October 24 2019

In Conversation: Korakrit Arunanondchai and Jenn Nkiru

London-Art
From the Whitney Biennial to the Jefferson Hack-curated Transformer show in London – artists Korakrit Arunanondchai and Jenn Nkiru found themselves and their videos to be in the same shows this year, without having met each other – Andrew Durbin, Senior Editor of Frieze Magazine, moderated their conversation at The Standard Lounge at Frieze London to discover more about their work and the extensive process behind it.

Film as a medium for fine art is nothing new: The Turner prize—arguably the most prestigious art prize in the world—has been awarded to several artists who use moving images as a channel for their creativity. Douglas Gordon (1996), Gillian Wearing (1997), Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (1999) and, most recently, Charlotte Prodger (2018) all won the prize with a video piece. And as in all genres of art, the medium is constantly being disassembled, reinvestigated, reassembled and just generally turned upside down by new talent.

“It really fits inside the African understanding of “sankofa”. The exact translation is that you have to go back and get it to move forward.” - Jenn Nkiru

Besides both of them being included in the Whitney Biennial and Jefferson Hack’s Transformer this year, there a several other similarities between the artists; the process is the most important part of their work, both have a core group of collaborators, and they equally use music as a starting point for the story or as a tool to emphasize the story.

Nkiru builds her work from what she calls an “archaeological aspect”. “I’m often excavating things that I’ve found and thinking about how to piece those things back together,” says Nkiru, explaining that her work often centers around unification—especially within the black diaspora. “It really fits inside the African understanding of “sankofa”. The exact translation is that you have to go back and get it to move forward.”

“The thing that we do—through editing and research—is unify voices from the past until now,” Arunanondchai says. His film Painting With History In A Room Filled With People With Funny Names 3 is the epilogue to a series of works created during the past four years, about the making of a painter. In the present world, where reality and fiction merge together to form diverse paradigms, Korakrit Arunanondchai develops his own character: a Thai denim painter.

Whereas Arunanondchai’s work is more abstract, Nkiru’s work often tracks a subject—whether it’s a person, a music genre or a group of dancers—pointing out parallels within history. In one of her most celebrated works “Black to Techno”—a commission by Gucci and Frieze—she tracks the origins of techno music. “I was looking at the black origins of techno music in Detroit and looking at Detroit as a space of creation and in Berlin as a space of fandom for the sound,” she says while explaining that it took many historical happenings for this sound to come out of a place like Detroit.

Stills from Korakrit Arunanondchai's Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4
Stills from Korakrit Arunanondchai's Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4
Stills from Korakrit Arunanondchai's Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4
Stills from Korakrit Arunanondchai's Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4
Stills from Korakrit Arunanondchai's Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4

Durbin points out one scene from Nkiru’s film where her unique talent for story-telling is evident: “there’s a scene that I really love where you see this factory in the Midwest and it’s 2 white men at this sort of assembly line but then as you pan we see 3 black women playing house music or dance music.”

“I’m looking at ideas of black people and black bodies as labor so that's why the film itself starts off with sharecroppers actually in the field literally working… And I think even in electronic dance music women are often left out of the history … I went around with one of those sound recorders while filming because I was trying to make connections between the sounds you hear in a factory and the sounds of techno itself; like beat and rhythm and frequency and all of that. The machine was like a steel cutter that they went in front of and if you could hear the sound, it had a very rhythmical kind of sound. I’m always thinking inter-generationally as well; how do I bring the past forward or the current back. The women themselves were 3 generations of music makers and that was what was interesting and it was a live factory—that scene was just shot as the situation was at that time,” Nkiru describes.

“Music is probably the truest language of feelings” - Korakrit Arunanondchai

“Music is probably the truest language of feelings,” states Arunanondchai. He edits to music, or as he calls it: “editing to feelings.” He describes being part of an Ayahuasca ceremony where the only sounds that prevailed were the sounds of people breathing and other sounds that are usually just background. “Through that I think of music as sound-tracking a space in a different way; not inserting music into a space but extracting music out of space,” he explains. “When I’m shooting my grandparents, there would be sounds from the television that was playing but because my grandma has dementia the TV is always playing the same weird channel. I try to extract the sound from the background and recompose it, bringing it to the foreground and trying to work with the energy and the feelings that already exist in the spaces…” Previously, Arunanondchai had worked with a composer who would spend 2-3 months making a song, which would turn out perfect, but when the guy announced his retirement from music to become a stock broker, Arunanondchai went a different direction. "That’s also the reason why there was this shift between the hip hop music video and the other video; there is a new sound and maybe it's because I lost my great hiphop producer…"

While the works are vastly different, the talk revealed that when it comes to the process, there are commonalities in their approach and technique--something curators of both group shows were able to spot; artists from different parts of the world with a language parallel both visually and sonically. 

Transformer at 180 Strand is on view until January 2020.

Writer
Lars Byrresen Petersen