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Conversation  |  Filmmaker and Artist, Thailand

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In Conversation with
Sherman Sam
London, 22 May 2014
Image: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Courtesy, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London and Kick the Machine Films. Photo by Chai Siri
Image: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Courtesy, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London and Kick the Machine Films. Photo by Chai Siri

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

is an artist and filmmaker born and based in Thailand. He first studied architecture at Khon Kaen University before completing an MA in film-making at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite exhibiting his film and videos internationally and participating in large exhibitions like the 55th Carnegie International (2008), the Singapore Biennale (2008), The Third Guangzhou Triennial (2013) and the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013), he is better known for his feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. His other feature film Blissfully Yours (2002) took the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category of the 2002 festival, while two years later Tropical Malady (2004) won a jury prize. In 2006, Syndromes and a Century (2006), which premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival, was the first Thai film to be in that competition.

As Thai names are notoriously long, he is known affectionately as Joe to his friends. Although he was inspired to become a filmmaker by Hollywood movies, while studying at the Art Instutite of Chicago his path to Hollywood was waylaid by the discovery of experimental cinema. Here he discusses this journey as well as his video work, in which Double Vision at Anthony Reynolds Gallery, includes his earliest work, Window (1999), and most recent, Dilbar (2013). Not just a creative individual, Weerasethakul also supports young artists and filmmakers though his production company, Kick the Machine Films. In 2008 he was made a Chevalier L’ordre des Arts et Letrres in France.

So is this your first show in a commercial gallery.

In London, yes,

And you have other galleries who show you?

Yes, I have been showing for quite a while. I have four other galleries, but this is the first one in this region.

Where are your other galleries?

Well, the first one was Japanese SCAI The Bathhouse in Tokyo. Then I have a Beijing space, XXX and Mexico City, Karimanzutto.

They’re a good gallery.

I love them. And I’ve just started with Future Perfect in Singapore.

That’s interesting, because I know of your work as a filmmaker rather than an artist who shows in a commercial gallery.

I think so for many people. It’s a different world.

But do you see yourself as a filmmaker? You went to art school after all…

Yes, I did study film. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they really focused on experimental film, that’s film as art, but at that time, 20 years ago, it was still not art so much as film, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, that sort of thing. But once I graduated all that was beginning to merge. Video began to be shown in galleries, but I still really focused on experimental film, then my friends started to put my work in the gallery in Thailand. I objected in the beginning, ‘this is not art”, because I thought of it differently.

Yes, I agree. I think your experience of it is different. When you are seeing this sort of video/installation art, you’re not passive. But when you watch film, you’re slightly more passive.

Yes, you’re a zombie basically.

It is pleasurable. When you have to work a lot, being a zombie is quite a nice thing. But you said you see them differently, how so?

Before I saw them differently, because I was really into that world, that of experimental cinema. Really sticking to the rules of theatre in cinema. I was also into narrative, but a different way of narrative, a deconstructed approach to cinema. I was fascinated by Wu Show Sian, Chai Ming Lee or Yee Ren Nian’s cinema. Somehow they are seemingly realistic, but at the same time they break certain rules of cinema, so I started to develop feature films like them. But there are also certain parts of me that are still sticking with that Stan Brakhage school. [laughs]

Nothing wrong with that.

So I was almost doing these two things, and it suited me perfectly, because in cinema, it takes 2-4 years for one thing. It’s like a big battle. Sometimes these shorter forms offer more freedom. It really creates a break or some kind of air that helps inspire the feature film.

The piece downstairs, Dilbar, is a new work. Is it just a stand alone piece for this show?

Actually it started in the Sharjah Biennial. It was developed for the space over there. I spent a lot of time going there, developing it and working with the workers, for the museum. In the end, I got this 10 minute piece on this glass that is supposed to reflect on the library where it is installed. In the old library, there are these beautiful old pillars, on the glass there are these reflections of the workers, and of the architecture. So it is quite a different effect there, and of course I cannot bring the library here, but that’s the idea. It’s an idea of visible and invisible.

That is a quality of some of your work. What we’d call ghosts or apparations in a few of your films.

Yes, illusion or the seemingly real but not.

Will this piece be developed into a film?

I don’t think so. It is reaction to the time I was there.

So it’s specific to Sharjah.

Yes. But at the same time, it’s the first piece I made outside of Thailand. So its very special for me!

That’s interesting. It has a nice sense of time, and very different from your other work. A lot of your other work has a slower sense of time unfolding. Although it's slow, it has a faster tempo.

hmmm… I didn’t think about that. But the idea of time, well.. its still slow for me. It’s like that guy is trapped in this mixture of nature and barren landscape of the contemporary architecture. The oblique of the contemporary architecture.. I’m not sure yet. [laughs].

But time is quite an interesting concept. As a painter myself I’m also interested in the concept of time. I notice in a lot of avant-garde film, time is quite crucial. Because we are so used to watching media that is so narrative and moves along so easily, when we see something that we have to confront as a much slower time it is quite difficult for us.

Yes, sometimes it is deliberate to evoke that sense. For me time in movies is exaggerated, especially to make you aware of yourself. I’m really influenced by Buddhism, so I really like it when you encounter certain works that are not really about the piece and its about you, then you start to realise the rhythm there is not in sync with what you normally encounter. Then you see your rhythm, and you realise that you’re a zombie in the theatre. In comparison to popular cinema, it is the opposite, they make you go into their rhythm and then you forget your body.

Do you not worry that for the audience that this is quite difficult?

Some audience. [laughs] Some of them.

I read in an interview that your mother wants you to make a comedy.

Yes, or some soap opera.. [laughs].

I think my mum wants me to make happy paintings.

Happy paintings.. at least its more abstract. What is a happy painting?

I have no idea, I think they’re happy. But I feel like sometimes our time is very fragmented and short  now, I think our capacity to sit in the cinema to watch a film for 2 hours to see something very still is quite difficult.

I’m not sure. For myself.. well maybe you’re right. For me cinema is really out now, I don’t really watch cinema or TV lately. Only when I go to festivals. I read more books. Because when I’m making a movie, I don’t think I’m making movies, then suddenly I realise there is going to be a movie. Then you have to go to a projection booth and a cutting room, but when I’m making it I don’t think that I’m part of this industry.

So what do you think you’re making?

I don’t know. Maybe the same as before when I was thinking of making a specific theatre or making films for certain groups or something, but I never think of it even as a career really. Because feature films never bring me money. Uncle Boonmee actually made money, I was “wow”! I never knew that was normally for a movie. There are two loves, visual arts and cinema. So far visual arts is the one that brings me some money, that lets me live. Many of my friends who have studied film have to do other things as well, some write, some teach. We each have our own thing.. but movies never makes money.

Painting doesn’t bring in cash as well.

So I happen to do this.

But you chose to go to film school? Because you studied architecture before?

Yes, I was really crazy about movies. I liked Steven Spielberg. I liked to make popular movies. Before I went to art school, I saw things on VHS, European movies, especially Fellini, and thought, wow, this is something new. I just wanted to make movies. I can say that I accidently went to the Art Institute of Chicago because it had the latest deadline. [laughs] I thought, OK learning how to make movies is the same everywhere, but in fact it was another kind of encounter. Because I then discovered experimental cinema and it changed again.

Yes, it changed your life.

It changed from Fellini to different..

Well, you’re still close to Fellini in some of the things you do?

I don’t think so. Somehow I cannot really differentiate Fellini or Warhol or Maya Derren.

But you’re closer to them than Spielberg or Lucas.

Not sure. I’m still follow them. Esepcially since I view Hollywood as the future. Because everything is invented there, all the time. Technological, etc.

Its techinoligcally advanced, but sometimes I think they lose the part that is importance. The storytellling, that bit which is human.

Oh no. I don’t look for that there, because when I go for, especially spectacular films, you know the special effects, they are much better than Matthew Barney or some things like that. Wow I go, that’s a pinnacle.

That makes sense. So if you had gone to UCLA?

Well, I would be really rich.. laughs.

But you wouldn’t be showing in Anthony Reynolds. .. well maybe in your next life. In this show you also have one of your earliest works.

A video from '98 and '99,

And Anthony was telling me that you’d shot it with video on a television screen.

Yes it’s a blank TV screen with a High 8 camera.  I was out of school in '97 and I was always worked with film, film, film, I never touched video. Back then it was the film department and video was separate, in fact they only merged about 10 years ago, so I didn’t know anything about video. It’s a different history, a totally different expereience. It was a new toy, I saw the reflection on TV and I discovered that when I moved a bit the relationship of the feedback would start to flicker. So actually the whole video is about the movement of the camera.

So the camera is connected to the TV. Ok, so it’s looped in? Its seeing itself?

Yes. So its really fascinating for me, because somehow I never thought that video could produce this effect like film.

I thought you were filming something that was blowing in the wind.

Ah.. yes, this kind of thing I think of as almost a performance. It’s live, and it’s effects depend on my movements. It was really enjoyable experience I didn’t want to stop. This kind of thing, I think its really, this first video, stuck with me up until now, in the way I use video as a medium. The last piece was the Primitive project, where I also worked with teenagers in the village where I live. I always use video like that, it’s something like a performance. Something very immediate, not like film. Film for me is something I reserve for features. I view it like an arrangement of memories. Something that already happened.

So film for you is something you have to plan. Something to remember, whereas video is live.

Yes, its immediate. Like this small pieces, the boyfriend, is really there! The funny thing is that this.. the flickering piece is my home town bedroom and the window. And my boyfriend is in another bedroom.. when I grew up and had a relationship. It’s this kind of thing, a bit like a diary.

It reminds me of Tarkovsky's Solaris. You know how when it cuts to the alien planet, there is a pulse. This piece has a pulsing rhythm as well.

Wow! Yes. So this show is really a personal in a way. But if I don’t tell you nobody knows. These kind of little details.

I think sometimes when you see video art it has a kind of detachment that is different from other forms. It looks as if they are impersonal.

Yes, for me. Well sorry it’s not.

Well you’re the maker. In relation to making a feature film, do you think that making a feature is less personal?

Oh.. It’s different. Because making a feature film, there’s certain restraints. It’s like talking your mind but you’re aware that there’s people in the room. Then there’s planning and there’s budgeting. But for this so called “art’ I don’t really think about it. I make many pieces and sometimes it’s in the rubbish or on a shelf. So when I’m making it, it’s always a personal dialogue. There’re no people in the room.

Ah, you’re thinking as an artist…

Oh really, it’s hard I never analyse myself.

I think that’s the way to be an artist. You would slow yourself down otherwise…that should be enough, enough work for you..

No, no I’m really happy today, it’s a special day.

It’s a really nice show.

Thanks! Its really special, because I don’t have a gallery in Thailand.

Its hard to find a space that wants to show video. Its always really to sell from the point of view of the gallerist.

I think its same in most countries.

So that why I’m really happy to have this show here!

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