Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Art review: Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting

If Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting were a mechanical drawing, the current art exhibition of his short film would be the "exploded view", as it's broken up, magnified and detailed on more than a dozen screens across four galleries at the Silpakorn University Art Center in Bangkok.

It's also a refreshing approach to interpreting classical literature, as Behind the Painting is yet another one of those Thai stories that has over the decades been repeatedly adapted for film, television and stage.

Written by Sri Burapha, Behind the Painting is very much a product of 1930s Thailand, following the country's adoption of the constitutional monarchy, which gave rise to the different-thinking educated middle class of today. The romantic tragedy, set in Japan, centers on a young Thai man studying there. The student Nopporn is contacted by a family acquaintance, an elderly Japanese gentleman who is coming home with his new wife Kirati, a younger Thai woman of noble birth. He wants Nopporn to squire Kirati around and help her adjust to life in Japan. Naturally, unrequited romance develops between the two young people.

Chulayarnnon is one of those Thai filmmakers whose work is primarily seen in art galleries. His contemporaries in this area include Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who still does art installations even as he has found broader fame for his feature films at the Cannes Film Festival, and Jakrawal Nilthamrong, who broke into features this year with Vanishing Point, now touring the festival circuit.

Chulayarnnon is still sticking with art galleries, though his inventive shorts have been a highlight of the recent editions of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival. He was chosen this year to produce the festival's annual new title sequence, a brief "bumper" that is shown before each program. He actually did two title sequences for this year's fest. One involves soldier statues "guarding" a military base, a blank movie screen in an empty auditorium and villagers praying to shrine. It includes an egg, one of the icons of the Thai Short fest. He also did a stop-motion animation, with insect-like birthday candles and a spiky egg.

He employs multiple experimental-film techniques in his multi-layered works, so the art gallery is really the best place to see Chulayarnnon at his freest range of expression.

Behind the Painting is the result of his participation in the artist-in-residence program last year at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center in Japan. It was previously exhibited there as part of the Aomori's Media/Art Kitchen program curated by Hiroyuki Hattori. In Bangkok, the exhibition is supported by the Japan Foundation, so be sure to complete the survey and reassure them that their efforts are most welcome.

Set in a colonial-style building on Silpakorn University's historic campus, right across the street from the Grand Palace in the old part of Bangkok, Behind the Painting gets progressively more interesting the deeper into it you go.

And it's actually pretty interesting right out of the gate, with the first room devoted to "Forget Me Not", a mixed-media work that comprises a 1:23-minute one-channel video loop of a key scene from Chulayarnnon's film, when Kirati hands Nopporn a "forget me not" flower. Text from a crucial hand-written note that says "forget me not" is rendered in neon and lights up the room, which came pre-installed with a checkerboard tile floor that seems like it has always been part of the exhibit.

The bulk of the short film is in the next room, a darkened gallery with 12 small lightbox/video screens suspended from the ceiling. On the back of each box is a watercolor painting of a still from a key scene, while the front of the box has the video. Each scene, about 2 to 4 minutes or so, runs on a loop.

You walk into the room looking at what I think is the back of the lightboxes – the side with the paintings. I found the best approach to appreciating the piece is to walk around the room clockwise as you enter, and watch each video starting with "The Letter from Siam", in which Nopporn is informed of the impending arrival of the Japanese man and his wife. The tale of Behind the Painting is further spelled out down the line, from "The First Trip" to the reflective epilogue, "Behind the Painting".

Others are "The Last Moment", "Nopporn's Letter", "Nopporn's Dream", "Kirati's Letter", "The Death of Chaokhun", "The Return of Nopporn", "Bad News", "Nopporn's Wedding" and "The Death of Kirati". The titles all read as if they are lifted from sequels to a goofy B-movie franchise. Which makes them great.

In addition to the suspended video screen/lightboxes are those janky little earphones that all galleries use for exhibitions like this. There are English subtitles, but if you listen in, you'll hear dialogue that's lifted from an actual Thai movie of Behind the Painting. It's the one from 2001 that was the last film of revered auteur Cherd Songsri – a director who had an inimitable knack for being faithful to the text of the old stories while still making his films relevant to modern audiences.

Chulayarnnon has employed a similar technique before. For one of his very early works, Golden Sand House, he used the audio from the 1980 Jarunee Saksawat classic Baan Sai Tong over his own version of the often-adapted tale of blue bloods feeling threatened by commoners, filming it in his own home with members of his family, including his very aged and infirm grandparents. Helpfully to me, Golden Sand House was part of a Filmvirus retrospective put on in Bangkok last year, during which Chulayarnnon offered a sneak preview of the partly finished Behind the Painting.

Another of Chulayarnnon's trademarks is that he often appears in his films, and he's an immediately relatable, friendly everyman character. In Behind the Painting, he plays both the Thai student Nopporn and, to hilariously entertaining effect, the refined noblewoman Kirati.

With the help of photo doubles and filmmaking magic that is convincing in various degrees, he puts Nopporn and Kirati in the same scene. He also uses that schoolboy trick of wrapping his arms around his shoulders so from the back it looks like he's making out with someone. Still, it's pretty slick.

About halfway through the lightbox display, I got over Chulayarnnon's drag act and despite his 5 o'clock shadow, I began see him as Kirati, not as a dude playing Kirati. And I suppose that's a commentary on the increasingly fluid nature of society's perceptions of gender and sexuality – notions that are being challenged right now in mainstream culture with TV shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black winning Emmys, and the debate over same-sex marriage licenses in Kentucky.

As far as acting goes, Chulayarnnon is particularly good in the scene titled "Bad News", in which Nopporn, seeming very cheerful and pleased with himself, announces to Kirati that he's getting married. Kirati's face just drops right to the floor, even though in Chulayarnnon's mind her crestfallen expression was probably much more subtle.

Another fun scene is "Nopporn's Wedding", in which the tuxedo-clad Nopporn and his lovely Thai bride in her white wedding gown cavort in the landmark places where Thai brides and grooms tend to have their photos taken, like Sanam Luang, the public park that's a stone's throw from the art gallery and the Grand Palace. They also twirl about at the Democracy Monument, a symbolic spot I'm not so sure is very popular with couples or anybody these days.

Further concessions to contemporary comfort are found in the scenes from modern Tokyo, including Nopporn meeting Chaokhun and his bride outside the Japan Railways station.

After I did a round or two of the room with the lightboxes, I ventured deeper into the museum and was happily surprised to find there's more. Among the other works prepared for the exhibition is a table with an unfinished jigsaw puzzle on it. It's from "Nopporn's Dream". Titled "Incomplete Dream", it's 1,000 puzzle pieces, arranged just so the couple's faces are not yet filled in. If you visit, especially you obsessive-compulsive types, please don't feel compelled to complete the puzzle.

And finally, there's the piece "Mitake", in which you can actually go behind the painting of the painting from Behind the Painting. One one side of the 8-foot-wide lightbox is the titular watercolor work that the classically trained artist Kirati made of her and Nopporn sitting by a pool in a Technicolor forest. The other side has the video, containing scenes of Kirati's art education and her isolated, noble upbringing.

Helpfully, there's a little nook behind the painting, with stools arranged to sit on to view the video. It's also a good spot to take a break and soak it all in, which I needed after spending I guess close to an hour viewing the pieces. Meanwhile, a smattering of other visitors, including a small group, breezed in and out in what seemed like five minutes. Give it more time than that.

After seeing the incomplete version of Behind the Painting last year, I told Chulayarnnon that I did't feel the need to see any other version of that story. Of course at the time, I had no idea what he was planning, so now it's the art-gallery edition that must be seen and experienced, and for me it is the definitive version of Behind the Painting.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting opened on September 10 at the Art Center of Silpakorn University Wang Thapra. It is on show until October 13, 2015. Directions to the gallery are available online.

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