Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcel Room

Essay by Claire Oboussier

Vong Phaophanit’s work has long been characterised by its juxtapositions of materials which carry, simultaneously, persistent cultural resonance and a strong physical sense of their own. He has placed together bamboo and lead (what falls to the ground but can’t be eaten tok tem dean kep kin bo dai, 1990), neon and rubber (in the shadow of words, 1992) and silk and ash (silk and ash wall, 1993). Since 1993 however, there has been a discernible shift in the way in which the bordering materials interact. The polarised stance of a piece such as in the shadow of words, where suspended red neon script was walled up behind a barricade of black rubber blocks riddled with gaps through which the viewer peered, gave way to the sensuous fusion of rice and neon in neon rice field, 1993 (fig. 1). In this piece the translucence of the rice became visible through the glow of the neon, and the light emanating from the neon was transformed into a quasi solid substance through its contact with the rice.

What had been juxtapositions became syntheses of materials: materials incorporated each other to produce a new physical presence. In turn, the metaphorical and referential workings of the materials became endlessly paradoxical and shifting. With pieces such as neon rice field and the later neon script series, for example azure neon body, 1994 (fig. 2), it became less and less easy to assign any kind of origin or determinacy to the materials: in these works we could see the sense of Phaophanit’s words ‘you cannot put an end to a material’. The whole credo of cultural identity, origin and belonging was rendered contradictory, absurd, impossible even. A process that had begun with the notion of borders questioned but intact, becomes one which dissolves borders and the ground that sustains them. In this way, the expansion of the material dimension of the work leads to an extension of its discursive possibilities and acts also as an eloquent answer to the tendency of commentators to ‘understand’ the work via the personal history of the artist who produced it.

Phaophanit’s very particular, pared down ways of showing a material always succeed subtly in pushing to the fore the material itself. This might be through the sheer mass of its presence as with neon rice field (7 tons of white rice arranged in furrows fusing with strips of red neon), ash and silk wall (a fourteen metre wall of compressed ash and silk behind laminated glass) or what falls to the ground but can’t be eaten (a hanging forest of six thousand bamboos). It might be through the intensity and pervasiveness of its presence as with azure neon body (hundreds of neon script words of graded shades of blue piled haphazardly into a trench from which their light literally fills the gallery space). Whilst, of course, the artist does intervene in the process of presentation of these materials, it is always a minimal, understated economy of intervention and often at the level of minutiae: the finest detail of light, a centimetre added or taken away and also, occasionally, the decision not to interfere when the material behaves in an unexpected way. It is at these moments, when the artist relinquishes power over it, that the autonomy of the material asserts itself. Each piece, as a new installation, to some degree cannot be predicted it always retains, as it were, a voice of its own.

There is an interesting paradox here between total control and moments of complete licence. Paradox is a leitmotif of Phaophanit’s work, indeed, along with its capacity for perpetual change, its continual mutations, it is arguably the work’s most enduring characteristic. Each time we feel it may have led us somewhere, it decamps, glides off elsewhere. It is persistently paradoxical in the original sense of that word para (beyond) Doxa (received opinion). It is this movement that Phaophanit described on one of the few occasions he has spoken about his work: “If there is an object, an aim, it is to start from a point and lead outwards from there. That to me is creativity. We have to create possibilities of meanings”‘. The work presents us with a sense of aesthetic accomplishment, it has often been described as beautiful or elegant. It has a strong sense of completeness and yet, at the same time, an indeterminacy arising from its fusions of substances and senses. We do not come away with a sense of knowing the work, but rather a sense of having seen and felt it. And, for Phaophanit, to truly see something we must forget its name.

Atopia, a series of works and a forthcoming book, is the space into which Phaophanit’s work has moved. It alludes to the irrelevance of attempting to pin down the work or to satisfy our constant urge to position the artist. If a work cannot be positioned, by the same token it cannot be appropriated by language it remains, as it were, adrift. Not U topia an imagined place of perfection, but A topia no place at all, no possibility of assigning a position or identity, free from the demand to be invested with an image, simply drifting. The body of work atopia issues from a year Phaophanit recently spent in Berlin on a DAAD scholarship with his young family a year when their lives were picked up and placed out of context, a year of total freedom, all needs taken care of, when they were left to roam in an alien city, language and culture. Moving to a different country, particularly on a temporary basis, has the benefit of permitting you to step out of your image of yourself which can become heavy and burdensome within the national boundaries to which you are accustomed. The new environment takes on the feel of an expanded playground where all markers are provisionally set adrift. For a while (perhaps no more than a protracted moment) in a new country, language and culture, in privileged circumstances such as the scholarship affords, you are no longer placed, you can float, without watching yourself, safe in the feeling (fantasy?) that you are unclassifiable.

Strangely, Berlin is perhaps the most unlikely atopia, weighed down as it is by the poisonous lead of its history, irredeemably over determined in so many hearts. Perhaps it was precisely this surfeit of meaning, the festering wounds of its real events that, paradoxically, made it open to atopia. Its chaos of unresolved narratives, its sites of unspeakable truths, perhaps atopia requires a backdrop such as this in order to come into existence. What seems certain however, is that Phaophanit’s work, with its own history of boundaries and frontiers explored and diffused, was in some senses liberated (however absurd this might seem) by the very real history of boundaries, literal and figurative, past and present, in this city in which his work was to take a new turn.

It was in Berlin, early in the year, that ‘pigeon sticks’ first came to Phaophanit’s attention. Gazing out of the kitchen window of his apartment his eyes met with those of a neighbour a few floors up who was leaning out of his window and methodically placing these sharp spikes onto his diminutive exterior windowsill; a descreet and personal act, not without its humorous side, of extending his territory by a few centimetres, from interior to exterior space. Phaophanit was marked by this gesture. From then on his forays into the city with his children were punctuated by the number of pigeon sticks they could spot; they began to see them everywhere, subtly but uncompromisingly marking out a dentelle of territories and at the same time adding their own physical presence to the landscape of the city. Virtually invisible and yet uncompromisingly present, quite beautiful and yet despicably vicious, the pigeon sticks fascinated Phaophanit. There was something archaic, almost primitive, about them in their anti technological simplicity, something absurd, pathetic even, in their staking a claim to small strips and patches of space as they perched on the heads of statues and moulded the contours of buildings.

Out of this Berlin time emerged the first work in the atopia series; a kind of non-­identical twin piece, inseparable and yet different and located one on either side of the historical, now virtually effaced frontier which divided and somehow still divides the city into East and West. The co existing works used pigeon sticks on the one hand, and polybutadiene synthetic rubber on the other. With cultural markers virtually absent, and the two materials geographically separated by several miles, this twin piece marked a radical transition in Phaophanit’s work. The pigeon sticks were installed in what was East Berlin on the roof of an old government administration building (fig. 4). The sticks formed an expansive field which covered the whole roof with the exception of one narrow corridor along which the viewer could pass to the centre of the field. The piece was entirely surrounded by the cityscape forming a kind of apocryphal oasis in its midst. These particular sticks are made of hard opaque plastic and as a mass, in certain light conditions, formed the gentlest of surfaces, the softest of white shag piles, fluffy to the eye where one didn’t engage with its borders, but at those borders brutal and unyielding. The synthetic rubber was installed across town in the old West at the DAAD gallery (fig. 5). A fourteen metre corridor of semi industrial skeletal steel shelving cut across the gallery space literally dividing it in two. The actual shelves however were missing from the structure and in their place hand tied lengths of domestic string were lashed across the long rows of steel. Draped over these feeble filaments were massive bales of industrial rubber. Over time and depending on atmospheric conditions, the rubber sagged, dropped and overflowed this inadequate frame. Towards the end of the exhibition its mass lay slumped on the floor. By then there was a certain pathos about the abandoned shelves. Virtually bare like a skeleton from which all but the shrunken traces of flesh had fallen away, just the clinging, cloying remnants of the sticky substance remained, persistent, glue like and yet crystalline like insubstantial words dripping from a line. These two pieces which formed one, communicated with each other across the geographical and ideological divide which separated them. At a visual and sensual level their materialities were in a kind of mute dialogue. As a viewer, visiting both pieces, you could literally sense this but with difficulty articulate it verbally. It was as if there were discreet bodily echoes or reminders, like a dream which leaves you with a poignant sense but no narrative information through which to identify it. This information remains tantalizingly just out of reach of your conscious mind and leaves you with only the acute bodily effect of the dream.

The second work in the atopia series, commissioned for the Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall, presents us with a monumental structure without function. A huge rectangular form of four sides of steps fashioned out of layers of reflective polycarbonate plastic known as multi skin, postures as if to lead somewhere. Its dimensions, scale and design anticipate a monument of some grandeur but it leads instead to nothing. Moreover the paradoxical steps are rendered impassable by the pigeon sticks which adorn them. They drop to a shimmering pool of spikes, a silvery carpet of nails.

In this new work the pigeon sticks have been transferred to an interior space and used on a massive scale. This is an important inversion and an immediate challenge to their normal function of marking out specific little territories such as window sills, shop signs or parapets. What happens when these apparatus of enclosure are themselves enclosed? What happens when their function is entirely withdrawn, when they are rendered useless on a grand scale? One consequence of their own materiality being accentuated in this way is that they begin to play tricks on our eyes, our senses, and in turn on the metaphorical machinations of our imaginations. There is a physical ambivalence about this piece: a coexistence of soft and hard, structure and fissure, smooth and barbed, depth and surface. There is a tension between perfection and imperfection, certitude and incertitude; amidst the order of the meticulously placed rows of pigeon sticks a hint of disorder persists we can just perceive the occasional slight shake of the human hands that placed them there. The layered effect of the multi skin further deepens the limbo it occupies. This material acts as a receptor and a reflector; it receives the light, which is an autonomous ingredient in all of Phaophanit’s work, and sends it back out again. The multi skin is never static, always in transition, depending on the vicissitudes of the light sources and of our own movements. The multi skin also has a vertiginous visual effect as we peer into its strata; it gives no sense of limit or perspective, as if our gaze could go on forever. When this kind of ambivalence occurs something happens to our eye, to the whole process of looking. We can begin to forget what we are looking at, its name, and in so doing begin to see it. We are no longer looking at a word, a thing labelled, but at the thing itself, and from here we can begin to make fresh meaning. Our habitual process of looking is suspended and a neglected dimension of vision seeing is reclaimed. Hence Phaophanit’s words “I want to reduce the gap between looking and seeing”.

So a reflective rectangle of crowded spikes can slip back and forth from dysfunctional swimming pool to oasis, from field of surgical sutures to turfed over Roman baths and on and on. Its capacity for metaphor is endless and the process can be an open ended and playful one. Atopia allows us that: no need to search for a hidden meaning there isn’t one. What is striking about this piece in relation to Phaophanit’s previous work is just how far this pushed; the sense it gives of moving ever further away from the knowable. And yet, despite remaining unknowable, the piece, simultaneously, asserts itself as something. It shows the realness of the unknown, its accessibility. It is perhaps no surprise then that children have been amongst the most receptive, perceptive and generous viewers of Phaophanit’s work. They see it rather than look at it, feel it rather than name it.

Claire Oboussier March 1998

© Phaophanit and Oboussier Studio 1998