By David Willis
February 28, 2020
I first met Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook during the run of her exhibition at 100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok in 2018, An Artist Is Trying to Return To Being A Writer. The show foregrounded her dual identity as a writer and an artist, and the tension between the two practices. While within Thailand she is perhaps better known for her work as an author, internationally she is renowned for her work as a conceptual artist, having participated in prestigious events such as the Venice Biennale in 2005, and dOCUMENTA in 2012.
Moving fluidly between performance, video, sculpture and installation, she has consistently dealt with the theme of death in her art, most famously in her video-performance works where she read Thai epic poetry and delivered art lectures to corpses at the Chiang Mai morgue, in works such as Reading for Corpses (2002) and The Class (2005). She is also an ardent dog lover, having adopted more than thirty stray dogs over the years, one of which she brought to Kassel for her dOCUMENTA project, in which she and the stray lived in a cabin for the duration of the exhibition, monitoring a live camera feed of her other dogs being fed and cared for by her assistant back in Thailand.
Late last year, she launched Put her to sleep, save us and ours, a website with the subtitle “Necessity’s Rhythm Araya’s exchange life-art project (call for participants and donations).” Featuring cryptic passages of English text interspersed with images of her past performances and adopted canines, it outlines her honest desire to be euthanized, while also raising money to support shelters for stray cats and dogs. Intrigued, I met with Araya at her home and studio on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in January, where we discussed her new “life-art project” while peeling oranges and petting her favorite adoptee, a french bulldog mix, who whined for attention and nuzzled at our feet.
David Willis (Degree Critical): In the section of your website titled “Project Dream,” you write that you want to enact a re-balancing between a variety of opposing concepts: mind and body, abstract and physical, imagination and logic, life and art objects, ethical concerns and the preoccupation with mere things. It sounds as if you are trying to get away from the business of making art objects, but at the same time, you have an upcoming show at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York. Have you produced new artworks to show in that exhibition?
Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: Yes, I worry that we are much too concerned with material things, but as you can imagine, it is almost impossible to sell this kind of immaterial project, so I still cannot escape the demands of society for more objects. So, as a compromise, my new work incorporates text from the website, and text from my most recent novel, as a way of talking about my intention for the dilution of being. In my show at Tyler Rollins, there will be small, colorful text pieces with quotes from the website, as well as larger artworks made with text from my last novel, with all the editor’s notes included, to show the messiness of life, instead of a perfect, finished object.
DC: So moving forward, how do you intend to reconcile this physical art practice with your desire to step away from the physical?
AR: The website, and the intention behind it, are an attempt to move in that direction. I need to put myself in the corner with this project, since I am not 100% certain that I will do it in the end. So I need this game, because I feel bored with being an artist, where you just make a concept and then produce physical artworks. I want to make something that I call a “situational novel”—a narrative involving a real person—and I will also write an actual novel in parallel to the situation. I think this approach has the potential to touch people. The website, the concept, and the novel I will write: this for me is the work, but in the meantime I need to keep making physical objects, so I will make my work related to this concept. It has challenged me even more than I desired, to extend the “novel” into new forms of artwork.
DC: I suppose that as long as you are still alive, people are going to keep asking you to make artworks.
AR: The artist has the right to refuse, but I said yes because I thought it would be interesting to see how my writing could turn back into artwork.
DC: So would you say this new show is about a writer trying to return to being an artist?
AR: That was not my original intention, but yeah…I didn’t know that I would make this text-based work. I had a totally different plan for this show, involving drawings and animation, but then I started this project, wrote the website, and made a different body of work.
DC: On the website, you emphasize the moral motivations behind the project, such as quitting commercial consumption, and raising funds for shelters to help stray cats and dogs. You also mention the idea of “life atonement for sin.” I know some people took offense to your earlier projects where you interacted with corpses. Do you consider those projects sins for which you need to atone?
AR: Yeah, the dead bodies. I also went to the psychiatric hospital and filmed institutionalized women, and recorded their stories for one of my shows [Great Times Message: Storytellers of the Town, (2006)]. I was using others for my artwork. So now I will use myself.
DC: Do you regret doing those projects?
AR: Not really, it was very exciting at the time. But sometimes when I walk with the dogs in the garden in the evening, I think about it and I feel a little bit conflicted. I know many Thai artists hated these projects, but maybe it was because they thought they were not aesthetic enough. I think my projects with dead bodies were very respectful actually, because they were unclaimed bodies, with no family members to come pay them respects. I would like it if, after I died, someone would come read poetry for me. Let’s do something different from a boring funeral.
DC: So if that was not your artistic sin, what do you think your sin as an artist would be?
AR: My sin as an artist would be not to do a project, if I felt it had to be done. To deny my art would be a sin. I can’t stay still when I get an idea, I have to do it. Once I got the idea for the website, I spent two months straight working on it like a mad woman. It’s like when someone dies and you know you have to go see the corpse, even though you feel a bit scared.
DC: When do you think you will conclude the project, by which I mean, end your life?
AR: I have applied twice to a center in Switzerland, and both times they have denied my application. It really depends on the authorities who decide my case, and it also depends on whether I can get support from an art institution to fund the treatment, and so far no institutions have been willing to back my case. There are eleven different countries where euthanasia is legal [twelve now, since Portugal just legalized euthanasia this month], but as far as I know, they only allow it for medical cases. However, out of all the centers around the world, maybe one of them just needs money, so perhaps they will accept my request out of necessity. But first I need to find the backing of an institution, to sign my letter of intent, and help me pay for it.
DC: If you really want to succeed, why do you use such poetic language in the letters you are asking people to sign? You say you want to reset the balance between imagination and logic, but I suspect these euthanasia places function on a more logical wavelength. Don’t you think they will be put off by the poetic, artistic language?
AR: That is why Apinan Poshyananda, the curator of the Bangkok Art Biennale, asked me to write a new letter for him to sign, something more official, though he refused to sign on behalf of the Biennale, and would only put his first name, without his full title. But you know, I already applied to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, and I included letters from five different psychoanalists backing my intent. I also made this into a scene in my last novel. Even with those five official letters, the center still said no, because they only recognize bodily ills. That’s why I think we need to have a rebalancing, and give more importance to the mind. If an organization agrees to euthanize me, it will set a precedent that the mind is important too. That if one has no wish to live, they can stop. And then ideally, I can also help the dogs. I have put many dogs to sleep, to help them escape from pain.
DC: How many dogs have you had euthanized?
AR: About thirteen, I think. I first started rescuing stray dogs in 1996. It’s always very peaceful. They lay their head in my lap, give me a goodbye kiss, and go.
DC: Those euthanizations were all for physical reasons, right? How can we say whether a dog wants to live or die?
AR: Well yes, they all had obvious pain, they were already dying from old age, bleeding and crying all the time. I think that pain is a state of both body and mind.
DC: You don’t have any physical problems do you? You seem to be in good health.
AR: Yeah, too good. Actually I do have some back problems; I’ve had two operations already, and a third one coming. It’s very peaceful when you get to lie in the hospital bed, and you can’t do anything, you don’t need to eat, just get the IV drip. Much better than preparation for a show!
DC: There is another reason for the project listed on the website, which is “shifting the meaning of end of self, and creation.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
AR: I imagine a young girl at Silpakorn University [the University of Fine Art in Bangkok], who has to talk about art composition all the time: about balance, color, brush strokes, the dark tone in an aquatint or whatever… It feels far removed from the realities of life and death. If there is some “dark tone” in this art project, if we can call it that, where does it lie? Is it in the font color, or in the words themselves? And when it comes to the installation of these new works at Tyler Rollins…When I entered the gallery, it felt like a friedhof—a graveyard, so cold and lifeless. And yet within this space, we can create something new. So maybe my project can speak to this relationship between death and creation.
For example, consider the text from the translation of the novel, with all the edits; it became sculpture and installation. We feel like text can tell us something if we can read it, but when we encounter it as an object in the gallery we know nothing of its meaning, we can’t take it all in. So we have two things fighting for our attention, the object and the idea, and it’s very hard to absorb the content. I think in some way, I am trying to destroy, or disturb, the perception process of the viewer. Yet of course, some kind of perception will take place.
DC: I saw that in your show at 100 Tonson, where you left the gallery almost completely empty for the first few months of the exhibition, while you were writing a novel and making the artworks for the show. People came into the gallery during those first few months, hoping to see some artwork, and instead encountered a sign saying that you were trying to return to being a writer, forcing them to imagine you somewhere else, writing a book.
AR: Yes, but this time I will try to disturb the viewer in a different way. I am posing the question, “What does art mean when art is euthanasia?”
A Novel in Necessity’s Rhythm remains on view through April 4, 2020 at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, 529 West 20th Street, #10W, New York.
David Willis lives and works in Chiang Mai, Thailand. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.