Arin Rungjang

By Gridthiya Gaweewong

Golden Teardrop (2013, detail, site-specific sculptural installation with wooden construction incorporating wood from Ayutthaya house, iron beams from decommissioned post-World War II factory and 6,000 cast brass pieces, wooden construction: 5 x 5 m; brass sphere: 3 m diameter. Photo Kornkrit Jianpinidnan. All images: Courtesy Arin Rungjang and the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Thailand. 

Thailand’s Office of Contemporary Art, Ministry of Culture, has selected two artists to represent Thailand in the national pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch and Arin Rungjang. Along with Penwadee Manont and Worathep Akkabootara, the young curators of the Thai Pavilion, they are focusing on the theme of food to promote Thailand’s soft power as a kitchen to the world.
In his project, Arin Rungjang smartly interweaves the edible history of sugar, a commodity that changed the world. As the politics of taste raised its status, sugar became even more significant when the first sugar mills to produce and distribute sugar to the European courts were introduced in Venice. This prompted the first migration of laborers, along with natural resources from the new world, to feed old world luxury lifestyles.
Arin draws an invisible connection with this natural material to people in Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and even the Asia-Pacific. His approach is unusual among Thai contemporary artists, who tend to be mostly focused on working with local materials and Buddhist motifs. Capable of working at transnational level, Arin is on a par with peers like Pratchaya Phinthong, and his seniors Rirkrit Tiravanija, Montien Boonma and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His new piece also offers a glimpse of how, by making reference to history, memory and small narratives, this generation of artists is able to transcend the boundaries of nation/state and cultural identity while deconstructing the mono-cultural attitude of Thai-ness invented by the state in the postwar period.
Arin is concerned with history and memory in relation to existing realities because he is aware that many parts of history have yet to be connected, associated, or even recorded. In Golden Teardrop, Arin’s works are based on an amalgamation of grand narratives and small narratives, rethinking history by using sugar and a famous Thai sweet, golden teardrop, as a point of departure. Thais assume that golden teardrop is a traditional desert introduced during the Ayutthaya period (17th century). In fact, this famous dessert was introduced to the Thai court by Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese, Portuguese and Bengali decent, and wife of Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek court counselor to King Narai (1633-88), of the Ayutthaya dynasty, who embraced early attempts at globalization in the name of colonization. For the Venice Biennale’s Thai Pavilion, Arin re-fabricates this story, narrating it through different media to give viewers a better understanding of the role of Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, and how it was affected and influenced by colonization.*

On behalf of ART iT, Gridthiya Gaweewong met with Arin prior to the Biennale to discuss this project.


Golden Teardrop (2013), installation view.

GG: How are your preparations coming with your project for the Thai Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale? What kind of issues are you working with and how will you present them?

AR: I am working on a video project called Golden Teardrop, which will be presented along with a sculptural installation. The sculpture is a big piece measuring about five-by-five meters , with almost 8,000 brass golden teardrops. The teardrops will be threaded with copper wire so that the shape of the sculpture resembles a chandelier. The structure consists of beams from a 200-year-old wooden house from Ayutthaya. The iron structure came from an old factory, built after World War II with cement and iron beams for the roof.

GG: Is the use of these recycled or found materials intended to create a dialogue with the site of production and the history of the golden teardrop?

AR: Yes, there’s a discourse and dialectic between the materials. The brass chandelier is three meters in diameter. Standing up, you would reach only the midway point of the work, and people can walk around it.

GG: What else will people see?

AR: When visitors enter the pavilion, they will pass the reception counter and find Wasinburee’s work in one room. My sculpture will be in the back of the other room. Visitors will see the “golden teardrop” chandelier made from brass, and then there will be a panel and door, with the video on the left side.
In its first part, the video introduces the personal memories of a Japanese woman, Hisako, the wife of a friend, who ended up in Thailand and opened a bakery shop here. She is originally from Hiroshima, and studied in the US. Her grandfather has rheumatism from walking across Hiroshima searching for his sister immediately after the atomic bombing, and her grandmother was scarred by the blast. Her great-grandfather was a tea ceremony master and her great-grandmother was an ikebana master.
The second, main part of the video starts with Henry the Navigator, the 15th-century prince and explorer who introduced sugar cane to Portugal, where nuns at the convent of Jesus in Aveiro used it to make the confection ovos moles. This confection is what became golden teardrop when it was brought to Thailand in the 17th century.
While Hisako has no relationship to the history we are talking about, fragments of history start to emerge, connecting with each other. I don’t try to associate them, but simply want to put them on the table. When visitors see the works, they will make their own associations between themselves and the work. When I’m asked about the message I want to convey through my sculpture, I say the piece is open ended. It’s a fragment, but the audience will use their own judgment, finding pieces of fragments to associate with their own experiences.
Another small part is photography, which is part of the video work, showing, for example, scenes of the workers making the golden teardrop shapes for my sculpture. The photos were installed on a wall, and then we zoomed in on them.

GG: You also include a photograph of a Portuguese village in Ayutthaya, from the 15th century, right?

AR: This was actually during the reign of King Phetracha (1688-1703), who followed King Narai. The Siamese wiped out the Portuguese and French on the suspicion that they were plotting to help Constantine Phaulkon seize the kingdom of Ayutthaya. The other image is a letter by Phaulkon’s wife, Maria Guyomar de Pinha, to King Louis XV, demanding that he repay his debts. There’s also an image of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Golden Teardrop (2013), video installation, HD color, 16:9 format,  27 min 24 sec, installation view, installation view.

GG: What happened between Ayutthaya and the French?

AR: In the nationalist revolution of 1688, through which he assumed power, Phetracha expelled all the French in Ayutthaya, leading to a break in diplomatic relations with France. Phaulkon was beheaded and his wife Maria condemned to slavery in Phetracha’s kitchens until the king’s death in 1703. Nevertheless, Maria, together with her daughter-in-law Louisa Passagna, continued to sue the French East India Company to recoup the money lent by her husband Phaulkon. She was vindicated in 1717 through a decree from the Council of State in France, which provided her with a maintenance allowance. Previously, Maria had also helped to draft the letter from King Naria to Louis XIV that the ambassador Phraya Kosa Pan carried with him to France in 1686.
The video also touches upon Marco Polo and Venice, because there was evidence that the Venetians took inspiration from the Persian innovation of making sugar to start sugarcane mills in Venice, and it was this technology that Henry the Navigator brought to Portugal. I also mention King Afonso of Portugal. He’s the uncle of Princess Joana, who later became Santa Joana Princesa and established the Convent of Jesus Aveiro, where they made habits. One of the processes was to use egg whites to starch the habits. Then, with the left over egg yolks, they made desserts.

GG: When was this?

AR: In 1502. King Manuel of Portugal supplied 140 kilos of sugar per year to the convent. These images will be part of the installation, I also have an image of the uncle of Prince Henry the Navigator, as he is known in Thai history. I also focus on Phaulkon, the Greek merchant and adventurer who was born in Venetian-ruled territory.

GG: You say that you try not to establish associations between fragments or narratives, but it seems that you are creating a link between Venice and Thailand based on different characters and players from history and the present, with sugar as the foundation of that link.

AR: When I was doing my residency in New York, I also worked with this theme, but focused on slavery and the history of Ayutthaya and Puerto Rico. I made a video dealing with golden teardrops, bomba dance and sugar. Puerto Rico is where many sugar factories were founded, and many slaves worked there. By then, sugar was getting cheaper and sweets were being marketed around the world and were becoming a trend. The slaves came from all across Africa and couldn’t really communicate, all they could do was dance. That is how the bomba dance started.

GG: This kind of connection is almost unthinkable. People don’t see how they relate to each other, yet it’s part of the rise of colonization. It was the age of discovery, and while many Thais think that we were not part of this colonization, we were involved from the beginning. We were never isolated from this trajectory. Everything is connected.

AR: Yes, I’m aware of this, and I do not try to rewrite the history. I’m not a historian. It’s not about using fragments of history to create new narratives for negotiating with power, but about working with personal memories. It’s the personal memories of Joana, Manuel, Maria Guyomar de Pinha, Phaulkon, I just put all of them together.

GG: As someone interested in small narratives, I find this point striking. The approach you take is subservient to the grand narratives – the official versions of the stories – but you mix in small narratives of normal people, like the Japanese woman who came to Bangkok, and workers in the factory. It’s almost like tracing history, exploring time and space by using sugar – sweet as golden teardrops – and memory as the main players.

AR: But there were some characters I didn’t initially intend to address, like the 17th-century Christian converts in Japan. They were accidentally related to Guyomar’s grandmother, who was stuffed in a sack and exiled to Vietnam for her beliefs during the persecution of Christians in Japan. The 26 missionaries and converts who were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki are known as the Martyrs of Japan.

Still from the video Golden Teardrop (2013).

GG: You are working in Thailand, and don’t have so many chances to interact with Western audiences. While I was in the US, they always got mixed up between Thailand and Taiwan, so artists like Montien and Rirkrit started to work on cultural identity issues. Now that people know more about us, it’s time to do something more complicated. What you present here is visual, telling stories that create sensory experiences, rather than telling history like a historian.

AR: I am not trying to educate people, but as an artist, I use visual art and space to approach viewers in the form of sculpture, installation or video works. At the press conference, I explained that I am not a conceptual artist. Our country doesn’t have the knowledge to create that kind of anti-thesis.

GG: So the dialectical tradition doesn’t exist here?

AR: Art doesn’t require dialogue or dialectic, because we do not have that tradition. In fact, we have about 10 style sets. If you want to work conceptually, you need to swing back to that area on the other side again.

GG: So you want to get away from the tradition of conceptual practice? Actually, you are a post conceptual artist because now “you can do anything you want.” Are you concerned about what you will achieve over there, that it will not work because you don’t know whether the audience will understand it or because you think that you are not going to tell the stories? But there is a narrative there.

AR: I think it’s because when I did my presentation in New York, they told me that I was trying to become a global artist, not a Thai artist.
The work is very open. Viewers can use the structure as a frame. If the Portuguese see the work they will be able to relate to it, if the Greeks come they will find points to relate to, and so will the Japanese. However, this is not dedicated only to the Greeks, the Portuguese, the Japanese or the Thai people. The audience will make their own judgments.

GG: Is the project also about the nation-state or race? I look at nationalism in terms of ethnographic or different audiences. You’ve tried to deconstruct yourself and your identity, and the idea that Thai artists have to only work for the Thai people. I like the way you try to justify Thailand after colonial times. You say that no matter the nationality, viewers will understand. Some themes are universal, like food, which is very basic, but in terms of its history, some people might not realize those relationships, and what they take from it may be fragmented and difficult to understand.

AR: This project will show another image of the power of the institutions that establish a history or nation-state. It’s a different type of image from the one we normally see; we don’t think of it, but we should be thinking of it more. Today we are increasingly faced with uncertainty about the state of our existence, as more and more different facts are revealed.

Still from the video Golden Teardrop (2013).

GG: For how long have you been researching and developing Golden Teardrop, and how did you go about it?

AR: I think the research is an ongoing process. It started when I was standing on a balcony of the Dusit Thani Hotel building in Bangkok. This is about being in the same place as my mother and looking back at changing history. The initial idea came from an attack on my father that happened in 1977, when I was three. The attack happened in Germany and was due to a misunderstanding. I tried to interrogate ideology, history and ideas. I read and searched through history to look for answers to the cause of the attack on my father, but couldn’t find the answer; there was no cause.
My father, who died not long after he returned to Thailand, told my mother that the Germans thought he was Filipino and that they hated the Filipinos, because during World War II, the Philippines had been used as a base of operations for the Americans.

GG: Did this incident make you feel uncomfortable or have problems with nationalism and racism?

AR: It made me think that something must be wrong with the idea of mass ideology, nation and government. It’s part of why I feel no pride in being a Thai artist who is used as a tool by the nation-state.

GG: But you are in the Thai Pavilion!

AR: Yes, but I do not represent Thainess; it’s more about the international context. I would say I represent the issue of not having power to control the individual, power to speak of the grand narrative. This has not come into being from only one person or one place.

GG: Are they going to see that? You are negotiating with institutions, telling them what are you doing, but what you are saying makes it subversive.

AR: They asked me how they would know if the information was accurate. I told them that I am not talking about the accuracy of the information, but am simply saying that we have more than 20 theories about how Constantine Phaulkon died. Greek history has yet another Phaulkon story. He is very important in Greek history and famous in a romantic way – the cabin boy who became the Minister of Home Affairs.

GG: The reason he is well known is because he came to work in Thailand right?

AR: Yes! And they really hate us in Greece. They hated Siam because we killed their people without reason.

GG: You’ve made three pieces in the last several years. What about your work for the Biennale of Sydney 2012 ?

AR: For Sydney, I visited Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, then Australia.

GG: So there is a post-colonial undertone?

AR: Deep down, I’m not working with issues of post-colonialism. I think of the history during colonial times, which is very explicit, and find my work seems to be going too much in the same direction.

GG: You are more like a third person who looks at the story rather than directly facing the situation.

AR: You asked me what my concern is? Well, I am concerned when some people say: “You are a Thai artist, why do you do this?”

Golden Teardrop (2013), installation view.

GG: That’s because they look at you in the traditional way. Your approach is to relate things to others. It’s like sharing your historical experiences with the world, which I think is much more sophisticated.

AR: I try to get rid of the hatred, because when I was young, I was full of hate. This hatred has disappeared and what I have found now is only humanity and unknown causes. Everything is mixed together.
There is one scene in the video where the person making golden teardrop shapes turns to me and speaks in the Isaan dialect about Manchester United. There is undirected conversation; there is this drive and there is the reason why we get out of bed.
As I mentioned, the story is of a Japanese lady making golden teardrops interwoven with the story of Marco Polo. It is visually beautiful; the production team was very good. Both stories will be overlaid like memories.

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Arin Rungjang: Golden Teardrop

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