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"Primitive" at Musee d'Art Moderne

Primitive-a-video-install-001 Brendan Seibel writing for VINGT Paris, image from SAIC.

Military occupation, ghost stories, feral youth and time travel converge in Thai film director and conceptual artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul's exhibit, showing at Musée d'Art Moderne. Observers cannot passively absorb any single fragment of this challenging work as they stroll through the gallery, they must submit fully to a lost rural village torn between two pasts: one based in history and the one steeped in folklore.

The roots of Primitive grow from the book, A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, written by a Thai monk. During research while considering a screenplay Weerasethakul became ensnared by Nabua, a village near the Laotian border, that had been occupied for twenty years as the government battled Communist insurgents. To escape the brutal military repression men fled their homes for the surrounding forests, abandoning a generation to be raised under martial law.
In the early 1990's an unexplained series of sudden night time deaths afflicted rural communities throughout northeast Thailand. Superstitious men would sleep wearing make-up, desperate to thwart the region's legendary widow ghost, who would steal the souls of men to bring back to her domain.

Weerasethakul shapes a world where Nabua remains left to the abandoned progeny of the preceding generation. It is a world without adults, rife with neglect and rural poverty but bristling with ancient
mysticism. Army fatigues and machine guns blend with explosions of lightning, flaming spheres and apparitions flitting through the fields under moonlight. However there is an innocence to be found in teenage boys playing on the dirt roads or consumed with constructing a wooden spaceship. The combination evokes The Lord of the Flies to western minds, but also serves as commentary on Thailand's fading monarchy and bitterly divided political landscape in the wake of 2006's military coup.

There is no linear arc to the videos making absolute immersion key to the piece's cohesiveness. Unfortunately, arrangement of the installation nearly cripples the entire experience. Broken into three
rooms the journey begins with a projection of the short Phantoms of Nabua, but the ambient lighting nearly washes the entire film out. This disappointing introduction gives way to a corridor presenting
several over-sized photographs hung from the walls. The distance between each seems more an effort to compensate for length of the hallway, which ends in an insulting display of a machine gun prop and
excerpts from the piece's genesis, A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Stepping inside the second gallery you are immediately overwhelmed by isolated lights in the darkness, sounds lurking between. Screens are suspended from the ceiling, projections running on either side, and
from certain vantage points you can watch several incongruous reels.  However, attempting to allow the images to flood your vision simultaneously is a fool's errand, offering no solutions to the
riddles of Primitive. Each short, running from a minute and a half to over ten, should be witnessed individually with impressions carried forth to the next. Viewed as such the gallery suddenly becomes too
small, the screens competing with one another, and immersion impossible to achieve. There are two stations with headphones which further exacerbate the inability to sink into the piece by playing
disassociated music.

The final gallery allows you to become lost. A diptych fills the room, looming above and reverberating through you. Running in a half-hour loop the two screens interrelate sequences of adolescent camaraderie,
nightmarish mobs and flaming rebirth as a disembodied narrator recounts lives past. Had the installation managed to isolate all of its elements as effectively this exhibition would reach an emotional crescendo, but as it is presented now the experience is unbalanced and never allowed to live up to its full potential.

Admission to Primitive includes access to an exhibition of works by Albert Oehlen.

Musee d'Art Moderne

11, avenue du Président Wilson

Paris 16

Metro Alma-Marceau or Iena

Bonapart Paris apartments


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