Artist Korakrit Arunanondchai has spent the last decade establishing himself as one of those very rare figures who can navigate the international art circuit with apparent ease, landing in each new city with tantalizing new works – intoxicating video; denim paintings that he bleaches, burns and mends; or some rococo installation featuring these things and more. In 2019 alone, he participated in six biennales in five countries: Venice, Istanbul, Singapore, Performa and Whitney in New York, and the Asian Art Biennale in Taichung, Taiwan.
He created art that played with identity, removed boundaries between media, and generally exuded the excitement of a very fun, very secret late-night party. He operates from his hometown of Bangkok and New York, where he has also lived and worked for over a decade. Then the pandemic hit.
Arunanondchai, who is 35 years old, spent a year and a half in Thailand and a month of that in isolation on the island of Koh Tao, where he practiced free diving. “That’s when I started thinking about water,” the artist said Wednesday afternoon, sitting outside inncafe style in Seoul. A nimble, abstract thinker, he begins a discussion on Freud’s concept of “the oceanic feeling, which is basically any religious feeling you have about joining a group, nature—it’s like the space of death or like rebirth. It’s like being in the womb again, without separation.’
One of Arunanondchai’s latest videos, Songs for living (2021), showing next door in a solo show in the Art Sonje Center’s basement hall (until October 30), throws viewers right into such an environment. The camera pans through deep water, passing fish and a giant turtle. Everything is amber orange.
“The ocean in the video is the color of the womb,” he said. At one point, he appears upside down in the water, his long hair floating as squid ink spills from his mouth. There are shots of angelic figures with black wings wearing helmets and gliding on electric bicycles through the streets of New York, as well as people dancing naked around a campfire – and a vague voice-over speaking of “flesh” that “will filter out any sound”.
The 20-minute work – a collaboration with his regular creative partner Alex Gwojic – offers a grand, abstract sci-fi pagan narrative with hints of death and rebirth. Creating a feeling “almost like composing a song”, the artist said, the soundtrack is characteristically haunting, with eerie ambient passages and explosive drumming by Brian Chippendale, of the noise band Lightning Bolt. “I wanted to pull all that energy that I could see from New York after being gone for a year and a half,” Arunanondchai said. (Lightning Bolt, for him, “was about physically touching people, objects physically touching” and “a space filled with sound.”)
The piece stands in stark contrast to the show’s other main work, the video Songs about dying (2021), which he made back in Thailand. It includes footage from the 2020 protests in Bangkok, mass graves from the late 1940s uprising on the Korean island of Jeju, and his grandfather’s funeral in 2020. Made for the 2021 Gwangju Biennale in that South Korean city, this “ is probably the most documentary video I’ve ever made,” said Arunanondchai.
It’s also a raw, emotional masterclass in political struggle and personal grief. It connects the two, offering a sense of unity between people in their aspirations, their pain, and their hopes for closure. Some scenes date back to 2010 and show the artist and his grandfather walking along a rural beach in Thailand. “I started taking pictures because my grandfather started to have Alzheimer’s,” he said. It represents an artist working at a very high level.
With border regulations relaxed, Arunanondchai returned to his peripatetic ways. Last month, he was in Aspen, Colorado, for a performance, and while in Seoul he was editing a new video that will debut in less than two weeks at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. He will then open Canal Projects’ new space in Manhattan with Songs for living, and then retreat to Bangkok for the second edition of Ghost, an art festival he launched in 2018 that will run from October 12 to November 13 at various locations around the city. (He’ll return to Seoul in December for a solo show at Kukje Gallery.) Independent curator Christina Li will curate this specter, which she’s titled “Live Without Dead Time,” and about 20 artists have been announced so far, including Hito Steyerl and Meriem Benani . Arunanondchai curated his first outing, but this time he’s “the fundraiser and the organizer,” he said.
Why organize an art festival? “The thing I’ve always wanted to share in my work is this sense of shared place,” he said. As he sees it, “you can’t do it through an individual voice or in an individual.”