The artist Korakrit Arunanondchai spent the last decade establishing himself as one of those very rare figures who is able to ride the international art circuit with apparent ease, landing in each new city with alluring new work—a heady video; denim paintings that he bleached, burned, and mended; or some rococo installation incorporating those things and a lot more. In 2019, alone, he appeared in six biennials in five countries: Venice, Istanbul, Singapore, Performa and the Whitney in New York, and the Asian Art Biennial in Taichung, Taiwan.
He was making art that toyed with identity, brushed aside the boundaries between mediums, and generally exuded the excitement of a very fun, very secret late-night party. He operated out of his hometown of Bangkok and New York, where he has also lived and worked for well more than a decade. Then the pandemic hit.
Arunanondchai, who is 35, spent a year and a half stuck in Thailand, and a month of that amid a lockdown on the island of Koh Tao, where he practiced freediving. “That’s when I started thinking about water,” the artist said Wednesday afternoon, sitting outside a hanok-style coffee shop in Seoul. A nimble, abstract thinker, he then launched into a discussion of Freud’s concept of the “oceanic feeling, which is essentially any religious feeling you have of joining a group, nature—it’s like the space of death, or like pre-birth. It’s like being back in the womb, with no separation.”
One of Arunanondchai’s recent videos, Songs for Living (2021), which is screening next door in a solo show in the basement auditorium of the Art Sonje Center (through October 30), throws viewers straight into that kind of environment. The camera glides through deep water, passing fish and a giant turtle. Everything is amber orange.
“The ocean in the video is the color of the womb,” he said. At one point, he appears upside-down in the water, his long hair floating as squid ink spills from his mouth. There are shots of black-winged angel figures wearing helmets and gliding on electric unicycles through New York streets, and of people dancing topless around a campfire—and an obscure voiceover with talk of “flesh” that “will filter every sound.”
The 20-minute work—a collaboration with his frequent creative partner, Alex Gvojic—suggests a grand, abstract sci-fi pagan narrative, with hints of death and rebirth. Making it felt “almost like composing a song,” the artist said, and the soundtrack is characteristically captivating, with ominous ambient passages and explosive drumming from Brian Chippendale, of the noise band Lightning Bolt. “I wanted to kind of pull all that energy that I could see from New York, having been gone for a year and a half,” Arunanondchai said. (Lightning Bolt, for him “was about physically touching people, objects physically touching,” and “space being filled with sound.”)
The piece stands in stark contrast to the show’s other main work, the video Songs for Dying (2021), which he made while still in Thailand. It includes footage of the 2020 protests in Bangkok, mass graves from the late 1940s uprising on Korea’s Jeju island, and his grandfather’s 2020 funeral. Made for the 2021 Gwangju Biennale in that South Korean city, it “is probably the most documentary video I’ve done,” Arunanondchai said.
It is also a raw, emotional master class in political struggle and personal grief. It links the two, proposing a sense of unity between people in their aspirations, their pain, and their hopes for closure. Some scenes date to 2010, and have the artist and his grandfather walking along a rural beach in Thailand. “I started filming because my grandfather started having Alzheimer’s,” he said. It presents an artist operating at a very high level.
With border rules eased, Arunanondchai is back to his peripatetic ways. Last month, he was in Aspen, Colorado, for a performance, and during his stay in Seoul he was editing a new video that will debut in less than two weeks at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. After that, he will inaugurate the new Canal Projects space in Manhattan with Songs for Living, and then decamp to Bangkok for the second edition of Ghost, an art festival he started in 2018 that will run from October 12 to November 13 in various places around town. (He’ll be back in Seoul in December for a one-person exhibition at Kukje Gallery.) Independent curator Christina Li will curate this Ghost, which she has titled “Live Without Dead Time,” and some 20 artists have been announced so far, including Hito Steyerl and Meriem Bennani. Arunanondchai curated its first outing, but this time he is “the fundraiser and the organizer,” he said.
Why operate an art festival? “The thing I always wanted to share in my work is this sense of a shared place,” he said. As he sees it, “you can’t do it through an individual voice or in an individual.”