I vividly recall my first encounter with work by Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, at the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. Her video I’m Living (2002), unobtrusively displayed on a small monitor at the Hagia Sophia, was like nothing I’d ever seen. From above, you see a girl’s corpse lying face up, with arms slightly outstretched, legs slightly apart and head turned toward the right; she wears a light pink nightgown. Kneeling, Rasdjarmrearnsook gently arranges different colorful dresses atop the corpse. She’s like a child dressing a cherished doll, but with an air of solemnity and ritual. Death and life, absolute stillness and purposeful activity converge in this enthralling, yet profoundly unsettling, communion between a live woman and a female corpse. Projected onto the floor at SculptureCenter, the video was a captivating introduction to the excellent survey of Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work from 2002 to the present.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s background is in printmaking and sculpture, but in the late 1990s she began making videos and films, including her internationally acclaimed works featuring corpses. The Class I, The Class II and The Class III (all 2005) are videos showing the artist (who lives in Chiang Mai, in North Thailand, and is a professor at the renowned art school at Chiang Mai University) delivering lectures about death to a classroom of corpses. Her “students” are, alas, experts, while she has only speculative knowledge; she appears exasperated when no one answers her questions (“What are you thinking?” “What do dead people want?”). Her curiosity about and palpable compassion for the dead—surely the most voiceless of human subjects—make these multivalenced investigations of mortality utterly compelling.
Elsewhere, Rasdjarmrearnsook approaches marginal members of society with openness and empathy. The willfully blurry three-channel video installation Great Time Message: Storytellers of the Town (2006) shows women in a psychiatric hospital speaking about their memories, stories, dreams, aspirations and enduring sadness. This work unflinchingly deals with issues of gender, power and coercion, while implicitly questioning who is deemed normal or abnormal, and why. These insane women actually make a great deal of sense, and their soliloquies are poetic and touching. Three digital pigment prints from Rasdjarmrearnsook’s “Two Planets” series show Thai villagers from behind as they sit and contemplate framed copies of famous Western paintings, including Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners (1857). Europe and Asia, high Western art and Thai village life, 19th-century agrarian workers and current farmers are juxtaposed.
Dogs were a big deal in this exhibition, and Rasdjarmrearnsook lives with many of the ones shown, having rescued them from the perilous streets where dogs are often captured and butchered. In the video Pray, bless us with rice and curry our great moon (2012), dogs are distinct individuals, with subtitles providing information about them as they frolic about a festive backyard party/barbecue, excitedly prance and wag, walk to the sea, and occasionally wear what are called spirit lanterns on their backs. inter-spersed are horrific scenes of dogs crammed into cages and destined for death. Shown on pedestals nearby were three glass jars housing dog fur and small photos. Each jar serves as a portrait of one of Rasdjarmrearnsook’s stray dogs, and conveys utmost love and respect.
The showstopper for me was Some unexpected events sometimes bring momentary happiness (2009), a slow-motion, silent, black-and-white video of a crippled dog bounding about a yard, its hindquarters sagging. According to the artist, the dog inexplicably rose and ran around for a day. Pain, joy, suffering, pleasure and transcendence combine in an entrancing video that seems spiritually wise.
The Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook is perhaps best known for her video documentation of performances in which she chants, sings and reads to cadavers in a hospital morgue. Since 2008, however, she has been engaged with an entirely different subject: the intercultural translatability of artworks and the demystification of Western art. Her first solo exhibition in New York showcased four videos and several related digital prints.
“Two Planets” (2008–09) is a series of subtitled video vignettes in which large-scale reproductions of iconic 19th-century Western paintings are placed in front of Thai villagers. Seated on the ground with their backs to the camera, the country folk try to make sense of the images, though they frequently digress, their interpretations transforming quickly into local gossip and bawdy jokes.
Confronted with Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863), the viewers say that the central female figure, sitting naked outdoors with two clothed men, must be a “floozy”; they discuss her “saggy breasts” and striking face, which resembles “fresh chicken droppings, so white and soft,” and compare the male sitters to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
In analyzing Millet’s Gleaners (1857), the villagers observe that the three women “take care of their feet better than their faces,” and also wonder where their husbands are. Their sincerity and lack of pretension offer an implicit challenge to the art-informed, revealing that the planet is indeed split in two, as the series title implies, or at least into contrasting pairs-urban/rural, rich/poor, academic/philistine, high/low.
In one work from Rasdjarmrearnsook’s more recent video series, “Village and Elsewhere” (2011), an art handler shuffles a giant reproduction of Jeff Koons’s Wolfman (1991)—a photographic image showing Koons having sex with his then wife Cicciolina-through two markets in Thailand. Onlookers giggle, shop owners exclaim and at one point someone covers the image with a sheet (despite the fact that Rasdjarmrearnsook had already hidden Koons’s testicles with a bright green fig leaf).
Another video from this series was, by far, the show’s most conceptually complex work. In it, a bald Buddhist monk in a traditional robe teaches an “art history” lesson to an audience of adults, young children and dogs-all of whom sit before reproductions of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (ca. 1612) and an untitled Koons work (1988). The latter shows the artist surrounded by two scantily clad women, one of them touching a bizarre, seemingly braying animal’s head that faces outward from Koons’s groin.
In an effort to explain what are clearly befuddling images for him, the monk turns for inspiration to the Five Precepts of Dharma, which disallow murder and sexual promiscuity—both visible in the images. Once again, the transcultural encounter upends local wisdom as well as sanctioned Western art historical meanings, suggesting that our global times require not singular interpretations but rather multiple, context-dependent views.
Photo: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Two Planets: Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and the Thai Villagers, 2008, video, 18 minutes; at Tyler Rollins.