“Death is uncomfortable,” Korakrit Arunanondchai says at some point in his thirty-minute short movie that’s playing on a loop at his latest show at C L E A R I N G (396 Johnson Ave). The observation isn’t particularly profound, but it poses questions that are. Namely: for whom – the dead or the yet to die?
Arunanondchai, a Bangkok artist who has likened his video art to sculpture, has death on his mind and he approaches it with the deliberation of a craftsman – or perhaps “polyphonically,” as the gallery puts it.
The short – “Songs for Dying” – plays at the end of a cavernous room that is populated by three grim, silver benches which collectively bring to mind fossils or a grouping of enormous bones, perhaps more so because of the compressed earth they sit on. This is hardly noticeable unless you try to sit on it and then you are suddenly on the earth, which is perhaps the point.
The movie makes up the final third of three works, or songs (as he calls them), that collectively make up “3 Songs,” a darkly-lit meditation on death that also spans three rooms and will sit, largely undisturbed, until the end of October.
“The coffin entered the flaming box/The morning after, coral-like bones rest on the table top/While the monk sings, the bones return to the bottom of the ocean,” a three line poem reads on the press releases, printed and provided in a quiet stack beside the gallery’s glass door, which is taped over to keep out the light.
The search for meaning in death on scale feels resonant, at least on some level, in the continuing mist of a pandemic that has killed one in 500 people in the country so far. In their moments, the oblique qualities in Arunanondchai’s work let that search break free from the fundamental awkwardness involved in mass scale grief, which rings hollow inside structures of capital that are built for buying things, not losing them.
Arunanondchai uses political narratives to outfit personal experience. “Songs for Dying” contains both a stirring montage on morbidity – collaging clips of loss to the tune of a techno record by Japanese sound designer Koichi Shimizu – as well an extended conversation with his late grandfather, whose death inspired the show.
In the three canvases that illuminate another room – inkjet reproductions of collages that glow brightly with an implacable warmth – Arunanondchai has arranged flowers he collected from the funeral and given these names like “In the wind I can hear my ancestors singing” and “A ghost takes me by the hand.” The trio of pieces surround another one, which hangs from the wall and glitters. A costume that Arunanondchai designed himself, metallic foil layered on bleached denim, hangs corpse-like, or like a guide who has already departed.
The empty space that otherwise engulfs the room and the register of symbolic representation in lieu of figurative draws some kind of attention to Arunanondchai’s absence; a prominent visual artist, his previous hit short – called “with history in a room filled with people with funny names” – had been slated to play at the Whitney Biennial before he withdrew it to protest the museum’s connection to the tear gas industry.
Previously, he had worked out of a studio in Ridgewood, but he left the United States for Thailand at the beginning of the pandemic. While some of the work has already been shown at the Gwangju Biennial earlier this year, collected here – so far away from their conception – they evoke remains left behind after departure, a scattered collection of ideas frozen in space that can be viewed with a kind of assured privacy during most days of the week. In a sort of confident tone, the gallery refers to death, grouped with birth and decreation, as a threshold “of heightened consciousness.”
The movie itself is arguably anchored by neither his grandfather’s death nor the eventuality of our own, but by a recounting of a 1948 massacre on Jeju island, where between 14,000 and 40,000 people were executed by the American-backed South Korean Army. In one of these war crimes, which Arunanondchai selects, the Korean soldiers pour poison gas into a cave where civilians are hiding and then execute the ones who try to escape. In a ceremony that Arunanondchai shot during the pandemic, a shaman is seen blessing a field of graves, erected in a recent attempt to publicly mourn the dead of this event, though the bodies of many have never been found.
“Let us now prepare for death,” Arunanondchai instructs at another moment in the half-hour visual collage. In a show about death, this is when the dark, empty gallery space – filled only with the sound of Arunanondchai’s voice – gets spookiest. Helpfully, if the prospect of dying in the modern world has escaped your undivided attention, he enunciates the process, the waiting on a hospital bed for a final breath to arrive and then depart, a scene interjected occasionally by pillows of purple light.
“3 Songs” can be seen at C L E A R I N G at 396 Johnson Avenue until October 31st. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11-6pm.
Top photo courtesy of C L E A R I N G.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.