Like Dante guided by Virgil, Marina Abramovic drifts through the purgatory that is Bangkok chaperoned by the little monkey prince. After praying at shrines and temples of assorted spiritual inclinations, she is taken to the Monkey King (Pichet Klunchun), whose rhymed, melodic prophecy finally guides Abramovic to the prayer hall of Wat Pho where her salvation awaits clad in a saffron robe.
Part fiction, part travelogue and part a contemplative exercise in directing one of the world's best-known artistic personalities, The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing is a 30-minute film conceived by Apinan Poshyananda, artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB).
Hence the film also serves as an appendage to BAB, in which Abramovic, a foremost practitioner of long-duration performance art, has taken part since its first edition in 2018 right up to the most recent one last year.
The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing opens in Venice -- specifically in a cemetery. Such literal depiction of death and the allusion to the transmigration of soul is lent gravity by Abramovic's low-pitched monologue -- a cross between a purr and a rumble, a funeral chant and an echo inside a tomb -- lamenting the scourges of war and plague and her inability to find peace. As the title suggests, she's a spirit trapped in limbo, lost and adrift.
In a way, this is a tale of a foreign soul in search of solace in the Orient. From Venice (Bangkok of the West), Abramovic makes a crossing to Bangkok (vis-à-vis Venice of the East, or maybe just another postcard-y version of hell). Like a ghostly tourist unware of the surge of humanity around her, she wafts through the smoky bowels of a Chinese shrine in Talad Noi, a Hindu temple in Wat Khaek and the gold-gilded hall of Wat Mangkorn in Chinatown. All the time, the weight of sorrow on her face gives the film its fundamental, indisputable severity.
The redemption comes, eventually, when the Monkey King points Abramovic to Wat Pho. The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing is composed as poetry, hushed and elusive, but the ending reveals itself in prose, with the abbot's lecture on peace and wisdom that seems almost too clear, as if the veil of incense smoke and liminal uncertainty is lifted all of a sudden.
Abramovic's performance art is a legendary repertoire of physical overexertion that blurs the line between torment and revelation, between punishment and transcendence.
In her famous 2010 show The Artist Is Present at MoMA in New York, she invited the visitors to sit down across from her one by one and to stare into her eyes for as long or as brief as they wanted -- it could be five hours or 30 seconds.
That staring match is restaged briefly in The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing, and it proves the film works best when it draws its energy and tension from Abramovic, when it lets the world around her teeter on an edge, and when we realise whenever we stare into the abyss, the abyss will always stare back at us.
The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing is now showing at House Samyan.