Burning Denim at MoMA PS1: Korakrit Arunanondchai


Before a packed audience of several hundred at New York’s MoMA PS1 on Sunday afternoon, the artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, shirtless, covered in paint and flanked by his twin brother, sang a Thai pop song as fog machines clouded the air. The two men pressed themselves up against two enormous denim canvases, underneath a video projection of the artist doing the same. The 27-year-old, Thai-born, New York-based artist was performing as part of MoMA PS1’s spring open house; his first solo museum show (through May 25), comprising installations and paintings, is on view there.

Arunanondchai took the stage of the museum’s VW dome accompanied by an eclectic cast of characters. The artist Jaki Doyka sang a wistful pop song, performance artist Boychild writhed and moved in a manner recalling Japanese Butoh dance theater, and Arunanondchai rapped in front of a posse of friends from Thailand (“The Bangkok Boys”) who smoked e-cigarettes and were clad in matching denim outfits. With the performance space at capacity and a pulsing soundtrack in part by New York-based producer Harry Bornstein, with whom Arunanondchai has collaborated in the past, the atmosphere felt at times more like that of a midnight hip hop show than an afternoon of performance art.

In Arunanondchai’s eponymous exhibition, with works spanning the last three years, a similar energy is in effect; viewers lounge on huge piles of denim pillows that are strewn across the floor. The largest work on display is the installation 2012-2555, started in 2011 while Arunanondchai was working toward an MFA at New York’s Columbia University, which he finished in 2012. It comprises a large funeral pyre made of fluorescent lights, flowers and burned paintings on denim; a mannequin enshrouded in denim mocked up to look like the artist; and a two-channel diaristic video. The video shows the artist returning to Thailand (a trip he has made several times in the past few years), visiting the Siam Paragon Mall (which, according to Instagram, is the most Instagrammed place in the world), spending time with his grandparents and musing on his evolution as an artist.

With a nod to Yves Klein and to a body painting routine performed by a go-go dancer on Thailand’s Got Talent, “Untitled (Muen Kuey),” also on view, is a series of colorful burned paintings on denim, a large yellow silhouette of a body occupying the center of each canvas. Arunanondchai made the paintings by applying paint to his body and pressing himself against the canvas, as he did in his performance on Sunday. Another series of paintings, “Untitled (White Temple Paintings),” use images in part sourced from the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat, an architect who designed the temple Wat Rong Khun, in the Thai city of Chiang Rai. Arunanondchai visits the temple in the third part of his video trilogy, Painting with History in a room filled with men with funny names 2 (2557), a version of which is on view but which is still in progress.

Arunanondchai talked with A.i.A. at his Chinatown apartment last Monday to discuss Sunday’s performance and to reflect on his work as a whole.

ALEXANDER SHULAN What is the significance of your decision to use denim as a material in so much of your work?

KORAKRIT ARUNANONDCHAI About two years ago, denim became very popular in Thailand. I started noticing that a lot of people in Thailand would wear denim in a very specific way, being very particular about the way it is hemmed, the different fades, etc. I like the idea of denim being used in fashion as something that people wear to say they are individual, whereas in fact everyone looks the same. There’s something democratic about it as a material. Also, a personal point of entry for me is that there is this flea market in Thailand, JJ Market, that I’ve spent a lot of time at-it’s the biggest flea market in southeast Asia, where a lot of young people hang out-where there’s this whole denim section. As I began to work with it as a material, it also became part of my own personal style, so in that way the denim paintings are a direct expression of myself.

SHULAN Is there a specific relationship between your paintings and your videos?

ARUNANONDCHAI I would say that for each video I’ve done it’s different. At times, the paintings are almost like posters that you can collect from the movies. In the series “Untitled (Muen Kuey),” some of the paintings were literally created in the video. Essentially with that series, I’m taking someone else’s work and making it my own. Those are the paintings made with body paint that this Thai go-go dancer got paid to do on Thailand’s Got Talent. I reenact her performance as part of the process of making the work. In my third video, I visit this temple and there’s footage of the artist [Kositpipat] who designed it. He also made paintings with the same design. I kind of don’t like his position; being the most public artist in Thailand, he is regularly on TV and has this public position where he states “I am the most important Thai artist.” I like the idea that I can be the student of this artist whose audience is primarily tourists, and I can make paintings after him that are a very generic stereotypical Thai image, a Thai pattern and some gold leaf.

SHULAN So your paintings were kind of a challenge to him?

ARUNANONDCHAI I don’t know if they were a challenge, but I wanted to bring his work into the framework of international contemporary art. I feel a need to connect things, as I feel very disconnected, having two very different lives in two very different places. I wanted to connect the work of this artist, whose work is very much a subject of tourism, to something international. Bangkok is the most visited city in the world, and in Thailand, tourism has really saturated so much of the culture. The people visiting the temple are almost entirely tourists or people who aren’t necessarily interested in contemporary art. When you go to the places that look the most quintessentially Thai, they are often the most touristy. Tourism and the view of a tourist are really central to how I think about my work. It’s very important to me that it’s being shown at MoMA PS1 and that lots of Thai people see it.

SHULAN When you work on your paintings, do you have a final product in mind?

ARUNANONDCHAI When I’m working on the paintings, as they are flat on the ground, I don’t even know how aware I am of the composition. I can’t control how the denim looks when it is bleached, and I am literally throwing lighter fluid on the paintings. I reached a point where I didn’t want to make pictures anymore. I don’t want to be in control.