Tue, 18/06/2013 - 09:46 -- damien

Installation artist Arin Rungjang is one of the standout figures of Bangkok’s emerging generation, but T-shirts are his bread and butter. On any given Sunday, he can be found at the Chatuchak weekend market, where he runs three small stalls selling shirts to dek naew—members of Thailand’s indie youth culture that shuns the consumerist mainstream—and the odd backpacker sniffing around for local alternative merchandise. Chatuchak is a sprawling microcosm of the city’s incessant mercantile traffic; the atmospheric clutter conceals everything from chic homewares to pre-loved sneakers, from exotic pets to pirated art films. On and off since the 1980s, it has been a favoured meeting place for the experimental art scene, including the Ukabat (meteorite) Group around veteran political artist Vasan Sitthiket. But for Arin it is more like a day-job, and a far cry from the European galleries where his work is increasingly being placed.

The Western art world only really discovered Thailand in the 1990s, fast producing globetrotters of luminaries like Surasi Kusolwong, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Navin Rawanchaikul. Though their careers are primarily pursued elsewhere, this generation of artists still likes to call Thailand home, and includes others more firmly rooted here, such as Araya Rasjdamrearnsook, Manit Sriwanichpoom and Sakarin Krue-On. Their success has fuelled demand for a new generation, and a steady stream of European curators, many in town for a mere weekend shop-over, but some with a more sustained interest in Thai contemporary art. Curiously, the younger artists that seem to fare best are the ones most firmly planted here. Most have some foreign education, and show their work abroad, yet the pull of the cosmopolite does not seem to affect them.

Arin secured his place in the independent scene whilst still a student at Silpakorn University, with an ambitious installation, Red and Blue Floor at About Studio/About Café (1998). He then appeared in several important group shows, including the Bangkok instalment of Cities on the Move (1999), and won a French Government scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts (2001). His early experiments were interactive interventions into gallery architecture: in Emotions as Water (2002), Bangkok University Gallery became a wading pool twenty centimetres deep, its walls and ceiling a canvas for light-play generated by the viewers’ movements.

Light is a core element of Arin’s practice. The audience had to turn the gallery lights off to see his contribution to a group show called Melting Place (2006). In iridescent paint, he had marked a skewed quadrilateral, high around the walls, displacing the rectilinear matrix within which art and architecture are typically seen and felt. Perhaps his signature work to date was an arresting fluorescent moon, erected above About Café for the 2004 exhibition Here and Now (and reprised as Duplicated Memorials for a recent festival in Paris). Neons from art spaces (2006), was a grid of white neon tubes, collected from galleries in that Arin had visited and worked with in Europe and Thailand.

On first approach, these works seem to be formal studies in the most basic elements of exhibition—light and space. Like Dan Flavin’s modular neon constructions, they reveal a surprisingly wide palette of fluorescence, with effects ranging from sheer saturation to careful chromatic subtlety. These nuances multiply every time they are snapped by a mobile phone or digital camera—which a Thai audience can be relied upon to do. But as the artist’s current work makes clear, there is much more afoot here than this formal play.

Arin’s latest solo show, Never Congregate, Never Disregard (Bangkok University Gallery, 2007) suggests an intellectual confidence beyond his years, deftly fusing this minimalist language with a romantic symbolism whose origins lie in the 19th Century. The artist had some twenty-seven cubic metres of clay soil trucked in from Saraburi province, north of the city. The clay was laid over the gallery floor, forming a squishy, pliable mantle fifteen centimetres thick; into this was sculpted a small pool containing water equal to the combined body weight of the artist and his mother. This resurfacing of the white cube is shocking yet inviting. The soft clay gives underfoot, dampening the sound and slowing the pace of the visitor. Just as a newly furnished room feels much smaller than it did unfurnished, the gallery space feels considerably reduced. On a video monitor, a friend (and ex-lover) of the artist is shown digging up the dirt now beneath the viewer’s feet. A labour of love, perhaps, or a labour of art—a metaphor for work in general—the sometimes seemingly pointless task of moving matter around. A couple of shovels stand lodged in the new floor, reminders of the effort and contributing to the sense of the unfinished, the cyclical.

A second screen carries a video portrait of the artist’s mother. Arin proposed that she give an interview about their family history. When she arrived at the gallery, he asked her to wait for the interviewer, put on some of her favourite old music, and there she sat. But having started the video recorder, Arin decided there should be no interview after all. He exhibits this instead, a portrait of remembering, but without the content of remembrance. An aging woman waits and thinks. Her attention strays from chores awaiting completion to fantasies, to glimpses of recent memory. But also at work, we suspect, is the reactive imagination of oral history. Her mind wanders into the past, to retrieve fragments of her history, and the artist’s. Shards buried, dug up and reburied, covered over by the drifts of ongoing lives and decomposing into fiction, or refashioned by the blades of regret, nostalgia, or wishful thinking. So while Arin’s vocabulary may seem abstract and conceptual, space is made for the narratives of ordinary people. Social realism has never been a conspicuous cultural force in Thailand’s staunchly monarchic and highly stratified society. Artists that way inclined have had to be content with either a marginal role—with occasional windows of opportunity, such as the brief liberalisation before the bloody suppression of student activists in 1976—or to go with the Buddhist flow that emphasises individual consciousness over the collective. An anomaly in this history is the so-called ‘people’s poet’, Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855), whom Arin cites as an inspiration. Sunthorn was perhaps Thailand’s first great modern artist, weaving the simple beauty of folk verse into his official work as poet laureate to King Rama II. A great lover, drinker, fighter and wanderer, Sunthorn ricocheted restlessly between palace, clergy and village life, touching distant reaches of the social spectrum, a feat seldom repeated since. Contemporary art certainly struggles to appeal beyond its own small circles. But the value of work like Arin’s will perhaps emerge later: a thoughtful fusion that tests international aesthetics against local realities, without compromise to the mainstream commercial culture.

There’s nothing like a few tonnes of dirt to bring art back down to earth. The gallery is cultured by Nature. But this physical intrusion of the organic is no critique of minimalism. Environment here is a romantic trope, a gesture towards an art historical tradition in which personal interface with the sublime was either achieved, or imagined, through encounters with a boundless Nature. Arin imports the elemental (earth, water, nature’s cycles) with its symbolic baggage intact: metaphors for growth and decay, the fertility of youth versus the dry decline of age. Another recent work featured a massive glass tank filled with water, ferried from the seaside an hour or so south of the city. And then love will live in its way (2007), was a response to Caspar David Friedrich’s seascapes, a connection revealed only in an unprepossessing, unframed sketch pinned to the wall nearby, the artist a diminutive figure drawing water from a vast shoreline. An epigraph describes briefly his process and intention, addressed like a bulk email (‘Dear All…’) but signed with affection, a poetic dedication to ‘someone’ he has loved.

Arin’s romanticism is less about the limitless beyond, and more about the materiality of what Is before us—romanticism with a small ‘r’—perhaps like that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, rather than seeking universal resonance, it dwells on the minor harmonies between individuals. In place of sublime sunsets, we find a neon moon; in place of the heroic individual, dying for love or art, we find the unremarked gifts and losses of personal life. This biographical tilt is a key to the tension that energises Arin’s work: a contrast between richness of content and spareness of form. While they appear to speak the cool, formal language of minimalism, these recent works are studies in memory, love and forgetting, an earnest but patient exploration of the artist’s most important relationships, mediated through figures of place, labour and artistic heritage. For all their modernist simplicity, their appeal lies in this pathos—on the fine line between the dutiful and the futile, between emptiness and plenitude.1

Arin Rungjang, Never Congregate, Never Disregard, 2007. Installation view. Earth, water and video installation. Bangkok University Gallery, Bangkok. Courtesy the artist. 

Arin Rungjang, Never Congregate, Never Disregard, 2007. Installation view. Earth, water and video installation. Bangkok University Gallery, Bangkok. Courtesy the artist. 

Arin Rungjang, Big Moon and Waterfall, 2006. Installation view. Outdoor light installation, bamboo. Passage de Retz, Paris. Courtesy the artist. 

Arin Rungjang, The Big Moon as a work in progress, 2006. Courtesy the artist. 


1. As if to consummate this instability, And then love… met a spectacular end. Just moments before it was to be unveiled, thanks to some unseen asymmetry, the tank spontaneously collapsed, sending its transparent contents cascading out beneath the gallery doors. The artist had not even had a chance to photograph it. 

Arin Rungjang was born in 1975. He lives and works in Bangkok, Thailand. 

David Teh is a freelance critic, curator and lecturer based in Bangkok, Thailand.