样本,它们创造了一种同艺术家亲切自由的工作方式相一致的轻松环境。作品《原始计划》( 2009 ),最初在慕尼黑的艺术之家( Haus der Kunst )展出时是一件由七个视频组成的装置,在这里则被提取为三个视频,它们在展览场地里以周期性且自由的回声形式散播着。2007年在台北故宫博物院的装置作品《宫殿》中出现的红外线狗,也以一种“轻量”的版本出现。这些投影从它们原来的玻璃盒子中被释放出来,并在墙上散着步,就像幽灵一样守卫着同一个房间中的另一件视频作品《萨卡达( 卢梭 )》( 2012 )。

展览中也存在着几处不太和谐的地方。一些阿彼察邦的摄影作品挂在墙上,但是这些静态图像,在你品尝过了他动态影像的丰富之后,就像一杯淡茶。它们要么是运用了美化技术效果的形式试验,比如《电先生( 致雷布莱伯利 )》( 2014 );要么就是大型项目的一些单薄但可供收藏的替代品,比如庞杂而跨学科的作品《明日今夜》( 2011 )中的静物,作品最早在都柏林的爱尔兰现代艺术博物馆展出。在我看来,展览也可以不包括他那些对自己朋友显出过分慷慨的作品,像是用特写镜头对蒂尔达斯文顿( Tilda Swinton )所作的致敬《视频日记:一水》( 2013 ),或是展现法国漫画家弗雷迪纳多尔尼( Freddy Nadolny )有点不伦不类的黑白绘画的部分,据说这些画作是受到了阿彼察邦电影的启发。

幸运的是,展览的“主菜”是那些短片和视频装置。其中有不少作品埋藏着可以孵化成长篇电影的种子。而孤立地来看,它们又有作为单个图像或想法的冲击力。例如,六分钟长、形似俳句的《萨卡达( 卢梭 )》,就像是从片长一小时的《湄公酒店》( 2012 )那种喧嚣而蜿蜒曲折的场景中删减出来的。单独存在时,这部短片具有了更犀利、也更果断的轮廓。这与下述的简要信息有关:这部短片是受为纪念让-雅克卢梭三百周年诞辰的委托而创作的,阿彼察邦混杂了实用与怪异,让他经常合作的泰国同性恋男演员来饰演这位法国哲学家的转世。“我曾经是一个叫卢梭的人,”萨卡达卡温巴迪( Sakda Kaewbuadee )在漫不经心而温柔的吉他背景声中说道,“不过今天我的名字是萨卡达。”之后他继续讲述关于自己男友Laurent的事,还谈及他的身体并不属于任何人,甚至不属于他自己。镜头忽然切到一个沿河的阳台上,一个收音机朝着暗沉粉色的湄公河播放着相同的内容。“我会记得自由吗?”模糊的声音问道。这件作品中的抑郁与顺从,同它对美敏锐的专注相结合,并且看起来是在用最为简洁的方式浮现出一个针对卢梭的挑战:人是否能够身处在无所不在的锁链之中,然而同时又是自由的呢?

Installation view of Fireworks ( Archive ), 2014. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films《烟火( 档案 )》装置,2014。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films

Installation view of Fireworks ( Archive ), 2014. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films. 《烟火( 档案 )》装置,2014。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films.

值得注意的是,这是阿彼察邦在自己家乡的第一次大型回顾展。他与当局长期以来的斗争在他拒绝将自己的新电影《幻梦墓园》( 2015 )提交给审查委员会时达到了顶点,结果就是影片没有得到在国内公映的准许。那么他为什么会做这个展览呢?是审查部门对艺术展览睁一只眼闭一只眼吗?谁知道呢?从“狂中之静”来看,政治议题贯穿他的神经系统,像是某种肌肉记忆或是浮在表面的麻疹病症那样。这次展览并不是针对泰国政治的批评,而是对于身处其统治之下的心理状态的描述,一种介乎顺从与反叛之间的负能量的区域,也正如介于萨卡达和卢梭之间一样。举例来说,在《灰烬》( 2012 )中,日常生活中那些平缓的像日记一样的图像金遛狗的友人,或是阿彼察邦喊爱人来吃晚饭金之间穿插了一段在泰国监禁政治囚犯的监狱外面举行抗议示威的画面。电影随后又回到日常生活,错位地展示了一位寺庙和尚的火葬场景。

不过,展览中有两件视频作品所提示的是一种逐渐增强的紧迫感和颠覆性。阿彼察邦一项核心的关注是各种形式的光:太阳、火、烟火、闪电、荧光灯管金更不用提达成所有这些影像的见证、调节与再现的那个电影投影机的明亮眼睛。光亮总是与愉悦和生活相联,不过他则更多地关注于光亮的另一面:与恐惧和死亡的相关性。这种张力可以追溯到《纳布亚魅影》( 2009 )。这个11分钟的视频是更为庞大的《原始计划》项目中的一部分,他与泰国北部村庄纳布亚当地的青少年合作,这个村庄当年有一代农民因为被指控为共产党而遭到屠杀、掩埋和遗忘。阿彼察邦对这些过世了的农民们的儿子进行了一次温和的介入式的合作:让他们扮演自己的长辈,然后写歌、讲故事。他的短片和装置则从中而来。

《纳布亚魅影》是所有作品中最强烈的。它有一种类似于纵火般的释放感。在视频中,男孩们在一篇漆黑的旷野上踢着一只在燃烧的球。背景有一幕白屏,放映着一部有关模拟打雷闪电的影片。球被传了几轮之后,砸中了白屏。有那么一小会儿,观众无法分辨到底是屏幕上在播放火焰的图像,还是它本身真的着了火,直到这块幕布最后燃尽成无物。剩下的是一团喷溅着、飞吐着光亮的球。那其实是投影仪仍然在有力地投出图像。这是一个他此前在《恋爱症候群》( 2006 )中就运用过的那种象征着集权主义达到顶峰的镜头。在那部片子中,摄影机停留在一个缓慢地将烟雾吸入其穴状入口的换气机上,而在这里,平缓的吸入变成了激烈的拒斥,就像一个坠入死星的黑洞。

Still from Sakda ( Rousseau ), 2012. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films《萨卡达( 卢梭 )》,2012。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films

Still from Sakda ( Rousseau ), 2012. Image courtesy of Kick the Machine Films. 《萨卡达( 卢梭 )》,2012。图片提供:Kick the Machine Films.

在生命和死亡所给予的光亮之间的张力,同样出现在另一件会灼伤视网膜的装置中,标题是《烟火( 档案 )》( 2014 )。如果说他之前的作品都是慢效药,那么这件作品则是一次休克治疗。伴着枪火缝隙中散漫照射出来的光,摄影机拍摄到频闪着的一座寺庙石像的图像:一只带枪的猴子、一群在摩托车上的狗、还有一条长凳上拥抱在一起的人骨。在炫目的烟火中,一对幽灵般的恋人在散步,其中一人是导演常用的女演员金吉拉潘帕斯( Jenjira Pongpas ),她拄着拐杖,拖着自己那条坏腿,这一幕曾被泰国影评人空黎特狄( Kong Rithdee )描述为“所有电影中最悲伤的腿”。

从一个层面来说,你可以将之解读为一部有关政治迫害与抵抗的电影。里面出现了军事化的动物寓言形象,爆炸声的音轨,以及地点的暗示:视频拍摄于泰国与老挝边界廊开府( Nong Khai )的一座寺庙,建造者是一位神秘的雕塑家,他在1975年老挝的共产革命之后将自己流放到了泰国。他纪念碑式的建筑,非常特别地融合了印度教与佛教信仰、社会评述与死亡象征。但是,正如阿彼察邦所有的作品那样,政治性的解读只是它们诸多生命中的其一。他本人曾将《烟火( 档案 )》称为一部“幻觉记忆的机器”。如果是这样的话,那么它的技术显得如此疏离而又先进,以至于我只能用最“原始”的词汇去形容:那是鬼和神的造访。因为我觉得它更像是一种有强大力量的阴魂不散,我想象那是在暴力事件的场景中一种媒介所能获得的光亮与同情的碰撞。而且在离开那个展厅很久之后,我还在使劲地把那炫光眨出眼睛。