With Primitive (2009), currently at the New Museum, Apichatpong Weerasethakul sends his native Thailand’s rural countryside and forest his customary valentine-but this video installation has a specifically political undercurrent. “Every moment in Thailand, the appreciation of happiness and suffering is in my spirit and in the air,” the artist told A.i.A. “And I’m always asking myself, ‘how do I channel that?'”
The Bangkok-born Weerasethakul’s practice of releasing narrative films to cinema and non-narrative work in fine art contexts is fairly unique. He’s best known for the 2010 Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and has released six internationally distributed features over the past decade, while showing multi-screen video and still photography installations in galleries.
In a museum setting, “The viewer has more freedom to view the individual films within the piece in the order they wish,” says Weerasethakul. “This format expresses certain feelings that I cannot do in a feature, where the viewer is immobile in the theater in the dark.” Primitive invites the audience to interact with the screen-one chooses the distance which one views the piece, and the order in which to view the individual videos that comprise the whole.
However, he says, “Film and art audiences are not so different. With the spread of video and technology, people accept moving images as art.”
Primitive is comprised of multi-screen projections in the darkened third floor of the museum. The main gallery loops individual films on three walls, and four smaller chambers each with a single film.
Much of the atmospheric footage is shot in the dark, illuminated only by moonlight, with a chorus of crickets. Viewers with a rural upbringing will recall the primordial stillness of a bonfire in the woods. In these settings, a gang of young, unnamed men frolic variously and exuberantly. Scenes recall Weerasethakul’s 2004 feature Tropical Malady, which focused on a burgeoning love affair between two young men. In Primitive, the relations stay platonic, though the director’s interest in the complexities of male interactions is evident.
One segment, which gets its own mini-theater, features young men kicking around a flaming soccer ball, a poetic refrain that even the most innocent games can culminate in destruction.
Another film features a group of young men dancing to pop music on the open bed of a moving truck. But sunny bliss is bothered slightly by the fact that one boy has a red shirt wrapped around his head, referencing Thailand’s “red shirts,” the anti-government faction of urban and rural poor in conflict with Bangkok’s royalist elite. A violent protest in May 2010 attracted world attention to these historically significant conflicts, which remain a part of Thailand’s political and social culture.
Where Uncle Boonmee, in which the title character is visited by deceased, estranged and other past relations while awaiting death, was a sweet, intense reckoning with the finite nature of existence, Primitive is topical. The work was shot in the Northeast Thai village of Nabua, which in 1965 was devastated by a brutal occupation by the Thai totalitarian army. The psychological legacy of occupation remains today, says the artist.
“[Primitive] is not obviously political,” says Weerasethakul. “You’re not going to come out knowing everything about Nabua. But what happened a long time ago is still happening in Thailand. It’s a cycle.” It was, in fact, the escalating dimension of the contemporary conflict between the red shirts and royalist elite (a tension that speaks globally to disenfranchised populations) that inspired the piece. “One angle of Primitive is a direct criticism of the primitiveness of society-how, politically, we rarely evolve,” says the artist. “At the same time, it’s about going back to the root, to the region I totally love and that I grew up in, but never totally explored.”