The exhibition Double Visions by the Thai film director and contemporary artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul was recently on display at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London. Born in 1970 in Bangkok, Weerasethakul has established himself as one of the foremost art house directors of his generation. Widely celebrated on the international film circuit, feature films such as Syndromes and a Century (2006) or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) defy easy classifications and tap into a very distinct, almost hypnotic, visual aesthetic. Weerasethakul’s cinematic style includes long takes, extensive tracking shots as well as a beautifully constructed mise-en-scène (I have written about Weerasethakul’s captivating cinematography elsewhere).
A graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Weerasethakul is first and foremost a visual artist who has found innovative ways to introduce aspects of his training in fine art into the language of cinema. Here, Weerasethakul has much in common with the British film director Steve McQueen: their background in visual art is very clearly reflected in the way they produce films not just as a way to tell a story but also as a visual experience. Visitors to Weerasethakul’s current exhibition must be forgiven for having high expectations.
The first work on display is a ten-minute video installation titled Dilbar which represents a Bangladeshi migrant worker in the United Arabic Emirates (a shorter version of this video can be seen here). The silence of the worker effectively alludes to the invisibility and marginal existence of these men who live and work abroad in search of a better life. The video includes brief moments when the worker intermittently appears to fade into the distance. One scene includes the rather overused visual analogy of a soul leaving the body. This effect is achieved by using two projectors pointing from either direction at a transparent screen suspended in the middle of the room: the first projector is used for the main video image and the second projector is used to feed a more surreal set of images into the video. As technically advanced this might first appear, the physical set up of the video in the narrow room of the gallery was awkward. The transparent screen had the undesirable effect of making elements not just within the film but actually within the gallery such as the entrance area, the front desk or even the gallery intern part of the film. As such, the transparent screen and the two projectors became a distraction.
This disequilibrium between the subject of the artwork and the way it is presented continued on the top floor of the gallery. Due to its position above the staircase and very low lighting conditions, a photograph titled Power Boy which depicts a dark figure emitting colourful lights from an ominous source was barely visible. The fact that another photograph titled Blow Up constituted a visual inversion to the classic movie poster for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film with the same title could have easily been lost on the viewer. Instead of representing a man photographing a woman as he kneels over her, Weerasethakul’s version shows a man (presumably) photographing another man as seen from the back. Perhaps the photograph functions as a reference for the artist’s main affiliation with cinema, yet as a decontextualized individual image it is hard to establish meaning in it.
Teem consists of three mobile phone videos which, in sum, last over one hour. Shot in 2007 when mobile phone video applications were still in their infancy, the footage is highly pixelated and technically flawed. As such, the lack of a subject matter and the poor quality of the mobile phone footage stands in complete contrast to the technical perfection achieved in Weerasethakul’s feature films. A digital video diptych of a young man sleeping is inexplicably presented just above the floor of the gallery. Here again the presentation of the work is a distraction which takes away from the mental energy required to understand and better appreciate an exhibition that is thematically quite loose.
The exhibition is perhaps an indication that Weerasethakul’s main talent is to interweave aspects of visual art practice into cinema rather than the other way around. This is an artist who has found a language to express himself through the internationalized language of film and judging by this exhibition it is in the movie theatre that his innovative approach to the medium is best encountered.
This post was originally published on photomonitor.co.uk