ONE ON ONE WITH
ARTIST KORAKRIT ARUNANONDCHAI
By Ryma Chikhoune
Photos by Jenna Ledger
NEW YORK – It was a rainy, gloomy November day, as I made my way through the bustling streets of Chinatown to meet Korakrit Arunanondchai. A quick Internet search of the 26-year-old Bangkok-born artist produces a dozen or so images of a bare-chested Krit – as he’s known – in what seems to be his uniform as of late, an unbuttoned jacket and jeans, all denim everything. The fabric is a fascination, he says, when we meet in his apartment. Earlier this year, inside Bushwick’s Clearing gallery, Krit premiered “Painting with History in a Room Filled with Men with Funny Names,” featuring two striking denim paintings made with bleach and fire. The space, filled with fog, also showcased a photograph, along with a video of the artist, semi-shirtless, standing with a group of young Thai men. Some had on sunglasses, others donned hats; they all wore denim. “For the paintings themselves, I wanted people to insert their own subjectivity. I was interested in using denim, instead of canvas, as the ground of an abstract painting,” says Krit. “I think it’s part autobiographical. It started from me trying to imagine the tension between coming to America, being an artist or the me who had stayed in Thailand and perhaps didn’t become an artist.”
Korakrit Arunanondchai performs at the VW Dome at MoMA PS1 in April 2014 and in London at Carlos/Ishikawa in September.
How would you describe your childhood in Bangkok?
I was really into comics and music…I guess it was a little more eclectic than the normal Thai young person. Education in Asia is really strict, and everyone is taught to be the same. I went to an all-boy Christian school. It was pretty repressed.
There wasn’t much room for individuality?
Yeah. Growing up felt like Thai youth culture was almost a derivative of Japanese youth culture, Pokémon or Japanese video games, things like that. In my experience, as a kid, you don’t think about history and context the way you do as an adult. You’re just a consumer, and that’s what was available.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was at an international school and in a rock band. In a class of 500 students, there were maybe four or five different bands. It was a popular thing for kids to do. It’s basically growing up in a society where people are raised the same. We would go to the same Saturday class, everyone practiced a sport – mine was swimming and soccer. People read the same stuff, listened to the same bands. This past year in Thailand there is this really popular TV series about teens…kind of like that British show…what’s that British show called?
Which one? Skins?
Yeah. It’s like Skins, but way less intense, less sex and drugs. It’s really popular and the most successful TV series maybe like ever. When I watched it, I was like, “that’s how I grew up”. But the weird thing is, the kids now watch it and relate to it too…and the music they’re listening to now, 10 years later, is the same. It’s this whole thing where the teenage culture hasn’t changed that much.
Were your parents supportive of your move to the U.S.?
Yeah, my mom’s an international school English teacher, and she wanted me to have an education abroad anyway
You moved to the U.S. to go to The Rhode Island School of Design…
Yes, it was pretty far away, and I hadn’t known anyone who had gone to RISD. You just read books on colleges and make decisions based on that.
Did you have any family around?
I had my twin brother, who was going to a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.
What’s the dynamic like between you two?
It’s cool… I mean, we used to fight a lot, but now it’s good. We’re like best friends. I did a performance with him in Paris. For a while, I tried to figure out a way for us to make art together.
Is he an artist as well?
No, he studies Chinese and economics, but we connect as human beings. He doesn’t get my art…he doesn’t get it in the form, but I think he gets it in the abstract.
What was the first thing you ever made with your hands that you consciously viewed as art?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard…I was always interested in any art. I used to draw fake comic, fake Pokémon comics, where I created my own characters. When I was younger, I used to swim a lot, so I had a lot of personal space in my head and would construct a bunch of stories just to entertain my head for hours. For a long time, I would draw comics and even tried to pursue it, but there wasn’t any space to do that or support. And then, sophomore year of high school, when I switched into an international school, there was finally an art class. It was real, with oil paints…a place where I could actually make art.
You‘ve said that you saw your first modern piece of art at London’s Tate Modern, Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” (2003). Many of us observed or studied the piece as viewers or perhaps critics. For you, it was something more...
That was a really powerful experience for me. You didn’t have to understand any of it in language; it was all visual and epic. I was in high school at the time. It was so otherworldly that I switched on this thing in my head like, “There’s a possibility that one day, if I can pursue this, I could do something powerful.” I didn’t really think I was actually going to pursue it until much later on. I did graphic design, and then I switched to printmaking,
What made you want to continue your education and get a Masters at Columbia University?
I did a lot of paintings, but what made my art better was that I actually needed this anchor of history.
How does it affect you, as an artist, to study the history of art?
I think the most important thing in making art is context. You need to know and understand context and history, the history of human thought. That is culture.
You just came from meeting with one of your mentors. Can you talk about the role they play in your work?
I call them mentors, but they’re friends, who are a more experienced and who I talk to. When I was at Columbia, there was a mentor program, and I had two. One of them I still meet with every six months somewhere, and we talk about things. They’re people I trust in their opinions, and they keep me in check.
Your thesis at Columbia was the first part of a trilogy you’ve been working on. Tell me about this trilogy, and where you stand with it now.
I was always trying to make this gesamtkunstwerk, to make something that is fully completed, but can also still be taken further. I’m working on the final one…There’s always attention to two poles. The first [part of the trilogy] is about the art practice I built in comparison to me documenting my life in Thailand during the year 2011 to 2012, preparing to go back, to take my author identity as a Thai artist and the tension between both, and also, the nonverbal relationship through picture. The thing that’s important about it is that it was reflecting what I was going through – for example the flood in Thailand, and my grandparents building their new house. The second one came from a residency I did in Skowhegan, Maine, and this real experience I had with nature…it became a reflection about the weeks I spent there. And then the third is about the summer that I spent with my twin brother, trying to make art together.
Was it this past summer?
Yes, and now is the time I’m thinking about it. So, in this new project, I’ll finish certain things like trailers, songs, some pieces, put them out and somehow re-video it, and it becomes the final film.
You work a lot with videos. What attracts you to that medium?
I think you can do a lot with it. That structure and space I’m creating, where I’m putting things together, right now, that space for me is video. The one thing I have now is time, and I’m attracted to video, because through making them, suddenly, comparing it to making a painting, the space seems so open. For the trilogy, I made trailers, objects for the video, instillations. There are songs, a performance that fills the whole physical experience of time. So, in a way, when I’m working on this video installation project, I end up being able to work on more. I haven’t run into a limit yet.
What’s the most fulfilling part of the process?
It’s when you do it and it all comes together. I’ll be presenting the show in London and going to have a physical installation. I’ll have the video shown and will do a performance supplement to the piece, which will probably be two hours long. That’s what I enjoy, giving a lot and not holding back.
It all seems to be a reflection of you, your Western education, being from Thailand. Do you see yourself staying here in New York?
I’m back and forth between here, Thailand, and Europe. I guess that’s how it’s going to be for a while. I have to go make certain part of my work in Thailand and other parts in New York, and then I go do shows in Europe.
What’s your day-to-day life like right now?
It’s always different. I feel like I’ve been constantly showing, performing, and traveling for a while. I got back to New York two days ago, and now I’m just restructuring my life.
In terms of art, who inspires you?
I just saw Pierre Huyghe at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I love his work; he’s a big inspiration. He travels a lot to places like Antarctica and caves in Mexico City…physical limits that can sometimes be mental limits, and then it translates into a visual experience. And on top of that, he always tries to use tons of smoke in this sort of entity. I use a lot of smoke too, but it’s amazing the way he uses it to capture mood in different pieces.
Tonight, I’m going to a Rhizome benefit that my friend Ed Fornieles is doing ["New York New York Happy Happy (NY NY HP HP)" at the New Museum], and I’m really excited about it. It’s this fake but real gala, where people are given roles. The artist Brock Enright is good at things like that. He’s famous for setting up reality games in forms of kidnappings. He’ll kidnap you using actors, and you go into this real life video game adventure. It’s meant to fuck with your reality. I guess I’m just into that. It’s sort of like there’s a social contract that we all engage in, and artists use the space in the art world to bend that. Maybe, it’s almost the opposite of how I grew up in that all-boy Christian school, where there were strict rules and one way to do things…not to be the complete opposite, but to be able to actually make that structure myself and make that structure differently….
You’ve made that for yourself, I guess.
But then, the next step is to make it for other people…