“Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness,” an exhibition currently on display at the School of the Art Institute’s Sullivan Galleries, not only is a beautiful collection of video installations and still images, but provides new insight into the career of one of the most important filmmakers working today. The content of “Serenity” might be described as the interstices of Weerasethakul’s filmmaking career, with video diaries, short films, and photographs that meditate on themes and images elaborated on in the Thai director’s features. Meditate is the operative word—like Weerasethakul’s movies, “Serenity” offers a calm, immersive space where one can contemplate notions of spirituality, romance, war, and death. The exhibit covers 22 years of output and more than three hours of audiovisual material, yet “Serenity” doesn’t feel overwhelming, thanks to the cool reflection the works engender.
In conjunction with “Serenity,” Weerasethakul will deliver a lecture tomorrow night at 6 PM at SAIC’s Rubloff Auditorium, and next month the Gene Siskel Film Center will revive four of the director’s features (all of them worth seeing or revisiting): Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), and Cemetery of Splendor (2015).
Weerasethakul’s Buddhist faith informs all these films; the director has said that the two-part structure of Malady and Syndromes—movies that restart the plot halfway through—reflects his belief in reincarnation. Appropriately, the first piece in “Serenity,” Sakda (Rousseau) (2012), is a short video on this very subject. In the piece, Sakda Kaewbuadee, one of Weerasethakul’s favorite actors, claims to be the reincarnation of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and speaks to how he will live according to Rousseau’s principles. The short ends with a peaceful shot from a balcony overlooking Thailand’s Mekong River (the subject of Weerasethakul’s 2012 film Mekong Hotel), suggesting that all souls will eventually return to nature. Watching Sakda, one realizes how Weerasethakul’s spiritual notions tie into a reverence for the natural world, with reincarnation serving as a human equivalent to the constant rebirth one finds in jungles and forests.
While Sakda speaks to the reawakening of the spirit, Teem (2007), the centerpiece of the exhibit, is a portrait of a body in repose. The most meditative piece in “Serenity,” Teem consists of three wall-size projections of video footage that show Weerasethakul’s partner asleep. The footage was shot on a videophone that’s constantly hovering around the subject, and this juxtaposition of stasis and movement blurs the distinction between action and reflection. One can feel the director’s intimacy with his subject as well as his innate curiosity about bodies at rest. These qualities carry over to Weerasethakul’s direction of actors in his narrative features—in his films, people are simultaneously characters and bodies to be admired. The content of Teem also anticipates Cemetery of Splendor, which considers the plight of soldiers suffering from a protracted sleeping sickness.
The recent work showcased in Serenity is particularly useful for understanding Cemetery. In fact the pieces made between 2012 and 2014 feel like an extended prologue to that work. Cemetery is Weerasethakul’s most political film, with the sleeping soldiers serving in part as a metaphor for Thailand’s paralyzed state following the political crisis of recent years. Politics enter into the filmmaker’s recent video pieces, albeit obliquely, showing how his spiritual concerns interact with the physical world around him. In Ashes (2012), a combination of still images and video footage, Weerasethakul considers elements of his daily life, such as taking walks, observing animals, and buying groceries. Images of protesters enter into the montage but do not overwhelm it—their political activity becomes part of the flow of the director’s experience. I’d seen Ashes a few years ago when it premiered online, but viewing it projected on a large wall was like watching it for the first time. The flow of everyday life becomes monumental in this context, and the political allusions assume a greater resonance as well. It’s the most impressive single piece in the exhibit, texturally rich and inspired in its juxtapositions.
Fireworks (Archives) (2014) contemplates the plight of an artist whose life was overtaken by politics. The work consists mainly of shots of sculptures by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Buddhist monk who fled to Laos in the 1970s after he was accused of being a communist. Weerasethakul shoots the statues at night, creating a spooky vibe reminiscent of the nocturnal scenes of Uncle Boonmee. The sculptures are fascinating—I particularly liked one of two human skeletons sitting arm in arm—but the melancholy aura (with its associations of political persecution) overwhelms their aesthetic impact. The video reaches a sense of catharsis, however, when Weerasethakul presents shots of fireworks. The piece is projected on a pane of glass (just like another work in the exhibit, the 1999 video sketch Windows), and the light from the fireworks bounces off the pane and onto the floor, illuminating the room in which Fireworks is displayed. It’s a beautiful moment, suggesting optimism amid tragedy.
Bursting light is the subject of another highlight of “Serenity,” Phantoms of Nabua (2009). Presented in a small alcove sequestered from the rest of the exhibit, this video shows a group of teenage boys in Weerasethakul’s hometown of Nabua congregating around a movie screen that’s been set up outdoors. The boys kick around a football that they’ve lit on fire and eventually burn up the movie screen, revealing the flickering projector behind it. Phantoms creates visual rhymes between the flaming ball, the projector, and the large fluorescent light hanging above the screen. The whole world seems illuminated, and the boys’ movement feels exalted. At the same time, the action takes place in isolation (there’s no one else around besides the boys) and the darkness around the environment creates an eerie vibe.
Weerasethakul is, of course, a master at setting a mood—his films elicit fascination even when little happens onscreen. The earliest works contained in “Serenity,” Bullet and 0116643225059 (both 1994), speak to this aspect of his art. Bullet is an abstract work, shot on Super-8, that presents flashes of textured light between blackouts. Like a more intimate version of the fireworks in the later pieces, the flashes in Bullet inspire a childlike wonder at cinema’s ability to give and record light. 0116643225059, on the other hand, glorifies cinema’s ability to communicate personal feelings. Over shots of Weerasethakul speaking on the phone in a Chicago apartment (where he lived while attending SAIC), the director superimposes images of his mother, who’s listening in Thailand on the other end of the line. Weerasethakul shows how intimate bonds can transcend distance and overwhelm one’s consciousness. 0116643225059 is a simple work, but it illuminates a central conceit of the director’s output—that in engaging with the world through sights, sounds, and textures, we personalize it and give ourselves over to it. This transaction is, for Weerasethakul, a source of wonder and gratitude, which his compositions communicate with calm exaltation.
“Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness” Through 12/8: Tue-Sat 11 AM-6PM, School of the Art Institute Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State, seventh floor, 312-629-6635, saic.edu/sullivangalleries, free.