APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKULPower Boy (Mekong), 2009, giclée print, 150 × 255 cm. Courtesy the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong. 

The Serenity of Madness

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Para Site
Hong Kong Thailand

Hong Kong’s Para Site art space is a labyrinth astir with stimuli. Projected videos demand attention as a plethora of visuals flood forth from the walls. A small sculpture sits amongst the moving visuals, while archival materials of film scripts and photos await perusal. This is Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “The Serenity of Madness,” the Hong Kong iteration of the traveling exhibition, which was previously at Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum for the institution’s inaugural show.

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL,The Importance of Telepathy, 2012, ceramic, 59 × 29 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist, SCAI the Bathhouse, Tokyo, and Para Site, Hong Kong. 

Most of Para Site’s temporary rooms are shrouded in darkness, though a single image draws visitors’ attention upon entering the space. Power Boy (Mekong) (2009) is a large-scale print hanging on the right wall. In the image, a male figure sits on railing that overlooks a river. He wears illuminated decorative lights that distinguish him from the night scene. This piece is a clear example of the political and social discussions that are prevalent in Apichatpong’s personal work: here, the artist examines the consequences of the hydroelectric Xayaburi Dam that is being built on the Lower Mekong River, which is destroying livelihoods, devastating the water’s ecological systems and, in turn, triggering multiple protests. On the other hand, the dam is expected to generate electricity for countries in Southeast Asia—power that many who live along the river will rely on in their daily lives.

Hidden around the corner of the gallery is the show’s sole sculpture, The Importance of Telepathy (2012). The sculpture is placed on a plinth at the end of a narrow corridor, illuminated in what feels like an otherworldly glow. Made of ceramic, white cloth cloaks the figure’s body and reveals only a grotesque face. The statue depicts a “Phi Boon,” a title for figures in traditional Thai culture who were thought to have paranormal powers that boosted the spirits of anguished villagers through literature and song. For more than two centuries, Phi Boons were symbols of revolt against the central government. This continued until the 1950s, when the last Phi Boons and their followers were executed. In 2012, Apichatpong displayed another version of Phi Boon, an all-white, five-meter-tall statue created in collaboration with fellow Thai artist Chai Siris, which was displayed at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. The petite version displayed at Para Site stands at merely 53 centimeters and uses color to accentuate the features of the statue’s face. 

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKULFireworks (Archives), 2015, HD video projected on holofilm: 6 min 40 sec. Installation view in “The Serenity of Madness" at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Para Site. 

Elsewhere at the gallery, Fireworks (Archives) (2015) flickers in a pitch black room at the back of the venue, where the only light source is the work’s moving image. Here, video is projected on holofilm, where the footage is clearly displyed on the screen, but appear distorted on surfaces beyond. Short clips are spliced together to depict a night-time exploration of animal sculptures at Sala Kaew Ku (also known as Wat Khaek), a sculpture park in the small town of Nong Khai in Apichatpong’s native Isaan region, located on the Thailand-Laos border. Two actors, both of whom have appeared in the director’s feature films, walk the grounds to light fireworks and take photos, the light of their flashes leaving the audience with brief glimpses of shadows and shapes, including animal forms, spiritual icons and seated skeleton lovers that serve as memento mori. The sculptures, some more than 20 meters tall, were created in 1978 by the mystic and spiritual leader Bunleua Sulilat (1932–1996), who had a large following that straddled both sides of the regional border. Sulilat built this sculpture park in an attempt to bridge the gap between his teachings, popular myths and folk tales, and the Buddhist-Hindu cosmology. Owing to the intimate nature of the film, viewers discover the park with a new perspective. Apichatpong’s Fireworks recalls the history of this location to discuss collective memories, visual storytelling and Sulilat’s importance.

Reproductions of scripts from several of the artist’s feature-length films are also displayed, offering a peek into Apichatpong’s filmmaking process. Notes and amendments are inscribed across the pages, leaving in full view a myriad of text edits, hand-drawn storyboards and even the director’s marginalia. Facsimile scripts from Tropical Malady (2003), Syndromes and A Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2009) sit ring-bound on a shelf, opposite a lightbox of selected prints from three films—Tropical Malady, Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) and Blissfully Yours (2002)—which give further insight into Apichatpong’s practice.

During a public talk at Para Site on the opening day of the exhibition, the artist stated that many voices in Thailand remain unheard, but they manifest in his work. He hopes that this will encourage his viewers to explore the stories and conditions of individuals who have been relegated to the margins of society, and pass on their collective memories. The connection in content and aesthetics between the artist’s exhibition and feature films is evident: Apichatpong’s artworks contain personal narratives that lead us to larger sociopolitical issues in Thailand. Although many of his works focus on personal snapshots of everyday life, they also reveal deep, contemporary concerns of his homeland.

Installation view of APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL’s “The Serenity of Madness" at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2016. (Left to right) Photophobia (2013); Reproductions of film scripts: Tropical Malady (2003), Uncle Boonmee Who Can recall His Past Lives (2009), Syndromes and A Century (2006); selected polaroids. Courtesy the artist and Para Site.