Korakrit Arunanondchai"I don’t have to define to myself what being an artist is yet."
Interview by Asher Penn
Portrait by Chutchawarn Chut Janthachotibutr
Last week Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai performed the third installment in a series of "graduations", each separated by three years. The first one had occurred at Rhode Island School of Design in 2009, the second at Columbia in 2011. Last week at MoMA PS1 Korakrit screened films while hosting a handful of musical and visual performers, including himself, immersing an unexpected audience into un unusually personal, poetic and sensational art experience. This contemporary gesamtkunstwerk has always beeen Korakrit's goal,whose work in painting, sculpture, film, and collaborations with friends demonstrate how the act of making art can evolve into a transformation of self.
What’s Bangkok like?
It’s a big metropolitan city. Growing up there is different from visiting as a tourist. It’s fairly religious. The majority of people are Buddhist. I went to a Catholic all-boys school for elementary and middle school.
You were raised Buddhist and went to Catholic school?
A lot of the good schools in Bangkok are Catholic. They’re not super strict. The one I went to was called Bangkok Christian College. Once a week, we’d have a one-hour session where you have go in and study your Bible and sing these translated and modernized Jesus songs together. Then we would have a bunch of rehearsals to put on a play and people would become a real team. It was this very crazy group experience especially as it contained so much popular music and theatre.
How did you get into art?
Growing up in a Thai system, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to art. I grew up reading lots of Japanese comics and watching Dragonball Z. I was really into things like Pokémon and drew comics growing up all the time.
What about the internet?
I mean, this was kind of pre-internet. When I graduated from high school, I still had dial-up and my brothers and I shared a computer. My relationship to pictures was cartoons, because they’re the only pictures you consume, except for advertising and video games.
They didn’t teach art at all?
Yes, but it was very rigid. Specific tasks, more like a craft class. One task was learning how to draw the Thai pattern. Everyone had to do it.
How did you get into western art?
I moved to an international school for the last three years of high school. They actually offered real art classes where you could use nice art materials like Windsor Newton oil paint. In Thailand they have to import it and it was so expensive. Here they actually gave you the oil paint, and oil sticks and shit. It was baller.
Were you looking at art too?
I had this British art teacher that had gone to Slate and told me to look at the all the Young British Artists from the 90’s. When we got to visit London, I just got dropped off at the Satchi Gallery when they had that Sensation show up. There were these Jake and Dinos Chapman and Ron Mueck works. Then at the Tate Modern there was Olafur Eliasson’s sun. It just blew my mind. I saw this stuff and felt it was totally what I was about at that time.
Because you related to it.
I think I related because all those artworks are super sensational—in a way where all people can relate through ideas of scale and aesthetic. It’s a good entry point. It was good to see that people could do this and that these artworks could appeal to someone who didn’t understand art history.
How did you end up at RISD?
My older brother had applied apply to RISD and said it was really good for graphic design.
You didn’t want to study painting?
It wasn’t the practical way. Like what am I going to do after? There’s no artist job back in Thailand. The plan was to study architecture or graphic design. Be practical, support yourself, like most of the other Asian people you see there.
So you ended up majoring in design?
I went to graphic design for two weeks but felt really disconnected. So I switched to printmaking. That was the cool thing to do at RISD at the time—or at least how I remember it. They let you do whatever you want. I was making painting using silk screens, hundreds of layers of it on top of each other. By the time I graduated I was taking painting classes that made me realize I needed to know more about the history of art.
Was that why you went to grad school?
Yeah, plus I needed a visa to stay in the states, and I thought maybe I could teach after. My mom’s one of the best English teachers in Thailand, in my opinion, and I think I wanted to continue that legacy of teaching somehow.
What was Columbia like?
You would have so many people come by your studio every day. I was trying to take in as many different people, their advice and criticism, and combine it.
Was that when you started making films?
People were just saying you should try video. At that time, I could afford an SLR. Then Apichatpong Weerasethakul gave a massive workshop at Columbia that I sat in on. He shoots everything in Thailand. When my grandfather got sick with memory loss I thought video was a great medium for me to spend time with him.
How does making a movie change the way you spend time?
It’s like if me and you were talking, and we’re filming it, this whole thing becomes an event. That summer I was supposed to spend time with my grandparents and my family. Doing this video was a way I could always be working.
So you were making a documentary?
The way I make my video is by writing a story with matching pictures. It’s kind of inspired by how Chris Marker makes movies like Sans Soleil.
I remember a video you made of a performance you did at RISD. What was that?
When I was at RISD, I was making everything from clothes to sculptures, as well as paintings. The idea was for everything to culminate with a big musical installation, which ended up happening around my thesis. It was about a death and rebirth—kind of about me feeling sad about leaving this art utopia.
It sounds like you staged your own graduation.
After I made it, I realized I needed to make the same piece every three years. It would never be perfect, so every three years it would be different. It’s like my version of a Gesamtkunstwerk. I’m just not old or skilled enough to do it completely yet.
Wait, what’s Gesamtkunstwerk? It’s a complete artwork?
It’s just a framework that I operate in sometimes. For me, it’s about taking in the entire scope of a situation and trying to be aware of every single element. It’s like watching cinema but goes beyond the frame. Your physical presence is in there, too. It’s like a complete experience.
Does this inspire the way you collaborate with other artists?
I think I collaborate in a way where I try and plan a structure. And I’m also a player in the structure. And someone else can be a player. So, with Alex Gvojic, who did the lighting, I don’t really say I want this on, I want this off. I just tell him what’s going to be happening and what the overall goal is and let him figure it out. I’m not much of a director.
Do you consider these performances to be ritualistic?
Well, they’re gatherings of people—and that’s what rituals are, right? It’s like the gathering of people in a certain place to do something together. With an art opening, there is something ritualistic about people coming together to try and look at objects and experience something.
How do you approach a film shoot?
It’s all different. The kind I like to do best is when I just have a camera and tripod and walk around. My twin and I did this travel video where we would just go to different sites, kind of like a road trip movie. It wasn’t planned, was more about being there and documenting it. The real ideas of the film come together with the editing and music. It’s really music that glues it. I edit to music. With the trailers, I enjoy making them because they are filled with anticipation. This moment where a vague narrative appears with the feeling of anticipation is perhaps something I enjoy a lot. Most of the time I even make the trailer before I even make the actual video.
Has making art allowed for experiences you think would have otherwise not happened?
Yes totally. That’s why I make art. This specific video trilogy project started with the impetus for me to go through something, to become the artist and person I want to be.
How do you identify yourself as an artist? What does that word mean to you?
I know what it means from different definitions in different contexts but for me, I’d like to think it’s still undefined. And it keeps getting defined. I don’t have to define to myself what being an artist is yet.
I’ve heard you describe your work as being about expanding a moment.
Well, everything’s complicated, right? It’s not about finding truth of a moment but the poetry within it. That happened for me with this video where a Thai master painter critiqued a female body painter who was actually a go-go dancer on a TV show. It was this moment where people were asking is this art or nudity put together through these two figures: one’s male, one’s female; one’s in the sex industry, one is a national artist who built a temple. To freeze and expand that moment is a great way to talk about it.
Who are the Asian dudes wearing denim? Are they like a gang?
That was part of an idea of how to return to a collective. It started off with a show I did called Painting with History in a Room Filled with Men with Funny Names. Instead of making painting in the history of men making paintings, I wanted to draw a parallel to differentiate myself. Instead of belonging to a camp I could have my own camp, which was going to be with my fellow Thai men who had similar upbringings and went to the same all-boys type Christian school that I did. In reality it was just the Thai people I knew in New York but it became kind of a community action, just coming together and doing things together.
Like smoking cigarettes in a room together.
That’s how it started. Then, it kind of grew into this performance group and relationships. Now it’s this thing I call Bangkok Boys. It’s not just people from Bangkok. It’s more of an open structure for collaboration—not on just art. It’s about coming together to create an image that later on maybe becomes reality.
They’re also all wearing denim. What is it about clothes that interests you?
If you’re talking about the image of coming togetherness, clothing has a big role in that. The idea of loose uniform, belonging to something. With denim, the whole point was that it connected a lot of bodies and people together. There’s just so much around everywhere.