Saturday, May 2, 2009

Infective Paint

When I traveled up to Chiang Mai last year, I was taken to Lamphun - a smaller and sleepier town half an hour away that was described as 700 years older than its more tourist friendly counterpart. Here is where Mit Jai-Inn sets his shop, running the studio 15 paces from the Lumphun museum where he lives with his wife, who leads the provincial instution as chief curator/archaeologist. 

The studio never has its shutters down, and looks both like a laboratory and a textile factory. Mit paints into the night when he’s not out and about town - working on Happenings, organising public art projects, being thrown out of discussion panels for being provocative - or withdrawing to the mountains for month-long meditation retreats. 

Mit has coined the word ‘Eukabeuk’ to describe something as elusive as his approach to art. It was also the name of the annual public art festival that supplanted the Chiang Mai Social Installation festival by the mid 90’s. Of course, the word means nothing, kind of like Dada. Mit explains, ‘When you say eukabeuk, your lung, and your mouth create a kind of rhythm, which some how does not have a meaning in very linguistic fashion. Then we consider the terms as a rhythm, it constitutes a kind of music which requires no dance. It is really an ephemeral condition. That is what we do things in the eukabeuk event. And that certainly is changing over times, but what is left is the contemplation of any moment we move by.’

While he tried finding words to make sense of a head space I could barely grasp in my unaltered state of awareness, my eyes wandered to the work desks, and the rolls of tiled geometric canvases washed in bright day-glo oil. It repeats itself endlessly - variations are subtle and economical. The task seems interminable and infinite but Mit tries to make me understand how they constitute a puzzle game, a problem solving exercise. 

First there’s the reason for choosing to work with pastel colours that give off a special kind of bright and gaily glow. This opaqueness means something. For Mit, there is something transparent about pastel. The colour tone demonstrates clarity, a fluorescence of living we pretend to forget, or turn our face away from. Having it occupy our space, our living space, changes things. After all, these canvasses, never wholly two dimensional (they can be propped up, folded, hanged like laundry), often remind us that they take up real space, alter our environment. There’s no picture plane to recess into by offering a window into another world. Flat, intrusive, affective - they take to where we put them in. 

‘Painting is treated skeptically these days, and somehow it has been forgotten for many decades since the world has come to the point where everything is skeptical any way,’ referring to global art discourse, he added, ‘However, I believe we can reconceptualise painting after its modernist endgame, not in terms of the material alone, but also how we paint, essentially I should say, the way we paint. So the canvas is not a major concern if we are no longer too suspicious of the material alone.’ 

Mit’s work is conscious about the history of painting in many ways. In a sense, there’s the utopian gesture that is paradoxically embedded in the destructive system of Mondrian's oeuvre that Mit is unafraid to reference, using this goal as a way to explore a reductive style that transpires the nihilism of minimalist art and its subsequent absorption into high style furnishing. While Mit’s canvas intrudes into real-time space like a Donald Judd sculpture, it’s no longer the self-absorbed phenomenological encounter the viewer has with an art object. The canvas is declarative - as international flag, as social banner, as a spiritual mat. Its open-endedness is less of a loss of meaning than a call for more meaningful engagement and relationship. Unlike Mondrian’s systematic abandonment of the individual into a transcendent universalism, Mit’s social project begins by acknowledging the discrete units in a social relationship. It takes two to tango. 

Coming from the late-eighties generation of relational art speak, there’s always the social factor that falls into discourse. He told me, while handing me a few samples, ’You can do anything you want with it, it is a social object. You can wear it over you, or rolled it up, cut it into tiny pieces to sell it, framed it, do whatever you want with it. But try putting it in your living room or your toilet, so that you will live with its energy, and if others come to it, it will change them too. It is entirely up to you what you want to call it. It doesn’t matter. The main thing is that its energy can heal you and change you.’

by Simon Soon

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