Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not afraid to leave viewers in the dark. Much of the hypnotic footage in this exhibition’s eight related videos (all 2009) was shot at night, producing stygian imagery shown in equally lightless viewing rooms. A single video’s soundtrack could be heard throughout the galleries; recurring subject matter further blurred distinctions between one work and the next. But slowly, a kind of logic emerged, in which dreams, myths and history propel a single, indivisible narrative impulse.
The roughly half-hour-long, two-channel video titled Primitive (also the name of the exhibition) begins in daylight with boys swimming happily in a dammed river, but soon goes murky. A narrator explains that he can see prior lives (as does the protagonist of Weerasethakul’s acclaimed 2010 feature film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), while imagery shifts between a field in darkness and an irregular orb that emits a glowing red light. Though at first it appears to be an alien craft, it is a simple tent, holding a clutch of young men, fast asleep. A ghostly figure briefly appears, the story of a blighted tobacco crop is told; there are also moments, barely glimpsed, of sharper menace, as when the young men inside the tent awaken into drowsy bantering and then, it seems, are submitted to harsh interrogation.
In the show’s central gallery, four single-channel videos of various lengths were projected simultaneously, all but one silent. Residents of a small town gather to work on a hopelessly handmade spacecraft, a project interrupted by men socializing, dogs fighting and, glancingly, scenes of greater violence. Several men engage in rifle practice, aiming out the windows of a wooden house toward a field through which, again, a ghostly figure passes swiftly. Another wobbly orb appears, rising in the night sky to just above a line of trees, hovering uncertainly and descending. The last work here produced the high-decibel explosions audible throughout; they seem to issue from a series of spectacular lightning strikes that illuminate various rural landmarks.
Alone in a further gallery was a video depicting a field in which the lightning-strike piece is projected onto a makeshift outdoor screen. A group of teenage boys delightedly kick around a burning soccer ball until its flames ignite the screen. At the end, the blinking eye of the projector shines into the darkness.
Explanatory materials (and some titles) reveal that all the videos were shot in Nabua, a town in an area of rural Thailand that saw heavy conflict between the military and communist-sympathizing farmers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Many young men were forced into hiding in the forest. Weerasethakul, born in 1970 in Bangkok, portrays this legacy, ravishingly, as experienced in a culture less finicky than ours about temporal categories. We are given an obsolete-though beguiling-vision of the future, a present that a Westerner might call timeless, and a history that won’t stay past but is not fully accessible because no one wants it as it was.
Photo: View of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s exhibition, showing the videos A Dedicated Machine (left) and Nabua (right), both 2009; at the New Museum.