Art

At SculptureCenter, an Unforgettable Premiere

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It’s not every day you exit an art show wondering where the artist got her cadavers.

But quite a few make appearances in Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s raw, sometimes mawkish, but deeply unforgettable show at SculptureCenter, so you can’t help but start to wonder. Their cloth-draped forms star in three videos from a series called “The Class” in which the artist plays a schoolmarm lecturing half a dozen corpses on the finer points of death.

The 57-year-old Rasdjarmrearnsook knows from pedagogical absurdity: She has taught for years in the Chiang Mai University art department she now heads. And communication, or lack thereof, is a running theme in her works of video, photography, and sculpture, all of which are dramatically and expertly installed here. Whether she
enacts exchanges that are cross-cultural, interspecies, or between life and death, she raps at the door of existential futility. Yet perhaps because such a healthy portion of Rasdjarmrearnsook’s output features her dogs — the artist cares for a pack of about twenty — there’s enough humor and crazy-dog-lady weirdness to leaven the more stomach-churning (those corpses!) and poignant proceedings.

Well-known in Southeast Asia, she was featured in Europe’s prestigious Documenta survey in 2012 and has appeared in almost all of the requisite global surveys, the 2004 Carnegie International and the 2005 Venice Biennale among them. But the SculptureCenter installation is the first American show to outline the breadth of Rasdjarmrearnsook’s curious vision.

One particularly affecting film shows a formerly paralyzed dog taking his first halting steps; the slow-motion black-and-white footage captures his awkward gait and wet-nosed joy. Like a child taking its first steps or a blind person gaining sight, there’s a palpable thrill and terror. Other times, though, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s dog stuff gets weird: A trio of illuminated pedestals features a dozen or so glass vessels stuffed full of fur, a modern-day riff on Egyptian canopic jars.

Though the turns of emotion are sharp and quick, you can’t help but love the Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook persona presented here (how real it is we’ll never know). Regularly crossing the line between devotion and obsession — really, dog hair in jars? — the artist comes off as guileless and childlike in her obsession with the animals. She’s also unconcerned with appearances (she doesn’t cover her gray!) and more than a little needy. In other words: She’s a welcome relief from the studied personas the art world loves to shill.

Probably her most memorable and oddball performance, captured on video here, also happens to be her most profound. In 2003, when the artist was in her mid-forties, she decided to fake a pregnancy. For nine days she paraded around her workplace lovingly stroking her “bump” and sharing her news with university colleagues. Reactions were what you’d expect: surprise, congratulations; some women leapt from their desks to hug her. You can’t help but read their relief: No spinster here! But once her colleagues
realized they’d been punk’d, she was met with dismay and indignation. How could she joke about such a thing?

How could she, indeed? It’s an entirely off-kilter pantomime that toys with ideas of life and death even as it points to how deep a role biology plays in the public life of women. We glimpse these issues in the ire around abortion and gay marriage, but it’s never laid quite so bare. Those dead bodies, it turns out, innocently reside in medical schools. Still, when Rasdjarmrearnsook gives us the creeps, we ought to pay attention.