August 19, 2021 - April 10, 2022
A Minor History
This show is a combination of the media we grew up with. It is about a farewell to many things, from movies to live performances. Such as Likay [Musical Thai Folk Drama], Mor Lam [Traditional Thai Northeastern Style Music], and Radio Plays. So, this show will have some scent of those things. - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
A Minor History
Part One| 19 August 2021 – 30 January 2022
Part Two : Beautiful Things| 18 February – 10 April 2022
History is an endless conversation between the past and the present. But history as we know it is by and large mainstream history. It is made up of official national narratives about the ruling classes and events that are told to indoctrinate us with a certain set of beliefs and ideas. In A Minor History, Apichatpong Weerasethakul records a story of a distinct period in Isan - Thailand’s northeastern region – an area long socially and politically oppressed. It is the story and memory of common people, minor characters, and dissidents. It also tells of local legends and beliefs in the supernatural.
The work is the result of Apichatpong’s return to Isan during the recent pandemic lockdowns. He begins his journey in Khon Kaen where he grew up, then goes to Nong Khai, Kalasin, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Mukdahan, finally reaching Ubon Ratchathani. He accumulates interviews, photographs, and various local perspectives on politics. He encounters an independent younger generation with completely different political ideas and beliefs from the previous generation.
These young people are searching for their own grounds, questioning the meaning of self, happiness, and freedom. In his journey along the Mekong River, Apichatpong observes how the familiar river has been transformed as a result of the dams built in China. The Mekong River, the main artery between Thailand and Laos, is at once the victim of and witness to many layers of truth, evidenced in relics that have accumulated over time, now being excavated and examined.
The first part of the exhibition presents a three-channel video installation, inspired by Apichatpong’s encounter with a man from Mukdahan who is a member of a team that recovers corpses found floating in the Mekong River. Apichatpong also discovers an old movie theatre in Kalasin that evokes memories of the cinema of his youth in Khon Kaen that is no longer there. This source of light and stories, of Thai films’ narrative traditions and propaganda in the nation-building era that shaped individuals and society, is now nothing more than skeletal remains, infested with hundreds of pigeons. This image of dilapidation is juxtaposed with the nocturnal flow of the Mekong River. Behind lurks a Morlam (Isan folk performance) theatre backdrop that depicts an empty palace. The majestic colors are eclipsed by darkness and illuminated, at times, by the flickering films.
For the sound component, Apichatpong collaborates with Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, who has been responsible for the sound design and mixing of all of his previous works. The echoes from the nooks and crannies of the old cinema. The flapping of the pigeon wings. The Bang! originally exploding from inside Apichatpong’s head. The bangs are reverberations of his Fever Room project and the film Memoria. They are the bangs that awaken memories from a long slumber. For this piece, Apichatpong works, for the first time, with young Isan poet Mek Krung Fah (the half-cloudy sky), who was born and raised on the banks of the Chi River. The poet composes and narrates his story, taking on the roles of a man and his lover as they stroll along the Mekong riverbank. His narration mimics the style used in the dubbing of old films and radio dramas from a bygone era.
History may be fiction. It may be made-up stories with evidence still to be uncovered. In this work, fiction and narratives about corpses that regularly float up to the river’s surface clash with mystical beliefs about the Naga, deeply rooted in the way of life and the spirit of local people on both sides of the Mekong River. The death of the Naga. The murders. The disappearance of political activists silenced for expressing their opinions, lingers like a myth. Their unforgettable stories are waiting to be disclosed, the truth being brought out into the light.
This work combines various forms of storytelling familiar to Apichatpong from his childhood: movies, dubbing and voice acting, radio dramas, and Morlam performances. The hybrid form of storytelling hovers in the realms of reality and dreams, reflecting the decay of memories and representations. For Apichatpong, this work is to record the remnants of memories. It is a farewell to and a mourning for the childhood innocence and an awakening to the unspeakable violence in Thai society.
A Minor History is conceived as a two-part exhibition, which is the culmination of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s revisiting Isan, or Northeastern Thailand, during the recent pandemic lockdowns. After spending two years working on his Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize feature film, Memoria (2021), which was shot entirely in Colombia, he returned to his hometown Khon Kaen in early 2021, travelled along the Mekong River, met new generations, and accumulated an extensive array of interviews, photographs, and local perspectives that shed light on the country’s current political landscape. The exhibition revolves around the artist’s long-running themes of light, time, dream, personal and social memory, and obscured history, such as the likes of state repression. Part One features a three-channel video installation that dramatises a series of unresolved cases of forcibly disappeared dissidents whose mutilated bodies were found floating in the Mekong River. The video installation, with its hybrid form of storytelling, hovers between the realms of reality and dream, reflecting on the decay of memories and representations, as well as the disintegration of social narrative and truth.
Apichatpong continues his journey to observe and contemplate the country’s current political and social state of affairs in Part Two of A Minor History entitled Beautiful Things, with a focus being placed on exploring perspectives, both visual and mental. Represented on the two-dimensional photographs are the scenes of the hotel room interiors, the skeletal remains of an old cinema theatre, and the vacant throne room depicted in the painted Morlam (Isan folk performance) theatre backdrop. In these photographs, mostly taken during his Isan road trip, he makes use of perspective to draw attention to memories, dreams, realities, and everything in between. In some photographs, a vanishing point is used to create a realistic image of a room interior, whilst in others, disparate images with a multi-point perspective are superimposed on the original images; For example, the images of the confluence of the Mekong and Mun Rivers at the Thailand-Laos border, youth-led protests, and crumbling pillars, walls, and ceilings are pasted onto the images of the rooms. The artist plays with perspective to present dramatic, overlapping, or distorted images; His use of light and shadow also suggests a presence in the seemingly empty rooms, lending the photographs a mysterious air, and he thereby questions what we see in these images in relation to reality, and ponders the role of art — painting, photography, and cinema — in revealing the truth.
In Beautiful Things exhibition, Apichatpong uses text to tell non-linear stories across space and time. At the forefront of the main exhibition space, texts placed over the photographic image function like the opening titles of a double bill: Mekong Murder Mystery VS Dreams and Delusions, whilst a vertical video projection projects scrolling texts alternating with white spheres, slowly moving up from bottom to top. The text comprises a diverse range of stories from flakes of memories, thoughts, and knowledge, such as Apichatpong’s nature observation during evening trekking in Mae Rim Forest; the ways Khrua in Khong, a celebrated Siamese painter of the 19th century, utilised perspective system to create a realistic impression in his paintings for the first time; and a blind masseur who converted his arm tattoo from a Swastika to a dragon, like a petite Naga incarnate. The use of text on a dark background gives an impression of someone trying to fall asleep from middle-of-the-night awakening to a loud bang only to have random and refracted thoughts punched into their head. For Apichatpong, who tries to build as much sleep — and thus dream — time, the bed becomes a vehicle for entering a dreamscape realm.
Furthermore, also included in Beautiful Things as an intervention to share their views and interact with Apichatpong’s work are artworks by two Chiang Mai-based young artists: Methagod and Natanon Senjit. In this exhibition, Methagod’s sculpture Thep Nelumbo Nucifera (Sacred Lotus Deity) refers to the meaning behind the Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo Nucifera) that emerges from underground rhizomes and can remain viable for a hundred years; This fascinating plant can go dormant, germinate from mud, and give rise to new offspring, hence the artwork being symbolic of immortality. The sculpture reminds us of the perpetual resurrection of Thailand’s youth movements despite being time and again suppressed. Meanwhile, at the back end of the exhibition space, the Morlam theatre backdrop depicting an empty palace is overlaid with Natanon’s painting Break Out of the Loop of National Conflict into Peaceful Nature. Through this work, the young artist emphasises the importance of people-power movements continuing their resistance, yet he nevertheless expresses his hope and desire to live in peace and harmony even in the midst of the country’s political polarisation and predicament.
Beautiful Things offers us a window into Apichapong’s points of view on the world around him. The work gives a glimpse into his meditative musings on beauty, reality, knowledge, progress, and revolution, as he is pondering on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti, who prefers looking at nature to any picture in any museum. Observing nature with sensitivity, seeing the tree as it is, is prerequisite for beautiful things to reveal themselves to us. For Apichatpong, beauty is likened to walking through the forest, being aware of other companions, and being in the presence of each and every living thing, witnessing their myriad of expressions throughout their natural cycle. The awakening to a rumbling sound and the awareness of different views, struggles, desires to continue, as well as even of simply being in the present, are truly beautiful things.
Manuporn Luengaram (curator)
Special thanks: Bangkok CityCity Gallery and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum
About the artist
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Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b.1970) grew up in the northeastern Thailand, city of KhonKaen. He studied architecture before graduating in film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997, and currently lives and works in Chiang Mai.
In 2005 he was presented with one of Thailand’s most prestigious awards, Silpatorn, by the Thai Ministry of Culture. In 2008, the French Minister of Culture bestowed on him the medal of Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des letter (Knight of the Order of Arts and Literature).
In 2011, he was given another honor in the same field with an Officer Medal. He is the recipient of the Yanghyun Foundation Prize, Korea, (2014) and the Fukuoka Prize, Japan (2013). His film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, won a Palme d’Or prize at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Apichatpong has participated in a number of international exhibitions, including dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012, Sharjah Biennale in UAE in 2013, Liverpool Biennial in 2006, Busan Biennial in 2004, and the Istanbul Biennial in 2001.
His works have been presented in art institutions such as Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Redcat, Los Angeles; New Museum, New York; Irish Museum of Modern Art; Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris; Hangar Bricocca, Milan; and more. In 2016, a retrospective of his films was presented at Tate Britain, UK. Feature films include: Cemetery of Splendor (2015), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Tropical Malady (2004), The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), Blissfully Yours (2002), and Mysterious Object at Noon (2000).