– Spring/Summer 2019

Water is Never Still: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's Sculptural and Installation Practice

Clare Veal

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, In the pool of still water, there is a yearning for the torrential flow of the big river, 2009, photograph and video. Courtesy the artist and 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok

The sea is dark and wide, the sky peppered with white clouds.1 The female figure’s male companion is perched in front of her, his long tail penetrating the frame that dictates her view. She stares beyond him, to an ocean found between disembodied legs, splayed wide. Night comes and the male bird takes flight, in and out of the frame. Now that he has left, she can see the moon’s reflection on the ocean. Submitting to his movements with open arms, her head is motionless, but the water is never still. Isolated Moral Female Object, in a Relationship with a Male Bird I and II, both made in 1995, represent characteristics that are paradigmatic of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s installation and sculptural practice of the early and mid-1990s: disembodied body parts cast in plaster, androgynous heads with generic features and repurposed domestic furniture. In the 1990s, Araya’s installations gained international and national acclaim, as indicated in her two solo shows at Thailand’s National Gallery (1994 and 1995) and her inclusion in a number of major international exhibitions.2 This fact might be explained through these works’ apparent convergence with

  1. This title draws from Araya’s text published to accompany her solo exhibition at the National Gallery, Bangkok in 1994. See Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, ‘Nam Mai Ning (Water Is Never Still)’, in Solo Exhibition (exh. cat.), Bangkok: National Gallery, 1994. I would like to thank Roger Nelson for his insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

  2. These include 1st Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (1993); 1st Johannesburg Biennial (1995); 10th Biennale of Sydney (1996); and ‘Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions’, Asia Society, Queens Museum and Grey Art Gallery New York (1996–97).

  3. For instance, Araya’s installations have been analysed in conjunction with those of her former colleague at Chiang Mai University, Montien Boonma (1953–2000). See, for example, Leigh Toop, ‘Installation Art from Thailand: Extending the Discourse on Installation Art’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Canberra: Australian National University, 2009. Araya and Montien’s works were exhibited together in the Thai Pavilion for the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) entitled, ‘Those Dying Wishing to Stay, Those Living Preparing to Leave’. Araya’s contribution comprised a series of video works in which she converses with corpses entitled, Conversation I, II and III (2005).

  4. Examples of scholarly analyses of these works include Arnika Fuhrmann, Ghostly Desires: Queer Sexuality and Vernacular Buddhism in Contemporary Thai Cinema, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016, pp.164–65 and Sayan Daengklom, ‘Waeo Siang Krading Kring Krung Khlung Klin Wa…“Chan Chue Araya”’ (A Faint Sound of Fragrant Poetry… “My Name is Araya”), Art Record, vol.9, no.23, 2003, pp.26–31. Partially republished in, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: In this circumstance, the sole object of attention should be the treachery of the moon (exh. cat.), Bangkok: ARDEL Gallery of Modern Art, 2009.

  5. On the negative reactions to Araya’s video works that deal with corpses, see A. Fuhrmann, Ghostly Desires, op. cit., p.164.

  6. See John Clark, ‘The Thai Avant-Garde and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Visual Work’, in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Storytellers of the Town (exh. cat.), Sydney: 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, 2014, p.15. In addition to Araya’s exhibitions at the National Gallery previously mentioned, her major solo shows include: ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’, SculptureCenter, New York (2015); ‘Storytellers of the Town: Works by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and University of Sydney Gallery, Sydney (2014); ‘Two Planets’, Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York (2012); ‘In this Circumstance the Sole Object of Attention Should be the Treachery of the Moon’, Gallery of Modern Art, Bangkok (2009); ‘Why is it Poetry Rather than Awareness’, National Gallery, Bangkok (2002); ‘At Nightfall Candles are Lighted’, Chulalongkorn University Art Gallery, Bangkok (2000); and ‘Lament of Desire’, ArtPace, San Antonio and the Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery, Chiang Mai University (1998–99). Her installations and videos have also been included in major group exhibitions and biennials including: ‘No Country: Contemporary Art from South and Southeast Asia’, Guggenheim Museum, New York (2013); dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel (2012); 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010); ‘Those Dying Wishing to Stay, Those Living Preparing to Leave’, 51st Venice Biennale (2005); and 54th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2004).

  7. See May Adadol Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Late Style and Chiang Mai Social Installation’, in David Teh and David Morris (ed.), Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992–98, London: Afterall, 2018, p.256.

  8. For instance, outlining Araya’s artistic career via her interest in different mediums at various times, David Teh has posited, ‘But by the late ’90s, a decisive engagement with video had begun to yield her most compelling work, marking a pronounced departure from allegory in favor of more direct encounters with social reality.’ D. Teh, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary, Singapore: NUS Press, 2017, p.154. It is not my intention here to suggest that this evaluation is incorrect. Indeed, it was clearly reflected in Araya’s retrospective at the SculptureCenter in New York, which ‘accorded a central place to [her] work on death’ and did not include any of her installations produced prior to her adoption of video. A. Fuhrmann, Ghostly Desires, op. cit., p.164. Nevertheless, I hope that by shifting the framework through which these practices are apprehended, their significance in relation to her present work might be reevaluated.

  9. Thai names follow Thai convention in referring to first name after first mention; the only exception is May Adadol Ingawanij, generally referred to by surname.

  10. Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited’, op. cit., p.259.

  11. My focus on questions of reading in this text is informed by a masterclass run by Ashley Thompson as part of the ‘Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories’ symposium held at the University of Sydney, 11–13 October 2017.

  12. Sayan Daengklom as referenced in A. Fuhrmann, Ghostly Desires, op. cit., p.171.

  13. See Araya, ‘Rueang Nai Hong (Stories in Rooms)’, in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Solo Exhibition (exh. cat.), Bangkok: National Gallery Thailand, 1992.

  14. See Araya as quoted in Apinan Poshyananda, ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: The Bitter Taste of a Private World’, Art and Asia Pacific, vol.2, no.3, 1995, pp. 82–86.

  15. See Helen Michaelsen, ‘Traces of Memory: The Art of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’, in Dinah Dysart and Hannah Fink (ed.), Asian Women Artists, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, p.71.

  16. Araya explains this in the interview, ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Nam Mai Ning (Water Is Never Still)’, Dichan, vol.19, no.448, October 1995, p.121. See also, J. Clark ‘A Chronology of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’, in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Storytellers of the Town, op. cit., p.123.

  17. See, for example, L. Toop, ‘Installation Art from Thailand’, op. cit., p.218.

  18. See Araya, ‘Nam (Water)’, in Phuying Tawanok (Women of the East), Bangkok: Samanchon, 1993, pp.57–65.

  19. See Araya, Solo Exhibition (exh. cat.), Bangkok: National Gallery, 1995. I first discussed these issues in Clare Veal, ‘Can the Girl be a Thai Woman? Reading the Works of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook from Feminist Perspectives’, in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Storytellers of the Town, op. cit., pp.63–64.

  20. See the interview, ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: A Woman Who Has Her Affection for Death (The Female Artist Who Loves to Satirise and Irritate)’ (trans. Judha Su and ed. J. Clark), in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Storytellers of the Town, op. cit., pp.116–17.

  21. ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Nam Mai Ning (Water Is Never Still)’, op. cit., p.123.

  22. Curated by Apinan Poshyananda at the Asia Society and Queens Museum in New York City.

  23. Lynne Cooke, ‘Contemporary Art in Asia. New York’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.139, no.1128, March 1997, p.224.

  24. Araya reflected on the physical reliance of objects on their supports in this work in an interview with Leigh Toop. Quoted in L. Toop, ‘Installation Art from Thailand’, op. cit., p.212.

  25. Araya recounts this in D. Teh and D. Morris (ed.), Artist-to-Artist, op. cit., p.174.

  26. In his review of ‘Traditions/Tensions’, Paisal Theerapongvisanuporn noted the emphasis on installations in the exhibition. See Paisal Theerapongvisanuporn, ‘Muea Sinlapa Samaimai Khong Aesia Pai Kritkray Nai Niw York (When Contemporary Asian Art Struts to New York)’, Hi-Class Magazine, vol.14, no.157, May 1997, p.108. Similarly, Patrick D. Flores has highlighted the significance of the ‘installative’ in the context of ‘Chiang Mai Social Installation’. See P.D. Flores, ‘A Changing World: Phases of the Installative in Southeast Asia’, in D. Teh and D. Morris (ed.), Artist-to-Artist, op. cit., p.278.

  27. Julie Ewington, ‘Five Elements: An Abbreviated Account of Installation Art in Southeast Asia’, Art AsiaPacific, vol.2, no.1, 1995, pp.108–15. See also the Bangkok Post’s review of ‘Thai Tensions’, a forerunner to ‘Traditions/Tensions’, which emphasised Northern Thailand as the ‘source’ of the materials used in Buang. Pattara Danutra, ‘Commentary on the Modern Situation’, Bangkok Post: Outlook, 8 September 1995, p.34.

  28. P.D. Flores, ‘A Changing World’, op. cit., p.278.

  29. Araya, ‘Interview with Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, an artist and critic based in Chiang Mai and Kamol Phaosawasdi though email and fax, 15–30 March 2001’, in Dilemma: Kamol Phaosavasdi (exh. cat.), Bangkok: Project 304 and Art Centre, Centers of Academic Resources, Chulalongkorn University, 2001, p.44.

  30. Ibid., p.45.

  31. Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited’, op. cit., p.262.

  32. Ibid., p.260.

  33. Araya, ‘Sangkhom Suan Tua (Personal Society)’, in (Phom) Pen Silapin ((I) am an Artist), Bangkok: Samnak Phim Matichon, 2005, pp.56–57.

  34. On the non-applicability of ‘Western’ feminism to the work of Thai women artists see Somporn Rodboon, ‘Issues of Thai Contemporary Women Artists’, in Lee Weng Choy (ed.), The 3rd ASEAN Workshop, Exhibition and Symposium on Aesthetics, Singapore: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, 1995, pp.122–23.

  35. Christine V. McDonald and Jacques Derrida, ‘Choreographies’, Diacritics, vol.12, no.2, 1982, p.68.

  36. Araya, ‘Naenam Tua (Introducing Oneself)’, in (Phom) Pen Silapin ((I) am an Artist), op. cit., p.24.

  37. C. V. McDonald and J. Derrida, ‘Choreographies’, op. cit., pp.69–70. This also has resonances with Ingawanij’s extrapolations of the ways in which Araya’s late style remains ‘unreconciled with the present, figured as an indeterminate capacity to do and equally not do’. M. Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited’, op. cit., p.263.

  38. Araya, ‘Nam Mai Ning (Water Is Never Still)’, op. cit., translation adjusted by author.

  39. Paisal, ‘Ruprang Khwamkit Khong Khon Sinlapa Thangmot Chak Nitatsakan Traditions/Tensions (The Forms and Ideas of Every Artist in the Exhibition ‘Traditions/Tensions’)’, Sisan, vol.9, no.3, January 1997, p.38.

  40. The risk that Araya’s work may be interpreted in terms of ‘“Western" gendered concepts of genius’ is pointed out in Brian Curtin, ‘Queering Postnational Tendencies in Contemporary Art from Thailand’, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, vol.1, no.2, October 2017, p.138. Araya recalls a situation in which a visiting woman academic told her about the criticism she had heard from other (male) lecturers about Araya’s work. As the visiting academic recounted: ‘he said that Araya will never grow up. She makes art about her father, mother, grandfather and grandmother… It’s boring.’ See Araya, ‘Sangkhom Suan Tua (Personal Society)’, op. cit., p.59.

  41. This phrase was used by Araya in response to a question about the ways in which her grandmother’s experiences informed her understanding of relations between men and women. Araya, email conversation with J. Clark and C. Veal, October 2014. Similarly, in the catalogue for ‘Thai Tensions’, Araya related the ‘specialness’ of the individual artist to ‘the way that he/she carries his/her heavy load, grasping to find connections and possessing fear’. Araya, ‘Buang (Trap)’, in Thai Tensions (exh. cat.), Bangkok: Art Center, Center of Academic Resouces, Chulalongkorn University, 1995, p.9, translation adjusted by the author.

  42. A. Fuhrmann, Ghostly Desires, op. cit., p.183, emphasis mine.

  43. I also anticipate that Theravada Buddhist notions of ‘non-self’ might also play into this, although I do not have space to fully pursue this thread in this text.

  44. See, for example, the video work The Cruel (2018), exhibited as part of ‘An Artist is Trying to Return to “Being a Writer”’ in which male students re-enact the various criticisms levied at Araya’s work throughout her career.

  45. The use of mise en abyme in Araya’s installations and videos has also been identified in Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited’, op. cit., p.260. The description of this video as ‘family time’ is drawn from ‘Artist Profile: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook on “The Treachery of the Moon”’, Guggenheim Museum, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xExZtNUJGHk (last accessed on 5 December 2018).

  46. The 2010 UDD protests were sparked by the Thai supreme court’s decision to seize the frozen assets of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin’s democratically elected government was ousted in a military coup in 2006. This was instigated following protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (‘Yellow Shirts’) who claimed that Thaksin’s government was corrupt and aimed to undermine the status of the Thai monarchy.

  47. ‘Artist Profile: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook on “The Treachery of the Moon”’, op. cit. John Clark has written about the relationship between the private and public in Araya’s video practice from a different perspective than that outlined here. See, J. Clark, Asian Modernities: Chinese and Thai Art Compared, 1980 to 1999, Sydney: Power Publications, 2010, p.118.

  48. Araya, ‘In the Pool of Still Water There is a Yearning for the Torrential Stream of the Big River’, in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: In this Circumstance, op. cit., translator not credited.