CONVERSATION WITH KAWITA
Kawita Vatanajyankur In conversation with Josephine Skinner
Josephine Skinner is co Director of Cement Fondu, Sydney. She was previously Curator of Stills Gallery, Sydney, and holds a PhD in Media Arts.
Your works continually test the limits of your mind and body. They speak to the histories of endurance art and feminist performance, critique the social politics of labour today, and display an aesthetic that resides at the intersection of abstract minimalist painting and a post digital sensibility.
So let’s begin near the beginning. You graduated in painting but shifted quickly into photomedia and then performance for video. We still see evidence of that journey in your current work where bold fields of colour foreground the flatness of the canvas, in this case, the screen. What initiated this shift in medium?
I began using video and photomedia when I was in the second semester of my first year in Painting, studying at RMIT. My painting lecturers were contemporary artists who worked with different mediums and they always encouraged me that I should not limit myself, or paint with just paints and canvas, because art is limitless.
Understanding that a painting could come in any form, I began to find what would work best for my practice - moving images. I was interested in actions and reactions, the development of character, situation, emotion. The transformation of a person or an object or anything else, through time. From that day, I have always aimed to create paintings using video as a medium. I started to play with colors, compositions, digital brushstrokes, etc. and treated my video as if it was a painted canvas in both production and post-production.
Yes, they are moving images – more so than in the general sense that all ‘movies’ are moving images. You use a single camera angle, which fixes the audience’s point of view much like standing in front of a traditional painting. The way you loop your shots so that they appear like one long take also heightens that effect.
Looping is something I want to talk to you about more. Postproduction isn’t a secondary process for you in the sense that your videos aren’t simply documentations of performances. You never perform live for audiences because the work simply wouldn’t function in the same way. For me, this is what offers the work salience in our present moment and situates it reflexively within the digital realm. In so doing, it breaks from the discipline and history of performed endurance art before it. For instance, many endurance works hold their emotional power through the live - or documented - demonstration of physical degradation over time. While there are elements of that in your work – egg yolk accumulating on your face or ice forming on your hair - by foregrounding the loop and the impossibility of never-ending endurance, you insert an element of fantasy or magic realism. In cheerful colours, this is the Disneyland version of endurance art.
After all, your performances actually last around 3 minutes or less. To point that out isn’t to undermine the courage and commitment involved in making them, or to suggest they aren’t genuine tests of endurance. They’re the result of months of physical preparation and some
simply couldn’t be performed for longer. It’s also important to note that there is no digital manipulation in the sense of ‘faking’ the precarious nature of the actions. You often hang from significant heights and you’ve injured yourself seriously in the process.
My point is that the loop isn’t just a tool, but rather, the logic of the loop is key to the work’s meaning. It is a signifier. Despite the image of constant activity and perpetual hard work through all your videos, there is a sense of stuckness, an inability to break from the incessant demands of the task.
Earlier in your practice this reflected the drudgery of domestic work as assigned within entrenched gender roles - you became the broom and the ice shaver – and more recently you’ve looked at dehumanising modes of industrial labour, the machinisation of the worker. In all cases, by utilising a glossy, advertising aesthetic, you position these problematic politics of labour within a reality of consumption. You seem to be suggesting that capitalism disguises with bells and whistles the loop we’re caught in of desire and failure. The image of progress, rather than the reality of progress, is enough to keep us distracted.
This cycling of desire and failure predates digital culture of course, we could argue it’s what makes us human, but together they make a powerful team. In line with technological advancements, the psychological looping of desire and failure is accelerating, near instantaneous. Your video loops exaggerate this through the illusion of an ever present.
The loop offers an optimism, albeit a false optimism, that sits in stark contrast to performative works that ultimately have an end point. An end speaks to the capacity of human failure, loss of control, the fallibility of flesh. Your work rejects those things. It appears to exemplify - almost command - resilience. From this perspective your videos are plays on propaganda, calling the audience into being. You will endure. You will perform. Fallibility is unconscionable. Failure is not an option. But they raise the question of choice versus survival?
Yes, my videos are not usually just documentation of my performances. The loop narrates the continuous nature of everyday labor while highlighting moments of physical and psychological transformation. For example, I usually enter the space of performance as myself and I slowly transform into tools, objects or machines through the repetition of the acts and my confrontation with each moment and situation.
The videos are both performative and surrealistic. What viewers see in the work is a developed self, where failure was – nearly - no longer an option. For example, after weeks or months of practice, I select key moments of transformation to show to the audience, moments when my body has already adjusted. But they will see references of failure. The body never operates as perfectly or as precisely as machines, it is still struggling to be a perfect tool.
Hanging myself high above the ground in The Robes (2014) and Carrier (2017) allowed me to let go of the fear of height, and more importantly, it gave my body a sense of freedom and being light-weighted. I became convinced I was a light fabric.
The sense of being stuck reflects the inability to escape from everyday labor. Nowadays, we define ourselves by our ability to work and by our career, and without this I often question how we would identify ourselves and who we really are? Would we be driven by a life's purpose? How do we value ourselves? Because of this, our lives tend to be caught up with never-ending loops of desire, and with loops of failure during times when we don't succeed.
Although there is a sense of being stuck in my videos, during the performances there is also a switch between holding on and letting go. You see me shift to being completely free from my
body and mind. When letting go of my sense of self my human form is fluid and changeable.
This ambivalence is one of the most compelling qualities of your work. You’ve described how your performative process is a deeply personal, spiritual practice as much as an artistic one. Through pain you experience a release from the physical world through achieving a state of presence. The tasks you undertake draw on yogic poses. They allow you to relinquish the egoic self – which is a true form of meditation. And yet, the works are also powerful, often violent gestures of resistance, protesting oppressive social systems.
How can we reconcile on the one hand, the message to resist ‘going with the flow’ when it comes to just accepting the hamster wheel of working life, and, on the other hand, the message to go with the flow. To be more receptive and malleable, to embrace the conditions of life as they are, to find peace in the reality of pain and suffering?
The key of meditation is about minimizing and removing negative thinking, pain and suffering by facing it, understanding it, and letting it go. Physical pain and psychological pain are very different. Physical pain never lasts long but the feelings and emotions that are attached to pain extend the suffering. My meditative process is a cure to psychological pain. Before curing emotional pain, one needs to understand where it comes from- the attachment to one's belongings, including our own body. In today's society, where internet, social media and television advertise the 'image' of what one should earn, of what one should be attached to, it is much easier to encounter pain and suffering. We lose sight of our own distinctiveness and try as hard as we can to become a copy of other people.
In a world where working is a tool for survival we can never resist the fact that labor and money drive us to stay alive. Because of this condition, I wish to suggest that valuing and appreciating all forms of work is a way to cherish our own development, as well as to decrease inequality and encourage respect for ourselves and others. We tend to compare ourselves to others and we also tend to ignore the value of those with lower status or who earn much less. Appreciating all levels of work and labor is a path to fix human rights violations and labor exploitation.
In this sense, the connection between meditation and my practice is through self-development and self-improvement. My work is not meant to instruct audiences to accept pain while disregarding their problems, or to repeat the same thing over and over again, it is more about challenging their issues and dealing with them. Pain is a part of our lives because we are humans. However, there is also a sense of self-empowerment and strength, an ability to push our own limitations and boundaries, an ability to become a better version of ourselves, all of which will eventually lead to a greater path through life and contribution to society.
Yes, I see that. Rather than presenting a duality of pain and strength, or violence and peace, you explore the necessity of both without ascribing judgement to either. What I mean is, you don’t present suffering as ‘bad’ in a simple sense. Your works remind us that we are all at our strongest when we’re at our most vulnerable. And that we’re most vulnerable when we’re revealing and facing uncomfortable truths.
You transcend pain not only by expanding your own personal limits but by creating something larger than and external to yourself – you perform on behalf of those who are undervalued and exploited, and in a sense for us all. In this process you become a medium in the true meaning of the word. Your work foregrounds your body but isn’t about you. You
carry, channel and transport - in the obvious sense, of course – but also in a metaphorical sense. You’re a conduit for contemplation and you’re bearing the weight of social injustice and systemic hardship.
We’ve spoken about the influence of painting, but you’ve also often described that in your performances your body becomes a medium - sculpture. I find that fascinating - ambivalent and complicated. It extends the intricate relationship we’ve discussed between transcendence and submission because the history of sculpture imbues it with further connotations of power and gender. I can’t help but think of the power dynamic between male ‘Masters’ and the female object of beauty. The muse, forever silenced in stone. Dressed in simple silhouettes and neutral tones, and behaving with absolute stoicism, you embody this. You are a dehumanised, malleable material. But, you are also the master - of your own body and of the work. You play both roles.
Can you speak to how, if at all, you see gender in relation to this notion of becoming sculpture, and also why you’ve shifted from looking specifically at gendered experiences of oppression since your earlier series?
Gender inequality plays an important part in my works and I have never shifted away from it. My body merges with objects and eventually turns into a sculpture. I have been searching for the origin of the objectification of women and believe that it is different for each society, culture and background. However, we can't deny the fact that in the modern technological world, the media is shaping the idea of how all women should look physically, defining the definition of beauty and forming a belief in the importance of appearance - a belief that appearance can derive power, respect and wealth. After all, women are sculptures cast by society's mould.
Even though women's empowerment plays a significant role in today's society - the fact that our intelligence and competence are now acknowledged, and the fact that we can be strong and independent - in reverse, fear and insecurities now inflict our inner lives due to social concepts of self-image. Fear and insecurities can lead us to objectify ourselves and lose sight of who we truly are.
I often question women’s insecurities when it comes to society's perception of their appearance, sexuality and their role in romantic relationships. For example, in Thailand, labour exploitation is often related and connected with sexual exploitation and domestic violence cases. In the domestic environment of lower-income levels of society where women do not have education or stable careers, they are more likely to be seen as weaker within the marital relationship and are often controlled by a husband, either physically or emotionally. This prevents a woman from realizing who she is as an individual and can transform her into a domestic object.
Your more recent work looks at exploitation outside of the domestic realm in industrial contexts, such as critiquing conditions within the Thai fishing industry. The image of you being ‘reeled in’ by a hook in your mouth is particularly confronting and highly symbolic. In that instance you're no longer the inhuman object or tool but the sentient fish. You're a victim. The prey. What drew you to make this work?
'Big Fish in a Small Pond' is different than any other work I have done because it is more about the conditions at the bottom of the income pyramid - the largest but poorest socio- economic group. It is a symbolic work, representing labour in the Thai fishing industry as a modern form of slavery. My body is transformed into a living victim- a fish, forced, hooked
and being pulled in. As research, I wanted to understand what has been happening by interviewing the labourers. I wanted to listen to their stories about what they have been through, and by making a small series of work about it, I wanted to share their personal experiences.
We purchase packages of food and cans of fish assuming that they are produced by machines in the factory - because of the colourful and bright advertising on the cover. Yet, we never realize, or just ignore the fact of what happens behind the scenes in the middle of the sea somewhere.
However, instead of using deep-sea fish in the work, I used the Ruby Fish - a genetically modified fish. This was to make comment on modern consumerism. How colour, taste and size are designed and created by big and powerful companies in Thailand to attract consumers like us. Are we, in the end, also victims of today’s consumer culture?
The impact of modern consumption underlies so many different threads in your work. You’ve mentioned the desire for the perfect body and now the manufacturing of a genetically modified perfect fish. Here in Australia we waste masses of bananas every day because they aren’t bendy enough, they’re too straight. Supermarkets don’t put them on the shelves so consumers don’t even get to decide. Where is the so-called ‘consumer power’? We don’t even realise that, down to the tiniest, banal details like the shape of bananas, our minds are being made up for us. Not to mention the horrific environmental impact, or as you’re highlighting, the vastly imperfect working conditions that create this 'perfect' reality.
This social preoccupation with perfectionism is the product and producer of our modern economy – the economy of discontent. It is a psychological condition and lived reality, regardless of wealth. Perfection is endlessly seductive because it’s endlessly out of reach, and this is manifest in the appeal of your works - the optimism and abundance of jewel colours, the uncomplicated scenarios, the apparent absence of human anguish. Clearly you undercut this illusion but your aesthetic engages - or intervenes - in the same mechanism of escapism we’re so attracted to in consumption.
Film theorist Richard Dyer describes how ‘utopia’ operates through escapism. It offers a more simplified experience of life, a respite from our messy, contradictory, dark and confusing emotional inner worlds. Similarly you, just like the logic of consumption, lure us in with the same offering. It is this quality that speaks to universal experience at the same time as reflecting specific aspects of Thai culture; the beautiful colours in everyday life, the resilience and grace of its working class, and the systemic social injustices and human rights violations. Are you consciously working to traverse local and global experiences? Where does your personal investment end and a more abstract exploration of consumer reality begin?
The flat colour backgrounds I use reference advertising posters and how the industries promote their products. While I act and transform into objects the whole frame of each video piece becomes a candy-coated advertising poster. These posters usually come with lies that reveal the truth and truths that tell a lie.
The desire to achieve the concept of 'perfection' is behind our everyday actions, our drive to meet social expectations, and the pressure to speed-up how quickly we achieve a certain standard of life. From modified food to the reshaping of human bodies, such as plastic surgery, we have fallen for the delusional importance of surreal ideals of quality and value. These ideals value the corporeal world and disconnect those struggling to survive.
The human desire to be satisfied by 'perfection' can also be a positive driver for self- development. However, the devotion to gaining power, the hunger to be on top and to keep accumulating wealth can cause humans to overlook other aspects of life or reject what they see as unbeneficial for them personally. For example, the food industry's acts of rejecting the imperfect bananas, eliminating disfigured chicks when they’re born and disregarding
tortured fishing labourers. These things will gradually expand the limits and boundaries of moral standards. In other words, it will become increasingly difficult to discern the difference between what's right and wrong, which will eventually lead us away from the path of rights and justice.
I am always speaking to both local and global experiences - searching for what is at the root of the repetitive working cycle and labour exploitation. I have found it comes down to materialism and our quest to be fulfilled through accumulating more without acknowledging how others are suffering in the process. Once ignored by society it’s as if people disappear into a completely different world, a world where they are no longer treated as human. In my art practice, the search for the truth of consumption begins by questioning if we as consumers are all to blame for such acts of violation?
In terms of my personal experience, my father, an extremely well-known celebrity and CEO in Thailand, died when I was still a teenager due to the social pressure to be the best and his effort to work endlessly to earn more for his family. His daily work life was truly extreme, lacking in sleep, healthy food and water. His death was seen as a wake-up call for Thai society in regard to this unhealthy culture of overworking. Yet the news was only big for a short while. Sharing my art practice has helped me heal from his death while once again reminding society to question their approach to everyday life and to better realize their spiritual values, morals and sense of justice towards others.