Unknown Forces

Last night at the REDCAT, Thai filmmaker (and graduate of Chicago’s School of the Art Institute) Apichatpong Weerasethakul opened his first solo exhibition in the US, entitled Unknown Forces (2007). A filmmaker who often blends narrative and experimental techniques (particularly structural innovation) in his feature films, I learned he also produces and distributes avant garde works through his company Kick the Machine, and has created several video installations for gallery spaces over the years.

Unknown Forces is set up in a bare, roughly 40-foot-square, darkened room, with four large, looping video images projected on three walls, and a pulsing, techno soundtrack (established music rearranged and remixed) that provides the dominant audio experience. The two videos that share a wall feature a man and a woman in each, speaking happily (though the dialogue is drowned out by the music and is basically inaudible, even for Thai speakers) and facing forward from the back of a pickup truck cruising down a Thai freeway. On the opposite wall, the screen follows a young man dancing in the back of a pickup truck that is also speeding down a freeway. The third wall at a right angle to the other two features imagery exploring the scene shown above–an enigmatic, rural film set lit up at night, with significant winds battering an unknown object covered by a black tarp. (Though the press image above features a crew, I didn’t see people onscreen either time I viewed the installation for about 20 minutes each, though it’s hard to know how long the footage lasts before it loops.)

Weerasethakul–smallish, soft-spoken, and polite–attended last night’s opening reception, and he considers the exhibition a political work (by his own admission, an unusual subject for him) in a number of ways. Last September, a military coup overthrew the elected government of Thailand, declaring martial law for several months, and the filmmaker talked about coming abruptly face-to-face with political realities and the concept of personal freedom. He intends Unknown Forces to be the first in a series of works about the changing political landscape in Thailand, and he wanted this exhibition to express the “blissful ignorance” of ordinary Thai citizens who go about their lives as unwitting cogs in a machine. He also wanted to begin on a note of liveliness and implicit humor as a tribute to the American comedies he loves (including, he told us last night, favorites as diverse as Dr. Strangelove and Dumb and Dumber).

The people featured in the pickup trucks are representative of the itinerant construction workers in the northeastern parts of the country who are shipped across vast distances to meet the needs of the booming Thai real estate industry. Happy to be employed and enjoying the ride, they are hard-working and immediate in ways that prevent their larger awareness of purpose. “Powerlessness and ignorance” are the keys to survival in Thailand, the filmmaker asserts in his exhibition notes, adding that a more direct political statement could have landed him in jail or worse. (Currently fighting Thai censors for the right to release his latest feature, Syndromes and a Century, Weerasethakul is no stranger to cultural enforcement. He told us last night the ostensible objections include a monk’s wardrobe and a doctor’s romantic kiss in the hospital where the doctor works–hardly the provocations of sex and violence one might imagine–suggesting the censors are simply trying to intimidate and frighten the independent filmmaker more than anything else.)

However, beneath the carefree spirit of the three worker videos, the fourth screen imparts a subtle sense of foreboding, and I have to wonder if Weerasethakul didn’t arrange the screens to suggest continuous movement across the room–from the two workers facing the viewers on one side to the dancer facing away on the other–past the enigmatic and dark content of the fourth screen. During the Q&A he described the installation as “intense” and “a room full of pressure”; apparently, he told the exhibition curator, Eungie Joo, that it wasn’t good to remain in the room for very long. If the work celebrates a feeling of blissful ignorance, it also subtly suggests painful uncertainty, traveling a road without end, oblivious to the existence and importance of activity lying just beyond the realm of perception. The sound of the wind seen by the image’s violently flapping tarp occasionally rises in volume and merges with the music and muffled dialogue, creeping inwards and upwards before subsiding.

It’s exciting to feel as if Weerasethakul is on a journey of political awareness, uncertain of where it will lead, but inviting audiences to join him along the way. Just as in his features, Unknown Forces emphasizes momentary feeling and sensation, and arranges that experience in a way that provokes extended contemplation. The installation runs through June 17.

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