Who Will Remember?

At Kristiansand Kunsthall, Apichaya Wanthiang captures the anxieties and fears of a pandemic-stricken world.

Apichaya Wanthiang, I’ve been here before, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Kristiansand Kunsthall.

At first, there is space and light. Then comes the material – matter appearing in various stages of decay.

After ascending through a three-level library to reach the fourth floor of the Kristiansand Kunsthall, I catch myself staring for a longer while at the windows facing the Cathedral, the Square, and the park. It may sound banal, but in this simple view of trees moving with the wind, there is something soothing, some lightness – and for sure light. The exhibition space feels like a smooth extension of the world outside. Certainly, the building was created in dialogue with the surroundings, and I’ve been here before by Apichaya Wanthiang follows this thread on a micro-scale and responds sensitively to the architecture. Although their shapes remain peculiar and invasive, all of the works – hybrids of hardly defined genres oscillating between set design, paintings, installations, or sculptures – seem to be inhabiting the galleries.

This tendency to blur the borders between various art categories serves as Wanthiang’s stamp; her works defy categorisation and play freely with formats, materials, architecture, and light. Painting, however, remains a notable part of Wanthiang’s work, a point of reference for further investigation, with one caveat: we are not talking about oil on canvas. Wanthiang is interested in how certain qualities of painting can be transformed, extended, and introduced in contemporary contexts. She often uses a restrained colour palette (dominated by greenish tones) which she applies on unusual surfaces and uses together with atypical frames. On a conceptual level, her practice might be read as challenging categories of time and space, in the sense of constructing challenging display and perceptive strategies. For example, her exhibition at Young Artist’s Society (UKS) Evil spirits only travel in straight lines (2018) opened daily, but only at nautical dusk. Similarly, viewers of her night-time exhibition at the USF showroom in Bergen Without Waiting for Her Reply (2014) could see the sunrise in Thailand in real-time. In 31 Buildings (2018), huge green walls gave the impression of falling through a foreign architecture invading the Hordaland Kunstsenter, while in a project for the festival Barents Spektakel, All Digressions Aside (2016), Wanthiang connected two distant cities – Kirkenes in Norway and Nikel in Russia – by creating a twofold outdoor installation with storytelling huts. Distorted time and space together with undefined hybrid works can also be found in I’ve been here before.

Apichaya Wanthiang, I’ve been here before, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Kristiansand Kunsthall.

Stairs going up to wooden hybrid buildings that are made with recycled, trashed, and random materials don’t appear particularly stable. The wobbly effect is enhanced by the absence of right angles; various parts are supported by scaffolding, as if desperately catching their balance. These makeshift houses covered with paintings on boards appear built in a rush by a skilled, yet chaotic, bricoleur (or bricoleurs) using whatever was available at a given moment. When I get to the top of one set of stairs, almost touching the kunsthall’s ceiling with my hand, I feel as though I could fall with one careless step. If these are homes, for whom are they created and why, if they do not shelter or provide intimacy? Inside another tent-like structure wrapped up by huge pieces of canvas in greenish tones, random pieces of mattresses and wood form a long zigzag bed. As the gallery attendants inform me, it is possible to use the bed. But I cannot see how a human body can fit into these irregular intersections, and I move on, towards two rooms veiled in the darkness.

These rooms give the impression of abandoned sculptural workshops filled with residue random objects, and owl-like creatures. Some of these creatures stand at the tables; others, cut in half, are waiting for hands to put them together. In one of the rooms, pieces of textiles or canvas – perhaps the same used in the hybrid-tents – hang on strings like drying laundry. Elsewhere, a screen pretending to be a window shows a video projection of tree branches moving in the wind. The screen serves as a mirroring element, as if checking: you have seen it before, haven’t you? Everything seems to be negated, neither in process, nor finished – nor unfinished. Time doesn’t exist. It has been suspended in randomness, provisionality, and uncertainty.

Apichaya Wanthiang, I’ve been here before, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Kristiansand Kunsthall.

The exhibition text begins with the artist’s words: “What was experienced, remembered, or imagined collapses.”

What do we remember, and how, if everything seems so provisional? What kind of history is created when life happens in randomness? As Hegel famously commented, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” But the half-finished owl-creatures around me keep their wings stubbornly folded, and it is very unlikely that they will fly.

In a provisional world, wisdom appears as an impossible trait.

Wisdom, commonly understood as knowledge acquired with experience, can also be described as a possibility. However limited, this possibility is directed towards both present and future to predict or expect certain things in a given circumstances, or that certain effects will follow certain actions. In more practical language, wisdom is the potential to shape or influence one’s own life. Wisdom needs time, experience, some stable points, and a silent promise that there will be a future. If everything is constantly in suspension or a provisional state, then we lack frames for experiencing, acting, or being in the world. In random conditions, we think, act, live, and remember differently. For instance, many of us will remember the period of lockdown as one super-long day. When life gets deprived of essential qualities, it also gets deprived of memories. If the present doesn’t exist, then the future cannot be foreseen, and history is annihilated.

Apichaya Wanthiang, I’ve been here before, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Kristiansand Kunsthall.

We want to remember the particular, the personal, the intimate.

In an introductory text, Wanthiang recalls a childhood memory of her grandmother’s fragile house, which protected inhabitants from being seen, but was permeated by all of the sounds from outside. There, Wanthiang often spent time sitting at the stairs, doodling and drawing. The memories of places usually merge with emotions and the presence of other people – or at least something personal. In that sense, place is mental. But because humans have bodies, it still requires physicality, borders, and materiality. I’m pretty sure I imagined these random hybrid structures before. I recall Bruno Schulz’s surreal ‘Treatise on Mannequins’, a witty ode to matter. As the treatise says, matter is endlessly fecund, and we – as humans – are not long-term beings intent on lasting creations. We place no emphasis on permanence or solidity of workmanship; handiwork should be provisional, as creation was intended for a single occasion. Therefore, we prefer junk. Indeed, we are simply rapt by it, entranced by the cheapness, the paltriness, the tawdriness of the material. Creation, Schulz writes, is the privilege of all souls; it has a beguiling power which entices us to become creators in our own right.

But why create then?

I’ve been here before captures precisely the anxieties and fears of a pandemic-stricken world moving fast towards ecological catastrophe. As I finish this text, Norway, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is generously considering whether to accept fifty children from the Moria refugee camp, which was recently destroyed in a fire. A couple of years in the future, would you like to listen to the memories of those who stayed there? If there will be memories. What was experienced, remembered, or imagined collapses.

Apichaya Wanthiang, I’ve been here before, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Kristiansand Kunsthall.

This text was originally published with the author’s previous name, Zofia Cielatkowska.