Uncertainty is Certain

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:33 -- eyeline
The work of Phaptawan Suwannakudt

Unity can only be manifested by the Binary. Unity itself and the idea of Unity are already two. - Buddha

It is one of the curious conditions of our secular age that we—the enlightened, civilized, modern or postmodern individuals—can be the passive observers of the faiths of others. This is, in fact, the very definition of secularity, which does not preclude religion as such, it means that religion is no longer all encompassing, for it has become a question, something to consider and interrogate. We no longer inhabit a religion in a universal sense, which thereby reduces religion to arbitrariness or contingency. The work of Phaptawan Suwannakudt poses something of a solution to this predicament, in that it is highly invitational; that is, it seeks to introduce and incorporate the viewer. Viewers of her work who are neither Thai nor Buddhist are not reduced to cultural tourists or temporarily inquisitive voyeurs; rather they have the possibility of occupying a space of entry. On a spiritual and conceptual level Suwannakudt’s work is superior to relational and interactive work, which more often plays out a game of social inclusion with questionable integrity. Her work is faithful to the Buddhist notion that we occupy several positions at once and that every moment is an event of infinite possibility.

This idea of the event as an intangible place of mutability that folds in past and present is mirrored in Suwannakudt’s work in a more material sense through the way she straddles cultures. In the last few decades it has become the fashionable norm to assume what has come to be known as a hyphenated identity (Greek-Australian, Thai-Australian and so on) in which the artist is expected to note his or her difference from some supposedly circumstantial norm. Here is not the time for a detailed discussion of the inherently racist nature of multiculturalism—which presumes a privileged (white, Euro-American) observer who looks down on other cultures with ‘tolerance’—but it is certainly a normative expectation within contemporary art to address cultural difference.1 While it is also the case that artists assume cultural positions to strategic advantage, Suwannakudt is not naïve of inevitable cultural type-casting. But her case is exceptional and highly instructive, in her work’s self-conscious negotiation of cultures. Rather than looking exclusively inward, which is typical of the most conservatively unimaginative multicultural art, Suwannakudt’s work is born from a process of cross-reference, in which the facts and points of view are in a constant state of mobility and migration. It is also notable the way in which these cross-relations between cultures and subjectivities are encountered in different ways and according to a variety of material platforms.

Take, for example, her work in the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Not for Sure (2012), a dense installation consisting of sculptural and wall units interspersed with suspended skeins of cloth. Some of these surfaces had figural elements, but all of them were covered with the filigree of Thai script. The cryptic title derives from the yogic statement that ‘only uncertainty is certain’, a reminder that our conceptions of the world are fleeting, relative, and fragmented. This work was part of a larger project that began at the Campbelltown Art Centre (with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art), Edge of Elsewhere, in which the artist invited members of the community to donate garments which the artists then doctored, turning them into surrogates for different experiences and different histories. Importantly, the artist had no foreknowledge of these people, but the fact that the fabric works began as garments was critical, since they were what their bodies once inhabited, and from which they were now absent. Embedded within one of the fabric sheets was a photograph of a small tumbledown door set into a crumbling wall. This had been given to the artist by one respondent, an elderly man, who told her the story of how this was the door that led into his family garden on the West Bank in Gaza, except the garden is now a wasteland. The man opined that he would never be able to show his children this place, which was once so dear to him. Meanwhile the text throughout the installation came from old Thai literature that told of the historical divisions that existed between city and country dwellers.

These kinds of encounters are key to understanding the methods and meaning of Suwannakudt’s work. For while superficially it may appear to come from a certain place, and exude a specific cultural, iconographic and historical force, that is but one register of the work. These are taken to be the basic linguistic conditions under  which the work is produced. But in the second instance this apparent homogeneity is dramatically undermined by the many suggestions of cultural division and the ways in which people move, either by their own will or by being forced to do so. As for the Thai stories themselves, obsessively covering the entire work like a delicate and irregular gauze, the word for any nation and cultural identity is a word for an antagonistic relationship that is also never static.

Suwannakudt’s work is generally ordered into thematic groupings, so that a mixed media installation and a painting will be referred to with the same overarching title. Not solely conceptual or expedient, it is a way of working that fits with a particular spiritual mindset, an abstract but still definite sensibility binding the conception and crafting of each individual work. In the installation of the series Catching the Moment (2010, Gallery 4A), (with the subtitle, Each Step is the Past), numerous faun-coloured cocoons were suspended from the ceiling at various heights; on the main wall, painted black, was a tight row of numerous small shelves that supported pictures painted with a single motif, much like a large set of icons. The cocoons were made of silk, a fibre with a venerable association with Thailand since the spice trade routes that began in the late fifteenth century, but also the fabric that Suwannakudt was used to painting on when she lived in Thailand. These were produced while living in Holland, initially for an exchange with the Chinese artist Ni Haifeng, and therefore are again about the occupancy of several layers of cultural experience. The interior of the cocoons, with their strong womb-like resonance, was shaped with a cross-section in the manner of a Mandala, which was also occupied by a random object, such as a coin. In short, the objects, which originated from Holland, were placed into a new zone of rebirth, made to undergo a transfiguration, a cleansing which can be read in many ways. One is the way in which we can use foreign objects as talismans for our own transformation; another is the way in which objects of a specific provenance can escape their original use and signifying value and be altered into something unforeseen. Thus Suwannakudt plays out the Buddhist teaching that there are no absolute positions only transformations, and what appears stable is but an illusion that enables further changes.

The accompanying pictures were all on hand-made rice paper and represented process-oriented work in which the artist rendered an image that appeared, without premeditation or motive, in her head. Of seven shades, they were arranged according to their fluctuating tonalities, so that they visually replicated the slow breaths during meditation. With this in mind, the images took on the role of the interruptions that occur in the consciousness as one attempts to clear the mind in the act of meditation. As such, the images need not be read or decoded, rather simply viewed as punctuation points in a far greater, more abstract continuity. These icons were the ‘steps’ in the subtitle Each Step is the Past, the things that well up seemingly out of nowhere, but which are the solid reminders of the many things that compose us and what we inherit.

Not exhibited in the installation, but belonging to the same series, is a painting (2010) depicting a set of houses near its base, the suggestion of a forest, and with a woman’s face and two elephants looming like ghosts around the picture’s centre. Elephants are plentiful in Suwannakudt’s painting, having a totemic importance for her, as chang (elephant) was a nickname that her father called her when she was a girl. The woman is her mother; the houses are emblematic of suburban inner West Sydney where the artist has lived in recent years. Again, this work is a visual deliberation on multiple sites and the way in which the human spirit occupies more than one space. The personal and autobiographical nature of the painting comes not only in the elephant symbols but the mother’s face—this work was painted when the artist’s mother began to show signs of dementia. But far from being some sentimental tribute, this painting must be seen according to the various ways that we forget. For forgetting is essential to rational consciousness, as it is to the ability to navigate change, as it is central to the ideal of the suspension of self in meditation. With compassion and reserve, the sad degradation of dementia is given broader contours, for it is made to constitute but one manifestation of a family of mental processes in which existence, non-existence and transcendence are tightly interwoven.

The oscillations of memory and forgetting were also evident in the sculpture from the same series (Catching the Moment) of small irregular boxes made from light fabric that had been covered with text. Although supported by invisible thread from the ceiling, this object appeared freestanding, a fragile wall made from diaphanous bricks in an irregular checker arrangement. While it could have anticipated the broken wall of the Palestinian refugee, the work forcibly portrayed the irregularity of memory, of the inconstancies in thinking, and the many holes in any history, personal and social. But the valuable insight this beautiful work offered was that it is only as a result of such holes, the elisions, losses and misprisions, that something resembling coherence can arise.

The intermeshing of the two iconographic elements of suburban houses and trees resurfaces in the more recent Bhava series (2013). ‘Bhava’ is translated as ‘state of being’, which refers in this work not only to Buddhist teachings but more immediately to the experience of sharing two or more cultures simultaneously. Here abstracted shapes derived from Australian suburban architecture are partly obscured by bare trees. The style of these works is strikingly planar and mildly graphic, the surfaces block-like, with a strong resemblance to collage. The trees appear as layered, hovering, over the house-derived shapes, in some places emerging from the brick patterning. This suggests that they are not only from the real world but also from the immaterial world of spirit and imagination. These works can be interpreted as lyrical testimonies to any migrant who shares more than one cultural allegiance, and sees the world around her in a way that is regularly contrasting one world with another, making subliminal translations, rifting referents.

It is clear from work such as this that the implications and ramifications of Suwannakudt’s work go well beyond the scope of cross- or trans-culturality. Rather she uses the reality of trans-culturality as a metaphor for every person. For in the Buddhist universe one’s being is always not only permanently multi-layered and mobile, but it never occupies just one place. The Buddhist being is always migrating, it is always in exile and uncertain. Suwannakudt’s Bhava paintings, for all their definite contours and plain surfaces, are about sites of uncertainty, but this uncertainty is not a cause for anxiety, rather it is the willingness to remain in uncertainty that grants one greater courage. In the words of the artist herself, ‘I am always a stranger to the places I lived’. Rather than this strangeness engendering alienation, it creates an acuteness of mind in which things are not taken for granted and even the simplest thing can be rendered refreshingly strange, and always contingent.

Earlier parts of the Bhava series from 2010 include the image of Buddha, but under a delicate screen of Thai script. Another is of two hands, the varied colouration deriving almost entirely from the Thai letters. The adaptive use of script becomes much like a repeated mantra, creating a vibratory rhythm across the surface, humming over the figural forms. As with other work, the Thai language is to be read as specific and unto itself but also as belonging to a deeper concept of memory, recognition and transmission. The density and profusion of the writing recalls a saying by Buddha: ‘The wise ones fashioned speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve’. Similarly the words in these paintings are the disembodied utterances that know no time, and are broken into particles that occupy more than one space.

In this way Suwannakudt’s work eloquently suggests that it is indeed the migrant and the stranger that are really most at home, since she knows that any homecoming is only part of a larger passage, and that real dwelling is to dwell in awareness of transition. 

Phaptawan Suwannakudt​, Bhava series, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. 

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Home (away from home), 2012. 3 x 5 metre mural consisting of 40 panels of fabric on board, 18 work collage from used garments from the community, acrylic on canvas. From Edge of Elsewhere. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre NSW, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Campbelltown Arts Centre. 

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Rebirth Mandala, 2010. Detail. Crocheted shredded silk. Installation, Catching the Moment; each step is in the past, 4A Centre for Contemporary Visual Art, 2010. Courtesy the artist. 

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Grey Wall, 2007. Detail, triptych. Acrylic on canvas. Private Collection. Courtesy the artist. 

notes: 

1. The work of Slavoj Žižek is enormously instructive and helpful on this point. See for example Slavoj Žižek, The Universal Exception, Rex Butler and Scott Stevens eds. Continuum, London and New York, 2006, pp.39-41, p.162, pp.170-80, p.193, pp.205-6.

Dr Adam Geczy is an artist and writer who is Senior Lecturer in Sculpture, Performance and Installation at Sydney College of the Arts.