Conversations

Interview with Arin Rungjang

Enoch Cheng (AAA): You recently finished the project Let’s make sense in the Netherlands, which incorporates activity from cooking to video making with five other artists, including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Kornkrit Jianpinidnan, Chitti Kasemkitvatana, and Shooshie Sulaiman. What was the idea behind the project and how did it go?

Arin Rungjang (AR): The project started with the idea to create a simple platform for exchange - a dining table - in a gallery. I worked with artists Rirkrit, Chitti, Korkrit, Siravoj, and Shooshie. Rirkrit took care of the food. He gave recipes for cooking Thai food to Dutch artists. Chitti was responsible for the table. We talked about how to arrange it with objects found at the gallery and a box from a nearby grocery. Shooshie contributed a bouquet of flowers based on a painting found in Melaka in a Chinese shop that happened to be a replication of a Dutch painting from 500 years ago. I then sent the picture of this painting to the gallerist who arranged the flowers with the florist accordingly. Korkrit designed the invitation card. He asked for someone in Den Haag to find a Thai guy on the street and photograph him in front of a flower shop. The image was then used for the invitation card. Sivaroj, a young filmmaker, documented the opening.

The project was ultimately a collaborative dining event. It was a joint effort by artists, the gallerists, the flower shop owner, a grocer, and visitors. The idea was very simple but the process was full of questions as to how we share our different expertise and experiences. 
 

AAA: Audience participation and collaboration play important roles in your work. What do you enjoy most about working others?

AR: Let me answer this with an example from the work at the Singapore Biennale Unequal exchange, no exchange can be unequal. I was interested in a particular place in Singapore that I heard about from the Biennale team, a place where I was told I could find a lot of Thais (similar to the Chinatowns of the world) called the 'Golden Miles complex.' This area is a focal point for Thai people perhaps because there is a bus station where people can travel between Thailand and Singapore. Most of the people I met there were labourers who came to Singapore looking for work and many of the shops there provide services to this population. This gathering place became my target.

I met several kinds of people there. Hair-dressers, labourers, prostitutes, and even Thai expats with higher level (educational) backgrounds than most of those I met at the Golden Miles complex. Thai people love to gather in places they can call home no matter who they are. They also love E-San food, so most of the Thais in Singapore hang out at Golden Miles complex.

I went there and started to talk with people normally with no specific subject, just as one meets another person coming from his or her country in another country. I asked people about their lives and where their original home-towns were. These interviews were video-recorded and then I tracked down their home-towns in Thailand and interviewed people there. One of the women I interviewed from Thailand said, ‘We actually have everything here. We can grow or plant and this town is very fruitful. The only thing missing here is the people who left to find work in places abroad. They may understand happiness in other ways, but I enjoy so much waking up in the morning to feed my buffalo and help my parents take care of the rice field.’ So instead of only having those answers from Thais in Singapore, I also brought the memory of Thais who live where they lived before to show the Thais in Singapore.


AAA: In this project, you also ask Thai workers in Singapore to swap their furniture with that of IKEA. How do you view the idea of exchange in the context of art making? I heard from a visitor it was difficult for the audience to engage with the work because the relational aspect did not translate into an exhibition context. What is your view on that?

AR: This happened later in the Biennale. I created an open structure at the Kalang airport, not just for Thai migrant workers, but also for visitors to the Biennale. Thai migrants and visitors could bring their furniture and exchange it with IKEA products. I didn’t have any expectations for the results, but left it to participants. I very much like one child’s table with the Thai alphabet on it.

The official Biennale committee questioned whether the project discriminated against the Singaporeans as they had to pay taxes on the objects they exchanged which were then invested in the Biennale. It was hard for the Biennale committee to convey my point of view to Singaporean visitors about the idea of sharing with other people living in the same place. In a country where controlling rules and laws lead to censorship and self-censorship, it is difficult to be open and share. I hope that my work corresponds to different layers of individual interest; not only monetarily, but morally, culturally, historically, and so on.

My answer to the criticisms I received was that people need to question the powerful ideologies of capitalism and materialism. The Biennale theme 'Open House' envisioned the idea of 'Openness' in the symbolic concept of 'House' and invoked the narrative of 'Invitation.' So this project engaged those who had been ‘invited’ to work in Singapore to develop the 'house of Singapore.'

I don't trust the idea of openness in art without limitation. I think there should be certain structures in art to show that life does not actually mean real freedom. This work only reveals ‘the real’ cost that is hidden by ideological and symbolic structures. I didn’t know that visitors did not understand the relational aspect. Anyway, the work was intended to fall between unawareness and curiosity or one could say between simplicity and curiosity. 


AAA: In My knees are cold because it is winter in Paris, you made an installation that mingles multiple stories from your father, Michel Foucault, and Pier Luigi Tazzi, the Italian curator now residing in Thailand. I am intrigued by how you interconnected these three sources. How did you develop the idea? Can you tell us about more about this work?

AR: There are four parts in this work. One part is the found objects, furniture from a charity where homeless people are employed. These objects include recycled industrial products collected from the street by the homeless people who now work in the charity. They refurbished them and put the items in a place called 'Emaus.' This place is for poor people or anyone who cannot afford to buy luxury items and it is also a treasure chest for collectors who can find historical value in the objects. 

The second part is a story in a book placed on a table in the narrow space beside a shirt that belonged to Pier Luigi Tazzi (mentioned below) and hangs on the wall. The story was about my father who was beaten by Germans in Germany in 1977. My mother told me what she remembered of the story from a letter sent by father after the incident. He explained that the Germans thought that he was a Filipino. About ten men beat my father until he passed out on the street and stayed there for two days.

The third part is a story hung in frames on the wall. It tells the story of Pier Luigi Tazzi’s life and that of his father, who went to the Italian frontier in the period during the Second World War. His family in Tuscany lived in a porcelain factory called 'Richard Ginori.' The company later collapsed and some of the employees committed suicide because they could not deal with the reality.

The last part is Michael Foucault’s book The Order of Things, which I originally intended to erase by blacking out much of the text in the book. In the end, I just marked two phrases: ‘the same’ and ‘the other.’ 


AAA: You often conduct interviews as a means of collecting the narratives of other people, and then interpret them (sometimes in writing) in your work. For example: in Untitled, you asked the audience to perform an interview that you conducted with an HIV+ man in front of a camera. And in In memories of Rasamee, you had a script for the video. How do you view your role in manipulating these narratives? Are you also interested in writing?

AR: I have no particular methodology, but often when I start to work on a new project I look at the imaginary or the symbolic meanings as they are defined in relation to other objects, such as the space between paragraphs or a donut’s hole. After identifying the imaginary/symbolic, I try to find specific approaches for dealing with the time and space where these symbols would be manifested. Language is one way to engage with symbolism and order of content. This is an important part of my work but it is still only a part of a larger process. As an artist, I am a witness and so I try to find ways to revisit, bridge, relate, guide, combine, collaborate, create, and manage structures or methods, from places, people, and objects and to create a kind of constructed reality that usually remains hidden by the narrative’s reality. 


AAA: Can you tell us about the artist collaborative As Yet Unnamed? 

AR: As Yet Unnamed is an artist collective founded in 1998, by a group of art students and graduates from various art academies in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. We meet often at exhibitions, workshops, and seminars outside school settings. The initiative aims to sow new seeds of creation by exposing art students to spaces of experimentation and unconventional practice. In 1999, the group held its first site-specific and collective project – entitled ‘As Yet Unnamed (Not Yet In Progress)’ – at Project 304, one of Bangkok’s first independent sites for emerging contemporary art, founded by curator Gridthiya Gaweewong. 

For ten years, despite constant activity in the scene, a contemporary art infrastructure had not really been developed. Yet these artists had all decided to keep living and working in Bangkok, and desired a place to meet, work, talk, exhibit, and collaborate. With a small grant from ANA , As Yet Unnamed regrouped to initiate its first 'station' at About Studio / About Café, in Bangkok's Chinatown, another important node of contemporary art that had also seen a drop-off in artistic activity. The main idea of the 'station' was to provide a platform for discussion, a place to meet and talk, although exhibitions were also staged there. The emphasis was on the sharing of ideas, and process-oriented projects. For most of the artists involved, it was a chance to do something local, collaborative, and different from what they would do at a commercial or institutional gallery. After one year, the group moved out of About Café. At present, the collaborative is floating and considering where and how to build its next 'station'. Part of David Teh’s brief explanation of the ‘As Yet Unnamed’ project was published in the book Creating spaces: Post Alternative Spaces in Asia.


AAA: I know that Surasi Kusolwong is an artist from the last generation that you admire. How did his work make an impact on you? In the upcoming generation, are there any emerging artists that you follow?

AR: Surasi, Rirkrit, Apichatphong, and Navin were the first Thai artists to be established on the international art scene, which I really admire. The artist Montien Boonma was very influential to these artists and I really appreciated their practices and approaches. I really admire the work of the artist Pratchaya Phinthong, my best friend. He is currently working in Europe and is represented in Paris by gb agency gallery. Some of the artists in my generation, especially those in As Yet Unnamed are now working through art platforms locally that are connected to international platforms.


AAA: Tell us about your next projects?

AR: I have just finished working on a show in Bangkok and will be participating in a group show at ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) in Melbourne next month. The ACCA exhibition examines evidence of a Dinosaur cemetery in Thailand called Kalasin, where ‘dinosaur fossils were found at Phu Kum Khao (Sahatsakhan district), the largest dinosaur site in Thailand. Most of the fossils are from Sauropods from 120 million years ago’, as described on Wikipedia. I am also preparing to go to Rwanda in a few months for a project in Sydney next June. I will work with youth in Rwanda on a pottery project.

 

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Author

Enoch CHENG

Topic
Conversations
Date
Thu, 1 Sep 2011
Cite as
Enoch CHENG, Interview with Arin Rungjang, Thu, 1 Sep 2011

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