– Actually, it is supposed to be warmer, says Apichaya Wanthiang about the large lump of clay we sit on, a mass that appears to tumble out from the wall, reminiscent of a large tree trunk. The rough surface adds to the illusion. – It takes longer to warm up because the clay isn’t dry yet, she adds. Having sat there for fifteen minutes I already feel a strong urge to get up and cool my behind.
Wanthiang’s Evil Spirits Always Travel in Straight Lines is the ninth instalment in the (thus far) remarkably segment-specific exhibition series curated by the director of UKS, Rhea Dall, a series launched with a show by Eirik Sæther in May last year, and which has since been entirely devoted to women artists born in the 1980s or 1990s. Originally from Thailand, Wanthiang’s family moved to Belgium when she was nine. She graduated from the art academy in Bergen in 2012 and has spent the last three years using Oslo as her base.
At the time of my visit, two days before the official opening, work on the exhibition is almost finished. I am prompted to take off my coat and shoes before entering a narrow passageway draped in green netting, a space reminiscent of a mine passage, lit by naked lightbulbs. It takes me from the entrance into a nocturnal scenography of impromptu structures made out of posts and beams, more green netting, videos of buzzing flies and Buddhist rituals for the dead. And, of course, the aforementioned clay sofas, or ‘landscape-bodies’, as Wanthiang calls them.
Wanthiang is busy these days. Later this November, she will take part in the annual conference of the Arts Council Norway (with art, culture and climate as this year’s theme), and Evil Spirits is her third solo show in 2018. It follows hot on the heels of Driftwood and Ghost Hunters at LNM – The Association of Norwegian Painters, Oslo – which closed this September. Here she presented paintings based on photographs from regions hit by floods. Her exhibition at UKS might be best described as an atmospheric total installation.
Do you see any continuities between your paintings and the more immersive strategy you apply in the exhibition at UKS?
– I don’t think of painting as less or installation as more immersive. Rather, they have different immersive qualities. Simplifying matters somewhat, you could say that installation insists on the body, while this does not need to be the case with a painting.
Wanthiang uses the term ‘ambiguous design’ to explain the ideas behind the interior. Made in collaboration with the architect Cristian Stefanescu, the objects have a vaguely functional air but offer no clear instructions on how to interact with them.
– The objects that surrounds us come with certain affordances. We know how to open a door because it has a handle we can pull, we know where and when to cross the street because there are zebra crossings and red and green lights. We feel sheltered in small spaces with our back against the wall. We feel humbled in large majestic spaces. Our everyday existence is pretty instructive and regulated. I believe this affects our ability to relate to objects, architecture and people. I’m interested in spaces that are more ambiguous.
– I think it’s important to try to imagine what it means to relate to things that are not naturally part of your identity, to temporarily think them as your identity, since acknowledging these differences is the first step towards some kind of nearness. In my way of exploring this I’m obviously using some of my identity markers, because it’s what I know most, or have at hand.
The exhibition title refers to the Buddhist idea that evil spirits can only move in straight lines. – That is why some temples have zigzagging hallways, explains Wanthiang. – Architecture is designed according to beliefs.
In a soundless video presented in the exhibition, we follow Wanthiang and her aunt as they perform a Buddhist ritual centred on feeding the dead. Back when she was a child, she was told that dead family members were still among then. She still senses their presence sometimes even though she is no longer a practising Buddhist.
– I believe that large parts of the younger generation in Thailand are not so religious anymore. A changing economy and the general move to the cities has changed this balance. What do you get out of performing and partaking in age-old rituals when you don’t believe versus when you do believe? I often feel alienated when partaking because there’s familial insistence that it’s part of my identity. Nonetheless, partaking ties you to a community. I’m wondering how much of this I can call upon in the exhibition space at UKS.
Are the autobiographical references in your works relevant for the viewer’s understanding of them?
– My experience is important to me because it drives me to make things. I don’t think it’s necessary for the audience to know me and my history in order to get something out of the work, although knowing about some of it might add additional layers. Often I try to be generous by giving away some of the motivation of why I felt compelled to do something. The viewer can do with that what they will.
In 2013, Wanthiang did an exhibition at Visningsrommet USF in Bergen which was open between eleven at night and three in the morning so that visitors could see the sun rise in Thailand in real time. The opening hours of the present UKS exhibition will be adapted to coincide with the hours of dusk, which means that it won’t open until around five in the afternoon.
– I guarded the exhibition at USF myself almost every night. When people take the trip out there at a certain time of the day when they are done with their work and to-do lists, you automatically get a more attentive audience. I learned something there, I think. We are not always available to take in information: it’s important to try to secure optimal conditions in order for something to be seen. Being a little tired is conducive to dwelling, to chasing associations and sensing your surroundings.