Kawita Vatanajyankur

Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Scale 2, 2015, Video Still

Thai video artist Kawita Vatanajyankur creates works that offer a powerful examination of the psychological, social and cultural ways of viewing and valuing the continuing challenges of women’s everyday labour. In her staged performances, Vatanajyankur undertakes physical experiments that playfully, often painfully, test her body’s limits — a challenge that is both unavoidably compelling and uncomfortable to watch. The alluring, luminous colours in Vatanajyankur’s work are distinctive of the artist’s aesthetic and tap into a globalized and digitally networked visual language of consumption and instant gratification.

October 11 — November 9
Nexus Gallery
OzAsia Festival 2018

The Scale of Justice

Essay by Chelsea Farquhar

TOOLS/WORK is an ongoing series by Thai-Australian artist Kawita Vatanajyankur. Within Vatanajyankur’s performative video-based practice, we see the artist transformed into a tool, her body becomes a site of utility. Through exploration and exploitation, she navigates her physical limits amidst repetition and endurance. By means of performing quotidian labour, Vatanajyankur brings attention to the physically demanding, time-consuming domestic tasks that are commonly experienced by women across Thailand, in often poor working conditions[1].

The Scale, 2015 Video Still

During OzAsia Festival, a selection of Kawita Vatanajyankur’s series TOOLS/WORK are presented in The Scale of Justice at Nexus Arts. This exhibition features three video pieces: The Scale (2015); Scale of Justice ll (2016); and The Lift (2017). These works see the artist’s body transformed into ‘machinery’ commonly found at local Thai fruit markets[2]. She re-enacts the tools and tasks of its workers, including the transporting, weighing and carrying of assorted fruits and vegetables.

I am intrigued by Vatanajyankur’s use of self-objectification as a tactic to gain autonomy alongside her processes of transformation. Kawita utilises endurance and repetition as forms of manual labour and through these processes she is able to test and push her bodily limitations. Vatanajyankur criticises consumerism and consumption through her use of fruit, colour and video.

In The Lift, 2017, Vatanajyankur is suspended, legs tightly folded back, with a basket nestled between her feet, back and arms. The basket contains a display of freshly cut papayas. If she were to release her tense posture, the basket would fall. As she ascends, and is then lowered, she remains gracefully immobile. This basket is weighing down the artist’s strained frame. Held by two ropes, wrapped around metal frames under her chest and pelvis, she has become an integral piece of the pulley system. We watch her rise and fall repeatedly, like deep staggered breathes.

I think about the bar pressing against her chest. Her contorted body works to maintain this pose against an obnoxious-blue wall, its brightness reminiscent of advertising designed to appeal to consumerist interests. The Lift speaks to consumerism and the objectification of women’s bodies. Alternatively, Vatanajyankur objectifies herself when she takes on the responsibilities of the machine. She utilises mediation as a process of transformation[3].

The Lift, 2015, Video Still

Within this process, she is able to become the tool through focusing on the present moment, allowing her to let go of everything[4]. By turning oneself into a tool for utility, she denies the gendering imposed on her body. To detach emotionally is to connect physically and physiologically through strength, touch, weight, task and process. Here, the artist gains bodily autonomy through transformation and self-objectification. She believes that these processes allow her to resist fear and pain and feel a connection to her body. To decide of your own objectification has power, but also comments on those who don’t have the choice and luxury of decision, whose bodies are objects for labour.

This series provides the audience with a glimpse into the experiences of living and working in Thailand as a woman. It allows us to see their cultural relationship to food and agriculture. Thailand is significant in the exportation of rice[5] and the production and exportation of tropical fruits including durian, mangosteen and rambutan.[6] Recent decades has seen an industrialisation of Thailand, but the economy remains inequitably distributed, contributing to continued poverty in rural areas[7]. This means that women are moving to urbanised areas at young ages to help support their families.

The Scale of Justice, 2016, Video Still

Vatanajyankur’s works negotiate these systems of labour and push the boundaries of endurance and self-inflicted pain. Labour is articulated through physical endurance in The Scale of Justice ll, (2016), where the artist takes the place of a balancing beam with baskets weighing down her neck and feet. Freshly chopped green vegetables are thrown periodically into the baskets, pulling her back and forth while she is seeking a balanced position. These works are momentarily difficult to watch, the endurance embedded with a violence.

The artist attempts to transform pain, fear and insecurities into power.[8] This process involves acknowledging your pain, accepting external influences as out of your control, acknowledging independent control and then pushing yourself to the edge[9]. Pain is necessary and even crucial for this process. Through endurance, Vatanajyankur believes one can evolve as a person. She utilises pain as a tactic for resistance, and endurance as resilience. Strength is inherent in this work, a quiet and disciplined strength.

Performative video as media is a critical element of her practice. Video allows for an incessant loop, something that is often prevalent within laborious daily tasks. Repetition is inherent to this body of work. While performance remains invisibly within the body, the loop marks the body as an un-ending site of trauma and labour. The artist’s body on screen becoming an archive of consistently incomplete tasks.

We see her move back and forth repeatedly. The repetitious structure of work is amplified. Working, remembering, repeating, working, remembering, repeating. She has trapped herself in a cycle of objectification that echoes the actions of labour. Whilst we witness this pain within Vatanajyankur’s own body, she is only a surrogate for all of the women that hold such anguish, and she utilises video and performance to re-enact and re-transmit these traumas to her audience.

In The Scale (2015), we witness the artist with her legs in the air, the weight of her body resting on her neck, shoulders and elbows. This yoga-style pose is enabling her to hold a crate with her feet, as 60 watermelons are dropped quite violently into the crate. The watermelon chunks are overflowing and crashing around the artist’s face while she precariously balances the crate. In this piece, the fruit plays an active role and almost behaves as a weapon. While watching this work in the gallery, I feel a sense of concern for the artist. I feel that Vatanajyankur’s use of fruit marks a contemporary and globalised position on the use of fruit throughout the history of feminist art. Here, fruit isn’t representative of female bodies, or softness but instead it is violent, thrown towards her, weighing her down, or plummeting toward her face.

In this series the artist can be seen wearing a flesh-toned body suit. This suit speaks to false vulnerability. The illusion is of an exposed body, but the reality of a concealed one. This costume is analogous for Kawita, she appears in pain, struggling, but she is strong and in control as these actions shape the construction of her identity. This work seems to counteract the passive lens placed on Asian women. Vatanajyankur’s work lures you in with bright colours and a graceful body, speaking directly to consumerism and the commodification of bodies. Once it has your attention, the work begins to shift. The luminous backdrops and tight framing start to speak to adverting and the actions performed by Vatanajyankur become unsettling.

These performative video works contain layers of signification that question and, in part, attempt to explicate the role and struggles of women in Thailand. Her series TOOLS/WORK in The Scale of Justice navigates socio-political boundaries through performance and endurance. Vatanajyankur utilises pain as a tactic for resistance, and endurance as resilience. The artist’s use of self-objectification acts as a rejection of the subjugation of female labour in Thailand. I believe that these works are a testament to strength and determination of the artist herself and provide crucial insight to her position in and experience of the world.

Chelsea Farquhar is an emerging writer and artist based in Adelaide. Chelsea is interested in experimental performance, video art and queer practices.

Website: chelseafarquharart.squarespace.com
Instagram: @chelseafarquhar_

[1] Vatanajyankur K. Press Release Stills Gallery, Work, 2015

[2] Vatanajyankur K. Essay for Stills Gallery, 2015

[3] TEDX TALK (TEDxYouth at STA Bangkok) ‘Ways to Transform your Fear, Pain and Insecurities into Power’ Kawita Vatanajyankur, 2016

[4] Melbourne Central, KAWITA VATANAJYANKUR, 17 Oct 2016 https://www.melbournecentral.com.au

[5] Poapongsakorn, Nipon; Chokesomritpol, Phunjasit (2017–06–30). “Agriculture 4.0: Obstacles and how to break through”. Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Retrieved 15 September 2017.

[6] Bais, Karolien (July 2016). “Why Thailand is the leading exporter of durian, mangosteen and other tropical fruits” (PDF). UTAR Agriculture Science Journal. Malaysia: Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR). 2 (3): 5–15. Retrieved 27 March 2017.

[7] Somboon Siriprachai, Industrialisation and Inequality in Thailand, Handbook on the Northeast and Southeast Asian Economies

edited by Anis Chowdhury 2007

[8] TEDX TALK (TEDxYouth at STA Bangkok) ‘Ways to Transform your Fear, Pain and Insecurities into Power’ Kawita Vatanajyankur, 2016

[9] TEDX TALK (TEDxYouth at STA Bangkok) ‘Ways to Transform your Fear, Pain and Insecurities into Power’ Kawita Vatanajyankur, 2016

Kawita Vatanajyankur, Image Source: Facebook

Thai-Australian artist Kawita Vatanajyankur has achieved significant recognition since graduating from RMIT University (BA, Fine Art) in 2011. In 2015 she was a Finalist in the Jaguar Asia Pacific Tech Art Prize and curated into the prestigious Thailand Eye exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London. In 2017, her work has been curated into ‘Islands in the Stream’ exhibition in Venice, Italy alongside the 57th Venice Biennale. Vatanajyankur has exhibited widely across Australia, Asia, USA and Europe. Vatanajyankur’s work is held in private collections in Australia, Asia, Europe and America. She is currently represented by Nova Contemporary, Bangkok / Alamak! Project / Clear Edition & Gallery, Tokyo

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