Body of work
Kawita Vatanajyankur is a media and performance artist who utilises her body as a medium to convey messages that address the exploitation and oppression of female labour. Her early videos feature candylike visuals reminiscent of marketing tactics, which lure people into overconsumption. However, behind the beautiful products lurks a dark side of labour exploitation.
The artist gained recognition in 2012 when she created the video series Tool, which aimed to criticise the traditional attitude of not recognising women's hard work on household chores. Kawita refers to these chores as "invisible labour" because they often are unnoticed and undervalued. In Tool, she transformed her own body into various household implements such as using her face as a sponge to clean dishes and her head and body to scrub a toilet.
“This series did not require research because I saw the issues everywhere. Women work outside the home, but they still must provide emotional support for their families and take care of the house and children. However, their hard work is not valued or recognised,” she said.
The artist was motivated to raise awareness about labour issues after the death of her father, who was a famous TV host and for whom overwork contributed to his death. She said that her father's death made her question the working conditions of labourers.
In 2018, Kawita created the Performing Textiles series. After the artist visited factories in many countries, she created the first video, Knit, wherein she uses her entire body as a machine to weave red yarn into a piece of fabric. The performance was inspired by a circular machine with a needle in the middle that she saw in a factory.
“This series focuses on people who work behind the finished products in the textile industry that consumers do not see when they purchase the product. During my research, I interviewed labourers in factories who said they felt they were treated like machines or objects and had to do the same work repetitively.”
Kawita’s performances are captivating because she uses her body to portray a machine. She explained that since she does not work as a labourer, if she did not put herself in the position of a person working like a machine, she would not understand the dehumanisation. In fact because of such dedication to her work, Kawita has been injured several times in her performances.
“I hypnotised myself to think that I was not a human; instead, I was a tool. During the performance, I did not realise that I got injured because I was familiar with pain. At the performance of Knit in Abu Dhabi, my performance time was cut from one hour to only 20 minutes. I had to weave quicker than usual. I was able to finish the fabric in 20 minutes, but I had cuts and bleeding at the corners of my mouth. I could not eat anything except blended mixtures for a week.”
Due to the effective visuals and message, her work has been extensively showcased in various regions including Asia, Australia, the US and Europe. Her notable exhibitions include the 57th Venice Art Biennale, Albright Knox Art Gallery in New York in 2019 and the Bangkok Art Biennale in 2018 and 2022.
In response to issues surrounding the impact of artificial intelligence on the labour force, Kawita created a performance, Voice Of Oppressed, at BAB 2022 where she performed live with two artificial intelligence beings that look like her. These two AIs were fed with Kawita’s personal data but were created to have different mindsets. The first AI believes that oppression in the current system is necessary, while the other AI advocates for a new system that brings justice for all.
Kawita always experiments with new tools to convey her messages. While some public figures are concerned and worried about feedback from the audience, Kawita is not worried whether viewers will like her work or not.
“I created a video and performance about AI because it involves messages that I wanted to convey, although I was not sure if it was considered art or not. I am not afraid of experimenting with new things and I am not afraid of being unaccepted by viewers, but I hope people recognise my efforts. The older I get, the less discontented I become. I also have less expectation in my career.”