Perhaps the greatest danger when writing about work such as Vong Phaophanit’s is to resort to the artist’s personal history to ‘explain’ the work. The use of this sort of ‘biographism’ as a principle of explanation imposes immediate limitations on the work itself by grounding it as the unproblematic expression of a fixed identity. Phaophanit’s work moreover is fundamentally at odds with this system of interpretation in that it is not rooted in a preconceived meaning but rather engaged in the process of making new meanings. Therefore, important and valid as his personal experience undoubtedly is, its position in terms of the work is that of a point of departure and it should not be taken to contain a hermenuetic authority.
The point has been made before and need not be laboured here, however we should, at the outset, bear in mind Phaophanit’s words: “The work is based on nothing, no strict discourse, no rules, except perhaps a new subjectivity … If there is an object, an aim, it is to start from a point and lead outwards from there”. There is, and always has been, in this work, an implicit resistance to categorization; it shifts deftly from presence to absence, from plenitude to emptiness, from literal to metaphoric, circulating but never fixing. And it is, paradoxically, this movement that provides the only ground when writing about (perhaps we should say from) the work.
The diversity of the materials that Phaophanit has brought into play both bears witness to and perpetuates this movement. The pieces materialise through a working process which is itself continually wandering, radiating. Metaphors, forms and movements of circularity recur, often leaving a sense, (physical or figurative), of central void, the visual manifestation of a desire for silence which is a vital moment both in the working process and in the effect of the piece of work produced, This silence can only ever exist momentarily and yet “without that moment of silence the work has failed”. In this sense silence is a necessity and an aim and it functions instantaneously, as a hiatus in time, from where the work begins. The choice of words and photographs which have figured so often in the work until now operates in an analogous way. Phaophanit describes how a word from a letter or a detail from a photograph is captured as it flashes by or as it echoes and reechoes in the imaginary space of memory. It is then materialised, as in the case of the rusting wire script dispersed in relief the length of a long white wall, twisted through a bodily gesture into the visual form of the words.
The artist’s fascination with photographic images (particularly snap shots) led him to a visual exploration of the discrepancy between the idea and the experience of memory. Works such as ‘Just a Moment’ and ‘Fragments’ operate in the troubled and unstable space where photographic image and time meet. The images, projected respectively onto a bed covered with rice flowing from a suspended sack and a circle of thirty whirring electric ventilator fans, circulate, merge and condense, occasionally repeating themselves obsessively. In ‘Fragments’ our gaze is met by a gentle stream of air, a bodily reminder of our position and of the vicissitude of the images caught temporarily on an illusory pellicle.
Both pieces experiment with notions of time, physically and visually presenting ways of experiencing it which differ from our more habitual linear and mechanical systems of measuring its movement. Onto the smooth surface of its continuum are projected new rhythms and repetitions as if to show that as well as the ordered, edited version which structures our everyday lives we also live within other experiences of time which have somehow been historically repressed. In this sense, the photographic images of ‘Just a Moment’ and ‘Fragments’ cheat our quotidian, commonsense conceptions of time: old family snapshots are reworked as they exist in the present.
In Phaophanit’s words, speaking of ‘Fragments’, “It intends neither to be autobiographical nor a nostalgic search for a childhood and an absent family. It is not an attempt to relate this story in the form of a continuum. It starts rather at this point: that despite everything these images still create other meanings and that through these photographs a place exists which cannot be defined, reduced by language, where meanings are not fixed and identities not stable. ”
We might perhaps add that the tyranny of a monolithic Western historical narrative which edits out people and events that threaten to disrupt its rationale and its linear consecution is also challenged implicitly through both the form and the content of these works. Their movement is circular not linear, there is no beginning and no end to their itinerary, no story to be deciphered, no riddle to be solved. If there is a narrative pattern it is informed by the process of dreams: these works have the visual effect of a dream; a mobilisation of images with an entirely different logic.
Like dreams these works are intrinsically visual in that within their internal logic it is the image that exists before the idea, an inversion of the idealist model where an idea or concept underlies and grounds the image. In ‘Just a Moment’ and ‘Fragments’ the image is in every sense the point of departure and any theoretical conjecture starts from here hence the remark that it is perhaps more appropriate to write from the work than on it. Roland Barthes defines the poetic by the word oneiric “our dream catches the words which pass before its eyes and makes a story of them” seen in this way the poetic subverts the order of the idea and the word, the concept and the image, the latter in each case taking precedence. This poetic operates at the visual level of language, perceiving the word in its materiality. And it is perhaps this vision of the poetic and its dream like flux which best characterises both the activity of making these pieces and the visual effect they produce.
Phaophanit further discourages the temptation for any anecdotal order to creep in by choosing inherently different systems of arrangement for the images: those of colour, light and form. The position of each image in the circuit is chosen according to the interplay of its colours, of its light, of its forms, with those of the images which precede and follow it. As one image passes through to the next colours change tone, a shadow deepens, letters superimpose to produce a hybrid pattern. There is a continual process of slippage at work, we may repeatedly imagine that we have ‘understood’, caught an image and attributed a meaning to it, and then that image transforms and the meaning grasped slips away. Perhaps the most significant point is in fact that moment of permeation, between the images, as one becomes the next, that point of visual osmosis when a new image is trying to exist through the air of the ventilator fans or the running of the rice. It is there where notions of memory, time, subjecthood and history begin to be reconstructed differently.
Yet at the same time as this absence of meaning, of fixity, there also exists, particularly in ‘Fragments’, a sufficiency. At moments the fragments seem to gather up within the wholeness of the circular screen. This piece does not leave us with a sense of no identity, it is not lacking in identity, indeed it is acutely singular. It presents an embodied subject asserting, in his/her own janguage, a different identity, an identity within difference. If there is a contradiction here, an irresolution between plenitude and emptiness, between wholeness and fragmentation then it is perhaps one we should not try to resolve.
Speaking of ‘Fragments’ Phaophanit has said “I wanted to reproduce in images the way in which my eyes scoured these photographs. A gaze which was always searching for someone, something more, and which occasionally fell upon a detail that existed in its particularity, but which never took in the totality of the image”‘. In this sense the works perform the configurations of memory; images from the past are reworked in the present in an imaginary, unmediated space where past and present are conflated through the workings of memory and the rules of linear history and time are confounded:
Nothing but a moment of the past? Much more
perhaps, something which being common to the
past and the present, is more essential than both.’
The photographic works always embodied another material; milk, rice, electric ventilator fans, glass, muslin, household furniture, clothes patterns, as if to bring the images back to a physicality, a corporeal presence. These materials began to fascinate Phaophanit in their own right and in more recent works (T.S.W.A. Four Cities Project, Plymouth, Arnolfini, Bristol and Chisenhale, London) he has used large quantities of rice, rubber and bamboo to make installations. These are materials loaded with cultural, historical and economic significance and produced on a large scale in South East Asia. They are also materials with which Phaophanit, particularly during his first eleven years (lived in Laos), has had a daily contact and built up an implicit relationship. As he has said of bamboo: “In Laos bamboo is present everywhere, we use it for constructing houses, as a cooking utensil, for canalising water, for storage purposes, we eat it, we sleep on it, we make musical instruments out of it. Its uses and form are infinite and it is an integral part of physical life”‘.
In the West bamboo clearly has a different set of uses and meanings, as is also the case for rice and rubber. These are over coded materials and yet as Phaophanit works with them there is a minimal economy of intervention. There is no will to manipulate them but rather simply to place them and allow new meanings to be set in motion through their own material presence. At the same time these works also seem to compose an act of reappropriation: Laotian script is engraved by hand into huge sheets of rubber which line the walls of an empty space, red, glowing neon signs of Laotian words are embedded in walls of rice which line the corridors of a disused Second World War air raid shelter and placed behind a wall of dense rubber bricks breached with deep chasms though which through which the viewer peers. In this way the materials are reclaimed differently, their physical presence and their relationship to our corporality is reasserted beyond their economic function. And analogously writing regains its gestural, physical side which, particularly in the West, has been consumed by the idea of the transmission of ready made meaning.
Language and writing, as it exists in Phaophanit’s work, as projected light image, as twisted rusty wire, engraved into rubber, inscribed onto lead, embedded in rice, as glowing senseless neon signs, has more to do with the suspension of meaning than with its communication. Thus when the remark is made “but I can’t understand the words”, paradoxically a latent characteristic of the work is identified. The words are not there to communicate at a semantic level (a Laotian reading the fragmented text would be confronted with a similar ‘lack’ of meaning). For the viewer unfamiliar with the Laotian language its referent is simply absent, for a Laotian it is displaced, continually deferred. This use of language invites us to perceive it in a different way, as the traces left by a body.
In Phaophanit’s most recent piece ‘What Falls to the Ground but Can’t be Eaten’, we find an outsize domestic doorway, clad in lead and inscribed, apparently haphazardly, with Laotian script. There is no door, no entry and no exit, no need for a doorway at all as there is no wall to traverse. As it stands there, framed by nothing and framing nothing, interior and exterior seem to merge and a circulation within the space begins. One side of this obsolete portal is a vast, suspended ‘forest’ of bamboo in the figure of an oblique circle, as if it had been stretched out to a point. It forms a mass and at first seems impenetrable and yet we rapidly discover that at the lightest touch the bamboo makes way for a body to pass through to the centre of this forest which is a void. Having negotiated our way through what had seemed at first to be unknowable we stand, temporarily shrouded, inside its internal space, a space that has been created within the material itself.