Korakrit Arunanondchai is fast becoming one of the most widely talked about young artists in New York. Maybe this is in part because much of his source material comes from his perhaps slightly off-kilter perspective of American culture that stems from his upbringing in Buddhist-centric Thailand. Though off-kilter, with its over-celebratory swirls of paint-covered bodies and denim-covered canvases complete with rock music and head-banging, Korakrit’s is also a clear vision of the ways that his native Thailand and the dominant American, youth-obsessed culture that is pouring out of New York and Los Angeles via every imaginable social media network, overlap and confuse one another.
His recent exhibition, Letters to Chantri #1: The lady at the door/the gift that keeps on giving, was on view at the newly renovated Mistake Room in Los Angeles. It functions more like a guided tour through a Disney-inspired mini-theme park than an exhibition of sculpture and video. For this, the first of an ongoing project that will continue to be played out in exhibitions around the world, he collaborated with L.A.-based performance artist, Boychild. Boychild plays the main character in the first of many segments of video that will eventually be spliced together to create one feature length film that tells an over-arching story through the use of character’s flashbacks. Throughout our conversation this August in Krit’s Brooklyn studio he repeatedly revealed to me the ways in which his work is enacted by way of various overlaps and collisions of, on the one hand large corporate and religious entities, and on the other hand, the minute ways such forces affect daily life and slowly, gradually morph them from one thing that we think we understand and recognize into another, less familiar thing that is consistently reshaped by way of its juxtapositions and contexts.
I see that you have a lot of new work that is being sent to London for a show that will open September 16th at Carlos/Ishikawa right now. Is this upcoming show the next part of the exhibition series that kicked off with your current show at the Mistake Room in Los Angeles?
Well, chronologically this body of work for the show in London came before the show at the Mistake Room. I think its actually cooler that way, that the show in L.A. opened first even though I made this work for the London show prior to that opening, because now, weirdly, even though they’re not exactly connected to each other, its almost like I already have the documentation of what I have done in LA and I am able to collapse a future project into one that has already taken place, or has at least begun.
So how does this body of work that will be going to London, titled 2557 (Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names 2) differ from the show at the Mistake Room, even though it was somehow formative for you to have had the opportunity to install the L.A. show first and work off of the documentation that has accumulated from it since the opening on the show at Carlos/Ishikawa?
Well for the London show there will be three videos that create a trilogy, but the next step is that I just want to make one feature length movie. Basically its structure will be based on the TV show Lost, where there are a bunch of characters and they all come together within one storyline, but each character has their own segment that is a flashback. So from now on I will focus each project that I do on one character within that storyline. The first character that was the central figure of the show at the Mistake Room was the one that Boychild played.
And is that character the protagonist of the whole story overall?
No. It is one of the main characters, but there will probably be about seven altogether. The main character is this girl named Chantri, so that is why in the show at Mistake Room the title is Letters to Chantri #1. It is about her journey to America to find this guy that she met on the Internet. It is also based loosely on this lecture that this very famous temple in Thailand came up with that says that when Steve Jobs died he actually joined their religion. So the movie, and the character of Chantri is based loosely on the reality of that possibility—even though it is not really about that at all in the storyline—but it pulls elements out of that whole idea.
I see. How does this upcoming show in London compare to the show in L.A. in terms of the multi-disciplinarity and experientialism that is imbued into the Mistake Room project? In the press release for that show it explicitly states that it is an important turning point in your practice in that it is the first time that you have been able to show many different kinds of work all together within one exhibition (including paintings, sculpture, video, performance, etc.).
That is important to me. In this show in London there will be paintings, three videos, a book that you can read, and bean bags and massage chairs where people can spend time and relax, so the idea is that it will not just be a place that you go to stand and walk around and look at art but also a place that you can go to have other kinds of experiences as well. But in London I will not be doing a performance at the gallery. Instead I will do one at ICA that will still be connected to the 2557 show.
I’m really into the idea of imagining if my exhibitions were kind of a crossover between different kinds of experiences, like if they could embody almost a lifestyle branding mentality. It has this kind of cloud structure where no one thing, or piece, is a specific product or brand, but it’s more like one seamless filter that everything that is perceived goes through so that it appears in a certain recognizable way.
I think that a lot of references that I have pooled for this show in London have to do with a semi-superficial layer of how tourism is constructed and functions within Thailand, so that’s where things like soft-pillow seating and massage chairs get integrated into the installations. Everything within the tourism schema in Thailand has to fit into this specific framework of “good hospitality.”
I see what you mean. I am wondering if a part of the tourism economy there also has to do with trying to make the country overly exotic?
Hmm. I don’t think that they do that, but they definitely push the hospitality thing really hard.
Oh. So maybe actually that is their way of trying to employ an opposing strategy where as a tourist they try to make people feel so comfortable—just like they are at home?
Right, and they are always trying to give you way too many options and trying to give people a million activities to do at all times, like, “you can eat your seafood and then get a massage—and then have a beer while you get your massage!” It’s very maximalist and very much trying to present you with all of the options of experiences that are potentially available to you and then making you feel as though they are all accessible immediately all at once. But in a way that flattens any experience that you might potentially have as a visitor in a strange place. They make it seems as though you can do all of those different things but they are all part of once larger experience that they are selling to you. Everything is a package deal, so it seems like it is harder to be a tourist there than it may be in other countries because everything is so streamlined.
So in that sense they are really caricaturizing the version or perspective that outsiders can see or retain of what life is like there?
Interesting. However, in the press release for the show at the Mistake Room it describes a project that is less interested in the idea of tourism and more on how the country’s history is today being negotiated, not that the two are totally separate from one another, since many people probably visit Thailand because of its rich history.
Yeah, the show there is basically a combination of on the one hand what I learned from going to this one temple known as the White Temple or Heaven on Earth and really studying its strategies for PR and recruitment and the ways that it brands itself. I think that the strategies that they are using are somewhat similar to the ways that we see contemporary art installations behaving or attracting visitors, and then also at the same time the temple has their own very specific methods for how they set everything up, like the ways that they arrange their meditation rooms, for example.
Interesting . . .
At the same time there is this idea of Apple as a company and lifestyle. So the show at the Mistake Room loosely borrows from the ways that things function and become presentations in each of these three environments—the art world, the massive Buddhist temple, and Apple. I think that the show successfully became a combination of these things. It’s hard to get a full sense of it just from watching the video, but when you visit the space and go through the exhibition the whole thing is so structured so that it is really akin to something like going to Disneyland. You wait in one room and then you watch a sort of promotional video and then you are ushered into another room, and you have a guide the whole time.
Oh wow, I did not realize that there was a guide and everything.
Yeah, I really wanted it to feel like an informational kind of tour. The first video that you see when you go into the space actually functions more like an infomercial, where I introduce myself as a “real life” person whose life is so amazing now that I have been introduced to this certain product, which is this bar of soap that is the centerpiece of the fountain sculpture in the middle of the exhibition.
Yes, I wanted to get to the soap at some point and ask how you came to choose that specific item.
Ok, well, then when you move on into the rest of the show you see another video that is like a fictional version of the story that I just told in the infomercial of how I became introduced to the product, the soap.
I see, so, why soap?
Well there are many reasons really, but I wanted to present the concept for this show as a mock collaboration between me “the artist” and this company. And I kind of wanted the collaboration to seem as though the company was exploiting me, the artist, kind of like how companies like Absolut Vodka or something sponsors an artist’s show or project or something and then they have to design a bottle for them or then they have a concept store together or something. So, since I had this denim body-painting project that was kind of messy and artsy, I wanted to come up with an idea for a company that represented the opposite of that. The idea of a soap company is meant to kind of call out the practice of painting as being really messy and dirty and associating that dirtiness with pain. That somehow painting represents all of the emotions and difficulties that one goes through in daily life and that painting and being messy is a way of expelling those kinds of toxins from one’s mind. And then the soap company relates to the ways that the temple in Thailand was used as a model of sorts for this show in that it represents meditation and a cleansing of the mind. It is a way to empty out and rid oneself of all of that filth that is accumulated through the act of painting. That is why I refer to the soap as the gift that keeps on giving, even though actually it is the gift that keeps on taking.
Well, I can see how you can think of it as being an entity that is taking something, since often emotion and pain is what impels creativity and productivity, but at the same time I also see it as propelling that productivity because it one doesn’t sort of cleanse or slough off some of that messy emotional baggage it is difficult to move forward and continue to produce. Do you see it that way at all?
Yes that is true too. For me it is kind of like the idea of simulacra that functions as reality, so it works, technically, but nonetheless it is fake. This whole show is very fake even though I think that it has been successful in allowing viewers to have some sort of feeling of being cleansed.
So, what is this particular bar of soap?
I really wanted to find one that was very clear and didn’t have any kind of branding or color or anything on it because it is meant to represent something very serene. And there are two women that trade off days being in the space and they act as docents, or hosts. One of them is actually the woman who is in the video, so when she is there you as a viewer are really being immersed into the whole installation because at the end of the “tour” of the show that she guides you through, she hands each viewer a bar of the same soap that she gives to Boychild in the video and that is also used in the sculpture.
Oh wow—that is amazing!
Yeah it’s cool because it creates a very specific sort of path that people have to move within in the space, so the viewers are really not totally free to just roam around and do whatever they want, like the tourists that get taken on a certain ride that comes with some package that they buy. You are really seeing the show from a specific perspective that is pre-determined for you.
I understand now so much more clearly what the press release is referring to when it says that this show is a departure in terms of the immersive and experiential, kind of all-encompassing way that you have put all for the individual works together. Here they are really all working toward one common goal. I mean this is obviously very different from doing a performance once at some point during the duration of an exhibition—this is an exhibition that is entirely contingent upon a constant performance, around which everything else sort of hinges.
Yes, I feel like I had to go through all of the things in my own life that lead up to this show at Mistake Room in order for it to be able to have been made, so it is sort of like a show of documentation of other things in my life in a way.
Wow, is that also how you envision your upcoming projects as you go forward with the ongoing series that began with the Mistake Room show?
No, not necessarily. Now I have a plan, with this structure that will resemble Lost, so each installation will follow the context for each one of the characters that I am focusing on. In this first one, Boychild plays an agent who works for a company and the video is her flashback that shows how she first joined the company, so in that context it makes sense that her story would fit into the format of a commercial. But they may not all end up taking that format depending on the stories that each video tells.
Oh, ok. But it continues to be important to you that the project maintains this sort of episodic or chapter-by-chapter structure?
I guess so. These structures that I am describing are always pretty loose, but in general I like works that function in ways that appear to be very close to how life really is, or how life really plays out.
In this case, the way that life is is that most of us are often watching TV and TV often has a serialism that keeps the story going and going . . .?
That’s true. One thing that I feel is really important about my work is that for me, process-wise, it, as a work in and of itself, ages and also accumulates relationships. Time is involved in all of my work and becomes a key factor to the way that the work functions. Time is a material that I use—it is sort of similar to that movie Boyhood in a way I guess. So the way that I am making this trilogy is actually like a parallel to my real life. It took three years, and so it really is a document of the last three years of my life. In the same way, by the time I finish this upcoming feature film I will also have aged as a director along with my cast and all of the things that will then be included into the installations that come from that work will be like flashbacks or remnants.
Another important aspect to the work I am making right now is that I have a feeling that Apple is on a decline and that at the same time, and in a related way, that Buddhism, due to the advances in technology and trying to keep up with the times, is facing some kind of a shift. For a long time, at least within Thailand, Buddhism really represented the way that people make meaning of the world around them and it has always been a very central, guiding force. But now, with the world changing so rapidly, that concept and reality of the role that Buddhism played for people is in a state of flux. So in sort of similar ways both Apple and Buddhism act as staples of certain kinds of lifestyle brands, one for America and the other for Thailand. My work is observing these two converging or overlapping entities as they—don’t necessarily disintegrate—but definitely as they go through some kind of shift. So that ongoing issue also factors into the use of time in my work.
I am curious if for you, as a native of Thailand, you sense that the way that the world is moving, and its rapid pace, its reliance on technology, etc., is all becoming too antithetical to the essential principles of Buddhism and a meditative, Zen way of life, for the religion to ultimately survive?
Probably fundamentally no, it will not go extinct, so to speak, but in a more everyday way, I think it will be difficult for it to be sustained.
But also, even though it is maybe controversial to equate Apple to a religion, I think we cannot deny that Apple has been aiming for something that is somehow akin to the kind of simplicity, elegance and intuitiveness that is often also associated with Buddhism as a “fashionable” religion. A kind of religion that becomes more of a lifestyle than it is a deep-rooted belief system like Christianity, for example. So I think that the connections between the agendas of these two entities have probably been there for a long time now. Would you agree?
Yes, totally. I have been looking at this one temple in Thailand and they have continued to be very successful at getting new members and followers in a way that is very similar to the increasing popularity of Apple and all its products. Part of the reason that this temple has been so successful is because they have very effective PR. Part of their strategy is about simplifying things. It is a large entity that has a very simplified version of, for example, what happens in the afterlife. Instead of allowing those kinds of large questions about life and death to remain abstract and vague, they have really boiled them down into simple language and a pictorial sort of guide so that people can easily understand things that are in fact very complex and indefinite.
Yes, I think you’re right, in a lot of ways that is also what Apple has done. But what is the reason that this one temple has this stronghold? Is there a lot of competition between temples in Thailand? Are they all so aggressive about their recruitment tactics?
It’s not really a competition between them, it’s just the idea that they always want to be getting bigger and expanding more and more, that that qualifies their success for them even if it is just to themselves.
I see. Did you or your family go there a lot when you were growing up?
No, I had always heard about it though. But I was never that interested in it until this lecture that had to do with Steve Jobs happened there. I feel like a lot of my work comes out of something that I maybe knew about, but it doesn’t become interesting or worth investigating until you find a new context for it and something that makes sense to juxtapose it with that changes the way that it can be seen.
Yes, certainly the Western art world in one context in which your work gains not only attention for the way that it is formulated but also in part due to the audience’s fascination with its subject matter, mainly of life and traditions in Thailand, which we are not very familiar with. But have you shown any of this work in Thailand? And if so, do audience’s reactions there differ from those in the West?
I haven’t really shown much work there yet. I have been really trying to save up a lot of my work so that I can show it all at once because I think it makes more sense when it is shown that way, and these kinds of issues are a lot more sensitive there.
I can imagine that that would require some very specific negotiations. What about working in Los Angeles and producing the video there?
I really loved it, I felt very connected to L.A. I don’t think that I could have made that work anywhere else, especially because the plot of the video is about this girl, Chantri, who comes to America and weaves through different cities and landscapes, so it felt like L.A. was the perfect place to start that journey in terms of a quintessential American landscape. Also, the video is a commercial, so that whole industry comes out of L.A.
Yes, it has been really exciting for me to be living there and see more and more artists whose work I am interested in that are working through those kinds of commercial or stereotypical movie-making methodologies either moving to L.A. or coming out there in order to make work on that scale and with that kind of production value. I think that right now performance art is moving into a particularly strange and kind of grotesque, but generative, space where it is really mimicking acting and “the movies” and television in ways that necessitate specific terms of production. To me it seems like there is a body-double-ish interest that is prevalent in performance and video art that L.A. more than any other city, lends. Did you find that to be true during this shoot?
Definitely. And not just the shoot but the whole show, the installations, and the performance—none of it would have been possible to do in New York.
Though in L.A. you really kind of have to make a plan to go to see a show, instead of just popping in to see it on your way to something else, as is often the case in New York. In L.A., then once you get there you are more prone to stay and take your time and this show in particular definitely demands your time in very specific ways.
Yeah, the Mistake Room is kind of really out of the way in this desolate area in downtown L.A., but I like that when you get there you feel kind of displaced. I think that, at least for this show, it adds to the mystery of it all and the idea of the space being this free-floating kind of thing that you enter into and have a very singular experience within. Maybe it seems more that way for me, coming from New York where everything feels so physically and geographically connected to everything, whereas in L.A. everything feels very separated and you have to map out a route to get somewhere in your car and then you to go to that place and then that’s it, you get back in your car and you leave. It is a totally different way of interacting with art and with people, but I think that that is what makes its so interesting and definitely what has made the show at the Mistake Room work so well.