Korakrit Arunanondchai’s Body Work

Published July 16, 2014

“Everyone needs room to breathe / And I get where you’re coming from / But those paintings that you make / They suffocate you / This isn’t freedom / It’s not even real.”

These subtitled admonishments grace the opening seconds of the video trailer for “Letters to Chantri 1: The Lady at the Door/The Gift that Keeps On Giving,” a new exhibition by Bangkok-born, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, opening at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles on July 18th. The fiery red glow of the setting sun is steadied by a heavy, entrancing beat. Glimpses of the performance artist Boychild being slathered with paint are interspersed with the visage of a wistful-looking young woman, and men in cutoff denim hold a canvas while the artist, similarly attired and seen only from the back, flings himself at it.

The drama of these ploys hearken an epic show; their sensuality and familiarity suggest a story laden with history and memory. Is the artist reflecting upon himself, attempting a renewal? Perhaps. The studied glimpses of the exhibition that Arunanondchai has been offering via Vimeo and Instagram hint at a climactic continuation of subject matter and working methods, like the body painting, that he has already experimented with in his current MoMA PS1 summer solo show.

But there is more bubbling under the surface. Krit, as he is known to friends, is only 27, but he is already a very nuanced storyteller amidst all of the bold actions and gestures, and one who works deftly with the elements of theatrical presentation. Under the sheen of artifice and sentimentality, there is a sophisticated and sometimes humorous commentary that threads his works together. “Letters to Chantri,” which was commissioned by the Mistake Room, will consist of all-new film, painting and other individual elements, but its promise lies in the total experience, where the sum is potentially greater than all of its parts.

HONORA SHEA: What is the framework for this new experience you’ve created?

KORAKRIT ARUNANONDCHAI: When I first started making a living as an artist, I had to do some stuff for Dell, I did a clothing line, I did all this stuff in the beginning. I wanted to do a show that was a combination of some of the methods that were used in that kind of experience. Basically the setup for this show is as if it is a company entity.

I like the idea of hybrids a lot, like hybrid media, and hybrid experiences, in this sort of way. For instance [gestures to the space around in The Mistake Room], this is a theater, it’s also an art gallery, and it’s also seemingly a concept store, though nothing’s for sale, you know what I mean? So in that way, by having these combinations of different methods selling you lifestyles and things, but isolated from any type of capital exchange, it becomes more about these methods. I don’t really have a product to sell. It would be like if you built the hotels in Las Vegas, that whole experience, but without the casino inside. The process of building and framing, that experience becomes the actual content.

I think there’s an outdated way of talking about art— “Oh, this is a cross between art and music,” or, “This is a cross between fashion and art.” This show is not about that, it’s not about mixing everything together for the sake of mixing everything together. It’s posed in a framework of: All of that has already happened, and now I’m trying to explore the possibilities of what you can make from that result.

Basically, you walk in, and it functions as a—like, if you go to Disney World or the Scientology museum, you go into a room, and this person leads you to an experience with media and objects. That’s what this is… It’s almost like the “company” utilizes my identity as an artist. It’s like this company comes to me, and I kind of pull my signature moves and my story as an artist to sell their brand.

SHEA: Tell me about the collaborative aspect of your work.

ARUNANONDCHAI: This show is very different for me, it’s the largest scale I’ve done for any one piece, and it’s very much a team model. I usually work with my friends, but this, more so than ever, is a team mentality. So, Alex (AJ Gvojic) who was here just now, he’s the DP and visual director, there’s a producer (Rory Mulhere), there’s Harry Bornstein who’s the music composer…I think it’s like the natural progression of all the other projects I’ve done. I did a performance at PS1, and then I was making videos, and then I’ve been working with Boychild for quite a bit, but in this one specific video piece, Boychild is really acting. Because everything is scaled up, everyone has more space in the work. In this video I really feel like I’m almost a creative director.

SHEA: Given the spiritual energy, and hints of rebirth, in this new work, are you yourself religious, or do you have a meditative or spiritual practice?

ARUNANONDCHAI: I think I’ve been far from Buddhism because I’ve been here, but in Thailand, I think Buddhism is the main framework for understanding being in life. I think it’s interesting—spiritual practices in Thailand, at least where I’m from, it’s such a different framework from how people understand life here. It’s really different because what was Buddhism from India merged with local knowledge and spirituality. [For instance], when you feel like your house is haunted, you call a monk to come to your house… When you try to adapt all these older ways to modern lifestyle, there’s always a friction, and some sort of weird hybrid always comes out of that. The “company” is actually kind of framed out of that reality.

I also think, me myself being here, I am not as spiritual as I used to be, but when I go back to Thailand I feel more spiritual. Your society, the consciousness of your society creates that reality, you know? I read this text by this Italian sculptor who went to Thailand in the ’30s, Silpa Bhirasri (b. Corrado Feroci), and he taught a lot of old-school artists. He once wrote a definition of “artist,” and it was a very spiritual person who is between man and nature. I like these clichés, and the idea of painting and spirituality… [but] even though I feel it to a certain extent, I don’t necessarily believe it. It’s the sort of thing where I can feel it sometimes, but I wouldn’t say that I have faith in, in… [long pause]

SHEA: In a specific god?

ARUNANONDCHAI: Yeah. I like having this character I play, that’s a certain aspect of me, where I simulate something where I emotionally feel that way. I kinda operate as an actor in the whole body-painting thing. I don’t actually believe that pouring paint on and throwing myself at a canvas can lead to some kind of spiritual resolution or access a greater being, you know?

SHEA: You created most of this exhibition in Los Angeles in three weeks. Do you normally work this intensely?

ARUNANONDCHAI: This is the fastest, most intense way I’ve worked. The amount of work, I was really swept off my feet shooting the video, usually I shoot by myself with just an extra person—like a tripod and an SLR, you know—but this we shot with a RED camera and everything was more complicated.

SHEA: Los Angeles is a mythical place for some. Did you find anything in L.A. that served as inspiration for the new work?

ARUNANONDCHAI: Everything was written here. I feel really connected to Los Angeles; there’s the biggest population of Thai people living outside of Thailand in Los Angeles, and I get to be more in touch with nature here—I didn’t grow up in nature, I grew up in a city. It affects my thinking, it affects my writing. This whole process of filming and going to all sorts of different places, even though its scripted, just going to all these places and filming it, it’s like a weird simulation in which I’m going through it as well, and there’s this sensation of distance, of floating. I feel this when I’m in L.A. You don’t feel as connected to everyone in New York as much. I love Joshua Tree. I’d been going to Joshua Tree a few times, going and thinking about shooting, and I feel very special about that place. It’s important that this project was made in L.A., in the socio-geographical sense of the word. It’s made in L.A.; the scale, the production is L.A. I feel like the show is very L.A.-specific.

SHEA: Who is Chantri?

ARUNANONDCHAI: She is a friend in Thailand that I write letters to.

“KORAKRIT ARUNANONDCHAI (FEAT. BOYCHILD): LETTERS TO CHANTRI #1: THE LADY AT THE DOOR/THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING” IS ON VIEW JULY 18 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 13 AT THE MISTAKE ROOM IN LOS ANGELES.