The SculptureCenter retrospective ‘Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’ gathers over ten years’ worth of the notable Thai artist’s work to present her first survey on American soil, covering her output from 2001 to 2015. This time period partly coincides with a decade of consistently growing acknowledgment in the United States and also displays the artist’s engagement with video as the primary medium of her practice, as opposed to earlier forays into graphic arts, sculpture, installation, and fiction writing. Despite this shift in medium, the same thematic contents that drove her early work continue to do so. In presenting the overarching themes behind Rasdjarmrearnsook’s oeuvre, this retrospective ultimately succeeds in letting the artist speak for herself, and concedes how cryptic and culturally specific her work can often seem.
Although death is the more conspicuous, major and ever-present thematic inspiration for and subject of her work, alongside the ulterior theme of communication, both are inherently informed by her lived experience as a woman in contemporary Thai society. To that effect, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work perhaps cannot begin to be appreciated without some degree of understanding the history and culture of Thailand. If her art appears to seem intensely personal (if not alienating) and provincially biased, this perception could be a consequence of the artist’s disregard for the potentially intimidating and all-too-familiar tropes of popular ‘Western’ discourses that threaten to overwhelm the very thematic subjects with which she is concerned. However, this is not to say that Rasdjarmrearnsook’s reputation in Thailand corresponds with how she is received outside of her homeland. After enjoying acceptance in the Thai art community for a time, Rasdjarmrearnsook long since ran afoul of attitudes towards ethics, gender relations, and the treatment of animals and the dead, upon filming what were to be the first of many experiences and performances in the presence of the deceased. Despite this, her international stature only grew.
Composed of twenty-one or so installations ranging from video projections, to prints, photographs, and assorted materials, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s survey exhibition does not adhere to any strict chronological order. However, one of the first works likely to be encountered upon entering the exhibition space is notable for not only dating back to 2001, when Rasdjarmrearnsook began producing such videos, but also for differentiating her singular treatment of the subject of death, and subsequently, interactions with the dead themselves. The 25-minute long video entitled ‘I’m Living,’ depicts Rasdjarmrearnsook hovering over, and alternately observing and laying different outfits upon a girl’s cadaver, and provides a fitting introduction to the nature and intentions of her art.
The directness of the artist’s engagement with death both on thematic and real terms is also present in the ‘Class’ and ‘Conversation’ series (both 2005), albeit in increasingly contextualised setups of teacher and class, or speaker and audience respectively. Yet, even as Rasdjarmrearnsook’s practices in filming her experiences among the dead developed, the products of her labour never lose their ambiguous quality or power. Rather, in treating death as ordinary, her videos disclose the extent of its social construction, with the curious effect of both muddling yet still affirming preconceived notions.
Two years after ‘I’m Living,’ Rasdjarmrearnsook produced the short film ‘The Nine-Day Pregnancy of a Single Middle-Aged Associate Professor,’ in which she temporarily feigns pregnancy to her colleagues and students at Chiang Mai University, where she continues to teach. Curiously styled at least partly in the vein of a reality television show, perhaps to reflect the potentially absurd humor of its title and content, the filmed narrative tells of the cultural shock her faked condition provoked in others (presumably as a single, older female professor) only to be followed by further criticism upon revealing the truth.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s explorations in the experience of Thai womanhood are also demonstrated in the large three-screen installation ‘Great Times Message: Storytellers of the Town’ (2006), a particularly painful and upsetting work in which three women openly but with some difficulty tell of personal experiences involving cheating and abusive husbands, drug abuse, and death. The experience of being surrounded by the women, as their distorted appearance and flood of voices render them indistinguishable from one another is most unsettling.
Although separated by four years, the ‘Two Planets’ series from 2008, and later works such as 2012’s ‘The Treachery of the Moon,’ both of which occupy the largest and main room of the exhibition, complement each other conceptually and aesthetically. The former series depicts Thai peasants, their backs facing the viewer, situated in some picturesque rural scene, discussing whatever masterpiece of Western art that has been placed in front of them. The latter depicts Rasdjarmrearnsook herself, sitting and facing away from the viewer with her dogs, and silently viewing television footage alternating between soap operas and civil unrest. In both these works, as with those in the past, there are questions raised about the relationship between communication and power.
Aside from merely identifying with her subjects, for the past few years, Rasdjarmrearnsook has been directly interacting, caring for and living with them. The artist has reportedly made herself responsible for over a dozen stray dogs, who themselves have become the subjects of prints and photographs, a number of videos, and, notably, a series of portrait ‘sculptures’ - collections of personal effects from individuals. It is apparent that she retains respect for her subjects, but as the works she has produced around them seemingly dispassionately indicate - from videos depicting injured dogs attempting to walk or run, to footage of senseless public animal cruelty, and the sculptures which function almost as shrines to the deceased - vulnerability is nothing if not inherent to the condition of living existence.