Dunedin Public Art Gallery
5th May 2018 - 26th Aug 2018
In her video-based performances Kawita Vatanajyankur (b.1987, Thailand) uses her own body as a tool, exploring and exploiting her physical and psychological limits through repetitive actions and endurance. Her practice, underpinned by her position as a Thai woman, is predicated on an ongoing interest in issues surrounding everyday labour – both inside and outside of the home. This area of ongoing research has seen Vatanajyankur bring domestic chores and gender binaries, working conditions and social ideologies, and industrial processes to the fore. These research threads are then translated into a concept that presents a direct challenge to the artist – can she symbolically and literally become the object or tool in question? Can her body be used as an artifact?
Set in front of an eye-catchingly colourful backdrop, Vatanajyankur performs a particular action that imitates the selected object or task: her body is a mop that is submerged in a bucket of water; a beam scale being balanced with fruit or vegetables; a wet rag used to wash the floor. These formal productions often involve only a limited range of movements or gestures, centring instead on repetitive actions, strength and an exploration of the artist’s physical and mental boundaries. The audience is positioned both as witness and spectator – pulled between Vatanajyankur’s alluring aesthetics and the often confronting physicality that operates as the central tension of the artist’s practice.
In late 2017, Vatanajyankur spent six weeks in Dunedin as part of the Gallery’s Visiting Artist Programme. With earlier works examining textiles industries and industrialised work processes within Thailand, her residency saw her expand this interest with research into New Zealand wool production. In these most recent works, Vatanajyankur’s body becomes particular machines and processes used within the manufacture of textiles – she is a skein of fibres dipped into red dye; she is a spinning wheel creating thread; and she is a shuttle, weaving fabric on a loom.
This suite of videos is Vatanajyankur's physical manifestation of manual labour processes often undertaken by women in Thailand. These actions are presented through the double-lens of a hyper-coloured formal composition and a study into the physical abilities/vulnerabilities of the body, combining as works that provoke questions of labour, consumption, feminism and the artist's lived experience.
A Visiting Artist Project supported by Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa and Project Partner Dunedin School of Art
Written by Dunedin Public Art Gallery Curator Lauren Gutsell
by Gracie Partridge
Plunging viewers into a dreamlike world of candy-bright hues and mind-bending physical performance, Kawita Vatanajyankur explores the binaries of Western culture, juxtaposed against the mechanised versus traditional body. By accessing elements of Thai femininity, she invokes a powerful sense of physicality, uncovering a world of often-invisible domestic labour by painfully testing the limits of her own body. Her dynamic video art is a springboard to explore the value and understanding of the performative body, and the role of gesture within that very performance.
Vatanajyankur’s work is caught in this moment of stasis—time-consuming and physically exhausting. The tonality of happy day-glow colours juxtaposed against dark humour and undercurrents of violence brings violent gravity to her work—drawing attention to mechanisation, and highlighting the historical trajectory of feminist art.
Performing Textiles is a 2018 body of work, capturing the physical manifestation of manual labour processes undertaken by women in Thailand. Often-invisible, this exploration of domesticity is particularly telling of Vatanajyankur's homeland, where daily chores aren’t always assisted by electronics or white goods and are often tasked to women. Her suite of videos offers a vignette into the physicality and vulnerability of the feminine body. As a collection, Performing Textiles provokes questions surrounding the place of cultural identity, feminism, labour, consumption and lived experiences—classified through a lens of hyper-coloured realism and the intensity of physical versus material composition.
Curatorial Essay by Gracie Partridge
Originally commissioned by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand, Performing Textiles acts as a vessel within which Vatanajyankur explores the importance and history of textile production. Her body acts as a personal site, giving voice to the labour of women. Created when travelling around New Zealand, the journey that inspired the series began when Vatanajyankur chose to explore various techniques of textile production existing within the small textile villages of her home in Thailand. Here, production was often time-consuming, but the quality of fabrics fashioned by these women were superior. Further exploration led Vatanajyankur to the garment industries of Bangkok. In the predominantly female-dominated space of these textile factories, the value of feminine labour and exploitation is still a major contemporary issue.
However, textiles undeniably have a place firmly embedded in history, and it is this history of textile production—recognised as women’s labour—that has ingrained itself in our culture. Basketry, loom weaving, knitting, crochet and lacemaking are all feminine material skills that rendered men unnecessary. As such, Vatanajyankur’s practice “focuses on valuing women’s everyday work and labour, while offering a powerful examination of social and cultural ways of viewing women’s work”. Labour exploitation is a major issue within consumeristic society, blocking access to female empowerment and gender equality. Performing Textiles brings this issue into the public sphere.
Textiles are linked symbolically to birth, fertility and reproduction. The practice of working with materials connects women’s bodies to the earth. It is a symbol of life and power. There is a poetic parallel which exists between the creation of new thread and new life. In Greek mythology, The Three Fates were destined to control the ‘mother thread’ of life of every mortal from birth to death, and Athena was considered the goddess of wisdom and weaving. Vatanajyankur’s Dye both explores and subverts this feminine mythology and history. Her body is pushed to the brink of pain and exhaustion—her hair a mop of woollen thread. It is here that the words of Luise Guest resonate. She states: “A woman’s hair is imbued with contradictory meanings—a ‘crowning glory’ that is also abject, a sexual fetish that is also terrifying, a source of power that also signifies vulnerability and subservience”.
Curatorial Essay by Gracie Partridge
The historical relationship between textiles and war are clearly explored in Vatanajyankur’s work. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women used textiles as political commentary to protest violence. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, women wove rugs to cope with the violence surrounding their everyday lives. This provided a source of income for families devastated by warfare—and brought women into a male sphere—giving back power through tools of domesticity. Vatanajyankur’s experience visiting Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin, and the exhibition Women’s War, also influenced her practice. Here, thousands of women sewed and knitted necessities for soldiers during the first world war. As such, textile mediums themselves cannot help but carry a deep tension of conflict. It is a violent history, soaked into the very threads of female life.
Over the last century, women have taken this feminine craft from a private to public space. Textiles have been reinterpreted, and their power reclaimed by women exploited through the associated practice. No longer confined to a domestic space, the value of textiles has been subverted. Its place within performance art can be seen in the pioneering works of Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama and Shigeko Kubota. The very essence of Performing Textiles pays homage to this history of performative identity, and continues to grow in the contemporary practice of other female endurance artists.
Curatorial Essay by Gracie Partridge
A savagely beautiful collision between domestic labour and the feminine body, the Performing Textiles exhibition offers a platform for Vatanajyankur to undertake physical experiments that playfully, and often painfully, test her body’s limits. The lurid, cotton-candy colour palette is merely a guise—a spectre that exists at the place where the physical and invisible meet. The videos are a challenge to the viewer, both unavoidably compelling and uncomfortable to watch. Vatanajyankur transforms her body into various textile process tools. Her physical form becomes the embodiment of a spinning wheel or weaving shuttle. As the works progress, her body struggles to compete as the material tool, and thus her form undergoes both psychological and physical metamorphosis. The draining repetition of movement is symbolic of labour’s endless totality and the materialism behind human consumption.
As a video artist first and foremost, Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work presents her body, not alongside, but as the machines and processes used within the manufacturing of textiles. Subsequently, this presents a striking incongruence that lives at the intersection between physicality and performativity. Poetic and savage, Performing Textiles explores the cultural significance of the female form—successfully bringing universality and contemporaneity to the value of women and their historical trajectory in feminist art.