Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, in Conversation with Paul Pfeiffer
อารยา ราษฏจำเรินสุข โดย พอล ไฟเฝิ้ร
“I first became aware of Araya's work when I came across a video from her Two Planet series. In the video, a group of Thai farmers sits before a reproduction of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. The video is set in a bamboo grove in the rural countryside. The farmers are in repose, casually riffing off the painting. The discussion is playful, funny, and speaks to the inventiveness of the farmers’ imaginations. What draws me to Araya's work is the acuity with which it hones in on the invisible codes and hierarchies shaping everyday reality. Within the mundane details of daily life she finds just the right point on which to pivot, so as to reveal and subvert the underlying power relations. I am inspired by the aesthetic economy with which she uses the video camera to enact such moments of creative subversion. In Summer 2016 Araya visited the East Coast for a residency at Denniston Hill, and to give a lecture at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In between these two points I traveled with Araya to engage her in a dialogue.”
- Paul Pfeiffer
Paul Pfeiffer: Thank you for making time to talk over lunch. This is bulgur wheat. Are you vegetarian?
Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Not really, but when I work with dying animals, it sometimes helps to not eat too much meat.
PP: In the beginning of your lecture yesterday, you told this story about the clay vessels in your house. One detail that I found surprising was about spraying them with water every day, which to me implies that this was unfired clay.
AR: I was molding it at the same time as I was living with them, so it was unfired, definitely.
PP: You didn't show any pictures of them, but just the idea of living with them made me imagine them as like human figures.
AR: There’s like a metal exoskeleton on the inside and there are these kind of tiny wood pivots – I don’t know how you’d call them – that connect different parts of the body together. And when these were finished, it was kind of anatomical, right? They had a face, they had fingers, they had complete hands, so it was a body.
PP: Amazing. The fact that they're still wet means they're almost living. You have to take care of them every day like a plant or a living being.
AR: Yeah. It felt quite haunting because the home I was living in had three bedrooms and it was two stories. Because the space was so big, it felt like there needed to be friends occupying the space with me.
PP: One of the things this makes me think about it is a quality that I see in a lot of your work and the word I would use is "uncanny" which in the German would be “unheimlich.” Is there a Thai approximation for the word uncanny?
AR: Sometimes uncanny is very loosely used, but I have a sense you're being very specific here.
PP: The literal German translation of uncanny is un-homely.
PP: Yes, and the architectural association of unheimlich is in fact a haunted house.
AR: (laughs) Really?
PP: It’s familiar like home but then somehow not exactly familiar. Within the familiar, there is something strange or foreign.
AR: The word “uncanny” was used by a curator in Gwangju for an installation that I showed, “So Many Dead Now.” This is the second time I’ve heard it in relation to my work.
PP: I think about it in relation to the clay vessels, because another way that I think about the uncanny is that it is something that is both human and not human.
AR: Ah. It could be like the dead dogs between life and death.
Kenji: I think in Thai it's being translated as the same word as "strange" or "weird" would be but I don't think...
PP: That’s a little bit generic. I think uncanny itself would be connected to, in a way, a historically European or Enlightenment world view. The way that Freud would define it is that the uncanny is some part of life which we don't want to deal with so we put it under the table but then because we put it under the table it comes back…
AR: Ah, it's beautiful.
PP:…as strange. Or as something alien. Like we don't recognize it because we’ve repressed it.
AR: So it means, if you need to hide this part it's not so positive, under the cultural norms or something.
AR: Ah, thank you, because when the curator said it was uncanny I felt sad.
PP: I think that's a compliment.
PP: And so maybe it's obvious but for me it seems really like an interesting way to think about your relationship — for example with the dogs that you live with — in a way they become like the clay figures in the sense that you treat them almost like they're human, and yet for an average person you can see it's not human, so it's strange. I mean of course in the United States there's a big culture of people having pets but still the idea– I mean usually if you have pets you have one pet, to live with many dogs is quite strange. [laughter}. I mean this in a good way.
AR: When I first went to Chiang Mai and was done teaching, I had a lot of time to spare. I was watching a lot of TV and soap operas, but now that there are lots of dogs there's no more time to kill. It feels very full. [laughter]
PP: I know you did a piece where the dogs watched the soap operas with you.
AR: So that dog in that piece was very old and she passed away four days before I got back from Germany. I was in Germany preparing for installation and a friend called, saying that this dog was going to the clinic. I was being prepared, but it was still very difficult. So it's the same internal conflict, that you're repressing feelings or emotions of grief while at the same time talking to these four technicians who don't really know what's going on and don't really care and the work still has to go on. Being an artist or living the life of an artist there's always those moments, those kinds of tensions, but this was when it was most palpable.
PP: In the different works of yours which I've seen, there's a kind of extraordinary aspect but the scene is very kind of quiet every day life. Even the most, seemingly, lowly aspects of life. There is the sense of caring for the low in your work.
AR: Do you think it has to do with exercising a feeling of motherhood that women have?
PP: No. In some ways I think of the work as very masculine.
AR: Oh! Really? That's very interesting.
P: You mentioned that there are people in Thailand who send you negative emails because they say you're not acting like a woman so that's what I mean. You're doing something that also doesn't follow society's codes.
AR: Yeah, very much.
PP: And you also compared your life as an artist to your former life when — I remember you said something about how when you were younger you were more, like, a good woman in society.
AR: I tried to be.
PP: But it didn't work out.
AR: Because i am an artist.
AR: I tried to be. I think I was very quiet and gentle to adults and parents and teachers and friends.
PP: One of the most amazing works of yours, to me, is “The Nine-Day Pregnancy” which maybe is the best example of what I’m talking about. On the one hand it has to do with being a mother but at the same time it's not following the codes. It's doing the exact opposite. It's something aggressively against the codes of what is expected of women in society.
K: Because the pregnancy is so short — it’s only nine days I’m performing this — but the effects, how it spread in the art world, seem so disproportionate to that, that it spread like wildfire, and it seems to be an index of the kinds of things that people like to talk about and these personal issues that catch attention. Part of that is because there is this image of me for other people that I’m very independent and do not need a family, and suddenly one day nature takes over and here's the pregnancy. So it seems to be very shocking news.
PP: In a way it seems to me that it's a very interesting metaphor for being an artist in the sense that you're involved in creation. There's the way that society tells you to be creative in a very specific way. In the case of women, you can be creative by creating a child or by following the conventions of production in biological terms. In a way, as an artist you're also involved in production and creation but not necessarily in the way that society tells you to. You do it independently and maybe even create new rules for production.
AR: You mean art production.
PP: I mean art production but also as a metaphor for creative production or life production.
PP: To me this idea is interesting because I have this idea about your relationship and your artwork’s relationship with the social context it lives in. On the one hand it's very carefully tied to it but in another way it's very intentionally breaking with it. The relationship of critics to art is that they should encounter something that they don't have words for yet and that gives them inspiration to create new words. Arnika Fuhrmann to me, does a good job of describing a sense, of situating Araya's work in relation to maybe like a foreigner's perception of Thai culture. Just because there might be a tendency for someone who doesn't know Thai culture so well—including me, I feel like I don't know it so well—to think in a very simple way that somehow Araya's work is an expression of Thai culture. But what Arnika's saying is more complex, like saying that in a way there's a more progressive aspect of Thai culture and a more conservative part, and in a way the work aligns more with the progressive part but it comes into conflict with the more conservative aspects of Thai culture.
AR: So what did Arnika say?
PP: Specifically she was talking about — uh oh, I hope I'm not getting anybody in trouble
AR: [laughter] It's okay, it's okay
PP: This is just my interpretation. She was trying to make a connection that has to do with some ideas, maybe western ideas of feminism. So she gave the example that historically, in Thai funeral rites, historically there's been a pretty central place of women in historical funeral rites, women performing in the context of like a funeral. She mentioned, like a performance of dancing during funeral rites. But then she said that today in Thailand that that has been suppressed, that you don't see it so much anymore, that it's primarily men's voices that are heard now in funeral rites. So she's saying that Araya's work in a way is reconnecting with the older role, or a kind of suppressed role of women in funeral rites.
AR: In reality, the space of the temple is sustained by women, even though women cannot be ordained as monks per se. In the sense that with every religious ceremony there's always the aspect of preparing flowers, bringing food for worship, cleaning, and those are kind of labor that is seen as taken for granted.
So if you're looking at the context of contemporary Thai funerals, the most important role goes to the guests of honor: the important people who come and sit in front. And whether if it's a political or military context, famous funerals, the person sitting in front is often a man. Because a funeral ceremony scene is like a shadow of the real scene of hierarchy & showing off in some way/some aspect. And the chants or prayers that are recited by the monks in the funeral, it really has nothing to do with the death of that person or death, but it's really about teaching Buddhism to the people who are in attendance, the living people. There's really only one talk the Matika that actually has to do with the dead person and that's chanted when the body is transported to the pyre. So if you think about the funeral, it really shouldn't be about all these people in attendance and the ostentation of it all, that it should really be about the people who have suffered loss and the dead person. So if we are going to speak of the female performers who in the past danced in front of the corpse or in Araya's work, reading in front of the corpse, it's actually playing the same structural role as the monk's chanting in front of the corpse. Or you might think of it as similar to the role of the guest of honor who leads the funeral ceremony in the sense that, he’s being the one that guides the ceremony and gives the cue of what people should do and how they should feel.
So that's one context. Another context, a professor has told me that the faculty of medicine at Chiang Mai university, feel that I am taking their ownership of bodies away from the discipline of medicine. They had never thought before that bodies are for art. Artists don't have that right to the body and there is a subversion involved in saying that the artist is going to be collaborating with medicine and they can be on an equal level. Some of them had threatened that if I was trying to do this project again they would talk her to court.
PP: Wow. So it must be quite threatening, to them.
AR: In a second incident when I was doing the work with the mentally ill, it was also artists who were pushing back against her work. This artist who was against me had written a letter to the academic committee that was reviewing her work for tenure and said that she was unethically working with mentally ill people and that she herself isn't in the right state of mind because she had faked that pregnancy. And also the "Two Planets" series got resistance from the academic community because there was this feeling that I was denigrating these old masterpieces they were used to teaching. One of the people who criticized me admitted that it wasn't that the content of my work was aggressive or anything like that, but that they didn't understand what was going on and that was why they were so against it.
PP: To me I find those works very moving because they speak to me of a kind of fundamental humanity, maybe in relation to the strangeness of language. Like whoever you are when you see that image, you feel the strangeness and the limits of language to describe adequately what one experiences.
AR: One of my friends really praised the farmers, saying that they're excellent for being able to encounter something they don't know of and are very unfamiliar with, but they're very creative and they can keep going with it.
PP: It's both the limitations of language and the resilience of the imagination. Something about that scene that I can't quite fully describe is that by showing cultural difference in a particular way, it sort of gives me the feeling of stripping away culture to something very basic. It is really two worlds, and yet the creativity of the villagers shows that despite the two worlds, something kind of fundamental can be transmitted.
AR: So perhaps the title of the work, "Two Worlds", is kind of a trick to get you to think there are two poles or binaries when in fact there isn't.
PP: I love that description. To go back to the scene of the funeral, right, you're describing several different directions of address. There's the people sitting in the front row, the dignitaries, there's the monk.
AR: You have the body, which is there, the audience, and most of the people are sitting in these kind of folding chairs that are being put there, and then there are guests of honor who get to sit in the front row in a very kind of comfortable sofa and everybody knows they're the important people.
PP: They're almost like the symbolic audience.
AR: In a way, these are the most important people who are going to be listening. And there's a row of monks who when the time comes they chant their prayers and it's usually some form of teaching about some Buddhist precepts.
PP: In the chant.
AR: In the chant, but it’s unintelligible really because it's not in Thai. It's in Pali. But the content, if you translate it, are teachings that are addressed to the audience about how you should think about impermanence, about loss.
PP: I'm thinking also about the arrangement of space in your videos. So there's a reversal. The audience in the video take the place of the dignitaries in a way.
AR: The problem for the Thai audience is that I’m usually sitting behind the head of the corpse and that's problematic because the head is supposed to be the holiest part of the body and so there are people who write to her about that because she's sitting... Sometimes I sit at the other end too but it's always when she's sitting at the head that there's a problem.
PP: I'm thinking of my position as a viewer. I'm outside of the video but I'm also the audience if this is a funeral. So in the different layers there's also the viewer of the video which you can imaginatively extend out. I remember seeing, “The Class,” one of the pieces with the cadavers where you were talking in front of a blackboard like an instructor. I listened to it for a long time — and there was a moment I noticed which really stuck in my head, and this is just my imprecise memory, but what I remember is that you were addressing the cadavers but at a certain moment the teacher says, “you're not listening” or “pay attention” as though talking to children. Then the teacher says, “anyway, you're not really the one I'm talking to.” And somehow I got it in my head that it was…
PP: That it was me, the viewer of the video. It was a way of indirectly addressing me through the cadavers, telling me as a viewer, I'm talking to you, I'm not talking to the cadaver. I found this such an interesting moment.
AR: Yeah it's happened often that the viewers immediately in some way feel that it's not a conversation between the teacher and the dead but the teacher and the viewers.
PP: I'm so interested in this idea because in some ways I see it also in the "Two Worlds" series. Again I'm in the same position. I'm in a row facing, not a cadaver anymore, but different objects.
AR: Especially if you are a person in the arts circle and you think you know those relations better than those farmers. I don't know how you feel because you know better than to think that they are in a lower position than you.
PP: I know what you're saying but for me it comes from someplace else. For me it's because I also work in video. When I work in video I consider the camera as almost another eye or another character in the scene although this character is invisible. This is why I asked you the question about when you started using video, because to me the power of the video works for me as somebody also using video has to do with a kind of psychological situation that you create which in a way we relate to it like it's real, it's every day, because that's the scene that's being shot — for example, with the nine-day pregnancy. But in fact there's another barrier which is the presence of the camera. In a way we don't think about it but it's also mediating the situation and it, to me, it's similar to that feeling of the teacher addressing the cadavers but I feel that the teacher is actually addressing me. It's a bit unclear but I'm very interested in the psychological nature of the presence of the camera as an invisible like, third eye or third perspective that can produce an uncanny feeling. You're in the scene, they're relating to you in the way that they think that they know you, that it's familiar and they think they know what's happening, but then at a certain point, it becomes uncanny. Suddenly it goes from being familiar to totally unfamiliar and then they become upset.
AR: I opened this new division at Chiang Mai University, Intermedia Arts. It’s an multidisciplinary division and it affects everyone who is otherwise working in a single discipline. The scene is especially strange when I teach my graduate seminar and on the first day, we go down and give a bath to the dogs. My other colleagues are like, “What is she teaching? Is this how you teach art nowadays?”
PP: I think the reason why I'm attracted to work in video is this. People know new media from movies and television, but to use it as an artist in some ways you can become very close to life, but then there's also an uncanny difference. There’s the potential to show the most alien aspects of life from this other perspective.
AR: Wow. Thank you.
PP: The other night at the lecture, if I understood correctly, you made a comment about the Dhammakaya sect. Would you mind repeating that? What made you think of that?
AR: The Dhammakaya seems to be fixated on self-meditation and it seems to focus too much on the happiness that comes in the moment when you’re in that meditative state. But that happiness isn’t really sustainable. True happiness is actually about understanding that the existence, or nonexistence of things is beautiful. So it seems that Dhammakaya focuses on this question of existence or what exists. That if you give a lot you will go to heaven. They are very good at expanding and creating sub-branches of themselves, whether it’s within Thailand or internationally. It’s tied with tourism, and sometimes tourists, not just Thai but also Chinese and Korean tourists, are led into believing that the more lanterns they buy and release into the air, the more merit they’re making. So, everything goes back to being quantifiable and concrete. In Chiang Mai, they have contact with a certain credit union that offers higher interest rates for saving accounts, so when people deposit money, their interest is transferred to the personal account of the abbot as an investment. Right now the police have already apprehended the manager of the credit union so he’s now in jail. He’s already confessed everything including how this is a money laundering scheme.
PP: No, really!
K: The temple’s defense is saying that, as monks, if people want to give them money that’s in their right to do so regardless of the source. Of course it’s suspect that there’s this one credit union that keeps giving money every year in such vast sums. So now as you see, the believers are literally, physically protecting the abbot. It seems like this Dhammakaya is another factionalizing event that is dividing people into clear camps, much like the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. When the police were trying to apprehend the abbot, he told the police that they couldn’t arrest him right now, but that they could only arrest him when there was democracy in the country. This is the same statement as Thaksin’s political party, which is to say you can’t arrest me because it’s not a democracy right now, it’s unlawful. So this idea that you can reject the constitution or reject the law because the source of the law is the military, therefore it does not have the power to compel. It’s funny how something so religious gets folded back into the political reality. So now you understand a bit of the context. You visited their wat…
PP: I didn’t visit to meditate. But I went on a Sunday and you could see the attraction. It’s very soothing, in a way hypnotizing.
A; One of the people closest to the abbots, he’s a doctor also at Thammasat University, said that the abbot is more of an artist than a monk because he’s responsible for the staging of everything, like the aesthetic choices, the lighting, how the ceremonies are run, how it’s being filmed. For instance, when the monks go out on alms rounds in the morning in many cities, the abbot decides that the path that they’re traveling on has to be strewn with rose petals. The Supreme Patriarch, basically the highest-ranking monk in Thai Buddhism, let slip that participating in this event was the first time he could collect alms while walking on rose petals. It was a kind of luxury alms round.
PP: Did he mean it as a joke?
AR: No. The Dhammakaya temple gives him hundreds of millions of baht in order to maintain and expand his own temple. So it is a very materialist way of dealing with things. So that’s the fate of Thai Buddhism.
PP: Well it definitely expresses some tensions in society about the meaning of things.
AR: The previous Supre Patriarch, who has passed away, actually wrote in a letter that the abbot of the Dhammakaya should be defrocked because of all these violations. If you think of this in terms of religious hierarchy, the Supreme Patriarch who is supposed to decide the assignments of various monks and who should be the leader of each monastic community but the Dhammakaya has basically bought out that mechanism and they are no longer answerable to this hierarchy.
Sorry, this is a bit long.
PP: No, no, it’s very similar to things that you can see happening here in the United States and Europe. In some ways that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in video. In the wider picture, not just with art, the role of broadcasting and the nature of mass media contributes to the emergence of organizations like this. Video is used to produce a certain kind of consciousness. It makes me think of the people who consider the work that you’re doing unethical. Artwork like yours can deal with the uncanny in a way that reveals the futility of seeking a materialist solution to suffering. I’m not sure if I’m making sense.
AR: You need some more hot water?
AR: After my MFA I applied to scholarship for a German exchange studies program. I failed the first time and I tried a second time and got in.
PP: How long were you in Germany?
AR: The first time, two years and ten months; the second time, one year.
PP: So you went two different times?
AR: Two different times. The first time, I came back and then my father died. He was sick and had cancer. The second time I finished was his funeral.
PP: I see. May I ask you what it was like when your father died?
AR: How I felt?
PP: How was the experience for you?
AR: He had lung cancer because he smoked a lot and drank a lot even though he was a doctor. He went to the hospital and underwent surgery and radiation therapy. He stayed in the hospital for one year and never came home. Even though he could not speak from the surgery, he would often communicate to us by writing. I collected his writing. Once he told me, “I dream that I travel.” It was so funny because he could not move his body. He could not even move his head from the surgery but he dreamed that he traveled.
AR: And in the end it's those four words that I decided to maybe put in my video that I'm working on. A doctor asked him to write to check his consciousness so at that time, the letter he wrote very short words but then he wrote forwards, a lamp, train, leaf, olive tree leaves. I used that to write a short story. I’m still not sure why in his last moments of consciousness these symbols came to him. The train could be trouble and stuff, and lamp could be a sign of, of course light.
PP: It's something you see changing, a leaf.
AR: It's beautiful. A movement, not lasting.
PP: So these were his last words.
AR: Yeah, his last word wasn’t in words.
It was late afternoon and I put my head on his body under the cover of the blanket. I put my hand in his hand then I did realize that he tried to communicate. He gently squeezed/pressed? my hand. I was so excited because he can't communicate by words but I thought he still had his consciousness and that was maybe two days before he died.
PP: When I'm listening to you I'm also thinking about my mother. The same thing happened with her. The last two or three weeks before she died she stopped talking. She was ordinarily very talkative so it was quite strange when she stopped talking. She talked a lot and laughed a lot so it was really quite strange to experience her not talking. Like she would look at me but no words.
AR: With open eyes? My father no, he closed his eyes.
PP: I mean later on she closed her eyes but even when her eyes were still open she already stopped talking. Very strange.
AR: How'd she look?
PP: It was hard to describe but it was like she was looking through me.
PP: And then she closed her eyes and maybe the last week, she didn't move. It was like she was asleep. No response.
AR: And food? How did you feed her?
PP: No food even in the last week.
AR: One week?
PP: About one week. She stopped eating.
AR: My father stopped eating because he got food from a tube.
PP: Now in the US you sign something called Advance Care Directive. Basically you give your instructions when you're still healthy to tell the doctors to tell your family should you feed me through tubes or not. She didn’t want that.
AR: It's in detail?
PP: Yes in detail.
AR: You have this?
PP: Yes. Yes it's very important now. The lawyer explained to us that it's very important that you sign this because when you can no longer speak we will follow your instructions.
PP: What did you say was the source of the three words – dream, root, and death?
AR: From a female writer who teaches how to write. If you need to write you should come to these three schools before you can write. You have to go deep to your dirty part. You should confront it.
PP: To learn how to reveal it.
AR: It must have come from a student in the class. When we suppose we are in the school of writing… and in the school of writing we have to reach the meaning of three words: dream, root, and death. Dream is wonderful because we lie down and we see ourselves and we realize that this is us in our dream but we cannot control ourselves in the dream. So we see ourselves everywhere, communicating or doing something, but we can't control it: that is the state of dream. So then root: root means… my lecture was very close to the meaning of root because root means you can reveal something very dirty, very secret. You can accept it and show it. You don't hide. If you succeed, if you make it from the school of roots then you won't hide some parts of yourself and follow social trends or social norms. That’s very important. Then there's the school of death. I ask them to imagine when death comes, what they are going to do. One student said she would stay in her room and she doesn't need to contact anybody and just be by herself. But where I got the idea to commit suicide is what one student said: she need to observe herself, before she dies what will happen? Is it painful? Wounds? Smell really bad? So it’s from her I got the idea it's maybe interesting to confront the last moment. It could be really bad, but you never experience that kind of bad in your life because when you're still alive you take a shower, you dress, you smile… But at the time of dying you can't smile anymore. You can't laugh anymore. You can't even think of things with humor anymore because maybe you feel so bad, so painful or feel nothing.
PP: I like the idea of writing or speaking as though you’re already dead. If you dead and gone, what would you care to talk about?
AR: Explain more.
PP: Well, if you're already dead then your time and energy are not consumed by the petty details of daily survival. You’re not focused on self-preservation or self-gratification because you’re not a self. You’re free of the plane of worldly affairs and social status.
AR: Actually I am free as an artist. In some way free form cultural condition for a short moment, which could be illusion.
PP: I don't think so, but I imagine a lot of people might think so.
AR: How free should we be?
PP: Well, freedom for me is a complicated term. It’s connected to ideas of individual identity and inter-dependence. The night before your lecture there was a conversation in the same lecture hall about the legacy of slavery, and Sarah said something I think is very important. Freedom isn't about freeing yourself it's about freeing all people. Individual freedom means something very different from freedom for all.
AR: How did you come to this point? It’s beautiful, but it’s in some way idealistic and similar to political speech.
PP: The conversation started with a young black man in the group asking the question, "what does freedom mean to you?"