Kawita Vatanajyankur

Kawita Vatanajyankur is best known for her eloquent and powerful feminist practice as a performance artist, whose work explores the burdens of hard physical labour expected of women in traditional Thai society. Vatanajyankur’s feats of physical endurance and strength create a tension that starts with physical discomfort and concludes by transforming pain into a thing of power and beauty.

Where do your ideas usually begin?
My ideas, inspirations and influences usually start with small discussions over dinner with my family about their work in the legal and justice sector. By bringing these personal conversations to the public through my art, I hope that somehow, someone may become more socially engaged and inspired to contribute positively towards an egalitarian and just society.

In ‘The Scale of Justice’ series, recently shown at the OzAsia Festival on a large outdoor screen, the hypnotic rhythm of the rice pouring onto the trays evokes an immediate curiosity as to the use of your body as a type of ‘beam scale’. Can you tell us about the making of this work and the fierce, feminist narrative that informs your practice?
‘The Scale of Justice’ is a universal symbol for all equality and balance, and I created a number of performative works related to this theme including The Scale (2015), The Scale 2 (2015) and The Scale of Justice (2016). I wanted The Scale 2 to be exhibited on a large screen within a public space in front of the Festival Centre so it could be seen as an outdoor work, with the green background like a rice field. The series was produced with the intention to value and highlight everyday human labour, especially those workers who are often disregarded.

In the world of consumerism, consumption and materialism, we tend to value products, materials and objects rather than people. The traditional beam scale is a reminder that human beings should be treated equally regardless of their background, beliefs or gender. To me, being a feminist artist is about believing in all justice and equality, and not only speaking about being ‘female’ as a gender.
In The Scale, I engaged in a meditative shoulder stand, performing as a single scale weighing around sixty watermelons that were being thrown into the blue basket placed on my feet. During this performance, I had to overcome my fear of failure, of being hit in the face by the watermelons, and was required to gain enough strength to balance the watermelons.

In The Scale of Justice, I transformed myself into a working beam scale by turning myself up and down to measure the weight of the vegetables thrown into the baskets that were hanging on my neck and legs. This work was the most difficult by far; it required me to control my strength and power going up and down, while appearing completely emotionless. Endurance became one of the most important aspects of my performance, especially where my body and mind demonstrated the ability to adjust and transform. After weeks of practice, I transformed into a stronger version of myself and turned myself into the tool or machine I was performing in the work. The works taught me to overcome my fear and insecurity and to always trust myself to push my limits even further.

Bill Viola has been cited as an early influence in your work, shifting your practice from painting to video art.
I was fourteen when I came to Australia and I had no idea about art. Bill Viola’s exhibition ‘Ocean without a Shore’ at the National Gallery Victoria opened my eyes to the notion that art was not about the medium, rather it was about the meaning behind it; a meaning that will perhaps forever change the individual who has encountered it.

Your earlier works Poured (2013) and Soaked (2013) evoke the use of water, which is a common element in Viola’s work.
When shifting my practice from painting to video, I began referring to my work as video paintings. Water seemed to be the first element that connected the two completely different mediums together. While the aesthetic is concerned with composition, colour combinations and even the motions and actions which replicate the brushstrokes in a painting, the direction of my content was inspired by my lecturers; they taught me not to create works only about myself, but encouraged me to produce work with a social message.

In my final year of study at RMIT (Melbourne), I began to use my own body in my video works. I wanted to experience the performance first hand and to test my ability to withstand the given tasks. Soaked (2013) and Poured (2013) were my first performative videos created for one of my earliest exhibitions, held at Beam Contemporary Gallery soon after graduation. I had already returned to Bangkok when I began making them. So I started research as an ‘outsider’ who was living in Thailand and experiencing an entirely new culture and tradition. Soaked and Poured were also included in the series ‘Tools’  (2012-14) alongside Dustpan (2014), The Robe (2014) and others. In this series I transformed myself into household tools or domestic objects, performing as the many different working tools used by women to clean the house or to cook. I questioned the roles of women which were created by the society’s belief systems and traditions as these are roles that have shaped and altered our identities as women.

This concept of human labour, more broadly, continued in your ‘Work and Machinised’ series – which appears to have a deeply personal social message.
I started working on ‘Work and Machinised’ from 2015 to 2016. It parodies a slippage between human and machine; as the workers are performing their duty repetitively like machines, the machines are also replacing their jobs. Our continuing loops of desire are unstoppable, always tending to want more, purchasing things that we don’t really need. It was also a response to the death of my father who was a celebrated CEO of a production house and famous creative producer. My father died from over-working, lack of sleep and from a large amount of stress from work. His death, to me, was a wake-up call and made me question if anything he had was important at all.

The bold use colour in your video art forms a playful backdrop to your often serious and critically engaging political performances. Can you explain the motivations behind your set designs?
I often use vibrant colours as forms of advertisement – to highlight that one of the reasons we value materials, products and objects rather than human beings is because of the packages, commercials and billboards that are selling them to us consumers. From a distance my video work resembles a playful TV commercial, yet closer inspection reveals the violence that is behind the scene. This evokes issues of labour exploitation in the food, fashion and textile industries.

These issues seem to be particularly pertinent to your recent series ‘Performing Textiles’ (2018).
My current practice explores the history and importance of textile production. In ‘Performing Textiles’, which I started during my residency in New Zealand, I was inspired to visit small textile villages in my home country as well as garment factories in the female-dominated spaces around Bangkok. The works focus on the fashion and textile industries where labour exploitation is still a major issue, with around 85 per cent of the labourers being women. Within that series I am evolving my practice, presenting my first live performance and site-specific work at the Peninsula Bangkok Hotel in January 2019 as part of the Bangkok Art Biennale. I will continue to develop this new idea and work throughout my three-month residency at the hotel. As part of this research, I am also working with a team to film a documentary on the garment industries in Bangkok, which will include interviews with female labourers working in the factories.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

Kawita Vatanajyankur: Performing Textiles
15 June – 25 August 2019
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney


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