Kawita Vatanajyankur has been a wet, soapy rag used to mop the floor; she’s been a bundle of damp laundry tossed into a plastic basket; a colander repeatedly submerged to rinse a tangle of cooked noodles; the beam of balance scale teetering under the weight of fresh vegetables.
In short video vignettes, the 30-year-old Thai artist collapses the products and instruments of traditional women’s work into the worker herself, merging body and machine, person and product. In her high-endurance performances Vatanajyankur transforms her body quite literally into the tools of labor, tapping into the complex dynamics of identity and otherness embedded in the quotidian—from the home to the marketplace.
Curated by Alexandra Fanning, Vatanajyankur’s exhibition Rituals of Otherness at SPRING/BREAK Art Show explores the intersecting shapes of alienation found in the shared gestures of immigrants, women, and domestic workers. When the Bangkok-based artist returned to Thailand after living and studying in Australia, she felt like an outsider in her home country, observing with fresh eyes the differences and gaps in tradition and expectations for women.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Scale of Justice, 2017, Single channel HD video, looped, No sound, Dimensions variable
Vatanajyankur’s videos (which she describes as “moving paintings”) are seductive by design. The narrative premise of each work is simple, even humorous, and she constructs her scenes with juicy fruits and colorful textiles, set against candy-colored backdrops. Once Vatanajyankur has your attention, however, her videos can be quite hard to watch. You see the artist’s veins pulse, her muscles contract. She gasps for breath. In The Scale of Justice, the artist balances her body in a plank position, her hips pressed against a narrow bar. Baskets of produce hang from her neck and ankles. Over the two-and-a-half-minute performance, as vegetables are tossed onto “the scale” from offscreen, we watch her shoulders slump, her knees bend, just slightly, her core muscles fight the weight of her burden. There is no trickery here. Vatanajyankur’s body is a punished instrument.
There is a personal, cultural interrogation in this work, unique to the artist and her circumstances as a Thai woman moving between different countries. But Vatanajyankur also takes a wide lens, thinking about invisible labor and supply chains. She reminds us that even in our automated, robot-enhanced present, someone is picking up the slack—and she might be underpaid, living far from home. Or maybe she’s working in the home. Using the optics of marketing—those jewel-toned backdrops and luscious fruit and veg—Vatanajyankur gives vision to the people, labor, and daily practices that have become strange to us because we’re not supposed to see them.
In Vatanajyankur’s work, the stranger has not come to town; the stranger is already among us. She’s here in our homes, our things. She’s in our food and our clothing. She’s in our bodies, our gestures, our rituals. Through mindfulness and care, Vatanajyankur seems to propose, we can hijack the global capitalist system and reconnect to this other within us.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, Onto Fabrics, 2014, Single channel HD video, looped, No sound, Dimensions variable
Andrea Alessi: Can you describe the concept of Rituals of Otherness? How do you see this exhibition engaging with the theme “Stranger Comes to Town”?
Kawita Vatanajyankur: When the curator Alexandra Fanning, came to me with this theme, I immediately connected this with my experiences of feeling alienated, without a place or a home, culturally different wherever I went. I see myself as a stranger in both Australia and in Thailand, residing somewhere in the middle, without a defined identity. This was, and is, my journey, a very personal part of my story that I feel many people can relate to with our changing world.
As I grew up as an Australian teenager, coming back to Thailand had made me an outsider. This time I had to revert back into a girl who had never left Thailand, I was growing up again to become a Thai woman in order to fit in, to be accepted by the social and cultural rules of society. It was almost like a shift of identity, like I was experiencing a new culture. A definition of my identity was lost as my eagerness to fit in grew; I became unknown to myself.
In a lot of my work, but especially in the Tools series, on view in Rituals of Otherness, I reference European 17th century painting scenes where women were often seen in domestic household environments, performing menial housework. I personally related to those European paintings when coming back to Thailand where women are often expected to be an emotional shelter of their homes, and extremely domestic. By questioning my own identity as a female, asking myself where I stood in this society, the performances had suddenly brought this power and strength to my inner state. Making this artwork freed me from all definition; it made me and my audience seek out this truth beyond tradition, society’s beliefs and perceptions, and beyond image.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, Wet Rag, 2014, Single channel HD video, looped, No sound, Dimensions variable
AA: This recent body of work was conceived while you were living and working in Australia. How has your artwork and practice evolved through working and exhibiting outside of Thailand?
KV: Most of the pieces on view at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show were made in my early stages of becoming an artist. I had just graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at RMIT University in Melbourne, and signed myself with a commercial gallery there before moving back to Thailand.
Exhibiting these works outside of Thailand; interacting and learning from my audience has enabled me to grow my practice immensely. I feel truly connected with the world through my art. A recent example, when exhibiting work in Japan, the locals tended to relate to the parody between human and tools, how the human condition consists of working, action, and labor. Several women also reacted strongly to the feminist aspect.
I’ve noticed that work tends to be recognized as a connection to our universal need for repetitively working and relying on money as our survival tool. How we are all governed by our income, how we struggle and crave to be successful, how we are all stuck in this continuing loop of desire and failure.
Showing around the world and experiencing residencies in fascinating places has definitely affected my most recent works. I’ve focused heavily on the slippage between human, tools, and machines, but I would like to focus more on how we crave this power and success yet we tend to miss out on other aspects in life such as nature and humanity, all the while modern technologies are steadily replacing us both in work and body.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Basket, 2014, All: Inkjet Printed on Premium Satin Photo paper
AA: In your videos, your body often becomes the instrument of labor—often under- or un-paid domestic labor—collapsing the worker and the work. Can you talk about the representation of the body and labor in your practice?
KV: I have particularly targeted my Thai homeland in these images as it is fascinating that, traditionally, women are left with this burden. By transforming my own body into tools or machines, I draw focus to everyday repetitive labor and work, but I am also pointing at the unseen stories, the labor that happens to produce not only the product, but the packaging, the advertising.
I strongly believe in the terrifying power behind our current materialized and industrialized consumerist world. Most of the power belongs to huge industries, where social media and advertising pushes products on consumers with the promises of fulfilling our desires to be “perfect,” using psychological tools to hypnotize us, making us want more. From small unimportant details like consuming bananas, for example: the ones that look bendy enough (in a perfect shape) are the only ones to be put into stores and supermarkets while the others could go to waste. This waste has to be transported, sorted, and disposed of—a laborious job.
I consider the end result and how products end up on shelves. For example, by purchasing a can of tuna, we all tend to think by looking at the beautiful and colorful packaging that they come from machines, yet we all know so little about the truth that has been going on behind the scenes. Unfortunately hidden issues of human trafficking, labor exploitation, or forms of slavery are often used to make that end product.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Scale, 2017, Inkjet Printed on Premium Satin Photo paper
AA: What’s the relationship between the candy-colored aesthetic and your work’s underlying message?
KV: I look at the candy-colored palette of my videos as referencing advertisements and the marketing industry, mimicking those vibrant and colorful posters and packages that advertise our favorite consumerist products. It is funny how colors can trick our feelings and emotions. There is something quite sinister about the fun colors of the videos, against the often violent movements in the videos, perhaps they remind viewers of some beautiful aerobic circus performance on first look, however on deeper inspection you realize that there is a darker story to each.
Kawita Vatanajyankur, Carrier I, 2017, Inkjet Printed on Premium Satin Photo paper
AA: I read that you seriously injured yourself, even getting vertigo, making your video Carrier. There is clearly a level of physical commitment and endurance that is central to your work. What’s it like to perform in these vignettes? What’s the process of developing and making one of your videos?
KV: It usually takes around a month to practice the performance itself, before the filming begins. I want the finished video to document the performance, and give the viewer the a realistic impression of being in the room with me. Practice and preparation involves meditating, exercising, and adjusting the physicality of my body in order to act like a tool, an object, a machine. The performances are not edited in terms of timing or creating illusions. However, as I treat these works as paintings, and my footage as a “canvas," I usually take two to three weeks to color-correct, enhancing the vibrance of the background and objects.
Carrier was a work I truly wanted to make significant. It was created for the Australian Centre for Photography and explored the shift of my identity while considering the move back to Thailand from Australia. During the performance, the ropes that held me fell down, and my head hit the floor several times. I have had vertigo ever since.
Meditation has always been key to performing these endurance works. When I perform nowadays, my vertigo adds another challenge. It forces me to truly let go of myself and to reach a point where I no longer feel any pain physically and psychologically. I believe that if I can conquer it during my meditative performance pieces, I can truly convince my audience that strength comes from within, that the first steps to healing should be controlling our mind.
Andrea Alessi is the Managing Editor of ArtSlant.
(Image at top: Kawita Vatanajyankur, Colander, 2017, Single channel HD video, looped, Dimensions variable. All images: Courtesy of the artist)