Arin Rungjang, And then there were none (Tomorrow we will become Thailand), 2016, digital video and various materials, Benaki Museum – Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis
Arin Rungjang, 246247596248914102516 … And then there were none (Democracy Monument), 2017, wood and brass sculpture, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Thai artist Arin Rungjang explores the history and politics of Thailand through video and highly aesthetic installations. He’s currently taking part in the shows Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now in Tokyo and Documenta 14.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial
IMAGES: Online Resources
How many things can you see in the simple shape of a drop? Thai artist Arin Rungjang sees the story of Thailand, commerce across continents, royal splendour, the choices of men and, surprisingly, even something prosaic as a dessert!
For the installation Golden Teardrop, the artist summoned an entire army of golden teardrops. The work was first presented at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and is today on display at the large-scale survey show, Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now in Tokyo, together with a video telling the background story.
The project started during the artist’s residency in New York and created collaborations between American artists and artists from other continents. Arin Rungjang worked with Puerto Rican artists, whose country in the 15th century was part of a Portuguese sugar trade network that extended to Southeast Asia.
The work Golden Teardrop revisits pivotal moments in Thai history through food. The video part of the installation tells the true story of a traditional Thai egg-yolk dessert, which was adapted from a recipe by Portuguese nuns in the 15th century. This delicacy was introduced to the Siamese court at Ayutthaya in the 17th century by Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese, Portuguese and Bengali descent, and the wife of Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek counsellor to Siam’s King Narai.
“The dessert recipe came from Portugal to Japan, and then to Thailand because the Japanese crossed the country for 250 years,” explains the artist. “Some of the Christians who lived in Japan were deported to Thailand. Also, when the Japanese closed all of their communications with the outside world, all of the foreigners left and some of them settled in Thailand, Vietnam and some of the other Southeast Asian countries.”
You worked with a Portuguese woman to retrace the story of the Thai egg-yolk dessert. What was her family’s role in this exchange?
The grandmother of this woman, called Maria Guyomar de Pinha, married this Greek guy, Constantine Phaulkon. He was from a noble family, but he wanted some adventures, so he applied to work as a cabin boy for the East Indian Company and travelled all the way to Thailand. Later, he became the King’s Consulate in Thailand and married. He was killed by people who wanted to change the system and his wife was put in jail. While she was in jail, she invented a lot of different kinds of food.
Along with this story, the Golden Teardrop video tells a second narrative. Why did you decide to create two parallel narrations?
I decided to put one personal story and one master narrative in the video. The master narrative is what we learn at school. The other is the story of a Japanese friend’s wife, who opened a dessert shop and was able to prepare this specific egg-yolk dessert. She told me about the story of her grandparents, who were living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped.
In big shows like Sunshower, audiences seldom sit and spend a long time in front of video art. In the case of this work, would the meaning be lost if the spectator didn’t watch the entire video?
If you don’t watch the whole video, you will miss it. It is not the artists’ responsibility; it is the viewers’. Besides, we don’t need to have every viewer get into every artist. Some just pass by the video and even the paintings. Some just don’t want to understand and some do. This is about culture and how the museums present the work to visitors as well.
What is it about video art that attracts you?
I do video and sculpture most of the time. I use video because I think a moving image is quite important from the audience’s perspective nowadays. It is a dual reality, so it is the most realistic. You watch Jurassic Park and you believe in it. That’s magic. I like movies, but I don’t make videos as if they were movies. For me, it is not about creating the magic and making people believe in it. You usually watch an entire movie and you get it. You might want to watch it again, but it’s not like a video work or seeing a work in a museum.
In a museum, people can miss a work and they won’t come back. If they want to come back, they can easily do so. But that’s not how we make our work succeed. If no one comes back, the work won’t continue. If no one reads the message, the message will not go anywhere. I can’t ask everyone to stay. To communicate is very important, but to force people to listen and appreciate it is not important.
The Golden Teardrop installation looks very poetic and sweet, and visually you don’t feel it is related to politics. Why did you make this choice?
I’m quite resistant to making the politics apparent. I am making art and an artwork has aesthetics, it has emotion, it has feeling. An artwork can be connected to politics or to history, but in the end, it remains an artwork. The aesthetic side is the most important.
You currently have some work at Documenta 14. Can you tell us how this work came about?
The idea started from the name of a Thai guy I found on the last page of Hitler’s guestbook in the bunker. This Thai person was a Thai ambassador who lived in Berlin during the Second World War. Before the war we received help from the German Nazi government to fight against the French, who were occupying a part of Thailand. In 1932, we were able to have our revolution and change from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. That’s why we were never colonised. However, we were together with Germany and Japan during the Second World War, which is not so well known.
In my work, there is one part taken from the memoirs of this Thai ambassador. He recounted how the Japanese marched through Southeast Asia from the north and tried to attack Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. We allied with them and let them pass through our country. I was a little bit ashamed of this, but that’s life. What research leads you to is unpredictable. It brought back an important moment, a human decision. This guy received a phone call from the leader of Thailand at that time, asking him: “What do you think of the Japanese? Should we ally with them or should we defend against them?” and he made the decision to befriend the Japanese.
The work is called, 246247596248914102516… And then there were none.In the titles of your works, it seems there is always something sentimental going on.
I like sentimentality. That’s what life is about and we have to live it. That’s why I make art. I see art as being self-sufficient. When we first drew a buffalo in a cave, it didn’t look like a buffalo at all. It looked unrealistic because we didn’t have the painting skills yet, but we were just happy to look at that depiction and think about the actual buffalo that we hunted outside. Art has always been like that and always will be.
About the Artist:
Arin Rungjang (b. 1975, Thailand) is based in Bangkok and graduated from Silpakorn University in 2001. In Arin’s artistic practice, ready-made and daily household objects are deconstructed to reinterpret the poeticised space. His video and site-specific installations highlight the cryptic interrelations of: public and private spheres, space and memory, as well as space and its perceptible distance. Golden Teardrop by Arin reassembles the fragmented layers of disseminated private and public dialogue.