Active Spirits of Return
By Christopher Whitfield
Full text also available in Chinese.
The construction of Charoen Krung Road left a significant footprint in Bangkok’s forward march toward modernization. Completed in 1864, it mirrored the flow of the Chao Phraya River, shifting the infrastructure of the city away from an elaborate lattice of canals traversed by boat and hardening into the backbone of the frenetic network of modern roads that comprises contemporary Bangkok. For the second iteration of the triennial festival of video and performance art, Ghost 2565, “Live Without Dead Time,” navigating the fast-paced corridor that cuts through Bangkok’s Chinatown was essential to access the show’s two premier historic exhibition sites, each salvaged from the cutthroat development happening in surrounding areas.
As the name suggests, Ghost, initiated by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai and gallerist Akapol Op Sudasna in 2018, is concerned with specters. Works of moving image in the second edition Ghost 2565 (named for the year on the Thai Buddhist calendar) grappled with detecting traces left behind by those forced from their lives through the totalizing headlong force of progress. In her preface to “Live Without Dead Time,” curator Christina Li spoke of the resistance of “ideas, figures, and stories” rendered invisible by these processes. However, among the gathered works, visibility and its inverse—the often sly ability to phase in and out of reality and skulk in the shadows of representation—felt like misplaced stakes.
Instead, Ghost 2565 conjured specters that were indexical, that revealed violence, and took on the shape of lives pushed to the brink of death in order to struggle against their own undoing. Across the festival’s 18 films, video installations, and performances, the figure of the ghost did more than simply make tangible the imprint of subjects irretrievably caught in the interstices of marginalized histories and temporalities shoved out of synch—the “Dead Time” of the title. Rather, the most remarkable ghosts channeled in Bangkok were also mediums, possessed of agency, and empowered for defiance.
Rituals of summoning traditionally begin with an invitation, an entreaty to a spirit to cross from one side of the veil to another so that they might bear witness. Echoing such practices, in Rituals on Walking (2022) by Thai-born, Berlin-based Orawan Arunrak, the artist invited audiences on an audio walk through their neighborhood of Hua Lamphong, where Bangkok’s original train station sits at the heart and through streets in the wider orbit of Charoen Krung Road. Voices of the artist’s friends, family, and neighbors called into being a loosely structured path, with testimonies of the sensations, sights, and people that merged into the spirit of the neighborhood. The audience drifted through the streets, walked in loops, lingered on corners, just out of sync with the city’s pulse.
However, the spirit of Arunrak’s Hua Lamphong was a vision that only vaguely mapped onto streets, lapsing in and out of coherence with the body of the city as it stood. In one soi, the telling of a local shrine was haunted by the fresh-faced cafes that now flank it; in another, the perfume of ceremonial joss paper and traditional Chinese medicine noted in the audio were absent in favor of the clean concrete scent of high-concept dive bars. This observation is not to essentialize the neighborhood or condemn it to stagnation, or to deny the complexity of change. Rather, it is to say that Arunrak’s authorship repossessed the body of the space, insisting on animating it with the presence of people who have performed the daily rituals of life and survival in the streets of Hua Lamphong for years. In doing so, she wove a spell that pushed back against the aggressive narratives of gentrification, recasting the specters as those invited by art and leisure to haunt her streets.
It was a repossession of the kind attempted less successfully elsewhere in the festival—an exhibition that often felt eerily complicit with the tastes of the neoliberalism it gestured at critiquing. A few streets over from Hua Lamphong, Ghost 2565 ordained the newly conserved ancestral home of a third-generation Thai-Chinese family, Baan Trok Tua Ngork, as one of its chief venues. The building’s refurbishment, styled as an effort to “reconfigur[e] its history,” seemed to banish the lingering spirits of the city’s Chinatown rather than enshrine them. Concurrently with the exhibition, the venue played host to a series of “warm-up” events for Bangkok’s first outpost of Soho House and the global set that haunt such parties —a different kind of summoning indeed.
The revitalization of Baan Trok Tua Ngork stood in contrast to like-minded community initiatives such as the Charoen Chai Community Museum at Ban Kao Lao Rueng. Established in 2011, the museum is an attempt to convince the city to offer the communities around Charoen Krung protections against the threat of development posed by an expansion of the city’s mass-transit network. The repurposed shophouse serves as an archive for artifacts and photographs that chronicle the community’s vast and varied histories, railing against the disenfranchisement of non-homogenized futures rather than raising a glass to their departure.
Amid architectures of neoliberal capitalism, hauntings are commonplace. Ghost 2565 called to mind an exhibition presented at MoCA Taipei in 2019, “Stories We Tell To Scare Ourselves With,” in which curator Jason Wee and co-curator Anita Hsiang-Ning Huang invoked the spectral in an examination of the fears that shape boundaries within communities, between the self and the other, according to the logics of our basest instincts. Wee’s dark, ghostly figure of the “Wugui” (an 18th century term for both the indigenous inhabitants and Dutch-owned slaves trafficked through Formosa) took the form of foreigner, invader, and outcast in order to reflect back at us the processes by which we delineate the human. The specters found in Wee’s exhibition were not imbued with agency. For instance, in Signal (2015– ), Nipan Oranniwesna invited Thai migrant workers living in Taipei to run the long corridors of MoCA. In the resulting four-channel video installation, a ghostly pitter-patter of footfall lingered in the hallways, punctuated for fleeting seconds by bodies darting across screens hung sporadically throughout the exhibition. This sparse gesture at visibility incited poltergeists that might rattle the windows and draw attention to those cast into the margins of development, but are unable to resist much less launch a brick with any force.
At the Ghost 2565 venue Nova Contemporary, a spirit mobilized by Chantana Tiprachart set a symbol of Thailand’s royalty ablaze. Shot on a dimly illuminated country road at night, SOO-KWAN2022 (2022) evokes a ceremony enacted to summon a Kwan, a spirit of courage and vitality, and entreat it to return to a body traumatized by fear. Given voice by a warbling mor lam song, the work is a shrill cry against histories of provincialization and assimilation in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, as well as the anticommunist witch-hunts that have led to some of the country’s bloodiest instances of political struggle. As the music swells, Tiprachart’s Kwan rallies against the hegemony of homogenizing Bangkokian cultural regimes, relishing a fire as it devours whole the nine-tiered chatra (the royal nine-tiered umbrella) and its long, long shadow. As the structures burn, the glittering spirit twirls in the new light cast on the landscape of Isaan.
In Wee’s exhibition, Thai artist Jakkai Siributr had stitched infernos—burning cars and immolated women—into the lining of taqiyah, caps worn by Muslim men in the provinces of southern Thailand. By inviting audiences to don these hats alongside Thai military jackets embroidered with similar scenes, Changing Room (2016) creates a spectacle of empathy that directs attention toward the strife experienced by Muslim communities in disputed regions of Buddhist-majority Thailand. However, the work didn’t lend them the resolute agency that Tiprachart musters for the people and spirits of Isaan.
Back on Charoen Krung Road, the recently vacated World Travel Service building looks out on the city and its drive towards progress. The vista recalled another ghost story: the 1933 animated film A Day After a Hundred Years by Japanese artist Ogino Shigeji—most recently exhibited at the 2021 Asian Art Biennial, “Phantasmapolis,” in Taichung. Shigeji conjures the ghost of a man killed a century prior to tour the year 2032. This ghost curiously haunts the scenery and technology of a future Tokyo, until a ship that it boards, bound for the stars, breaks up in the atmosphere, unable to achieve liftoff with a spirit from the past in tow. With Bangkok’s own 250th anniversary to take place in the same year, it is easy to read the fear of such disaster into the flattening of histories and homogenizing impulses of development that Ghost 2565 seeks to critique.
In one of the derelict building’s most atmospheric installations, the titular skeletal figure of Özgür Kar’s animated video DEATH (2021) reclined across three flat screens tucked among discarded desks and filing cabinets, making a crypt of the travel agency’s abandoned offices—the first such agency in Thailand and a casualty of the pandemic. In a lazily mumbled diatribe, the figure of Death bemoans the state of things at the logical conclusion of innovation inspired by capitalist imperatives. Life these days, it considers, is just a bunch of content packed together. As if in response to Death itself, and its bored and boring augury, the artists of Ghost 2565 and the communities that surround them rallied spirits that resisted the totalizing march of progress and defied Dead Time.