What value does sleeping have as an act of political resistance? In practical terms, hardly any: napping is among the least productive things a person can do. Vladimir Nabokov knew this, describing sleep as a ‘nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius’, while Goya famously conceived of sleep as a metaphor for ignorance and folly: ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. In ‘Double Visions’, his recent exhibition at Anthony Reynolds, the Thai artist and film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul cut against this grain to posit sleep as a state of visionary intimacy, filled with motion, light and desire, in which political messages are so delicately underplayed that they border on the subliminal.
Weerasethakul rose to prominence on the international film festival circuit with the release of Blissfully Yours (2002), and his most recent feature, Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall His Past Lives, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2010. All of his films could be described as lucid dreams. Steeped in the humid landscapes and fantastical beliefs of his native Thailand, they are vivid, ethereal affairs, which eschew rational frameworks in favour of meandering narratives that soothe, beguile, perplex and mesmerise.
In ‘Double Visions’, Weerasethakul ventured further into the enigmatic territory charted by his films. The most ambitious work in the show was Dilbar (2013), a ten-minute video installation in which the protagonist, a Bangladeshi labourer working in the United Arab Emirates, is asleep for the duration of the film.
Dilbar’s mesmeric pace and aesthetic restraint are familiar from Weerasethakul’s feature films, yet here, extracted from the cinema context, the images spill over the container of the screen. Projected onto a pane of glass that refracted the black and white footage across the floor and walls, enveloping the viewer in a spectral double of the on-screen image, Dilbar examines the ‘invisible labour’ of Asian migrants through a meditation on palm trees, pylons, satellite dishes, construction machinery and scaffolding towers.
Weerasethakul studied architecture at university and Dilbar isn’t the only piece to display a fascination with structures of light and shade. The earliest work on show, Windows (1999), is filled with strobing reflections and reveals the influence of the fixed framings and flicker effects of structural filmmaking. Elsewhere, two photographs – Power Boy (Close Up) (2011) and Blow Up (2009) – provided static counterpoints to the films’ ambiguous flows of meaning.
‘Double Visions’ was a small, precisely judged exhibition, with the artist’s accompanying notes seeking to place these chimerical excursions into the altered realms of sleep in an altogether darker context. ‘In reality,’ he writes, referring to the ongoing anti-government protests taking place in Thailand, ‘people are being gunned down in the streets. Books are banned. Like the sleepers, I shun the malady of reality, and together we take refuge in the dreams of forever.’
Recent months saw tens of thousands of Thai protestors march in Bangkok against recently ousted former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, whom many Thais considered a corrupt and oppressive leader. Some lost their lives in the struggle against her. In this all-too-real context, ‘dreams of forever’ strikes a whimsical note, and one might question the validity of ‘shunning’ reality – another word for shirking, perhaps – when more direct forms of protest are possible.
But it is important to remember the coded languages in which Thai artists are forced to speak. Throughout his career, Weerasethakul has had to battle against punishing censorship laws, referring to Thailand’s brutal past (and present) through metaphor, inference and allusion. If Freud believed that dreams allow repressed desires to emerge in the form of symbols, in Weerasethakul’s world, apparently commonplace situations belie a latent radicalism.
The most obliquely political work in the exhibition was the video installation Teem (2007). For three consecutive days, Weerasethakul used his mobile phone to film his boyfriend as he woke from sleep, resulting in a sequence of tender, erotically charged portraits of a loved one coming to consciousness. They were presented in a sequence of floor-level video monitors so that the viewer peered down on the sleeping lover from a position of privileged wakefulness. If Dilbar lingers in the floating world of a character’s dreaming brain, then Teem presents sleep as subjectivity in its purest, most inaccessible form: the camera possesses the sleeper but it cannot capture his dreams.