"Untitled 2008-11 (the map of the land of feeling)—III)" by Rirkirt Tiravanija.

January 31, 2016

Sprawling Memory: Thai Modern Art at the Johnson

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The fire is gone but we have the light submerges the viewer in the density of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Korakrit Arunanondchai’s works. Andrea Inselmann curated the exhibition, which is displayed in the Johnson Museum’s Bartels Gallery and presents the viewer with a few works, each staggering in its detail and uniqueness. The featured artists are separated by 25 years of age, but linked by collaboration — Arunanondchai worked on Tiravanija’s “Untitled 2008-11 (the map of the land of feeling)” — and their affinity for intricate works that fill the gallery with information.

Both artists pour information at the viewer without worrying if she or he will comprehend everything. Rather, the plethora of images in the work matches the intensity and richness of the international world. Tiravanija and Arunanondchai are both Thai artists who have traveled widely, and their works reflect their conceptions of both Thai culture and the international world.

Tiravanija displays the clutter of information that built up over a period of his travel. The three scrolls of “Untitled 2008-11 (the map of the land of feeling)” span three of the Bartels Gallery’s walls and are the product of three years that Tiravanija spent working with over 40 collaborators at Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.

“Untitled 2008-11” is a carefully constructed jumble. Maps of São Paulo, Shanghai and other cities blend into each other. Sometimes the maps are crisp and complete, sometimes blurred and partial. The first of the work’s three scrolls includes a number of Tiravanija’s journal entries. His notes range from mundane observations — “Canada was bitterly cold” — to dispassionate reminders — “I.C.A. London, Gavin’s (Brown), first curated exhibit after the summer in Venice.” A row of washed-out, pink photocopies of Tiravanija’s passport pages cuts a long line through the middle of the scrolls. Upon first look, it is tempting to see the work as a collection of two decades’ worth of travel paraphernalia.

Tiravanija breaks this temptation with the punctuation of cryptic diagrams and stamped symbols. A flurry of arrows, a series of increasingly rigid geometric designs and crisscrossing straight blue lines reminiscent of Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing 51” are superimposed on a background of maps and journal pages across three scrolls.

“Untitled 2008-11” is an addictive work. The simple details — a carefully itemized recipe or a bureaucratic label (Shipyard, “of Shanghai”) — draw in viewers. I wanted to stay for hours, to read all of the notes and learn Tiravanija’s fragmented memories. Yet much of the work’s meaning is hidden or obscured by the artist’s at-times indecipherable handwriting, unlabeled diagrams and blurred maps.

Tiravanija’s previous works often repurposed the gallery space to foster interaction; he has converted multiple galleries into temporary eating spaces, serving green curry, tom kha gai and pad thai. Tiravanija’s interest in cooking is expressed in “Untitled 2008-11” in the form of recipes and stamps of Thai cookware. The work as a whole, however, turns to remembered, not present, experiences.

Whereas Tiravanija teases the viewer with the promise of entry into his life, Arunanondchai throws the door wide open and broadcasts his fantastical inner monologue. Immediately inside the gallery’s entrance, a bleached denim canvas bearing the gallery’s title sits on the floor. Two denim pillows lie atop the canvas, providing a seating area to view “Painting with history in a room with people with funny names 3.” Further into the gallery, a similar canvas presents a charred log and a sculpture of burnt twigs in place of the Samsung flat screen television playing “Painting with history 3.”

“Please take off your shoes and make yourself comfortable on the pillow,” a wall plaque commands. Once you are nestled into one of the pillows, Arunanondchai instantly sends you rocketing over Thailand’s greenery and cityscapes through drone footage. “Painting with history 3” is an exposition of the raw, resonant power of the cultural and natural realms. Arunanondchai’s Thailand is a nation where technology and pop culture take on powerful spiritual connotations. The artist focuses the film’s narration and images on the way that drone technology affects our ways of seeing. Arunanondchai features a shot of a monkey reaching out to knock down a drone with a stick, but also one of his posse, wearing variations of his signature all-denim outfit, shooting a rap video.

Arunanondchai has been criticized in the past for his unfocused, over-the-top direction and platitudinous narration. The narration of “Painting with history 3” occasionally falls into cliché — “There is no such thing as purity” — but other moments creatively describe technology’s proliferation —“H.D. helps us come closer to the spiritual beings we long to meet.”

At moments, “Untitled 2008-11” and “Painting with history 3” both risk chronicling mundane occurrences. In the end, however, The fire is gone but we have the light imbues the viewer with lasting, peculiar images: Arunanondchai prostrated with a drone hovering a few feet above his chest, cartoon minions edited into a temple’s ornate mural. In the last few feet of “Untitled 2008-11,” blue lines form little, explosive asterisks as Tiravanija’s last journal entry concludes that a group of friends “mistakenly believes that time moved forward in an orderly fashion.” The fire is gone but we have the light is on display until May 29.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].