Cambodian curator works with Thai artist for “Next Life” retrospective in Bangkok

Driven to express himself in the in the wake of renewed censorship following Thailand’s May 2014 military coup, Chiang Mai artist Arnont Nongyao began working in new mediums combining digitally-mediated visuals with sound experiments. Curated by Cambodian artist Vuth Lyno, this body of work was featured in a recent retrospective at Bangkok’s Cartel Artspace gallery, titled Chat…Naa (which translates directly as “Next Life”) which ran from 11 Nov to 5 Dec 2017.

“Since the May 2014 coup, I started creating sound-based performances using re-purposed technology and made one short film each year to express my feelings about living under a military regime,” explains Arnont, adding “My films and performance pieces are not directly about the government or politics, but are a reflection of the thoughts, emotions, sights and sounds one experiences living in a country ruled by a military government.”

The social, political and spiritual meanings of “Next Life”

The phrase Chat…Naa can hold multiple meanings in contemporary Thailand. The country is still in mourning following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, and over 13 million people attended the revered King’s October 2017 cremation ceremony — symbolically marking the passing of the King to the next life. Politically, while the government continues to be led by the military, the current period is one of transition and uncertainty, with general elections promised for 2018. The exhibition is also a marker of the end of this phase of Arnont’s sound art experiments and performance practice, and is notable for being a collaboration between a Thai artist and a Cambodian curator.

Cambodian curatorial connection

Arnont met Lyno in Phnom Penh in 2015 while he was doing a residency at SASA Art Projects. Lyno was intrigued by Arnont’s short films and installations, and the two bonded over their common interest in experimental and performance art. When the opportunity for this exhibition arose, Arnont asked Lyno to work with him to summarize his three-year body of work into a comprehensive retrospective.

Since much of Arnont’s art practice is performance-based and dependent on artist-audience interaction, Lyno’s aim with Chat…Naa was to create a new site-specific installation integrating elements of Arnont’s past performance pieces. Working together over Skye and then in person in Bangkok, Arnont and Lyno collaborated to bring representative elements of Arnont’s performance practice into a gallery space as a coherent exhibition.

“My goal as the curator was to offer an outside perspective on Arnont’s practice, and to communicate the essence of his thinking on Thailand’s contemporary social and political context,” says Lyno, adding “I collaborated with Arnont to design an impactful installation that expands the conversation for the audience.”

Playful yet troubling

In addition to the screening of Arnont’s short films, the Chat…Naa installation pieces in the gallery feature arrays of lights in the red, white and blue of the Thai flag being captured by digital video cameras which are continuously shaken by the movement of small motors. These distorted digital images are then projected onto large screens and through televisions sets, accompanied by ambient sounds generated by the motors using delay effects.

Lyno describes the experience of the audience as “a combination of awe and surprise at being awakened by the stimulation of multiple senses.” The overall effect “is playful yet also troubling,” he adds.

“Next Life” or “What is next?”

Speaking at his Chiang Mai studio, all available desk space overflowing with deconstructed electronics and new inventions, Arnont explains the idea behind the exhibition title. “At present, Thai people collectively are asking the question ‘what is next?’ regarding many things: politics, their own life paths, and the future of Thai society and culture in general,” he continues, “I want my work to inspire people to ask themselves ‘what are we able to create in our life at this present moment?’ and ‘why do I think the way I do?’”

If this excellent collaboration between emerging Thai and Cambodian artists is any indication, the Southeast Asian art scene, and society as a whole, will become richer from asking such questions.