BY Brian Curtin in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook

BY Brian Curtin in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s six video projections were billed as being concerned with storytelling. A more specific characterization would point out the fact that the stories on view were told by six women, including the artist, and that each story was ostensibly about the teller’s individual experience as a woman. I haven’t read the word ‘feminist’ in criticism or catalogue essays for a long time, but here, as with her output generally, Rasdjarmrearnsook suggested a re-inflection of preoccupations and approaches from other times and places.

Five of the projections were of lone female psychiatric patients speaking to the camera about their lives and emotions; the images were blurred in order to conceal their identity, and the projections functioned like technological confessionals. A sixth, coloured projection ran three ‘stories’: a travelogue, a performance where the artist pretended to be pregnant, and shots of two young men and a woman playing flutes and a violin amid historical ruins. The sharp contrast between the black and white shots of the psychiatric patients and the coloured projection was appealing, if awkward to navigate; while the former were ponderous, cold and impenetrable, not least because they were blurred, the latter was hand-held, diaristic and lyrical.

Pre-exhibition publicity notwithstanding, including the fact that the psychiatric patients were filmed by the artist, a number of questions immediately arose. The relationship between the black and white images and the coloured shots was far from obvious, and furthermore how were the diatribes by what the catalogue writes as ‘the insane’ managed? Were the stories prompted or spontaneous? Were they edited? Each ran to around ten minutes, and while they were coherent – a number began along the lines of ‘I want to talk about …’ – one was left wondering about the original time-span and the conditions of their production. These initial questions, however, were largely answered by the effect of standing for some time among the five video pieces, which were projected to surround the viewer. The impossibility of identifying the women as individuals undermined the possibility of voyeurism, displacing any sentimental empathy. While the authenticity of the women as psychiatric patients and the veracity of the life stories they told could only be assumed, the soundtrack’s capacity to induce anxiety was heightened, as it shifted between moments of clarity and din as a result of all the voices being heard simultaneously. This was both the immediate and the lasting impact of this aspect of the installation.

English subtitles ran continuously throughout the five projections, adding another distancing device (and useful if you don’t understand Thai). One woman spoke of not being loved; another spoke of her mother’s brains splattered all over a bed after she was shot by her father; one was a stream of consciousness monologue moving from her ‘catfish mouth’ to her husband’s lame mistress, who murdered her three children; there was a particularly lucid disputing of the Chinese and Thai preference for sons over daughters; and a woman spoke of being declared crazy by her husband and compared her life to withering flowers on a Buddha-shelf. While the assumption is that the narratives are individual, the tendency is to see links between them. The family figures large, as does the role men have played in the women’s lives.

There remains the question of how the artist’s own ‘stories’ relate to those of the incarcerated women’s. The fake pregnancy stands out thematically: Rasdjarmrearnsook wanders through her work-place with a newly acquired bump and encourages gossip from others about what it means for a single, middle-aged university professor to be pregnant. As with the psychiatric patients, the relationship between ‘private’ and ‘public’ experience is underlined and questioned. Further to this, the comparison reveals the shared desire to escape daily routine, personal memories, and for a life to be understood in substantially different terms. In the context of female experience Rasdjarmrearnsook reinvigorates earlier feminist interest in female voices and stories with a more recent deliberation on the nature of audio-visual representation itself.

Brian Curtin is an art critic based in Bangkok, Thailand. His book Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand is due to be published by Reaktion Books in 2021.