Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Serenity of Madness’: a review

The first retrospective of the Palme d'Or-winning Thai auteur’s short films and other gallery-based work reveals the true expansiveness of his imagemaking

Max Crosbie-Jones
July 20, 2016
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Serenity of Madness’: a review

The first retrospective of the Palme d’Or-winning Thai auteur’s short films and other gallery-based work reveals the true expansiveness of his imagemaking

apichatpong weerasethakul
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s retrospective, ‘Serenity of Madness’, is showing now at Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum. Credit: Passapak Klomsakul, Supernormal Studio

Grey stone skeletons flicker in the darkness as firecrackers ring out like gunfire. A red silhouette of a dog flits back and forth. Young soldiers at a windowsill take pot-shots at an unidentified figure ambling through long grass. A man’s spirit sits up and calmly walks away from his sleeping body.
The first museum retrospective of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work – showing on the ground floor of Chiang Mai’s new MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum until September 10 – is a discombobulating experience, showcasing the director’s ability to turn his sublimated frustrations and personal impulses into baffling cine-poems. And to think: there’s not a feature film in sight.
Serenity of Madness is a coming home of sorts, reaffirming Weerasethakul’s Thai roots (he lives on the outskirts of Chiang Mai) only months after he announced to international media that he won’t be releasing his latest movie Cemetery of Splendour in Thailand, or making any more feature films there for the time being due to the climate of censorship under ongoing military rule. It also does something that no exhibition of his work has done before: introduces us to the body of contemporary artworks beyond his feature films, from experimental 16mm films made when he studied in Chicago to digital videos, video installations, photography and prints.
In selecting 27 of these works, alongside copies of Weerasethakul’s old scripts, reference books and personal photos, curator Gridthiya Gaweewong has created a discursive sensory-bath of a show full of insights and idiosyncrasies. It’s sure to win plaudits as its travels the world (it will show at Hong Kong’s Para Site art centre after MAIIAM next, then in Manila, Europe and the US). But for now, here at MAIIAM, its power is being enhanced by a display on the second floor of around 50 works drawn from the collection of its owners, the Bunnag family. Among them are works by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and the late Montien Boonma, among other Thai conceptual artists to whom he owes a hat tip.
You might assume that the frequency at which Weerasethakul makes these sorts of smaller artworks has decreased as his stature has grown (and keeps on growing: just recently he became the first Thai to be invited to join the Oscars Academy’s voting board). But this is not the case. In recent years, short films, installations and photography projects have become more important to him, not less. That’s partly because, on a pragmatic level, they are easier and cheaper to make than his highly personal, no-star feature films (winning the Palme d’Or has not made finagling funding any easier), but it’s also because these “abstract ways of expression” play an intrinsic role in his creative process. Some serve as thematic precursors, or catalysts, for his movies (“they’re emotional research and real research,” he told me last November). Others are descendents that come together during or after them.
Many of the mood pieces on show here possess the same supernatural width and mesmeric strangeness that has won his movies legions of fans (as well as their detractors). But having said that, something is missing: I could find little of the levity that his movies offer up, and experienced none of the what-just-happened bamboozlement (for the talking monkeys, ape-ghosts and scene of a princess enjoying cunnilingus from a catfish, stick to his DVDs).
There are key moments on show, such as 1994’s Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves – a grainy 16mm blitzkrieg of Bangkok street life and radio show chatter. And there are also plenty of completist-only curios, from TEEM (mobile phone footage of a sleeping man), to video diary, One Water (evocative footage of British actress Tilda Swinton on a beach); and Windows (an early and formative experiment with light). While they shed light on Weerasethakul’s highly collaborative creative process and recurrent themes, these and other vignettes merely hint at greatness.
But other works rank alongside his very best. Created for the 2013 edition of the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, Dilbar is a black-and-white film exploring spiritual dislocation and migration there. It is truly hypnotic; the disembodied soul of a Bengali construction worker haunts these scorched images of dusty streets, shoebox bedrooms and throbbing workshops.
And then there’s Fireworks (Archives), a seven-minute assault of hallucinatory footage that brings the strong political undertow in his work of late to the surface—and stands as incontrovertible proof of his skills as a white-cube video installation artist. In it, we see a middle-aged lady on crutches (his go-to actress Jenjira Pongpas Widner) walking through a mystical sculpture park in Thailand’s northeast; a petrified menagerie of stone skeletons, dogs, monkeys and ghouls being lit up by the flash of loud firecrackers; and sepia photographs of men. Projected from two sides of the room onto black gossamer-thin fabric, these and other images ricochet back and forth across the room, creating a tense phantasmagoria of what is unmistakably political persecution and horror.
Watching this descendant from Cemetery of Splendour, in which Laotian artist Bunleua Sulilat’s Sala Keoku Park also appears, we’re reminded of how singularly Weerasethakul gives voice to the marginalised or forgotten, be they the disenfranchised or, in this case, dead communists. Here in the clinical galleries of MAIIAM, as in the darkened cinema, his capacity to summon rebel ghosts and strange forces remains unsurpassed, both thought-provoking and utterly immersive.
Serenity of Madness runs through September 10 at Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum

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