Review

Apichatpong Weerasethakul / Matrix 247

By Matt Sussman March 11, 2013

Named after the abandoned Bangkok hotel in which it was filmed, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2007 video installation Morakot (Emerald) transforms the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s (BAM/PFA) small Matrix gallery into a kind of temporary residence. While the video can be viewed as a documentary sketch of a particular place at a particular time, it becomes, in the context of the installation, part of a modest proposal to visualize a subjective experience of memory that feels very much out of time.

The nearly 11-minute looped video opens with a static shot inside a nondescript bedroom, empty save for some weathered furniture and the dust particles and feathers swirling in the natural light that streams through discolored curtains. The mostly static shots that follow, also of similarly derelict rooms, reveal that the camera is lingering not in someone’s home but in the titular hotel. Each shot is framed to place the viewer in the center of each room. As Weerasethakul’s camera takes in other details of the rooms—the peeling paint and stained mattresses, the barren closets and tacky wallpaper—increasing numbers of digitized motes are superimposed until the air in the hotel appears thick with some shimmering, efflorescent life force.

This dreamy sequence of images is accompanied by a surrounding soundtrack of three voices speaking in Thai, bridging the onscreen space of the hotel with the actual space of the gallery. Though no subtitles are provided, the speakers’ friendly tones and occasional descents into soft laughter or extended pauses suggest the stop-and-go rhythms of reminiscence. Further adding to this immersive atmosphere is a low-hanging pendant lamp with a green-tinted bulb that gently illuminates the edges of the darkened gallery space and provides both a counterpoint to and extension of the filmic space. A bench is set at the rear of the space, at the furthest distance away from the screen, but presumably one could sit anywhere.

During a few moments in the film, Weerasethakul superimposes at-scale footage of resting heads or partially visible bodies onto the room images. These bodies may or may not belong to those who are speaking, just as the speakers themselves may or may not have a relationship to the actual hotel. But they could very well be. This overt use of special effects is distracting, against the abstract beauty of the more naturally rendered mote swarms, and doesn’t provide nearly the same kind of startling counterpoint as does the steady river of freeway traffic that can be glimpsed through a window in the background of one shot.

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Morakot (Emerald), 2007 (still); single-channel video projection; color, sound, 10:50 min., looped; museum purchase: bequest of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, by exchange. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

 

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Morakot (Emerald), 2007 (still); single-channel video projection; color, sound, 10:50 min., looped; museum purchase: bequest of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, by exchange. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

But this sudden intrusion of the outside world shouldn’t be as surprising as it feels, despite the cloistered effect created by the soft glow of the light blub and the video’s digitally enhanced interiors. As the museum’s assistant curator Dena Beard notes in the accompanying brochure, the Emerald was shuttered during the 1997 Asian economic crisis after the boom of the ’80s and early ’90s, and one of the voices we hear is in fact describing how s/he survived an incident of brutality at the hands of the military. Morakot is, then, a doubly exposed portrait of displacement, focusing on both the physical remnants of a former way station for migrants (Beard notes that political refugees, travelling businessmen, and vacationing families frequented hotels like the Emerald) and the larger, and at times antagonistic, political and economic forces that shaped those subjects’ trajectories and histories.

With its condensation and displacement of time, space, and bodies, Morakot is of a piece with the feature films Weerasethakul has directed and for which he is perhaps better known. Dreamlike in their circuitousness and languid pacing, Weerasethakul’s films are each to some degree documents of their own making, their loose narratives germinated and assembled from the bits of folksongs, local legends, and personal anecdotes that also serve as ongoing soundtracks to the lush cinematography that is another of the director’s trademarks.1 The lines between performer and character are often blurred, and the occasional appearance of fantastic or supernatural elements is treated as part of the continuum of daily life or perception. All sorts of things can emerge in the jungle (a favored setting of the filmmaker): ghosts, repressed histories, false memories, sublimated desires. To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim’s characterization of the fairy tale in The Uses of Enchantment (1976), although the ways in which Weerasethakul tells a story are often unreal, the story itself is not necessarily untrue.

The same claim can be applied when delineating the true dimensions of Morakot, which smartly plays off the shared dynamics between hotel rooms and art galleries, both being spaces void of meaning until they are occupied. Weerasethakul conflates these to create a meta space, which is at once both the Emerald Hotel and BAM/PFA’s Matrix gallery. And just as Morakot privileges neither its physical phenomena (such as the light bulb) nor its digitally rendered ones (the disembodied soundtrack, the hotel room visuals), so does it accord to the dusty remains of history and the inevitable revisions of memory equal weight as evidence in the testimony we are invited to witness.

 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul / Matrix 247 is currently on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 21, 2013.  

 

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NOTES:

1. Beard notes that the Danish author Karl Gjellerup’s experimental Buddhist novel The Pilgrim Kamanita (1906)—in which the protagonists, reborn as stars, narrate their various centuries-long treks to achieving nirvana—served as the source material for Morakot. True to his working method, Weerasethakul played fast and loose with this premise, using it as an opportunity to interview several of his longtime players and making their accounts the video’s soundtrack while also using Gjellerup’s celestial imagery as inspiration for Morakot’s glittering particle storms.

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