Skin as Screen

In Apichaya Wanthiang’s solo show at Munch Museum, intimacy is accompanied by a yearning for closeness.

Apichaya Wanthiang, Some Body Else, 2022. Installation view. Photo: Munch Museum.

The second artist featured in Munch Museum’s Solo Oslo series is Apichaya Wanthiang, who has been ubiquitous on the Norwegian art scene in recent years and thus – like the previous exhibitor, Sandra Mujinga – seems more than ready to be catapulted onto the international art scene from the launch pad provided by the institution. If that is how the tenth floor of the museum’s signature bend is meant to work; the seemingly finger-on-the-pulse exhibition series, a collaboration with Talent Norge and Canica investment company, invites a publicity win-win for the artists and the museum.

As I climb floor after floor, it is difficult not to feel how the building stages authority in a form commonly manifested by waterfront capitalism: all glass, vistas, sea view, and suit-clad security restlessly circulating the exhibition rooms or rushing through corridors, blazers fluttering. (Is there a robbery in progress, or just a long-awaited coffee or pee break?) What could be more natural than the museum wanting to translate this authority into the power to define the Norwegian contemporary art narrative? Or is the museum, as in the case of the Norwegian National Museum’s opening exhibition, uncomfortable responding to this power of definition without a certain ambivalence (which might be why next year’s solo exhibition has been made an open call)?

Whatever the case may be, Wanthiang’s installation Some Body Else (2022) is a pulsating organ in the middle of this vertical machine, a uterus within a phallus – a dark environment that swallows the viewer whole with its soundtrack of chanting female voices and breathing exercises that evoke antenatal classes. The sound is muffled by the carpeted floor and the twenty or so sculptures scattered around the darkened room: textiles stretched out on steel frames like small mountains or deformed sails spotlit by rows of rhythmically pulsating light bulbs. Here, the partially abstract and partially perspective-distorting landscapes in Wanthiang’s expressionistic paintings have grown into an immersive installation that transforms the space into a comfortable New Age cave with overtones of kitsch. A kind of ritual environment with no natural centre, no defined sequence of events, only changes in mood illustrated by changes to the pulsating rhythm of the lights, or the soundtrack changing from indistinct to precise articulation, from unfamiliar to recognisable words, or by the fact that the sculptures on the one side of the room appear to have warmer hues than those on the other.

There is something archaic about this intimate space, which comes across as a kind of re-enchantment of everyday life even as the spiritual element is strikingly secularised. Wanthiang has previously explored spirituality infused by equal parts alienation and curiosity, particularly in Evil Spirits Only Travel in Straight Lines (2018) at Young Artists’ Society (UKS), an exhibition that dwelled on Buddhist rituals and featured heated clay sculptures whose contours are reminiscent of the works currently on view at the Munch Museum. These screen-like sculptures, it turns out, are made from agar agar, a gelatinous algae product from the Indian Ocean with fascinating properties. Here, it appears to have been poured onto nets of tulle. Once solidified, it forms a transparent skin-like surface, a kind of prosthetic membrane that gives the installation an organic or, anyway, biomechanical feel. It occurs to me that these surfaces must be extremely fragile, like prematurely born infants in incubators. At least, judging by the guard who circles them ceaselessly like an autumn fly – and with such dedication that for a moment I think they are part of the installation (a bit like Gabriel Orozco’s strict actor-guards at the Pompidou Centre [2010] or Tino Sehgal’s singing guards at the Venice Biennale [2005]).

Apichaya Wanthiang, Some Body Else, 2022, detail. Photo: Munch Museum.

I don’t know if it’s really an obvious reference to techno culture, but the fluid patterns of movement in the darkened room, together with the pulsating lights, evoke memories of club architecture, an environment that strives to enable the sensual transcendence of the self and the cultivation of the mass as a common body. Of course, the pulse of the bass drum is missing here, and apart from the guard I am alone in the room. But the shared rhythm surely closes in on the feeling of a collective organism. A soundtrack comprising partly prelinguistic sounds – a form of spasm – also flings the body away from a representational paradigm and towards an organic machine of becoming, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “body without organs.”

In other words, the concept of the body staged by Wanthiang seems related to that of psychoanalysis and to the idea that there is a truth in the body’s spasmodic revelations of the repressed, one which language is unable to express. This perception ties in well with what I read in the press release: the artist’s investigations were focused on how trauma is perpetuated biologically. The screens – if that’s how we see the sculptures – suggest prelinguistic signals too. The synthetic nature of the surfaces, while alluding to human and animal skin as a sensory communication system, also resembles prosthetic skin and draws on a collusion of life and light that dates back to the domestication of electricity – that mysterious and magical force whose power, among other things, was believed to raise the dead, as evidenced in Frankenstein (1818) and the tropes of early horror films. But in Wanthiang’s work, this post-humanism, if I can call it that, never becomes dystopian. Rather, the artist’s fusion of biology and technology comes across in a more Harawayian manner as a source of empathetic communion with other life forms, and thus as something spiritual and healing. It is so comfortable that I find myself missing a bit of resistance and friction.

If the skin is a screen, it is a touchscreen, and not being able to touch the tactile membranes suspended in their frames feels strange. This prohibition contributes to the installation’s auratic and exalted tone, and is perhaps why the intimacy of the work is paradoxically accompanied by a longing for closeness. But if the skin is a screen, it is also a canvas for the projection of fantasies and imagination. It is an illusory border, one which Wanthiang’s sensorially massaging installation invites us to consider as being a little less absolute.

Apichaya Wanthiang, Some Body Else, 2022. Installation view. Photo: Munch Museum.

This article is translated from Norwegian.