A Programmer's Chronicles, June/July 2007
Beeld uit 'The Palace' van Apichatpong Weerasethakul
by Gertjan Zuilhof
“I’ve never been to Taipei,” was the reason he gave for accepting my proposal. You can well imagine why Taipei has a mythical sound to an Asian film maker, but that’s not what he said. Maybe the widely travelled, very popular and much discussed film maker just wanted to tick off another destination on his list, but it is more probable that he wanted to see with his own eyes the city where modern Asian cinema was partly invented.
He then came to Taipei twice. To look around in that famous museum for classical Chinese art. To roam the deserted pavilion for special exhibitions where the famous Rosetta Stone from a previous presentation of the British Museum was still standing in the cellar. The granite page that opened up Egyptian hieroglyphics. The idea was to put together in this honourable museum, where centuries barely count for anything, an exhibition on the cutting-edge of the visual arts and experiment in cinema. Film makers who emerge from a two-dimensional screen and visual artists who investigate cinematography in moving images. For this occasion they were described as film installations because video installations have become too much of a genre in themselves.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, because he is the nomadic artist here, did not have to think about it for long. He took on the most impossible space. The presentation of film installations has developed into a standard in galleries for modern art. The so-called black box is usually museum-white on the outside and the curtain keeps the light out that is still pointing brightly at paintings. Weerasethkul seemed to leave the red-brown classical gallery with display cases all around for objects and utensils intact. He also chose the largest gallery he could get and then left on a journey that only occasionally took him to his home base in Bangkok. When he returned with his sketches, the gallery had been turned from a historic space into a distopic science-fiction location. The empty museum had in the meantime taken a long journey through time. Lit dimly only by a few red security lights. A couple of dogs guarding the heritage that no longer houses any heritage. The dogs with their characteristic silhouettes turn up like faintly illuminated apparitions in the equally faint red light. They appear and disappear at intervals in showcases that are no longer showcases.
Several shots of the contours of a dog. Animation in a fundamental form. Apparently that’s all that’s needed to turn a room intended for archaeological pots into a theatre for a cinematographic experience. An indefinable electronic noise amplifies the rootlessness in time. The doors that open and close automatically at both ends of the gallery referring their autistic simplicity to the museum as Starship Enterprise; packed full of pointless knowledge on its way to a forgotten galaxy.
But the title became The Palace after the National Palace Museum where this anomaly of an exhibition was realised. Alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yael Bartana, Edgar Honetschlaeger, Deborah Stratman, Ella Raidel & Hongjohn Lin, Merilyn Fairskye and Tsai Ming-liang also took part.
Of course Director Tsai, as even people who worked closely with him for years continue to say deferentially, did of course know Taipei. Like no other you could say, even though the Taiwanese newspapers still always mention, years later, that Tsai was born in Malaysia. He also knows the National Palace Museum and its almost imperial status and that may well be why he brought a fairly provocative presentation.
His Erotic Space comprises several small rooms he had built in the gallery put at his disposal. Outside the rooms, whorehouse bedrooms we would say, it had to be pitch dark, but that was going too far for museum security. Tsai's model was the gay sauna, but on the TV screens in the corners, he didn’t show porn but home movies and travelogues. For the first time, Tsai revealed himself as a filmer of his own diary material. The context of the sex rooms, including a mattresses with disposable covers and rolls of toilet paper, turns apparently innocent images of choirboys in Vienna, for instance, into humorous perverseness. The rooms were given a real door you could close behind you. Apparently Tsai wanted to make it possible for the art rooms to refer not only to sex, but also to be used for that in practice.
It was exciting, intriguing and inspiring to see how two of the most prominent Asian film makers at this moment put their ideas into a spatial form. The visible pleasure with which they gave concrete shape to their inspirations was contagious. For me and for the other film makers/artists who fought deep into the night against the stubbornness of a museum furnished for a different kind of art. Yes, also striking. They still remain directors. With striking ease they guide the constructors and technicians. As if they were on a film set.
Note from the editor:
The exhibition 'Discovering the Other', curated by Gertjan Zuilhof, can be visited till August 31, 2007 in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.