Teaching the dead

Teaching the dead

Artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook on her creepy corpse fetish and other creative adventures

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Teaching the dead

Dead bodies being bestowed with songs, poetry and education aren't what the average art exhibition has in store. However after a few minutes strolling around an Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook exhibition you become aware that her work is on a different planet to normal, as death, insanity and brutality are issues Araya's art delves deeply into. Her current exhibition, The Two Planet Series (2007-8), sees Thai villagers freely responding to artistic masterpieces of the 19th Century. Her previous work involves her singing to dead bodies, dressing up a suicide victim's corpse and filming the insane. So where does all this morbidity come from?

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook

WHO IS ARAYA?

When mentioning the possibility of interviewing Araya to people, I was greeted with some less than hopeful responses. "Araya is rather reclusive and hard to contact," said numerous people. Furthermore, those who have heard of her are quick to recall the most controversial, haunting and disturbing content of her early exhibitions.

Therefore it was to my surprise that I left Araya's Chantaburi home full of adjectives like cheerful, warm and smiley. It seems that like every great enigma this artist is far from two-dimensional. 

UPON ARRIVING

She proves to be a great host, taking me for some great food at Ton Chan, the most famous restaurant in Chantaburi, and making me feel welcome in her city escape, which she shares with her great love, her dogs. 

Araya's home is set amongst a luscious mangosteen garden and, at first glance, appears to be a common cement house, but closer inspection reveals it has been reduced to primary forms and structures. It's minimal, to say the least, well ventilated, lacks curtains and even the bathroom is connected to the bedroom without a wall in between. To paraphrase her words, it's the home of an artist but no paintings hang on the walls. All you can hear are the sounds of nature and all you can see are natural shades of green. Everything about her from her undyed (and classically cool) hair, to her open plan home has a freshness, naturalness and truthfulness to it.

WHAT HER ART SAYS

"The Class" (2005) is Araya's video installation in which she teaches a class full of corpses and asks for a response from her students. She calls it, "A humourous piece tinged with haunts leading to mixed feelings."

"The Class" (2005)

According to Araya, before a performance in Italy, she had prepared only one lesson as she thought that she would be teaching two separate groups of "students". She later learned that the second class would include several corpses from the previous day. The curator was baffled when Araya insisted on preparing a completely new lesson. "It might sound silly," she explained, "but in reality, if you teach the same lesson more than once to the same class, the students will complain.

"We don't face death outside of rituals [such as funerals]," Araya explained. "However, in art we can do it more freely and in any possible manner. Furthermore, most of the practices regarding death are more likely to serve those who are alive and often compensate for the loss of a loved one."
The only other people who have the right to use the human body are doctors and scientists for experimentation, she observed. "What about art? At what point can artistic creativity be allowed to voice its own ideas and perhaps change how we view and respond to death?"
Inevitably, the use of dead bodies in her art meant that Araya had to defend herself against doctors and scientists regarding moral codes, which have a great deal of control over people's lives.

You may wonder if Araya is obsessed with death. The artist said she is sensitive to loss and how she perceives death has changed due to her experiences. These shifts have manifested themselves in her work, which is multi-levelled and constantly evolving.

"The Class" (2005)

MEAT IS MURDER

Speaking further on the topic of death, Araya also discourses the topic of animals in her art. Her series of art installations, "In a Blur of Desire" (2006), provocatively depicts animals being slaughtered. One of the interesting themes of this exhibition is for people to face something that they are aware of but usually choose to ignore. "People don't see the tragedy behind the meat when it's served up on a plate," said Araya.

"Insane" (2007)

"If I put this video on the LCD in the presence of Bangkokians, in the middle of the city's intersection amongst the traffic, where commuters dangle off handrails on a bus, what would happen?" Each bloody scene is synchronized: a mother and her calf, a pig sleeping waiting to be killed, a buffalo being violently stabbed in its side then writhing in agony. For cows, they use a hammer, which is often followed by wailing and blood spilling everywhere.

INSANITY

One of her pieces, "The Insane", drove her to the verge of madness. The artist had to face the failures of human beings herself and she suffered from it. "It was really stressful. I almost went mad myself. The world is so brutal, I had to stay in bed for a week."

This video installation captures mad patients in a ward as they tell their stories freely. Some have argued that mad people should not be the object of art. Araya defended this notion by saying, "If not through art, how could the public hear their problems and what these people have to say?" This project took Araya over a year to get approval. Like her other work there is no plot, only a portrayal of reality.

"The Class" (2005)

There are sequences of a woman who is infatuated with a monk and a girl who is convinced that she owns many animals including a mammoth and often watches them mate.

THE UNEXPECTED CRITICS

Her ongoing exhibition, "The Two Planet Series", also depicts reality but is lighter in tone and in subject matter. As she points out, "When one reaches a certain stage of life, one starts to let things go and find contentment." This video art captures reproductions of French masterpieces of the 19th century, including the celebrated work of Millet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh. These paintings are set against a rural backdrop and local Thai villagers are given the freedom to respond in any way they want. Araya is not making fun of the villagers but the very human and humourous responses demonstrate a sincerity and spontaneity that is lacking in the art world.

"Village and Elsewhere" (2010)

Araya talks about her motivation behind this piece. She was in Helsinki, while sipping coffee, looking out the window she contemplated one art critic's opinion that art appreciation and criticism in the East should strive to be on par with the West. Araya went on to note that art in the West is under high security as people strive to preserve it and make it last forever, while in rural Thailand, villagers have a very basic standard of living (for example, an old man was bitten by a dog and died within seven days). There lies the inspiration of this piece; by placing the almost sacred masterpieces in the most basic of settings the villagers were given the freedom to truly express their thoughts.

"Their conversation is very lively and rarely heard," she said. "There's humour in it, things are turned upside down and the villagers' responses are sure to put a smile on your face. When the villagers responded to the paintings, they did it freely, they improvised. Least of all, they didn't necessarily have to bring with them any cleverness. They accepted their lack of knowledge and let the responses flow spontaneously." For example when presented with Manet's painting (which portrays a naked woman) the villagers simply asked, "I wonder why she has taken her clothes off?"

Millet’s "The Gleaners" (1857) and Thai farmers

INSPIRATION

"In death there is sweetness, in ignorance there lies humour and vibrancy."
When Araya creates her art and writing, she tries to find a sign or "a wave of emotion and thoughts". If the wave is powerful, she can get hold of that sign and then carefully integrate all of its manifestations; sometimes they contradict and sometimes they amalgamate.

To Araya, it's an accumulated experience with no definite meaning, like "the river that looks as though it has stopped when we confront it face to face". To Araya, the process of work plays a more vital role than the work itself.

WHAT OTHERS SAY

Inevitably, there have been both positive and negative reviews, however it can be said that no one is apathetic towards her work.

One foreigner responded to her poetry reading to three female corpses in anger, protesting that "Bodies are not Barbies!" One Thai wondered, "How dare she sit at the [head position] of the body," while a curator in New York replied that Araya is talking to herself, not the body. Another went on to claim that, "The aim of the communication is the audience, not the body because the artist knows that the body can't hear."
Finally as one reporter in Italy said, "There is no need to ask about the reasons to use dead bodies when the flavour of poetry is greater than knowledge."

SO WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

A villager: "She’s so light skinned. Try tickling his feet. Would he tickle?"

Art can be a distant and intimidating subject for us, often because we don't feel comfortable talking about it, we feel that if we don't say something profound or laden with artistic terminology then we'll sound naive or even stupid. Additionally, in our complicated world, communication is rarely pure and is often awkward and via some form of technology. It may seem strange to sing and read poetry to dead people, but how often do we communicate without boundaries to the people that we love?

As I sit opposite Araya, her work seems truthful and consistently encourages freedom of communication. And then her dogs outside bark to break my concentration, much to the amusement of the smiling Araya.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, born in 1957, lives and works in Chiang Mai. Her art has become well known around the world and has spoken to people in a unique way. The Chiang Mai-based artist is now considered one of the best of her generation.

Her work "The Two Planet Series" (part of Thai-French cultural festival La Fete) is on view through Apr 29 at Museum Siam (Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. 4 Sanam Chai Road, Phra Nakhon [next to Wat Pho], 02-225-2777, en.museumsiam.com).


Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, born in 1957, lives and works in Chiang Mai. Her art has become well known around the world and has spoken to people in a unique way. The Chiang Mai-based artist is now considered one of the best of her generation.

Her work "The Two Planet Series" (part of Thai-French cultural festival La Fete) is on view through Apr 29 at Museum Siam (Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. 4 Sanam Chai Road, Phra Nakhon [next to Wat Pho], 02-225-2777, en.museumsiam.com).

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