New York, Feb. 2013: I first met Korakrit Arunanondchai on the set of a music video. He had been recruited as not just an artist, but art director. The video required a precise expertise in the—what I was soon to learn—limitless world of black light. As half-dressed models perused set, waiting for their time on camera, Korakrit transformed an average bedroom on the Lower East Side into an otherworldly, magic zone. Since that first encounter, Krit’s expansive practice and distinct aesthetic has become all the more ubiquitous, invading my micro-experience of the art world.
In vivid color and electric light, his sculpture, video, performance and installation pull from pop culture and post-internet life to build a narrative all its own. Arunanondchai currently has work on view in the group show Double Life, at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, as well as a solo show, PAINTING WITH HISTORY IN A ROOM FILLED WITH MEN WITH FUNNY NAMES, at Bushwick’s C L E A R I N G Gallery. We sat down in his studio in Brooklyn last November to chat.
Korakrit Arunanondchai, 2011, 2011, installation activated by performances, installation shot; Courtesy of the artist and C L E A R I N G NY/Brussels.
Hannah Daly: I’d like to begin with a basic question about material—you use denim, black light, foliage, others. As someone becoming familiar with your work, these connective material threads have become iconic. How did you arrive at this set of materials?
Korakrit Arunanondchai: Early on in my practice, I was trying to get a lot of effect out of a small, cheap amount. Black light and neon paint are the cheapest ways to change a very normal space. Suddenly, it’s—"woah." As an undergrad, I was working with just a black light sensitive palette, which was a good control. I have a hard time thinking about color, in a painter’s way, or a printmaker’s way, like thinking of sets of colors as objects. By deciding to stick to black light, I still had color, but with a limited and simpler palette.
Black light also has to do with my interest in illustrating a parallel space. It is the most simple way to illustrate this one-to-one, what we see and the other thing that we see, in the same space. I’m looking for these simple ways to create visual magic. It continues to be the most simple way I’ve found to switch the visual space, and even switch how people feel. People get weird when they’re in black light. You’re in the magic zone.
HD: Yes, so strange. It certainly illuminates another facet of a space, and people in that space. What about your use of foliage?
KA: I was making abstract paintings that were graphic, exploding and sharp, full of dynamic forms. I thought about them as landscape, as fractals, as nature, that kind of thing. So I made up an abstract visual vocabulary that people can see as plants and figures but it wasn’t really that thing, you know? It wasn’t a leaf, but it looks like a leaf. As I became more interested in composing worlds—like Bosch captured with landscape and abstract forms—I started using foliage. I was always trying to create a world that looked full of forms, to weigh them down, like the landscape, the building, the figure without really becoming anything too figurative, or concrete.
At some point, I let go of the idea of trying to create an abstract picture that was kind of semi-representational. I made a series of paintings that were just spray paint being spray paint, chains being chains, and fabric being fabric. They still give the same feeling of dislocation. Reducing the idea of a fantasy painting into a material, I could give up the picture but still keep this feeling of that space the painting creates. In installations, too, I decided instead of trying to make these shapes that look like a forest, why not just find the thing that is the forest. I began working with fake foliage. I didn’t want to make a tree, but make an object that looked like fake foliage stuck on a pole. These materials allow me to displace into another zone, even though it is clear that the other zone is a bunch of trashy, cheap materials.
HD: You keep saying things like fantasy, and magic, and other zone. There is something otherworldly about every work you make. Whether it’s the early acrylic paintings, in the body painting or singing performances, or in the videos. Are you trying to make magic? Do you think about that?
KA: No... well, yeah. I’m trying to isolate how magic is a function of reality, and its relationship to context. At least, visual magic. I don’t mean magic in this WooOoOooo way, you know? It’s like a magic in the way you embrace the world, as it is. It’s not the other zone, it’s not spirituality, it’s more about accepting. That if you place things in a certain order, in the right context, or take them out of context in these ways, some kind of aha moment can happen. I think maybe that’s the magic part?
For example, if in these paintings there is some kind of magic, some kind of trickery, something otherworldly, it is similar to the same process that happens in Photoshop, with the History tool. You can go back in the past, take something back—you do that all the time. But because it happens in that world, in the computer, we’re used to it—being able to undo, is not magic. It’s still a real thing we do, but not materialized. I hope these paintings manifest these processes in a more physical way. Like painting and burning—suddenly you have this object that, when you confront it, does perform that kind of magic.
HD: You’ve mentioned before that, for a while, in making a painting you were thinking about Photoshop techniques, and how to make them physical. I think much of that shows up in the newest denim and fire paintings.
KA: The logic behind how these pieces were created is me exercising a certain kind of thinking that wouldn’t have happened without using the computer. By using the computer, it performs certain actions that are easier metaphors for understanding particular experiences. You have a very easy, graspable experience of, say, time travel, because you’re actually doing it. It’s all about finding another metaphor, right? One that is around, that’s easy to understand, to help us understand the world, or things.
HD: You said other space a few times, as well. It seems like you’re interested in an other space, in a metaphorical and physical way. You’ve mentioned landscape, and fractals.
KA: Space and time are partially why I make videos. It is a simple way to make viewers aware of space and time, and the context. When the video is installed in a show with everything else—paintings, smoke, photos—they are going to remind you that it’s in February, soon after New Year, after 2012, when the world is supposed to end, that it is really cold, that you're in this white room in Bushwick, that’s meant for looking at art, that these are paintings. Space and time are like using mirrors to look. They provide a really simple understanding of another space that’s just pure mechanical illusion. The videos are literally another space: it is Thailand, another space that actually exists, where things are a little different.
Korakrit Arunanondchai, 2012-2555, 2012, video still; Courtesy of the artist and C L E A R I N G NY/Brussels.
HD: Your discussion of context, how something magical can come out of rearranging contexts, reminded me of the narrative structure of your video work. There is an overarching story that becomes repeated and retold as you create more videos. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about the two videos that I’ve seen—2012-2555 and 2556—and what’s going on with that part of your practice?
KA: In Thailand, twenty-five is your unlucky year. You’re supposed to do something, to have a year of becoming. A lot of people become a monk for a week, or a month. My brother became a vegetarian for a year, my twin would not eat meat every Monday, that kind of thing. I was going to become a monk last summer, but my grandparents were getting sick. Instead of going back to become a monk, to become a responsible person symbolically, I decided I should spend time with my grandparents.
I decided that I would go back to Thailand and visit in this way. I hung out with my grandparents for the whole summer, videoing everything. Making a video piece about my life was a way to be able to construct, understand, and change it, while interacting with the idea of my art practice. I wanted my practice be a true parallel of what’s going on in my life, in such a way that everything that’s happening enters into the studio.
I’ve always thought about frames, and video is an extension of that. You make a painting, it’s inside the frame, and there’s outside of the frame. Around that time, I was concentrating on the support: the outside frame of the painting, the wall, and then doing something to the wall. I wanted agency over the wall that supports the painting, as well as over how an artist is understood as the author of a work. Who is the artist? What does he do? Who is he? The outside frame of me—as the artist and author—would be my family, and my country. Video allowed me to simply bring into the studio who my family is, and their relationship to this art thing being produced by me.
HD: That makes sense. Filming what’s happening, then editing is a way to make a narrative out of what’s raw, just recorded in life.
KA: I wanted the first video to be a funeral. The video is back and forth: between me shooting my open studio, traveling back and forth from Thailand in the summer, showing the video to my grandparents, shooting that, coming back to the US, shooting more, and eventually going back to Thailand.
The narrative kind of built out. I went to a film festival, and then went to this forest. My experience of being in this forest, of discovering it in my home country in this weird way, was sort of like finding that Garden of Earthly Delights. This footage recalled my paintings, and my interest in thinking about someone like Hieronymus Bosch, who, hundreds of years ago, created this mega-idea, then me understanding this mega-idea, and expanding it. I was able to enter through his metaphor, and experience it in a real space. This has to do with magic too—my magical experience of walking to this extremely beautiful forest was framed by someone else’s mega-fantastical idea. And it was all through picture. It’s the painting that made my experience.
HD: Your personal experience is obviously a transnational one. We’ve talked in the past about post-colonial questions, and you’ve said to me that you don’t think your work goes in that direction, or not enough. I think it definitely does. There’s a very clear contemplation of how culture circulates globally, and what that means for artists. How are you thinking about that now?
KA: Everyone has their own reality, based on a different context. Partially, I make my work about me so that I can more critically look at my life and context. How I am an artist from Thailand living in America, or studying at Columbia, what that actually means. My point was that I don’t think my politics expand outside of who I am, but by making work that is about my specific experience I can enter art in a different way. Thinking about my influences, I can enter art in a way that is equal and same to everyone else around me, yet think about and recognize difference. Especially with performance, in thinking about what it is my body does, even in speech. For example, right now I’m speaking English, versus Thai.
To be more specific, the paintings that I’m working on now, I’m really trying to draw parallels between painters: modernist painters, action painters, painters in Thailand. A school of painters in Thailand grew out of a Western tradition, imported way back, but has grown into its own thing. I want to confront what it has become in Contemporary Art now. Even my use denim -- the idea of what denim means here, versus what denim means there.
Korakrit Arunanondchai, Untitled (History painting), 2013, Laser-print, denim, bleach, stretcher bars, 86 x 64 inches (218 x 162 cm); Courtesy of the artist and C L E A R I N G NY/Brussels.
HD: I think about the denim—a material thread running throughout various forms of your work—in the same way that I think about the song performances that you do. In a way, taking this pop, cultural form—like a rap, a love song, Thailand’s Got Talent, or denim pants—and then using that to do something.
KA: The second video thinks about art and art history, and Thai artists’ ideologies directly in relationship to Western modernism, and how that maybe produced a failed result. How can we still navigate while not letting it go? Navigate and have it become something?
ArtSlant would like to thank Korakrit Arunanondchai for his assistance in making this interview possible.