Writing on Vong Phaophanit’s work is inevitably a somewhat paradoxical enterprise in as much as the work itself consciously plays at the borders of what is and is not accommodated by language. One could go further; it is perhaps a pursuit which is both spurious and ill advised in that the work is always irretrievably superfluous to that which can be said of it. A more auspicious approach, and certainly one more pertinent to the terms of Phaophanit’s practice, would be to attempt to write from it: to take as a point of departure as far as possible the internal economy of the work itself. Such an approach, of course, has a utopian dimension that is most likely unachievable (one cannot suddenly jump outside of language and its paradigms as if innocent and operate words through a visual idiom). Notwithstanding this, an effort can be made to attend to the work’s own terms, its own materiality, over and above any impulse to define and fix it within the ready made categories of language and beyond any anecdotal narratives that may temptingly offer themselves in a process of ‘reading’ and ‘understanding ‘the work. If saying what Phaophanit’s work is is not possible, saying what it is not is both possible and important given that it has so often been the object of preconceived notions of art practice and their pigeonholing tendencies. For example, attempts to define the work have often grounded it in the category ‘Conceptual Art’. Conceptual, however, is precisely that which the work is not. If conceptual art can be understood (albeit reductively) as a practice wherein concept takes precedence over materiality, the ideal over the sensible, a practice which uses concepts as its material, then Phaophanit’s work is in many ways its antithesis. His is an art that, through its heterogeneous cultural resonance, calls directly on the senses. It is a sensuous art, making meaning at the level of the material as well as the discursive.
It is perhaps not surprising then that Phaophanit’s work has frequently provoked the difficulty of interpretation that reached its peak with the disproportionate and overwrought press reaction to the Tate Gallery’s showing of neon rice field in 1993 (seven tons of white rice arranged in furrows, along the length of which were buried strips of red neon). From the ‘chinky’ cartoon adorning the title page of The Independent to the old “but is it art” (The Daily Telegraph), from Gerald Kaufman’s unequivocal and kindly “it’s definitely not British” to the erroneous “this could feed 10,000” (The Daily Telegraph), from the oh so predictable East/West binary fantasy (Time Out) to poor Brian Sewell’s concerned “I thought the [Turner] prize, according to the rules, was for a British artist” (The Evening Standard), the British press, both broadsheet and gutter, were galvanised. When a piece of art which takes no confrontational stance nor marks out any political territory engenders this degree of desperate exposition, it, paradoxically, indicates that in some curious way it has succeeded. Succeeded, that is, in putting discourses around art, which circumscribe and often set up false boundaries for it, into disarray.
If you name something, bring it into the terms of language, you control it. (Phaophanit is acutely aware of this. “To name”, he says, “is to possess, to own, to control.”) If something refuses to be named, if at each attempt at naming its resonance moves elsewhere in a kind of perpetual circulation, it cannot be controlled by this inimical naming process of language. It can begin to move in the direction of creating new and different meanings, or as Phaophanit puts it, “possibilities of meanings”. Perhaps the most frequent strategy of control has been the East/West dichotomy which has repeatedly been foisted onto the work. Appealing to these imagined fixed polar points to ground and explain the work presupposes that there is some sort of binary to be adhered to, Clearly, however, there is not and never has been for Phaophanit in his practice. As early as Rice bed (1987) and Fragments (1990), he was showing that it was where two images merge and form a third image which is where the work really began. The surface juxtapositions he has repeatedly set up may seem to invite this kind of dualistic interpretation, signifying as they do, at their most connotative level, cultural oppositions and differences (rice/neon, bamboo/lead, rubber/neon, ash/silk). But scratch the surface and it is clear that they gently mock the very notion of a simple East/West polarity and undermine the terms it rests upon. The cultural associations the materials carry and in turn the cultural allegiances we might imagine them to hold are much more complex and problematic than an easy dualistic reading allows for. For example, it has almost invariably been assumed by commentators that the rice Phaophanit has often used in his work is manifestly and unequivocally a ‘symbol’ or ‘metaphor’ of an equally unequivocal ‘East’. At one level, of course, it may operate as such, but even at this most narrative level the association is fraught with paradox and carries more than a touch of irony. Again, scratch the surface and the association reveals its multiple ambivalences; it is American rice, given in sponsorship, to be bagged up, washed and resold after the exhibition. In turn, the neon, neatly assigned to the ‘Western’ side of the dyad begins to seem less determinate if we consider the ubiquitous use of neon and its signifying force in any number of ‘Eastern’ cities (Macao, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok).
Phaophanit’s play with metaphor is more hybrid and richer than any oppositional hermeneutic strategy allows for. If his use of materials can be said to be metaphorical it is certainly not at the level of ornamentation: a material does not simply elegantly analogise an anterior idea or place. Rather the metaphor mobilised here turns upon an impulse to regain and render the materiality of the substances he works with. It is interesting that the Greek etymological root of the word metaphor pertains to movement beyond/transportation. The metaphor of Phaophanit’s work is precisely this: meaning in movement. Thus rice does not stand in for the East and neon does not imply the West, rather rice and neon meet at the level of their materiality, both activate each other; the translucence of the rice becomes visible through the glow of the neon and in turn the light emanating from the neon is transformed into a quasi solid substance through its contact with the rice. Through their difference, their separation, they incorporate each other. A new physical presence is created which is neither wholly the one nor wholly the other but something else, a third materiality; an amalgam of the differences of the two.
The effect of such shifts in perspective is, in Phaophanit’s words “to reduce the gap between looking and seeing”, the gap, that is, between looking as the most culturally bound of acts, historically implicated with systems of power and control and histories of representation, and seeing as a sensory act in which the eye of the viewer and the object meet and a kind of sensible infusion takes place. At the level of language it is hard, impossible even, to show this process at work. This is precisely because Phaophanit’s expanded form of metaphoricity ensures that the material can never entirely be collapsed into the discursive; it rescues the thing from the sign. This is part of a process of reclaiming the materiality of things beyond their figurative or conceptual meaning so that beyond their straight jacket of cultural connotation, their own corporeality can be sensed. There is, furthermore, a potent political and cultural dimension to this process. A material such as rubber for instance, is reappropriated by Phaophanit; huge sheets of it, laboriously engraved by hand with Laotian script, line the walls of an empty gallery space which in turn becomes no more than an empty recipient for the pungent odour and dark, massive presence of the rubber. A material loaded with cultural, historical and economic significance is thereby reclaimed differently; its materiality and its relationship to our corporeality is reasserted beyond its socio economic function. It is at this level that the rich cultural resonance and reference of Phaophanit’s work operates, not as an anchor, but rather always in circulation. The work does not narrate or re narrate any specific historical event; if any kind of narration does occur it is through the materiality of the work. Thus the work does not illustrate an idea, but ideas emerge from and are embodied by the work. This is not a denial of history or culture but rather their mobilisation, precisely to ensure they are never petrified and thereby forgotten.
Phaophanit’s predilection for walls also, paradoxically, bears witness to this impulse of the work to circulate, to traverse. Walls have loaded cultural and political significance which varies according to different historical and national positions. Nonetheless, cross culturally they most often denote boundaries, divisions, rejections, false physical limits. Explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously, all Phaophanit’s walls have infringed these circumscribed frontiers. As he has said, “all the walls I have made have in one way or another exceeded their own function”. We have seen a wall of dense rubber blocks, riddled with fissures, obstructing a dead end corridor housing only suspended red neon signs of Laotian script; false walls, made again of rubber, only this time rubber sheets, entirely lining a gallery’s own walls; walls of rice compacted behind glass panels lining the internal walls of a disused air raid shelter; a suspended circular wall of bamboo enclosing an empty centre.
The monumental Ash and Silk Wall is the latest in this series of obsolete walls. Until its recent removal (due to repeated vandalism), it was sited in a small, modestly landscaped park adjacent to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. The wall is an arresting physical presence. It makes as if to divide the park in two and yet its dimensions (14 metres long by 4.5 metres high) do not achieve this and there is a gap at each end. The wall has no infrastructure, no steel frame or skeletal armature, it consists only of glass, practically holding itself in place. If one were to take a cross section it would be revealed to be hollow. The facade of one side contains a layer of ash compressed between panels of glass and that of the other an expanse of dark saffron silk, also immobilised and flattened behind glass. The layer of ash awakens a certain curiosity, with its vertiginous visual effect. We inspect it closely, musing on the provenance of the half disintegrated bits, and suddenly it takes on the aspect of a distant aerial view of an unrecognisable land and then, as the light from behind irradiates the silk, its hot glow emanates through the fissures in the surface of the ash and it is as if we were peering into a red hot furnace behind. In this way, the materials themselves, as they interact, provoke radical shifts in perspective. Our gaze is restless, like the automatic focus of a camera which is having difficulty selecting what surface to fix upon. Any attempt to hold a perspective is foiled, not least by the ever transitional reflection of its surroundings captured on the plate glass surface of Ash and Silk Wall. At times, when light conditions are particularly brilliant, the wall can seem like nothing but the mirror of its location, but a passing cloud or approaching dusk are enough to bring its own physical presence back to the fore.
From a distance and viewed straight on, Ash and Silk Wall can appear impenetrable and yet on approaching and on shifting position it becomes apparent that not only can we simply walk around it, but its imposing facade is also marked by a displaced segment, as if cut around and pushed out, through which we can pass. In this way, the wall holds an internal contradiction: it is at once solid and breached, it poses as a barrier and yet not only does it fall short of separating the space it inhabits, it also allows just enough room for a body to pass through its own face. It shows the ultimate impossibility of the very concept of a wall. Boundaries which may appear to be unmitigable are in fact constructions which can never be radically infrangible. It is as if Ash and Silk Wall is a monument to the absurdity of such barriers. Thus it does not serve to divide the park but, in Phaophanit’s words, “to activate the other side”, that is, to show that while we stand on one side of the wall, we could always stand on the other. This may sound obvious but we have a strong tendency to perceive the world through sets of oppositions and to situate ourselves on one side of these preestablished dyads, seldom according any space to the in between. What is shown by Ash and Silk Wall is that it is the process of passage that is important, the possibility of moving through.
This is not to deny a sense of identity. It is precisely a process of identity, but identity within difference; as Richard Dyer puts it, “that gap is the space between the liberal rhetoric of equality and cultural diversity and the inevitable fact of difference”. The question is no longer one of oppositions, old dualities can no longer be applied here. There is a kind of multiplication of the body.
In recent work this has been developed further. The Laotian script which has been a leitmotiv of Phaophanit’s practice since 1986 has been worked and reworked. As always, the viewer is excluded from the semantic meaning of the words shown and is thereby re positioned on the ‘outside’ of meaning. Increasingly, the words (most often fashioned in glowing neon) are made and shown in ways which reassert their plasticity, their physical contours. There is a way in which these words are embodied: three dimensional, glowing from the inside outwards, hundreds piled on top of each other in an arbitrary pile, or just one or two twisted into a long horizontal strip of neon, arranged in lines which echo the habitual presentation of writing in book form but presented vertically, back to back. The word is no longer flattened and flattening but tangible and enlivening. These words carry meaning, so much is not in question, but beyond this they have a capacity, often neglected, to make new meaning. Each time we encounter language in Phaophanit’s work, it is language as living substance rather than passive purveyor of platitudes. Azure Blue Body (1994) pushes this corporeality of language to its extreme. Hundreds of blue neon words are piled haphazardly into a trench built into the gallery floor. On entering one sees only the pervasive light of the neons which literally fills the space. The words become visible as one approaches the trench and in the process of looking, their unitary identities are eclipsed by their whole. The blue mass takes on a physical presence of its own which is more than simply the sum of its components. In turn, the body of the viewer is also as if permeated by the blue light of the neon. Our physical aspect changes, skin colour changes hue and certain areas of pigmentation are intensified (pink becomes deep purple). Thus the markers of identity become temporarily unreadable and difference is not obliterated but shifted, disorganised.
Phaophanit’s most recent piece, From Light, made for this exhibition, takes as its point of departure simply a number of heterogeneous elements: a circular piece of film, without beginning or end, a few words fashioned, at intervals, into a line of blue neon light, and two rooms, one in obscurity and the other in ‘natural’ light. These disparate elements are kept as simple as possible and deliberately not ‘contextuaised’ or ‘conceptualised’, thus retaining above all their physical presence, their materiality. Their informational level is deliberately suspended. The film is shot and edited so as to render it equivocal: is it a seascape or a desertscape? Swept by rain or sand? Is its occasional yellow hue due to a fading sunlight, an industrial smog, a post nuclear cloud, or simply a technical ruse? It is replete with resonance and yet, simultaneously, impossible to locate. The line of neon light runs centrally, at floor level, the length of the two rooms (traversing the wall), thus effectively dividing the space with light. At one end it intersects at right angles with the film image. What becomes evident as the film circulates, however, is that there is no eye controlling the camera: it tracks the movements of a body and its (the camera’s) own eye is left to play at will. Its auto focus desperately grasps at surfaces upon which it might fix, only to blur again as the body continues to move, analogising the meaning making efforts of our own eye as we attempt to ‘make sense’ of the work. From Light, as its title suggests, is ultimately only light, perhaps the single most important and enduring material of Phaophanit’s work. Could it be the answer to the Laotian riddle posed as the title of an earlier work: ‘tok tem dean kep kin bo dai’ (what falls to the ground but can’t be eaten)?