“It’s a little like the inside of my brain”1, artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul explains, describing his most recent exhibition, Periphery of the Night at the institution where curator and director Nathalie Ergino founded Laboratoire Espace Cerveau2 with artist Ann Veronica Janssens more than ten years ago. And it is motion, sound and light in Weerasethakul’s digital video work that echo the vitality and mystery of the brain, a space of displacement and encounter — interior and alive. This retrospective selection of the artist’s videos and two photographs made over the last twenty years, shapes a territory of movement and thought. Out front, Power Boy (Villeurbanne) (2021) is fitted to the peaked façade of the former school building. The photograph captures a young man’s torso in silhouette, his shoulders and chest wrapped in multicolor fairy lights. Details of his face disappear in shadow, backlit. It’s an image that seems to have risen from a dream.
It’s really a question, as a poem of sorts, Haiku (2009) that opens here, plunging into the geography, history and trauma of Nabua, a rural village in Northern Thailand, victim, a generation ago, of a violent repression of political uprising. A narrative is evoked, but never quite formed, by a circle of adolescents, descendants of the tragedy, that Weerasethakul questions. What has been remembered, what has been forgotten, and what has been told of this moment before these young men were born? More than answers it’s about searching – like the recorded sparks and flashlight beams in the consecutive nights when the artist listened, aiming his camera at what was once there, known now only in words and the transmission of emotion and loss.
Light, flames, ecstatic explosions of hand thrown fireworks are central in Weerasethakul’s work, and named for the hottest part of the flame, Blue (2018) pictures a sleeping woman at the bottom of a pyre. In a simple layering of video, her blue felt blanket and her simple nightdress appear to take flame. But she doesn’t see the fire, does not panic. Her eyes stay open, barely flutter closed. It’s a case of insomnia, as random and universal as the aimless barking of dogs that can be heard in the background here. Flames rise even higher in Ashes (2012) where the artist pictures water jets, weak, inconsequential arches of liquid that serve only to catch the light of the rising fire.
Somehow, though, in these instances so close to danger, and when the artist presents an oversized photograph like Ghost Teen (From the Primitive Project) (2009), an adolescent in a gore mask an sunglasses, it is not about fear, but visibility. How fragile, vulnerable, is the act of seeing and being seen. His video Phantoms of Nabua (2009), for example, captures a group of young men outdoors at night. They gather around a projection of a firework display on an outdoor screen. One is dressed in camouflage, and as they begin to kick a soccer ball that’s taken flame in their campfire, their faces, once in darkness, are illuminated as the ball approaches them and they manage to kick it with a brave and resonating thump. Play has triumphed over darkness, over fear. It’s play that wakes us – engages us – makes us see. A sort of play that might just be necessary for love, a kind that Weerasethakul’s triptych projection Teem (2007) hints at. The work pictures a beautiful him waking up on an adjacent pillow, a head framed in tussled black hair, features illuminated, at last, clear. It’ the final work in the show here, a sort of resurfacing, a waking up from a dream, fingers entwined.