A dream is like another life recurring – Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

With his Primitive exhibition Apichatpong Weerasethakul ties into a long-standing tradition of artistic involvement with the notion of the primitive. His work is among those artists’ practices that motivate a reactivation of the discourse about the primitive in relation to contemporary art and geopolitical contexts. The opening of Weerasethakul’s exhibition in Hangor Bicocca, Milan provided an opportunity for me to interview the artist. Taking the Primitive exhibition as a point of departure, Weerasethakul reveals his sources of inspiration and outlines his working methods.

Kerstin Winking:

In Primitive the object that plays a crucial role is alternatively called a spaceship or a time machine. Could it also be called a space/time machine?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul:

Exactly. It’s a vehicle and it’s a place where people go to dream or drink. So it’s a place to forget time. But in fact my initial idea was just to build something together with the team, to spend time together and film it.

KW:

You didn’t give instructions?

AW:

In the beginning I said we should build some kind of a vehicle, like a ship, a car or whatever. We started to draw, but actually this was almost like an excuse to spend time together. Afterwards I used it as a prop for the movie and they used it for gatherings. It became an object of a fictional world for me, but for the youth it was also an object of life.

KW:

Is it the starting point of the production, a symbol or a capsule for the primitive?

AW:

It’s not really the starting point. We built it on basis of one of the drawings made by a teenager from the team. He had drawn a vehicle looking like an animal. It had a big head and two eyes and a little tail, but the shape of the head looked like this machine. I liked the combination of animal and object. You know, I wasn’t thinking of building something primitive. But then the way it was built was very primitive, because of the materials we used, like wood. When you think of a spaceship, you think of something shiny, something very smooth and perfect. Ours is really handmade, so it ended up having a primitive connotation.

KW:

In Europe the term primitive has been used to belittle or denigrate others in order to justify their exploitation or even violence against them. Is the term also used this way in Thailand?

AW:

Yes, absolutely. It degrades people. I decided to use the title because of that as one angle, not through the people in my film, but through the history of the place and the treatment of it through our government. Until now, our government system has been very primitive, full of corruption and full of things you can’t imagine happening in this day. At the same time, in this work the primitive refers to the dreams of the people, dreams about the future. Their dream of the future, however, is about going back to the roots. It’s not about machines but about an agriculture-based society, about going back to basics.

KW:

Can you tell me a little more about the political aspect of the Primitive exhibition?

AW:

In Thailand, we live in a very quiet dictatorship society, governed by the administration in Bangkok. Not long ago, in the 1950s/60s, politicians stigmatized everything outside of Bangkok as primitive. So when communism spread from Laos and Vietnam to the northern part of Thailand, the ideology of communism was very attractive to the people living there, because of the proclaimed equal distribution of rice and materials. This appealed to the working people and farmers, who were seen as primitive and ignored by the central government. So a lot of them joined the communist party. Then, the government’s crack down of communism in the area was very harsh, brutal. In my work I don’t want to talk about that obviously, but I wanted to work with the teenage offspring of the people who have been killed or tortured. I’m like these teenagers, who have no direct experience with this, but a second or third hand memory.

KW:

Do your protagonists sympathize with communist ideology?

AW:

Not in the same way. The issue was resolved in the 1980s. Now it’s more the economic problems that these people are facing. The similarity between now and back then is that you won’t see many men, but only women and kids in the northern villages. During the communism movement the men escaped into the jungle. Now they go to search work in the big cities or foreign countries. So there is a similarity in the absence of men. In this video I work with the people who stayed and I focus on the men.

KW:

Yes, I noticed that there are exclusively male protagonists. The feminist in me already wondered why that is.

AW:

Interestingly, the area is called the widow town. The legend has it that there is a widow ghost who takes any man into her empire. Any male visitor dies or is killed. So it’s a town of women. In my video I want to flip the legend and let the men come back to the area.

KW:

In one video a boy talks about reincarnation. He says he could have been a wolf in his past life. Does your own religious background add to your work?

AW:

I was raised as a Buddhist. Even though I don’t agree with many things, in terms of rituals for instance, I cannot help thinking of life as a continuous stream and an exchange between animals, plants, things, humans and ghosts. Everything has a spirit inside. That’s how I was raised. It’s hard to shake that off. Even though now I can say that I do not believe in this in the same way, I want to revisit these ideas that I grew up with, and that influence the whole country. There is this belief that when you die you don’t really disappear but you come again to haunt each other. Somehow history does never go away.

KW:

Do memories and dreams play a role in your work?

AW:

Dreams are very important to me, because a dream is like a movie, an illusion. It defies time and space. A dream is like another life recurring.

KW:

Are your works restagings of dreams?

AW:

Yes, all the time. I always write my dreams down. In fact one of my dreams is restaged in the Phantoms of Nabua[i] video with the group of people and the flashlight.

KW:

Talking about dreams: does your work somehow connect to that of the Surrealists?

AW:

My first long film, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), is based on a surrealist technique. I ask people to continue a story. It’s like the surrealist game where you draw a picture automatically. I’m deeply fascinated by this practice with which my work shares the element of randomness. Because when you remember something your mind is going a different route of time. Like the Surrealist techniques, memory is very unpredictable. So since I’m interested in memory, I think the Surrealist method is the obvious one for me.

[i]
In the Primitive exhibition, the Phantoms of Nabua video was screened in a black box and the projection entirely covered a large wall. On a small computer screen the physical experience of the installation is lost. But for an impression of Weerasethakul’s work, watch Phantoms of Nabua online: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/2009/phantoms.

 

Published in Dutch translation in Metropolis M, June 2013 and online.