Yuree Kensaku in her studio in Bangkok on New Year’s Day. All images courtesy ArtAsiaPacific.

Yuree Kensaku

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For 100 Tonson Gallery’s tenth anniversary dinner in Bangkok, in January 2014, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija curated a series of performances during the celebratory evening. It included experimental Thai food concocted by Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi and poetry readings by Swedish poet Karl Holmqvist. It was over street-food-inspired appetizers that guests, including myself, watched Yuree Kensaku’s 12 Cats (2013), a captivating video animation about 12 cats that have been trapped in a cave by a giant member of their species. Based on an old Thai fable—and originally shown at the Chom Pon Cave in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province in 2013—this sinister, nine-minute tale features imaginary creatures, including a lion dressed as a general with a pipe, puffing heart-shaped smoke clouds, and a spear-wielding wild boar galloping atop a green-horned, red bull. The screening was accompanied by live electronic rock music composed and performed by Yuree’s partner May-T Noijinda, a member of the Thai band Modern Dog. As we devoured a second round of Melasniemi’s tom yam cubes, pork buns and lokikeitto salmon soup dumplings, the video took a twisted turn. The cats’ only way of survival was to eat their own kittens and eventually consume themselves.

Yuree’s painting Octopussy (2014), fresh from an exhibition at Toot Yung Art Center, Bangkok.

One year later, on New Year’s Day, I found myself back in Bangkok in a taxi. Catapulting down a toll road, we journeyed to Yuree’s studio in the north of the city under glorious weather—perfectly sunny with clear blue skies, warm but with no humidity. Even more priceless for Bangkok: no traffic. A normally one-hour drive took only 15 minutes. We peeled into a neighborhood with dirt roads, dotted with banana trees that provide patches of shade for pedestrians. We turned onto a tiny road with only one home, protected by a large gate.

The compound, where the 36-year-old artist has lived since childhood, contains two buildings separated by large trees. Her mother, along with the artist’s brother and his family, live in one house; the other structure is Yuree’s studio and home, which she shares with May-T. Her studio is a rectangular white space with a black-and-white floor covering, which has an optical quality that lends itself to Yuree’s surreal and psychedelic graphic paintings.

During my visit, there were only two works on the studio walls. Octopussy (2014), a medium-sized canvas exhibited in a 2014 group show at Bangkok’s Toot Yung Art Center, depicts a neon-yellow octopus wrapped around a hot-pink cat in a sexy, red body suit and leopard-print stockings. A pair of tan, stocky legs with fluorescent orange toes inches out of the canvas’s left side, with one limb pushing back a brick-patterned curtain. Perched on a tree are a pair of birds and a miniscule naked lady with red boots and a green, bobbed haircut, with bananas flying around them. Resting on the canvas’s top edge is a plastic banana. The camp eroticism of Octopussy vaguely hints at the work of Yuree’s former Bangkok University professor, artist Thanet Awsinsiri, known for his figure paintings of nude women in suggestive positions. While discussing the Toot Yung exhibition with Yuree, it occurred to me that the artist vaguely resembles some of the characters in her paintings, with her bobbed hair and big smiling eyes.

Detail of the middle panel of Yuree’s unfinished painting When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled (2015), along with digital sketches that help determine the color palette for her work. 

A detail of Yuree’s unfinished painting When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled (2015). 

Numerous plastic bins of paints, brushes, tools and other work supplies. 

On the opposite wall was a huge, eight-meter-long triptych painting, which Yuree has been working on since October 2014. It will debut at Art Basel in Hong Kong this March at the booth of 100 Tonson, her long-time gallery that has helped nurture her career. The work’s title, When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled, is based on a Thai saying, adopted from a Swahili proverb, meaning that when two major powers clash the only victims are the innocent and powerless. In the painting, battles are happening against a vibrant orange and yellow sky. In the center panel, two massive elephants, one black and the other tan with bright red eyes, are colliding while trampling a snake; in the right-hand panel, a purple bull rams a red one as a neon-orange dog joins the fray; on the far left, a covey of fanged bears roar and wrestle each other. These fierce creatures are surrounded by lightning bolts, flames and clouds.

As we looked at the painting, the soft-spoken Yuree, with a Japanese-inflected Thai accent (her late father was Japanese and her mother Thai) admitted she is a night owl whose daily routine consists of waking up in the early afternoon to go to her studio and working until the wee hours of the morning. Her greatest challenge, she says, is to come up with a narrative and appropriate imagery. Although she has a wide following among young Thai artists and art students, her preference to work late into the night clashed with her role as a visiting lecturer—in illustration, color theory and painting—at Bangkok University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts, during the mid- to late 2000s.

When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled is a direct response to the near-endless protests and two military coups that have plagued Thailand since 2006. Here, Yuree depicts the power struggle witnessed between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts—opponents and supporters of the military coup, respectively—which has left millions of Thai citizens, including herself, both polarized and confused. When the Elephants Fight is a sequel to an earlier work, Hot Pot Sweet Dream (2014), commissioned for the 4th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. This earlier work, however, gushes with saccharine optimism. Against a rising sun, giant doves (with peace symbols as eyes) are intertwined by their rainbow-colored tongues, which form a giant heart, while a ballerina kitten performs a pirouette and children flit about on origami birds—a possible projection of Yuree’s hope that Thailand will eventually find peace among the chaos.

Yuree working on When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled (2015).

The artist in her living space, cuddling her Siberian Husky, Mowgli—the inspiration for many of her partner May-T’s paintings and drawings. 

For her elephant-sized paintings, Yuree first draws a sketch and scans it, using the computer to help determine her color palette. She then mixes the colors and begins painting by following her digitally colored sketch. Hundreds of tubes and pots of acrylic paint are neatly organized in large plastic containers according to her personal logic. One bin holds brushes of all shapes and sizes; another brims with masking tape. I remarked on the orderliness of her studio and she confessed that she’d tidied it up for the visit, as she is uncomfortable showing people how messy she can be.

Yuree does her computer work in a nook in her studio, which is strewn with blank CDs and power adapters. There are also shelves full of knickknacks: Japanese toy figures, a pink, smiling poop-shaped doll, big red lips, a Ganesh elephant, a mini Volkswagen bus and a campy postcard of the Buddha attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Next to her desk is a door that leads to the rest of her home.

On one wall of Yuree’s residence hangs the work of street-artist friends, as well as that of herself and May-T. With Yuree’s guidance, May-T recently started drawing and painting, and his portraits of their Siberian Husky are on display. Below them is Yuree’s print, Music from My B Jang (2011), featuring a large beaver strumming a snail-shaped guitar, which she says is modeled after May-T. His musical influence also led Yuree to co-direct the video for May-T’s song “Pleng Pry,” which was awarded Best Special Effect at the seventh annual Channel [V] Thailand Music Video Awards. In the top corner of the wall is an old black-and-white photo of her mother, probably from the 1960s. Below are a selection of oddly shaped stools and a beauty parlor chair. After offering me tea, Yuree went into the kitchen, where above the door hangs a sign from her mother’s former beauty salon.

We sipped the cool tea as she showed me work that Thai Airways commissioned for their 2015 calendar and talked about the iPhone case and headphones that she has been invited to design this year. Her current main focus, however, is to complete the large painting for Art Basel Hong Kong. She intends to add more detail, such as miniature human figures that extend outside of the canvas, or perhaps small paintings on wood. Yuree presented me with a gift of stickers from her 12 Cats project, and explained that after she finishes When the Elephants Fight, she will make another video animation. Noting the 12 Cats’ memorable cannibalized kittens, bloodshot eyeballs and axe-wielding rabbits, I wonder what other macabre folktale she is about to bring to life.

The entrance to Yuree’s studio and family home, where she has lived since she was four-years old.