AWDB Spotlight: Interview with artist Kawita Vatanajyankur

AWDB speaks with Kawita Vatanajyankur, a Thai artist known for using her body as part of her artworks and site-specific installations. Addressing themes of feminism, oppression and labour, she pushes her body to the limit to represent the resilience of women. Vatanajyankur is one of several Southeast Asian artists featured at a collateral event taking place at this year’s Venice Biennale, titled ‘The Spirits of Maritime Crossing’, presented by the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB Foundation). The title of the exhibition takes forward from the experimental short film by the same name that was written and directed by Apinan Poshynanda, Artistic Director of BAB, and performed by Marina Abramović, which premiered at the St Moritz Art Film Festival in Switzerland last year.

Kawita Vatanajyankur performing ‘Mental Machine: Labour in the Self Economy’ at Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tell us about your participation in The Spirits of Maritime Crossing; and what you will be presenting at the Venice Biennale. How does it relate to the film by Apinan Poshyananda and Marina Abramović?

For ‘The Spirits of Maritime Crossing’, I am exhibiting my selection of video works in relation to the exhibiting space in Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana. For example, in ‘The Symphony Dyed Blue’, I am showcasing a large projection of the work onto the ceiling of the opera room which was built for Catherine Tofts, Joseph Smith’s wife. Exhibiting in a classical mural manner, ‘The Symphony Dyed Blue’ imagines the dystopian scenery of the future affected by extreme consumption in the modern world of consumerism. Flooded with polluted water caused by blue chemical dyes, the video work envisions the unnatural world where living things no longer exist, and what’s left is a cyborg of the mechanised human merged into the operating dyeing wheel. The weeping sound of the dying ocean woven with melodious sopranos indicates endurance and suffering of the disappearing nature where hope and despair intertwined. The labour cyborg is a machine ghost in the human shell who is the spirit of the past and the re-birth of the unknown future. Similar to ‘The Spirits of Maritime Crossing’ film, ‘The Symphony Dyed Blue’ explores the concept of transition and transcendence through a symbolism of the endless stream of water. The world in ‘The Symphony Dyed Blue’ is perhaps a parallel passage, a place in between others. This work encourages the audience to realise our actions, reactions that cause significant effects in order to re-visualise our ideas of the future with sympathetic understandings of our surroundings and environments.

Apart from ‘The Symphony Dyed Blue’, I am presenting three more works located in the bathroom of the building. Showing my video work ‘The Toilet’ as a confrontational experience towards the visitors, it challenges them to use the flushing toilet while encountering the performative work. In ‘The Toilet’, my entire body was transformed into a cleaning brush, scrubbing the toilet seat inside and out. My face was tirelessly rubbing and squeezing the stained spots on the seats. Such interactive work examines the continual cycle of causes and consequences, appearance and disappearance in all beings while signifying what we eternally leave behind.

Presenting a bird’s-eye view perspective inside the bathtub, ’My Mother and I (II): The Composers in the Machine’ illustrates the attempt of spiritual and physical cleansing by the hands of a mother. The body wrapped with a vibrant red fabric is washed until the water is filled with red dyes integrated with the daughter’s scurfs and scents. This work explores the renewal and vanishment of one’s self through social and cultural objectification. Like ‘The Toilet’, this repetitiveness of the pressured action examines the transitioning states of the psychological self that eventually metamorphose into a new state of being.

As someone from Southeast Asia, do your ideas and art surrounding feminism differ from feminist art and ideas from the west?

Spending half of my life in Australia and another half in Thailand, I often feel alienated in both worlds; the East and the West. I grew up as a teenager in Australia and was always guided by my lecturers at RMIT to express myself in the art work. Coming back to permanently stay in Thailand was a mental challenge because I felt as if I didn’t belong in this environment. My ‘Tools’ series started as an expression of how I felt; an object. In the first few years of living in Thailand, I felt unaccepted by the conservative seniors who claimed that I was disobedient by being too opinionated, expressive and provocative. In my early twenties, I was always categorised as a stubborn person. During that time, creating the ‘Tools’ series was my personal therapy and a visual path towards my own self-acceptance and self-respect. To answer your question, I am looking at the idea of feminism from an estranged view; an outsider who migrated to Australia and relocated to Thailand. Additionally, being a foreigner in all worlds has inspired me to use my artistic practice as continually questioning the societies we live in.

Kawita Vatanajyankur, ‘Soaked’, performance from her ‘Tools’ series, HD video still, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your artworks incorporate your body in the installations. Tell us how you feel about putting yourself in what seems like vulnerable positions in front of an audience.

I am not myself during the performances. My work usually portrays the mechanised human performing as machines or tools in arduous positions to indicate the exploitation of humans, where labourers are being seen and treated as machines. My time-based performances have brought me into a meditative state through repetitive confrontations until the body is completely separated from the mind. Also, when the body is pressured to act in a mundane pattern, the mind only focuses on the present moment until the emotions and feelings attached to it fully disappear. In other words, my performances are a meditative practice for emptying the mind. As a result, the body becomes an envelope, a cover of nothingness. By detaching my corporeal self from the mind, the body is transformed into a still-life object or a sculpture.

With major breakthroughs in technology and a rise in digital art (or technologies like AI replacing human effort), what do you think performance art will look like in the future, and how would you work alongside that?

Since 2022, Pat Pataranutaporn, the MIT Media Lab AI and cyborg scientist and I have been working together in our continuing series titled ‘Cyber Labour’ with live performance works such as: ‘Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy’ and ‘Voice of the Oppressed’ that incorporate AI’s long conversations into the installation. The conversations between AI are debates between the two different mindsets generated from GPT. While these two are discussing topics such as oppression and freedom, democracy and anarchy, stability and chaos, the human performer (myself) is trapped in between their intellectual conversations with live decisions of who to believe and where to move forward. Within our immersive theatre, which is an expansive version of Plato’s cave, we have only seen projections of one reality as we live in the structured system. The AI(s) who are the two co-performers in the work are enhancing my growing concept of what it means to be a human, living within this enormous interwoven web led by capitalism.

My upcoming work ‘The Machine Ghost in the Human Shell’ in collaboration with Pat showcases a live performance which is guided by the movement control of the AI via electric muscle stimulations attached to the body. This work is a poetic war between the two minds; the intelligent machine and the human (myself). While the AI is attempting to replace my core memories, thoughts and feelings, I am struggling to fight against the electric force and regain my actions of freewill. ‘The Machine Ghost in the Human Shell’ illustrates how the humanised machine is invading and manipulating our complexities, including our memories, surrounding environments, experiences, patterns of emotions, and more. These complexities, according to Carl Jung, is our set of unconscious awareness, which has led to our thoughts and desires to influence our actions, reactions and consequences.  As humans are unconsciously being conducted with AI’s decisions in our daily interactions with GPT, unknowingly, our complexities may have been shifted too. For example, spending more time in the meta-verse has changed our memories of the surrounding environment and the experience of interacting with one another (human and non-human). According to Buddhism, our complexity is driven by the karma of our soul, the spirit who lives within our physical body. However, if our complexities can be invaded, or worse, destroyed, then what is left inside of our ghost? Whether our souls are real or not, thoughts have already been filled with influential advice from the intelligent machines, although they might not be considerate.

Kawita Vatanajyankur, ‘Mental Machine: Labour in the Self Economy’, installation performed live at The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

What are the inspirations behind your themes, as you tackle issues such as consumerism, labour, feminism, etc.

The inspiration behind developing my work is perhaps the death of my hard-working father who passed from overworking. My father was a very successful creative producer and the mastermind behind mega events happening in Southeast Asia. He believed that hard work could bring financial stability and happiness to the family. Before he died, he wrote a biographical book about his life and lessons of a never-ending strive to success which caused his illness. The book opens the doors for us all to look at life differently, apart from the society’s materialistic perception of happiness. I think that our consumption will lead to more and we are only rats trapped in the cycling wheel, running towards the lies and illusions of happiness. We believe that valuable things are defined by prices, our beauty is defined by appearance and so the continuing consumption would temporarily fuel our ego. For example, the industries are repeatedly convincing us that we are never ‘good’ enough, and therefore persuade us to purchase more clothes and beauty products to feel satisfied. The truth is, the changing trends have caused us a never-ending pursuit of happiness.

Motivated by my father’s memorial, I want to create artworks that make us question what we do and who we are to this world. I wish to bring awareness that our behaviors in consumption have cost human lives (human labour) and the environment, as well as our own physical and mental health. As I research more into each industry, such as the fishing industry, fast fashion industry and industrialised agriculture in Asia, I often come across news and stories that not only are women in the labour force being paid much less, they are also being silenced and sometimes are punished to death once they wish to expose the unfairness and exploitation.

With your performances focusing on women, from their resilience to their roles in society, what changes do you hope to see for women in the art world/in society?

There is a wonderful documentary on Netflix titled ‘Explained’ and there is an episode which suggests theories about why women are being paid less. The key idea of this documentary starts at their homes, and how their expected roles are to be the emotional shelter of their family. Statistically, about 91% of women with children spend at least an hour per day on housework compared to 30% of men with children.  This means that even though they have great opportunities of being promoted at work in the same position as men, their employers feel that they may participate less at work and therefore shall be paid less. However, this idea is wrong. Showing up less does not mean that they will be less productive and deliver great work. I also believe that if we truly see women outside of their expected roles in domestic chores, this could allow them to gain greater future opportunities at work, starting with fair wages.

I always questioned why there were not many female artists in the contemporary art world until I overheard collectors claiming that women would likely quit their artistic careers once they start a family. Because of this, they are uncertain about investing in women’s bodies of work, especially the young and emerging artists. This idea is very similar to what ‘Explained’ has shown us about the views of the world towards married women. To me, art is our visualisation of life experiences, significant memories, our daily struggles and our dreams. I truly believe that either single or married, a woman’s life is always extraordinary and deserves to be heard and learned about in the philosophical language of art. This is why women’s artworks are so important; they are historical and contemporary evidence of the enduring minds living within the patriarchy system. Like the Trojan horse, these artworks are powerful voices that will bravely shape the future for women.

‘The Spirits of Maritime Crossing’ will take place at Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana during the 60th Venice Art Biennale from 20 April to 24 November 2024. For more information, click here.