Ghost 2565: Conjuring Spirits in Bangkok
Lap-See Lam, Phantom Banquet (2019–2020). Exhibition view: Performa 19, New York (1–24 November 2019). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm/Berlin/Mexico City. Photo: Marguerite.
Returning for a second edition, Bangkok's video and performance triennial, Ghost 2565: Live Without Dead Time (12 October–13 November 2022) takes its title from the Buddhist calendar once more. But the reference may be less a tribute to the state-sponsored belief of its host country, Thailand, than an allusion to the non-Western and non-Christian temporalities populating time-based media.
Warping time, the conjuring of ghosts brings forth the irrevocably absent. In many works shown, mythological thinking and ritual revival thus serve as loci of war in our lineal march towards a future trashed by historical injustice and other futures of queer time-space.
At Nova Contemporary, near Erawan Shrine, Thai filmmaker Chantana Tiprachart's newly commissioned film installation SOO-KWAN2022 (2022) dives into the eclipsed landscape of Isaan, Northeast Thailand. Tiprachart's film is a cinematic metaphor for oblivion and non-recognition. Beginning with an empty scene where two gunshots disrupt the ambient sound of tides, the work stages a ritual to call back lost souls, known as kwan, in the geopolitically peripheralised region.
A Mor lam song conjures that which shimmers: the dancing body of a spirit, a shaman, or a muse resurging from the night of history. It sings a traditional livelihood that rhymes with seasonal changes in an animist world syncretised with Buddhist times, and the following history of acculturation and quenching of the communist rebellion in rural Isaan. The film's high tide occurs when a fire is set to burn down a royal façade and ceremonial architecture.
Works like SOO-KWAN2022 press a question: are ghosts real socio-historical agents that can mobilise the politics of a more-than-human world? Or are they merely synecdochic of a hauntology that defines the lives of those caught in a seizure of time?
Whether Ghost 2565 intends to pursue the question is ambivalent. Yet if we are to escape the limbo of late capitalism, pushing the discarnate beyond make-believe to resurrect subjugated knowledge may be required. Natasha Tontey's works are especially refreshing in this regard. Tontey's three moving-image installations centre around her long-term learning of Minahasa's cosmological philosophy in North Sulawesi, Indonesia.
In The Epoch of Mapalucene and Wa'anak Witu Watu (both 2021), the artist explores non-anthropocentric worlds through the stone-revering tradition from the region. Collaging original animation and ethnographic clips with found footage, both videos navigate the kaleidoscopic media events of contemporary Minahasa and their influences on human-stone relations.
As the videos reveal, while stones are symbolically and spiritually significant in the native society, as the womb of the first persons, and the fossil of a communal pact, they are increasingly reduced to market and trading value. Contrasting these works of hypermediality, the narrative-based film Garden Amidst the Flame (2022) takes audiences through a rite of passage whereby a teenage girl, Virsay, receives spiritual potency from Minahasan ancestors in a dream realm.
Made in collaboration with schoolgirls from Wulan Lengkoan, a kabasaran ritual dance troupe from Sonder, North Sulawesi, the film is saturated with native symbols, songs, and movements of sensorial freshness. It presents a mythological realm of eternal spiritual rebirth, unburdened from colonial legacies prolonged by lineal, hetero-capitalist temporality.
For the artist, fabulating the filmic utopia is both a way to negotiate with the gendered politics in Minahasan ritual traditions, and a practice of communicating with ancestral presences about personal growth. More broadly, Tontey's practice is situated within the history of Indigenous cultural movements in Minhasa, which strive to disinherit the colonial conversion of North Sulawesi into Christianity.
This refusal of anti-futurism is not only found in Tontey's work. In the same heritage building of Baan Trok Tua Ngork, Tulapop Saenjaroen's film Mangosteen (2022) probes the possible flee from a futureless present through the fissures of narratology.
Formerly, Ghost may have represented the rise of the supernatural that fuelled a new affective economy in contemporary art...
Returning to his family's fruit-processing factory in Rayong, the protagonist, Earth, finds himself in a liminal time-space where workers, machinery, and mangosteen are stranded between the past and future. His sudden disappearance pushes his sister, a defender of inherited values, out of a life confined to industrial production.
Contrasting Saenjaroen's hazy Digital8 visuals, Diane Severin Nguyen's IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS (2021) alights with the blaring colour of revolution and K-pop attires reminiscent of combat uniforms. The narrative follows Weronika, a Vietnamese child who grows up in Poland, struggling with identity politics and the authenticity of self-representation.
Weronika joins a K-pop dance crew, leading to a music video that may as well be a manoeuvre for future revolutions. These associations between a revolutionist past and current-day youth culture point to aesthetics as a point of political eruption.
Working with the sci-fi genre, Meriem Bennani's Life on the CAPS (2022) speculates on the rejuvenation of the liberatory spirit. Set between ruination and technological dystopia, the story portrays the brewing of a cross-generational resistance movement in CAPS, a detention camp for illegal immigrants intercepted midway from Africa to the U.S.
World Travel Service, where Nguyen's and Bennani's works are shown, is perhaps the only venue where Bangkok's past spectres have not been expelled by the fumes of refurbished exhibition rooms. This headquarter of Thailand's first travel agency established in 1947 was abandoned during the pandemic, leaving its furnished offices intact.
Özgür Kar's video installations, DEATH and SNAKE CHARMER (both 2021), perfectly blend in. Empty chairs, long tables, business printers, phone cables, and daylight filtered through the amber glass windows, join Kar's choir of the macabre. Accompanied by a clarinet player in a separate trio of screens, a cartoon skeleton trapped in triptych screens preaches about death as the inevitability of life, and perhaps, its superfluity in the post-Covid-19 media landscape.
While it's inevitable to imagine ghost audiences in World Travel Service, one may find some exhibition spaces, or even oneself, as the prosthesis of ghosts. In this sense, the triennial's endeavour to expand the reach of contemporary moving-image is laudable.
At the FAAMAI dome, Chulalongkorn University's Digital Arts Hub said to soon be demolished, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen's Heaven (2021) is projected 360 degrees inside the architecture for one evening. The work evolves from a scientific paper that proposes the speciation of octopus from squid, stimulated by extra-terrestrial viruses.1
Its visual montage roams a landscape across the pulsating sky and the primordial sea of life, drawing the cosmic and microbial closer on an evolutionary timescale. Accompanying the film is Pan Daijing's composition, which blends indistinguishable chanting, literary quotes, and conversations with scientists into a sirens' orchestra. The octopus in absentia is made present in the bodies of its possessed audiences.
Formerly, Ghost may have represented the rise of the supernatural that fuelled a new affective economy in contemporary art, but how this turn will impact broader cultural politics in a time of crises remains indeterminate. For its present edition, the cultivated atmosphere of the ghost banquet, with its hospital and euphoric spirits much needed in the post-pandemic scene, can be easily disrupted.
On the streets of Bangkok, where fuel-burning vehicles excrete burning air, and the Chao Phraya River overflows, shrines of the deities from the local pantheon lie low. —[O]
1 Steele, E. J., S. Al-Mufti, K. A. Augustyn, R. Chandrajith, J. P. Coghlan, S. Coulson, S. Ghosh et al. 'Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic?', Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 136 (2018): 3-23.