[Written as notes to accompany an installation in The Box, a video exhibition space at the Wexner Center for the Arts in June 2009. This was written before I had seen any other components of the Primitive project. The other works in the project only deepen Phantoms of Nabua and, as in much of Apichatpong's work, the abstraction that I discuss below becomes much more than that in relationship to the rest of Primitive. A pdf of these notes is available here.]

Phantoms of Nabua (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2009)

Just as Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien were the most lauded world cinema directors of the 1990s, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul will likely be seen as the key figure of the first decade of the 21st century. (The Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke is probably the only competition for the title.) Apichatpong (who often asks to be referred to as “Joe,” following the Thai custom of monosyllabic nicknames) is well known within the film community for his four sui generis feature films: Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), and Syndromes and a Century (2006). Alongside these landmark films, Apichatpong has been steadily creating a less-frequently discussed body of video installations intended for gallery settings. Few other artists working today have transitioned as successfully between the gallery and the cinema, using the skills required by each context to inform the other. (Steve McQueen being another notable exception.)

Phantoms of Nabua is one component of an expansive, still-developing multimedia project within the overarching title Primitive. All of the various elements of Primitive are built around the exploration of the memory contained within Nabua, a town in northeast Thailand with a tragic history. The largest part of the Primitive project to date is a suite of seven video installations (some containing multiple projections) that premiered at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. In conjunction with that exhibition, Apichatpong also released a short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, and a video for the web, Phantoms of Nabua, which is shown here for the first time as an installation. [Phantoms of Nabua is available for viewing online here.]

Although it is intended for the web, the piece’s complexity and detail can’t be fully appreciated until it is seen in this way, complete with HD projection and surround sound. It takes some time to discern all the darkness-enshrouded planes of activity that unfold within the video. A florescent street light slightly but steadily illuminates a plain patch of land in the middle of a forest clearing while intense, erratic lightning strikes take place on a small screen sitting within it. Joe’s camera studies these forms of artificial light as they faintly register within the overpowering night. A new element is added as shadowy figures of young men (the phantoms of Nabua?) appear against the lightning-struck screen-within-a-screen. These silhouettes become corporeal as another light source arrives in the form of a flaming, whooshing soccer ball that they kick around. Existing as both danger and play, this natural-light-in-an-incongruous-package heads off in an errant direction and the lighting-filled screen slowly goes up in flames. The camera’s gaze becomes hypnotized by the beam of light coming from the projector now visible in the screen’s absence. Without the screen to “stop” the projection and translate the desired imagery, all that remains is pure light. But it is light made unfamiliar and unable to communicate in its desired method. It is light made primitive.

Anyone familiar with Joe’s work has probably figured out that this factual description doesn’t convey his ability to make depictions of the ordinary world otherworldly and to concoct a complex fugue of ideas out of a few simple objects and elements. It speaks to his artistry that the work never becomes a reductive statement or experience, but something that is realized and felt differently by each person who encounters it.

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.

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 Phantoms of Nabua   (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2009)