At age 60, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook has retired from Chiang Mai University, where she was a professor of fine and applied arts, given to occasional controversy in the course of a three-decade teaching career. Her ambition lately has been to get back to writing, her other love.
But retirement is likely a meaningless concept to the multitalented Araya, as became clear in her just-ending exhibition at Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery, where the whole story was told in “An Artist is Trying to Return to ‘Being a Writer’”.
It proved to be a perfect interweaving of her conceptual art and literature.
The painting “Soul of Chamoi and an Artist on the Beach” is on the cover of her novel “A Flowery Cry of Birth”. Photos courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery
And, at the exhibition’s final evening on Thursday, she’ll launch her latest novel, “A Flowery Cry of Birth”, the fruit of her efforts during the show’s six-month run to achieve that “return” to writing, an endeavour the gallery commissioned.
The idea was to showcase Araya’s other talent, long overshadowed by her art. It’s been a success, so much so that Araya’s writing and art are intricately knitted together and virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Interestingly, she finds both pursuits equally therapeutic.
“I began writing when I was studying at Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art,” she says. “I wrote for the university’s journal. One of my articles criticised the idea of college hazing.”
Araya was a more active writer while pursuing a master’s degree in Germany in early 1990s, during which time she’d interview women labourers as part of her research. She’d write up her notes in Thai. “Writing in my mother tongue made me feel closer to home.”
She’s since written features and art criticism for the newspapers Matichon Weekly and Krungthep Thurakit and the magazines Lalana and Ploy Kam Petch.
“A Flowery Cry of Birth” is Araya’s fifth novel, after “Art Affair”, “Eastern Lady”, “Conversation with Death on the First Path on My Life” and “(He) is an Artist”.
Just as in her art, the writings are boldly liberal, avant-garde and thought provoking, tackling feminist issues and deeply emotional matters such as mourning and loss.
One of her best-known themes involves blurring the boundary between art and life. In a milestone undertaking, an acclaimed installation arose from feelings about deaths in her family, her own illness, the stray dogs she took in as pets, and her personal “academic revolution”.
In performance art, she dressed actual human corpses and read to them. She gave a lecture while pretending to be heavily pregnant. Her work, often controversial, has resulted in her name being mentioned along with those of Marina Abramovic, Barbara Kruger and Yayoi Kasuma.
Araya has participated in the world’s foremost festivals of contemporary art, including Documenta (13) in Germany and the Venice Biennale. In 2015, New York City’s Sculpture Centre hosted her first retrospective in the United States.
The show at 100 Tonson Gallery features recent works in poetry, performance art, video, sculpture, painting and installation.
In the video “The Cruel”, Araya criticises art education in Thailand. Photos courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery
The standout piece is “The Cruel”, made last year, a two-channel video drawing on her experience defending her course-work for Chiang Mai University’s Multidisciplinary Art Department. It features a humorous re-enactment of her meeting with other esteemed art professors, who critique Araya’s art. It reveals the tense debate over what’s considered permissible and moral in Thai art.
“The Cruel” has echoes in another video made last year, “I was just told that my work is more or less too sad for Christmas”. Araya appears as two different characters on separate channels, in conversation about death, illness, the joys of youth and long-held desires.
One character is an academic, the other not, but the discussion is more profound and philosophical than what’s heard in “The Cruel”.
Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook views her 2016 installation “Dead Ovary Lullaby”. Nation/Rachanon Intraragsa
“Niranam Yummayooshi” from 2015 is a soundless video playing alongside “The Dead Ovary Lullaby”, a sculpture from a year later of two sleeping figures – a woman and dog slumbering on a metallic bed that could be a coffin or a womb. It represents Araya and her pet dreaming of the next life.
Another pooch appears in the 2017 installation “Some Unexpected Events Sometimes Bring Momentary Happiness”. This is Makrood, and in the video they’re playing in a backyard. Nearby is a sculpture of Makrood with broken legs – the state he was in when Araya rescued him from the street.
A naked figurine represented Western sensibilities contrasts with modestly clothed Thai at right in an installation. Nation/Rachanon Intraragsa
The sculpture “An Artist is Trying to Return to Being a Writer” takes the form of two bodies in two different states, gloriously alight and gloomy in despair, joined by two figurines, one naked and one clothed (both Araya), signifying contrasting sensibilities between West and East.
What we’re witnessing here is Araya’s disdain for restrictions being imposed on art in Thailand, with sculptures and fanciful dream projections juxtaposed like rivals – lightness and shadow, representation and repetitiveness, tranquillity and conclusion, birth and death.
Araya performs as dual characters in the video “Betweenness in ‘I was told that your work is more or less too sad for Christmas’”. Photos courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery
And all of this is re-examined in her new novel.
For six months Araya abandoned art to immerse herself in writing the book, the longest she’s produced so far. It’s been described as a brilliant amalgamation of elements from her previous writings and her experiences as an artist.
The book, we’re told, explores the psychology of a woman in different phases of life, from tragic childhood to existential pain. It has heart-wrenching stories about relations between humans and between humans and animals, and it’s filled with “many erotic possibilities”.
DUALITY IN EXPRESSION
– Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook will unveil her book “A Flowery Cry of Birth” at 100 Tonson Gallery on Thursday at 2pm.
– Afterwards there will be a discussion in Thai among author Sirem-orn Unhathoop, Adadol “May” Ingawanij, lecturer and independent translator Matt Changsupan.
– Find out more at www.100TonsonGallery.com and (02) 010 5813.