By Tiril Sofie Erdal.
Apichaya Wanthiang exhibited recently Drivved og spøkelsesjegere at Gallery LNM (Landsforeningen Norske Malere) in Kvadraturen. Wanthiang’s paintings are both visually and thematically innovative, with expressive brushstrokes, colour contrasts and a contemporary theme. The collection of paintings consists of eleven acrylic paintings, with flood in tropical landscapes as the overall theme. They are terribly relevant in this age of climate change, where the extent of these issues and the human impact is incomprehensible.
As a consequence of humans large impact on earth, we are now in the geological age of the Anthropocene. This term comes from speculative geology and the transition to the Anthropocene is still in process. The term was popularized in 2002 in the scientific journal Nature by the Dutch chemist Paul J. Crutzen (Davis, H. Turpin, E., 2015, p. 4). The Anthropocene is largely a sensorial phenomenon about living on an increasingly unstable planet (Davis, H. and Turpin, E., 2015, p. 3) This is no longer just about the future, but about the present. We may wonder why we are doing so little when we know so much, but this builds on the idea that there is a strong connection between knowledge and action. As the problems are growing, we should be doing more to stop them. In stead there is a growing right wing, with many climate deniers. Perhaps this is because of how incomprehensible these problems are. Climate change is normally presented through abstract numbers and graphs. These abstract facts should be connected closer to the human experience, as something real and affecting our everyday life, not just in the far off future. It is not enough to address these issues through political, economical, and rational approaches (Davis, H. and Turpin, E., 2015, p. 11). Art is a great platform for this. It gives room for experimentation and is not bound to scientific objectivity. (Davis, H. and Turpin, E., 2015, p. 4) Art has the ability to go beyond the subjective and establish room for reflection around our contemporary problems in a local and global perspective.
Apichaya Wanthiang originates from Thailand, grew up in Belgium and got her education in Brussel and Bergen. Because of her international background, her artworks show both the local and the global sides of climate change. This gives also the artworks a personal dimension. The effect of climate change is abstract and distant like it is to viewers of the exhibition here in Norway, but it has also a direct personal impression because of her background.
Nickolas Mirzoeff argued that artistic genres like Impressionism could be usefully re-interpreted through the lens of the de-sensitization we have to the world today. (Davis, H. and Turpin, E., 2015, p. 11) Apichaya Wanthiang’s paintings should not be narrowed down to one artistic period from the past. However, her paintings can be interpreted as using impressionism’s esthetic of capturing the moment in a distanced manner. The exhibition has also a strong expressionistic quality. The quick brushstrokes and colour contrasts can remind us of the expressive brushstrokes of painters such as Van Gogh. Nature expresses the emotional impact of the disaster for example with dirty blood red paint strokes contrasted to the green plants, but Wanthiang uses also other painting techniques. Some places she has splashed the paint on the canvas or let it run, and some of the plants are painted more detailed with delicate brushstrokes. The delicate brushstrokes may express the delicacy of nature, and the watery paint, the soaking wet nature after extreme weather like what is here illustrated. Through the use of different techniques Wanthiang expresses the sensual quality of nature following the disasters in these areas. Vibrating strokes are dancing across the canvas like flames, showing nature as something dangerous as well as beautiful and fascinating.
The colours and compositions gives also an insight to the relationship between humans and nature. There is made a distinction between the two, through the rigid lines of the houses opposed to the wild and organically shaped surroundings. However, the products of humans are represented with the same colour scheme as the surrounding nature. This goes against the idea of humans as separate from nature. Humans and nature are both portrayed as vulnerable, and in some cases humans more than nature. The house to the right (fig 2) is just painted with an outline of thin white strokes. This see-through and ghostlike house points to our mortality and gives more meaning to the title of the exhibition «Driftwood and ghost hunters». The small white brushstrokes of the house gives it a fragile impression, like some of the delicate plants. This turns around the view of nature being tamed by humans for our own convenience. In stead, human constructions are being destroyed by extreme weather.
The paintings are empty of people. This creates a ghostlike sensation. We are not pushed over with too much patos from images of crying or hurt children, but left with an emptiness from the lack of them. In stead the humans are present through the empty and destroyed houses. The expression of the natural disaster is also brought out of the paintings and into the gallery through the way the exhibition is curated. In stead having the paintings framed and hanging them on the walls, they are attached to raw wooden poles, facing in different directions. This gives the paintings a rough expression. Although there is not explicitly any «driftwood» there, the poles emphasizes that part of the title. Walking around the paintings in this small exhibition space makes it feel like one is walking around «driftwood» and the worn down houses of the paintings, standing on similar poles. Building houses on poles is normal in Thailand and is done to prevent the houses from being ruined by the floods.
The exhibition’s somewhat mysterious title, Drivved og spøkelsesjegere, «Driftwood and ghost hunters» does not describe the motives physically present in the paintings, but the emotional impact. It is an abstract title which gives an impression of the emptiness and ruins following natural disaster. The empty and ghostlike houses in some of the pictures are both there and not. The pictures are deserted and points to death or at least the destruction of homes, turning them to «driftwood».
Apichaya Wanthiang tells us in an information text in the exhibition how she has frantically searched online after pictures and come over an overwhelming amount. She used these images’ dirty tones of green and brown in the colour palate of the paintings. Wanthiang tells also about looking at pictures of the blood red streets in Dhaka, which she describes as both beautiful and terrifying. This is the atmosphere which she reproduces in a dreamlike way. Her paintings are between the local realities of natural disasters as a consequence of climate change and the superficial, abstract and academic images of the global perspective. The latter matches with the background of most spectators in relation to the theme.
The exhibition presents pictures we’ve seen many times before on the news and gotten strangely used to. Pictures, so overwhelming, they often leave us apathetic. Through this exhibition, however, Wanthiang brings forth the esthetics of the catastrophe. The paintings express the seriousness of climate change without concealing the graveness of the theme. There is no doubt as to what they represent (although they are abstracted), but in stead of overwhelming us and making us close our eyes to the problems, they fascinate and invites the spectator to look closer at the sensual and emotional aspects of these events. The artist turns the attention away from the cold and incomprehensible facts and towards the sensual and aesthetic qualities of the natural disaster. The honest representation combined with the esthetic qualities makes also the paintings highly accessible for the spectator.
Davis, H. and Turpin, E. (2015) Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction: Davis, H. and Turpin, E. red. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: First edition published by Open Humanities Press. Available from: <http://openhumanitiespress.org/books/art-in-the-anthropocene> [Read 5. september 2018].
Wanthiang, A. (2018) 0580 B [digitalised photograph]. Available at: < http://lnm.no/utstillinger/drivved-og-spokelsesjegere > [Found 5. september 2018].
Wanthiang, A. (2018) 0663 B and No One in Sight [digitalised photograph]. Available at: < http://lnm.no/utstillinger/drivved-og-spokelsesjegere > [Found 5. september 2018].
Wanthiang, A. (2018) Overview photograph from Drivved og spøkelsesjegere e [digitalised photograph]. Available at: < http://lnm.no/utstillinger/drivved-og-spokelsesjegere > [Found 5. september 2018].