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Reviewed by:
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive
  • Aparna Sharma
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive New Museum, 19/05/11-3/07/2011. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, with Gary Carrion-Murayari, Associate Curator. Exhibit address: <>.

New York's New Museum is exhibiting internationally acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's multi-platform video installation Primitive, an ambitious work that raises our awareness of the links between class struggle and memory through a pronouncedly reflexive cinematic vocabulary that reinstates early cinema and classical film theory's interrogations of the moving image as constituting a representation of "reality." This is a crucial intervention in the medium of moving image at a time when boundaries between fiction and faction, and commercial and home movies, are increasingly understood as having been dissolved. While in the Western hemisphere, as in the neoliberal [End Page 167] mediascapes of postcolonial societies such as in South and Southeast Asia, this dissolution of boundaries has translated into celebratory discourses claiming the democratization of moving image media and technology, Weerasethakul's Primitive problematizes dominant and normative visual cultures transported under the aegis of "globalization." It presents a site-specific vocabulary (site understood both geographically and historically) through which we are emphatically alerted to the naïveté of claims of digital media as democratic. Primitive makes critical observations and raises incisive questions about the scope and extent of working class struggles that do not necessarily translate into desired revolutions. How do people live after their voices and relationships to their environments have been brutally repressed? What legends and practices do they conjure to make meaning out of their existence? And how can digital media enter such contexts while preserving the integrity of the voices and experiences repressed by the incessant onward march of History?

Primitive is set in a Thai farming village, Nabua, that in the 1960s and 1970s was the seat of clashes between the Thai military and communist-sympathizing farmers. The tensions peaked so high that they altered the demographic profile of the region. Although Weerasethakul enters this community a generation after the clashes subsided, Primitive resonates with recent confrontations between the Thai military and Bangkok's working classes, many of whom hail from rural communities such as Nabua. Primitive was conceived during the research for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (2010), a project that won the prestigious Palme d'Or Prize at Cannes in 2010. In Primitive, Weerasethakul recruits and follows a group of young Nabua men, mostly teenagers, to explore and share how they experience their landscape and the social and political history that has shaped it. Primitive includes eight works, each dwelling on aspects of life and activities performed by the work's characters. On one screen, Weerasethakul closely follows the process of building a spaceship that will allow its travelers to navigate "past" and "future"—two temporal categories that heavily impregnate the Nabua community's present. The spaceship is an anchoring theme that links Primitive's thinly tied videos together. An Evening Shoot sees some young militiamen practice shooting and killing. In Nabua Song, we hear an inspiring folksong calling for liberation and justice. Primitive's images are sensuous as a thoughtful camera dwells on the details of weather, color and embodied experience, evoking a lush landscape and people's relationship with it. At the same time, Weerasethakul's images make for demanding viewing. We are consistently and consciously distanced from what we see, not merely on account of cultural difference but also because of the very cinematic vocabulary that Weerasethakul deploys. In some works, editing results in unconventional shot durations that make it difficult to sustain attention, thereby resisting scopophillic pleasure toward this site that easily lends itself to an orientalist visual imaginary. In some images, elements such as smoke, fire and lightning and its sounds push us into the realm of a disorienting fantastical. Many images are shot in twilight or the dark hours of night—thereby straining viewers' identification with the profilmic. In I Am Still Breathing, the camera is riotous as it follows the young men running and boarding a lorry on which they sing and dance. Shaky and close-up, this piece is...