Note: I have some old notes on some critiques which impressed me very much and which I translated years ago. Although they are fragmentary and the translations are a bit spotty, I am posting some of here for anyone who might by chance make some use of them. (Thanks to John Clark for the 2 photos lifted from his book, Asian Modernities, pub.2010).
From the essay (undated), ‘Araya: The Living and the Dead’ by K.Ying Jamnongsri
in Matichon Sudsapda Weekly
“My name is Araya and my life is at the point where summer’s end joins autumn’s beginning.” This is the opening sentence.
The back cover of the volume features a picture of the artist, Araya, dressed in black, seen wandering in a morgue like a soul trapped in the world. Corpses under white shrouds are laid out on beds in rows. The fluorescent ceiling lamps intently reflect the lines of bodies below.
The volume spoken of here is the catalog for an exhibition, an installation, ‘Why Just Poetry Rather Than Awareness?’ by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, recently showing at the National Gallery, Bangkok. Some parts of this show will go overseas to San Francisco for the ‘Time After Time’ show at the Center for the Arts, Yerba Buena, in April.
As translator of the poems of Araya in the catalog, I was quite interested in seeing ‘Why Just Poetry...”
When I saw it, I felt mixed up. It’s difficult to explain. But clearly, one felt pressured, depressed and sad. Even though I was amazed at the body of the work, which was finely detailed, and by the courage of the artist to express what was in her heart in a way that conflicts with most of society and culture, it was an art experience strangely troubling to the heart.
The videotape showed the [dead] bodies of women of various ages covered with cloth printed with brightly colored flowers. Only the women’s feet and foreheads were exposed. Some lay on white cloths in thin undergarments but were covered with beautiful clothes – various outfits – like dressed up paper dolls or ‘Barbie dolls.
The question arose in my heart: Is this a lack of respect for humanity or not? Are all our rights and dignity gone when we stop breathing?
We might reply that ‘dignity’ is only a human hypothesis, but one still feels oppressed and troubled.
It is a profound feeling. We don’t want anyone to use our body, or the body of a loved one, like this. But I was deeply moved by this brave-hearted person. There! Art still does its duty, as it has been doing for thousands of years, making humans experience the taste, know the feeling, become privy to the knowledge, the idea.
But the artist makes it clear in the title of the exhibition that her work here is not meant to give knowledge. [She presents, rather] the atmosphere and flavor of the poetry of love and death, woven into the threads of life.
Araya Rajamroernsuk seems to stick with sadness like a lover or a spouse. She sings a lullaby, anoints and decorates the corpses, as if trying to use life’s trembling and sweet emotion to hold on, to keep life from dissolving away.
Bringing together in this set of works video, black and white photos, sketches and sounds, she conjures up haunting power from the deep heart’s core. These elements call out to us to realize the color and feeling of death which is there on the edge of life, and life which is present on the edge of death.
Life and death slip into the areas which belong to each other, like water color paintings, sweet and clear, of flowers on a tomb; or the putrid scent of death that floats into a sacred ritual. In a video you see yourself putting a Lantom (note: a flower associated with death) blossom behind your ear. Where women’s bodies are laid out in rows, she reads aloud a classic love story. A deep gong sounds, and there is singing to drive away the mournful groans, so sickeningly sweet, like the smell of rotting flowers.
The black and white photos tell someone’s history…death leaves marks everywhere. The artist presents watercolor paintings of articles of clothing. In one picture of a wedding and in another of a little child in the arms of a mother who was once a bride, you see [their garments] and can’t help but think of the flowers on the cloths covering the corpses in the video. The coverings were so brightly colored that they would fool a butterfly, but the clothes of the living in an auspicious ceremony come out black and white in the photo. Even a picture of joy with a babe in arms includes, on the edge of the frame, a face from a Lanna mural. Like the visage of death, it gazes in, awaiting the time.
Video images show windows with thin curtains blown by the wind. Through the window a Lantom tree is visible, and swampy water stretched out, still, unmoving, under a cloudy sky. Natural country sounds stunned and lonely, are pierced by the howling of dogs. These cries echo lightly, dancing, making one feel one has overlooked the blurred edge squeezed between people and bodies without souls.
I can’t wholeheartedly say I ‘liked’ this set of works, and I can’t say I ‘didn’t like’ them. That inability to reject them shows how balanced they are.
There is no doubt of Araya’s artistic skill. Her color photos of ‘female-scapes’ are very beautiful. Seen from a distance, they resemble landscapes, tidy, soft and lovely. Look again and you can see that [these images] are created by photographing female corpses and their shrouds close-up from various angles.
The sketches for video presentations which were brought in as elements in the installation show the keen and decisive drawing skills of the artist. I found these to be the only things that did not, as did the other elements, oppress the emotions till one almost choked. They were working drawings and allowed for some distance. ‘Flavor of Poetry’ has intense power. One felt afterward as if one were rising to take a breath after almost drowning.
This series of works is difficult to accept because Araya makes human sexual desire flow into the provinces of death. And death insinuates itself into the places of the living, which conflicts with what most people are used to. We generally prefer to draw a pretty strict line between the living and the dying.
We don’t bruise ourselves by beating against these various traditional boundaries, traditions and rituals, whether they are funerals, or celebrations of life such as birthdays, weddings, or parties to mark promotions and new ranks. We Thai don’t turn the head of our beds toward the west, because that’s the orientation at which corpses are laid out. We don’t wear black on auspicious occasions because that is the color of mourning, and many other things.
These boundaries make us afraid of corpses, ghosts, and other things associated with death. We so strongly emphasize these lines of separation. Society crowds together, lavishing tens and hundreds of thousands and millions on funerals and birthdays.
I didn’t dare to ask Araya if she would stop at ‘Flower of Poetry’, which ended in morbid romanticism.
I asked myself, in the role of the spectator if we can refuse a work of art which has the power to so trouble the heart. Can we turn away and forget this ‘Flavor of Poetry’ which the artist has brewed, bitter as it is? Will it be a question simply of ‘liking it’ or ‘not liking it’? Or will we allow that flavor to annoy and stimulate some awareness in some little section, hidden in among the folds of the brain?
I am talking about the human mind, but I am not speaking here of the deep mind of the artist. About that, what can we really know?