Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook exposes and challenges social conventions. From helping unclaimed corpses pass into the next spiritual realm, to joyously frolicking with a rescued, paralysed dog, her moving image pieces are uniquely touching and confrontational.
This year, her meditations on death and her focus on marginalised societal narratives feel especially prescient. Below, Ulanda Blair (Curator, Moving Image) takes a timely look at Rasdjarmrearnsook’s works in the M+ Collections.
Conversations with Corpses
An avowed nonconformist, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook is one of Thailand’s most internationally recognised contemporary artists. Born in 1957, she began her career in printmaking and photography and veered into sculpture and large-scale installations in the 1990s. Next came filmmaking and video, which remain her primary mediums today. Throughout her career she has also been an active writer, working across art criticism, poetry, and literary fiction. She was until very recently a professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Chiang Mai University, where she worked for more than thirty years.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s art has courted controversy due to her collaborations with the mentally ill, stray dogs, and most famously, unclaimed corpses in a local mortuary. Her interdisciplinary moving image practice is especially notable in the context of Thailand, with its traditionally segregated and discipline-specific arts education. Recurring themes in her work are spirituality, ritual, death, and pedagogy—all while maintaining her unwavering focus on marginal communities and histories.
Since 1997, Rasdjarmrearnsook has repeatedly visited a hospital morgue in Chiang Mai to film corpses. In Conversations I (2005), the artist sits between a pair of corpses veiled in white sheets. Her back is turned to the audience, which is a trope that regularly appears in her work. This gesture implicitly invites the viewer into the scene, as though we are all part of the same ritual. It collapses real space and cinematic space. Rasdjarmrearnsook undertakes a meditative ritual where she hums, chants, and talks to the corpses. Conversations I is informed by the Thai Buddhist tradition of sitting and conversing with the deceased for several days, to guide them into the next spiritual realm. Here, she takes on the responsibility of guiding them into this next life. There is also a personal biographical element to the work. The loss of her own mother as a child was a strong influence on this series, which is her own way of dealing with attachments to death.
Importantly, when Rasdjarmrearnsook was making this series, she specifically requested to work with corpses that had no family to attend to them. The work is about shifting taboos and cultural attitudes around not only death, but those who have been marginalised and ignored by society. Rather than viewing the corpses as lifeless soon-to-be-forgotten objects, she communicates with them as if they are on equal footing with the living.
Play with the Stray and Lowly
Rasdjarmrearnsook has an ongoing interest in challenging cultural hierarchies. This also comes through in her works addressing the relationship between humans and animals, such as in Some unexpected events sometimes bring momentary happiness (2009). Here, she turns her attention to the lowly status of stray dogs that roam the streets in Thailand. Even the Thai word for dog, h̄mā, is used as a derogatory term to denigrate people from low-class backgrounds. In this black-and-white video, a playful, happy dog runs around the yard with the artist. However, it soon becomes evident that the dog is limping, that its hind legs are disjointed, and that its running is uncoordinated. Despite this, the silent film is infused with a sense of lightness, play, and joy. The dog is both frolicking and struggling, but the video ends with the dog standing upright, panting and exhilarated by the artist’s attention and affection.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video once again elevates underrepresented, overlooked aspects of society. The artist has her own rescue dogs and has often incorporated stray animals into her work. In this video, there is an intimacy between herself and her subject. She celebrates the sense of joy that can be shared between all living beings.
A Vernacular Lens
A work that addresses cultural hierarchies through a different lens is Village and Elsewhere: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, Jeff Koons’ Untitled, and Thai Villagers (2011). This is the first in her series of five videos where she placed replicas of framed Western artworks in rural Thai villages and markets. This particular video, set in a Thai temple, is a staged art-history lesson for local temple visitors, taught by Buddhist monks. The students, seated on the floor, again have their backs turned to us so that we feel we are sharing the same space.
The two paintings discussed in the video are provocative: one is violent, one is sexual. We observe a monk trying to explain these brutal and salacious scenes with Buddhist teachings. The results are at times poignant, other times funny, and often awkward, but it is a revelation to watch seemingly opposite worlds converge. Rasdjarmrearnsook demonstrates that you can effectively teach something as lofty as Western art history through a vernacular lens. The work reminds us of the essence of art—that it can bring pleasure and provoke curiosity regardless of one’s education or cultural background.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s videos usually incorporate pre-cinematic storytelling traditions. Her work draws on ancient literature, religious scriptures, and oral storytelling, all of which connects her to other M+ Collections artists from Southeast Asia, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand, Ho Tzu Nyen from Singapore, and Thao Nguyen Phan and The Propeller Group from Vietnam. The Propeller Group’s video The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014), which was shown alongside Village and Elsewhere... in the M+ Pavilion exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia, celebrates funeral rituals in Vietnam. Like Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work, it confronts death and our attitudes around it. This feels like a particularly prescient subject in 2020, as many countries tackle death on an extraordinary scale.
Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work is rooted firmly in her local Thai context, but at the same time resonates with universal themes. Her chosen subjects—the connection between human and nonhuman beings, rituals, spirituality, and death—speak to most audiences. Right now, her search for a shared perspective and consciousness is especially relevant, as is her focus on hidden and peripheral parts of society.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). This discussion has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Ulanda Blair is Curator, Moving Image at M+.