Author Archives: nuttaphol

Humble Materials: Nuttaphol Ma > The Artist Feels the Earth Move – Christopher Michno

 000michno_essay01On a hot August night in the Pico-Union neighborhood near Downtown Los Angeles, Nuttaphol (pronounced nut-tah-pun) Ma welcomed me to The China Outpost, the project the 43-year-old artist calls a nomadic, self-imposed sweatshop, which bleeds into his living space at the St. Valentine building just a few blocks west of the Staples Center. From the balcony of his apartment, the buildings and neon lights of LA Live, which cast a strange aura over this old neighborhood, were visible. Lemongrass plants like those in his recent Barnsdall Park (The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery) solo exhibition, “Ghosts Can Cross Oceans” (May 17–September 20, 2015), curated by Pitzer College Galleries Director Ciara Ennis, lined the balcony perimeter, along with Kaffir Lime trees and a patchwork of fabric screens that provide a modicum of privacy.000michno_essay02Ma offered me lemongrass tea. He had harvested it from a few surplus specimens intended for Barnsdall that he later planted at his parents’ house. (Ennis called Ma’s work “entropic,” noting that the materials used for his China Outpost products are harvested from Ma’s existing artworks. There is a continuous overlap between his art, life and The China Outpost.) He announced his plans to bring some of the dried tea to the gallery attendants. “They really cared for the plants—it has grown so beautifully in that space,” he said. In tending to everyday experiences in the context of his work, Ma downplays the delineations between elevated art objects and humble materials or unadorned experiences. Ritual becomes a reference in his performances, taking shape as ordinary, unburdened with the weight of symbolism.

000michno_essay03Soil, plants and ritual—recurring themes in Ma’s art—infuse “Ghosts Can Cross Oceans,” as do allusions to the migration of people. Other projects also address migration and its implications. Ennis refers to his work as episodic, likening it to a root structure that runs beneath the soil and sprouts new growth. “Born by the River,” Ma’s 2011 video installation at Barnsdall Park, recorded his six-day performance in which he walked 138 miles from Badwater Basin, Death Valley, the lowest point in the continental U.S., to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental U.S., carrying a lightweight canoe over his head. So named after a line in Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” Ma’s performance was based on a dream.

The resulting work was a mixture of personal and cultural-historical referents. “For me, it was a reenactment of my dream, but in comparison to the distances that other people have walked, this was nothing. I thought about Gandhi walking to the sea to make salt [in protest of the British salt tax]. He walked many more days than I walked. I thought about the lost boys of Sudan, walking through the desert—they had to do it,” Ma said.

Ma’s own history of migration is not easily summed up. He is ethnically Chinese but born in Thailand, and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. While studying in Hong Kong as a young man, Ma visited his family’s rammed-earth ancestral home in rural China, which figures prominently in his imagination. A few years later, he recounted, he would regularly hike into the foothills above Altadena to form the floor plan out of compacted soil. His plans for future works include reprising his 138-mile walk with a new performance in which he will hike to the top of Mt. Whitney to spread the ashes of his canoe, cremated after finishing “Born by the River.” His definition of home reflects the fluidity of a wanderer: “Where my foot touches the ground is the Earth, and that’s home for me.”

Source:  Michno, Christopher. "HUMBLE MATERIALS: Nuttaphol Ma The Artist Feels the Earth Move." Artillery November-December 2015 Issue: 38-39.

Notes: Piano Loom Tchaikovsky’s Cocoon

Piano Loom, Tchaikovsky’s Cocoon

… Passage of Ash …

The trapped sparrow hovered around the skywell.
… She swirled downward. She sunk to her last breath.
Her ashes gleaned the Sedona sky.

The piano lay dormant over the years.
Within the ammunition vault,
… a black widow spins her web around the cocoon.
Tchaikovsky’s last thunderous note sent waves upon waves of questions
… to those who feel his solitude.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

03 November 2009.  In traffic on the 10 freeway. Stuck.  National Public Radio played in the background.  Stories after stories told, one resonated.  The journalist shared news of Claude Levi-Strauss’s passing, his accolades, his contributions to humanity.  What struck me was his gloomy vision of our world which he expressed in one of his last interviews.  The broadcaster played Levi-Strauss’s recording of that interview in French.01  With a voice over in English, he conveyed that “There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world on which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like.”

I guessed being stuck in traffic was a good thing.  The stagnation allowed me to meditate on these last words.  I turned off the radio.  Sat in traffic.  Thinking.  What a brutal, harsh reality.  Levi-Strauss’s pessimism slapped me in the face, awakened my consciousness, my mind to my surroundings.  Yes, Claude.  I understand that we live in a choked up world – suffocated.  Resources depleting, evaporating, done. Gone.  My mind traveled downwards, into an apocalyptic whirlpool.  Stop!

Mind settled. Rest.

You see Claude, although you are no longer with us, I am still here and I still like this world – every ray of light, every moonlight.  Traffic subsided.  I began to move from a standstill to a steady flow.  I left my consuming thoughts with hesitation. What can I do to reverse this pessimism?  I can hope.

00pianoloom_install001 Weeks later, a curator had invited me to consider a space for an exhibition.  The site was the former armory vault at a historic 1934 National Guard building which has since been converted into an art center in 1989.  The long narrow space measured just 6 feet wide, 30 feet deep covered with varying values of greys.  It was dark inside.  I moved towards the middle. The curator followed.  She jokingly mentioned that there was a myth at the art center that if the world would end, this space would be the safest place to be.  My agreeing nod veiled preoccupied thoughts that this room once housed ammunition to kill others.  Is this what Levi-Strauss envisioned the world to be?   In a suffocating vacuum?  No room to move; no room to breathe.  No!  I refused!  “How to give life to such an empty space?”, I whispered to myself. 

“I need more time.”, I told the curator.  The site visit left me dazed. 

As if timing could not be better, my dear friend, Victoria, had asked me to accompany her on a road trip a few days later.  She was on a search for vortices in Sedona Arizona.  Without thinking twice, I said with a resounding “yes!” not knowing what Sedona would be like at the end of December.  It turned out to be cold, freezing cold, beyond cold – for me at least.  Snow covered pine forest surrounded the landscape on our approach.  We took a long narrow winding descent into the heart of the woods, drove into a camp site.  It was deep into the night.  Silence, stillness.  I heard water flowing as if a stream echoing nearby.  With our car headlights on, we had no choice but to quickly pitch our tents.  I recalled not being able to hammer the pegs into the frozen ground.  I tried.  With each strike, the pegs curled.  I gave up. 

“A still night, no wind.  I should be fine.”, I thought.

Victoria, a Michigan native – well, sort of 02, reassured that we will warm up as soon as we get a camp fire started.  We worked as a team.  I gathered frozen pine needles – lots of them.  In between gathers, I cupped my hands over my mouth; used my own breath to warm my freezing hands.  I continued collecting.  Victoria took care of getting the fire started. It was a long, cold process.  Numbed and frustrated, I did not know if these frozen pine needles would work yet I continued on.  At one point, I deliriously asked “is it on yet?” referring to the camp fire as a light switch.  Victoria replied, “no … collect more pine needles, please…”

The camp fire lasted long enough for some ramen and a cup of tea.  Exhausted, I turned in for the night, sought shelter inside my tent.  I slept surprisingly sound despite a thin layer that separated my body to the icy ground.

001pianoloomSunrise between clouds. Stream echoed.  Freezing ground pulsed.  Beating.  Thump. Thump. Thump. I woke up inside my cocoon.  I laid in silence. Listening. Thump. Thump. Thump. Listening to earth’s heartbeat, my heartbeat. Thump !thump.  Thump !thump. Thump !thump.  Hearts conversed. Becoming. Swallows harked back at rising sun, at ashes of time. I awakened to an uplifting sense of freedom inside my cocoon, enclosed yet polar extreme of the armory vault.  Claude, this is what I imagined the world to be.  Emptiness.

Aligning Time and Space

How to bring the warmth of my frozen cocoon into the vault? Earth’s heartbeat.  Claude, from your interviews03, you used an analogy of an orchestral conductor to describe your scholastic approach in your research.  You discussed in detailed the notion of alignment of instrumental sounds to make the whole.  I reflected on what my instruments would be.  What would be required to orchestrate and choreograph movements inside the vault. 

I turned to historic pasts to begin my composition entitled Piano Loom, Tchaikovsky’s Cocoon.  I travelled to places of mass sufferings, of individual sufferings, to Colonial India and to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony specifically. Back in the day, workers picked cotton in the fields of British India.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, mounds of raw cotton travelled back to the mother country, to the textile mills of Lancashire.  The processed cotton fibers returned to India, sold for a profit while workers continued to pick in the cotton fields. The cycle repeated itself – over and over again, an unending record player.  Gandhi broke this silent hum, encouraged fellow citizens to spin, to weave their own fiber, to collectively boycott the imported British textile.  Their actions sowed into the hearts of a birthing nation.  I sowed their spirit seeds into the vault.  A loom grew from 30 feet deep from the heart of the vault to the entrance – sweeping the suffocations to the open space – out the door.

00pianoloom_slides013A handcrafted piano, constructed out of multiple loom frames thread together as one, sat deep inside the vault.  Light filtered down through the piano onto an armless chair. A record player rested on the seat – spinning Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, Pathetique.

The thought of an orchestral conductor triggered memories of my worn nomadic feet in Guanajuato Mexico, 12 Aug 2008.  Serendipitous moments brought me to Mexico – a long story to digress; however the source of my trip stemmed from my chance encounter with a rattle snake.  It rained early in the morning.  I went on my morning walk through the narrow pathways of the historic town, headed to the central market to take my usual breakfast – homemade nopales burrito with eggs. The colors of the city, on the buildings, of the markets vibrated, pulsed, moved to a rhythm that breathed life!  My days were spent observing the subtle unfolding of the everyday – sitting and reflecting on the mundane. On one of these moments, I walked past a concert hall – I could not recalled the name. An old-school advert, the ones that’s glued, pasted onto the wall surface, caught my attention.  It promoted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.  I entered, purchased a ticket for the evening show.  The clouds darkened as the day grew, the air thickened – baking rain.  I walked in anticipation of a sudden downpour.  It never happened.  Evening arrived. I washed myself, prepared for the concert.

Should I bring an umbrella or not? I thought.  Should.  I arrived to a packed concert hall, an old colonial building with a grand entry.  I seated, flipped through the program to learn about Tchaikovsky’s work.  The program was in Spanish.  I could only guess the meanings through association with English.  One word stood out, Pathetique.  House light dimmed. I folded the program to my lap.  No need to know, just feel, I thought.  Loud applauses from the audience.  As the sounds settled, aligned themselves, I opened my senses, absorbed.  I cried.  I cried profusely in response to the work.  It overtook my emotions, the sounds moved me to places of longing, love, joy, sorrow, more longing.  Midway through the performance, raindrops tapped on the roof.  Tap. Tap. Tap.  Light taps.  Tap. Tap. Tap.  They crescendoed into raindrops that move elephants to seek shelter. They echoed into a loud daaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh – vibrating inside the concave dome above the orchestra.  Thunder cried.  Tchaikovsky cried.  I cried.  As the orchestral sounds arrived to the very last note, thunder roared, shook the building as the last note played out until the vibration subsided.

I sat for a while until everyone cleared out. Wiped the tears of flooded emotions off my face and left.  Who was this person – Tchaikovsky?  Why did I cry uncontrollably?  Outside the building, a number of orchestral members stood around conversing in Spanish. 

I approached one of the group member, asked, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”.

“Yes. I’m actually from America” he replied.

Can you tell me more about this symphony No. 6?  All the way through the performance, I could not stop crying. And, on the very last note of the symphony, did you all hear the thunder that shook the building?”, I asked.

The man smiled and said, “Funny enough, we (referring to his conversation with his colleagues) were just talking about the storm that shook the building.  It was magical!  And, about Tchaikovsky, I love playing his last symphony, Pathetique.  To me, it’s the “rock and roll” of classical music.  Tchaikovsky wrote and performed this right before he supposedly committed suicide.  The work is regarded as his love note, his suicide note.  He was trapped as a gay man in the 1800s and sought death as a way out.  I guess you cried because you heard his story.”  I thanked the man and his fellow musicians.  I left, walked in the rain back to my guesthouse.

01.  “Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Remembered.” Narr. Michelle Norris, Robert Siegel. All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 03 November 2009
02.  Michigan native by way of Chinese parents who migrated from China to Taiwan then to the deep south then to Ohio where she was born and finally to Michigan at the age of 3.  The point being – she’s accustomed to the cold.
03.  Claude Levi-Strauss in His Own Words. Dir. Pierre-Andre Boutang and Annie Chevallay. DVD. ARTE, 2009.


Notes: Across the Sky

Across the Sky

[Bangkok 1970s] After torrential downpours, rising river from the Chaopraya flooded the streets;  at times, spilling into the house.  I often folded paper boats and floated them down the floodwaters.

[Los Angeles early 1980s] Years later, my family and I moved.  Our house nested under a flight path.  I looked up towards the sky.  I saw planes, specifically the tail end of airplanes.  I wondered. Where do these planes come from?  This curiosity touched my memories of Thailand. My eyes meandered between the dreams of leaving and dreams of roots.

000ats_wpmovements01My childhood longing rippled over time. In March 2009, I journeyed to Badwater Basin, Death Valley.  I reflected on our collective surroundings, yearnings, conflicts, loss.  I thought, why not make a kite and run with it towards the lowest point of continental US?  The desert, on the surface, appears desolate.  With mindful steps, life reveals herself from our eroding footprints. I sat down, nearby a stagnant pool of water.  I began crafting my kite.  I looked up from time to time.  Tourists took snap shots of themselves in front of the park ranger marker that read “BADWATER BASIN . 282 Feet / 85.5 Meters . BELOW SEA LEVEL”.  The wind whispered.  At times, howled unrelentingly.  A lone seagull sat by the stagnant pool.  I thought.  How odd?  Silently asked, “what are you doing here?”.  The seagull looked on.  I imagined her asking me the same question.  I continued crafting my kite until the very last knot was secured.

000ats_wpmovements02I ran, far into the horizon, towards the center of the basin with my handheld kite.  Flap, flop, flap, flop, flap and flop, the kite tapped on the back of my knee, my spine, my shoulders.  The young child in me also ran.  Together, we arrived at what appeared to be the middle of the vast desert sea.  There, I sowed the seed of becoming.

Dvořák > Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 II. Largo

[New York City 2015]  I was invited as a resident artist at The Schoolhouse of École Internationale de New York (EINY).  The structure was built in 1867 to serve as a Sunday School for the Calvary Church next door.  Upon entry, I was left breathlessly in awe at the vaulted height of the interior space.  Natural light enters indirectly through the upper windows circling above.  I thought about my desert run years ago and wondered how nice it would be to release multiple kites, capturing them frozen in time, across the vast sky of The Schoolhouse.

Across the Sky draws inspiration from my site-specific performance in Death Valley.  The collaborative installation with EINY’s 4th and 5th graders activated The Schoolhouse main entrance lobby.  The works comprised of objects, writings and drawings display the process of finding one’s own symbol connected with place and memory.  The resulting work is a collective mythology of our meanderings.  As our kites take flight in the sky, we reflect on our environment, our neighbors, our families, our enemies.  What are our wishes for the world?  Some wishes are attached to our kites while some remained sheltered. In the end, we simply let go.

Nuttaphol Ma . 秉宏
New York . 21 Apr 2015

Special thanks to participating artists:  Adam Antognelli, Baya Attard, Cora-Louise Benite Fleming, Lucile Benzaken,  Philippine Bonnet, Frederick Buford, George Buford, Carmen Castille, Adrien Chanel, Maïa-Lys Cruickshanks, Marine d’Arbaumont, Maxence Damour, Eliott Datchary, Jonah Dauvet, Hugo Fuhrer, Gita Ines Gandelsman, Spencer Grynwajc, Catalina Haberman, Clément Huang, Harrison Humphrey, Leo Kaiya, Léa Letellier, Paul Levilain, Massimo Michiels, Gregorio Morgillo, Oliver Navin- Roda, Jane O’Toole, Aline Perez, Eytan Sebbane, Lucca Soloff-Pellegrino, Adrien Valla, Sophia Veron, Nathan Viennet and Elden Wood.

Notes: Born by the River

Notes: Ghosts Can Cross Oceans

A River Runs Through It – Constance Mallinson

Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in the continental US, is flat, empty, surrounded by desolate, desiccated mountains, and yet the near blinding whiteness of the valley floor symbolizes and enlarges upon the traditional ground zero for the artist—the vacant white studio wall. Or as Jean Baudrillard described the desert, it is the place of “superficial neutrality”, a “challenge to meaning and profundity.” Here on May Day this year Thai American multi-disciplinary artist Nuttaphol Ma began a 6 day, 138.3 mile documented performance/journey to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney—the highest point in the U.S.– carrying a body-sized lightweight handmade “boat” over his head. As recipient of the 2011 Feitelson Arts Fellowship, he has created a site-specific installation based on a prophetic dream and a lyric from the Sam Cooke song, A Change is Gonna Come at Barnsdall’s Los Angeles Municipal Gallery. Centered primarily on a two channel video of the walk shot by artist Victoria Tao, one video captures Ma walking on the highway away from the camera, the other depicts him walking towards it. The shoulder transported boat suggests a long and arduous sea voyage or the nomadic tent carrying life of Mongol tribespeople. Cars speed by intermittently and perilously close as the background scenery morphs from desert to foothills, to alpine forest. Perhaps the most arresting moment of the journey, however, is the sudden swift appearance of two fighter jets on maneuvers from China Lake Naval Base. They aggressively swoop low and loud from the sky, contrasting to the simple, rythmic naturalness of Ma’s footsteps, imposing their arrogant technology on the sublime ancient landscape. Because we never see Ma’s face or expression for it is concealed by the boat, because he continues walking in the presence of such naked power, the walk appears less like Ma’s ego driven personal struggle, but rather a gesture in communion with historic marches and heroic treks. By the time we see him reaching the portal to Mt. Whitney and the land boat is finally put down, there is a recollection of Gandhi’s march from Ahmedabad to coastal village of Dandi where he produced salt in protest against the British imposed salt tax, Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights marches, the universal immigrant seeking a better life against the restrictions of borders, threats of war and natural disasters.

As with his previous pieces like The Ruins of Daedalus’ Labyrinth seen at Pasadena’s Armory space in January 2011, Ma’s pieces are not easily categorized but are a kind of ecological mix encompassing sculpture, performance, video, and installation all inextricably bound with his current and past life, his dreams, spirituality,  objects from mass culture/everyday life, and diverse sociopolitical, anthropological concerns. At Barnsdall, the two Born by the River videos are projected onto suspended diaphanous fabric walls, the “building blocks” of which are based on measurements taken from intervals in the gallery’s columns, and sewn from discarded fabric packaging collected from Crate and Barrel where he is a fulltime employee. The sewing takes place in Ma’s Chinatown “sweatshop” studio he describes as “a laboratory to translate critical thoughts” – a site for examining cultural phenomena, patterns, attitudes. Here in solidarity with the rich history of immigrant labor, he carefully joined the bags, stamping the rows of muslin rectangles with the dates of completion; the visible stitches seem to reiterate every step of the journey. The meticulously shaped and seamed sacks now create an unforetold relationship with their new space where they assume new life and connectedness with the city. In fact, Ma stated, “Everything is a semi-colon” with every object repurposed and continuously recycled in subsequent work and challenges the western notion of the discreet finished, museum-ready artwork. Adjacent to one wall atop a small tower of found plywood disks discarded from an art student’s project is a galvanized bucket with an attached poem by Ma. It holds measured hardware store paint sticks wound with skeins of “yarn” fabricated from the plastic shopping bags sewn and stretched over the bamboo frame and removed from the vessel he carried in the current video before it was burned at journey’s end. Before the bags formed the boat sides, they had been crocheted into a large hanging “fabric”. The bags also await their reincarnation into a future installation. Part of the haunting, evocative soundtrack for the video is taken from a skipping, repeating section on an old record of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony interspersed with Tao’s violin compositions. The last symphony Tchaikovsky wrote before his suicide, the Pathetique is not an end for Tchaikovsky or this outmoded LP but is joined in a never ending chorus of consummate, melancholic beauty. The fabric bags made by anonymous Indian workers and almost discarded by the corporate store have become a commemorative wall underscoring the practices of our consumer culture willfully oblivious of the backbreaking work of factory slaves. Symbolically connecting the present with the past, a bell that is heard in the video soundtrack that has been used in earlier installations such as In the Red, a 2009 exhibition at Claremont Graduate Gallery in which Ma constructed his family’s original dwelling from  floors of handmade pallets and  suspended “walls”  constructed from Chinese restaurant place mats recalling the ones used in the family restaurant when they were new arrivals to Los Angeles.  In the center of the “house” sat a bowl over a power socket containing the bell ready to fill the space with its reverberations. This same bell is struck at the outset of Ma’s walk so that its vibrations would break and renew the space near the site where Chinese migrants toiled in the late 1800’s to clear way for the road used for the 20 mule team to transport borax across a rugged region called the Devil’s Golf Course.

Aside from the Buddhist reflection underlying Ma’s practice—universal love and compassion, divesting oneself of the ego-centered life and attachments to permanence or outcome (often embodied in contemporary western art), the exchange of love for pain and suffering in working out negative karma, concepts of rebirth, listening to dreams, “right” behavior and awareness to promote liberation and freedom to name just a few tenets—his work shares characteristics with a number of contemporary artists and trends in critical ideas. This work has its roots in the Fluxus Movement of the 1960’s when arch proponent Guy Debord espoused experimental participatory art events in order to disrupt and break the hold of capitalism. French curator and theoretician Nicholas Bourriaud has more recently specified a tendency he calls “Relational Aesthetics” in which artists work ”within the gaps of capitalism” in order to transgress traditional notions of property and ownership and to promote “a culture of activity to counteract market induced passivity.” Further for Bourriaud, “artistic activity is a game whose forms, patterns, and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence.” Art then operates in the realm of human interactions, not as an “assertion of private symbolic space” but as a challenge to the hierarchies entrenched in corporatism or the state and the underlying violence of globalism. Whether Rirkrit Tiravanija who hands out free soup and curry to audiences, Gabriel Orozco who slung a hammock at MOMA, or Jens Hanning who broadcast humorous stories in Turkish to disenfranchised immigrants in Copenhagen, a number of contemporary artists are fomenting tiny revolutions that take place in the face of giant superstructures, creating micro-communities and models of sociability. Their practices undermine art as commerce, opting instead to put forth ideas about art that Bourriaud describes as “a state of encounter” and a denial of “the existence of any specific ‘place of art’ in favor of a forever unfinished discursiveness …the production of gestures wins out over the production of material things.” Similarly for Ma, “the doing part of the art is like making a meal, just a process.”

This kind of approach, then, necessitates downplaying artisanal craft and the usual process of exchange. For “relational” artists, if there could even be a “goal” it is to unbind the artwork, expanding its territories exponentially from pure visual pleasure, virtuosity, and limited historical readings such as “Modernism” and “Postmodernism” to integrate and interact freely with social, political, and cultural environments. Why would fine artists want to seek this position? Notwithstanding the contradictions and ironies of celebrity that accrue to artists like Tiravanija, few within the contemporary art/culture industries would deny that art has lost much of its transgressive shock value and that artists who continue to be motivated by models of alienation with hollow , spectacle driven work do so primarily as marketing strategies for financial gain. Critics like Suzi Gablik have argued that this constitutes a kind of endgame in which the avant garde epater la bourgeoisie is decadently rehashed in the hopes that that paradigm can continue to lead to fame and riches. She believes the world is in such a state of crisis that artists can use their talents and venues to promote and emphasize healing, reconciliation, and understanding by any means at their disposal without losing art’s sense of inventiveness, playful engagement, complexity, or suggestiveness. Or as Ted Purves explained in his book “What We Want is Free”, artists can examine what benefits they might bring to society through acts of generosity, exchange, and democracy. The audience becomes much more of a crucial player, a collaborator, again subverting the traditional nature and status of aesthetic endeavors.

When I first became acquainted with Ma in 2007 he told me of a performance where he carried dirt filled pillowcases labeled “Made in Pakistan”, purchased at Walmart, up and down a mountain near Los Angeles. Bringing into focus labor practices that support First World consumerism, the piece is unlikely to stop Americans from supporting exploitive labor in their buying habits, but addressed levels of awareness that can be transmitted by small individual acts. On a more ambitious scale, Ma’s next piece will involve a reconstruction of his grandfather’s home in China, packing the components in shipping containers, and if possible, residing in the containers as they leave the San Pedro docks to be eventually installed on site in China. As in Born by the River which both refers to the dream sequence that “birthed” the artwork and the never ending currents of water on the globe that carry people, give life and also take it away, the river will now figuratively flow into the Pacific to not only allow Ma to reenact ancient trips, but also begin anew. Ma’s studio will morph from a small Chinatown sweatshop to a crammed crate, suggesting that the studio is no longer a specialized isolated place to produce art, but involves a continuum of spaces, locations, and configurations. Quoting the 16th century Japanese poet Basho who wrote, “And the journey itself is home” Ma could have also remarked, “And my studio is never the same but also a journey.”

Source:  09 Jul 2011 A River Runs Through It by Constance Mallinson . The Times Quotidian

Ghosts Can Cross Oceans – Ciara Ennis

Foregrounding the entropic as a space for renewal, Ghosts Can Cross Oceans celebrates disarticulation and recombination as a necessary act in the process of becoming, where movement and reinvention are ongoing. Bringing some order to this disruptive schema is the critical role of ritual, which in relation to this project gives substance to the felling of a jade orchid tree that once grew in Nuttaphol Ma's parents’ garden. Functioning as a mnemonic trigger, Ghosts Can Cross Oceans references his father’s daily ritual of collecting the tree's blossoming dawg jam bee flowers to make offerings to the family altar. Loosely translated from Thai as 'flower remember year,' both the memory of the blossom and its evocative odor have been symbolically grafted onto a thriving colony of lemongrass plants.

Comprising the central focus of the work, these lemongrass flora have taken root in multiple planters that have been repurposed from a previous work dedicated to Ma’s grandfather’s ancestral home. Arranged in rectangular formation, the enclosed space, activated by the olfactory notes, invites intense reverie and contemplation while simultaneously reviving and precipitating generations of familial bonds both past and present. Although functioning as an intimate site where inter-subjective exchanges and experiences can take place, Ghosts Can Cross Oceans also exists as a politicized site where themes of forced migration, cultural dislocation, and hybrid identities come to the fore.

Ma’s practice complicates easy definitions of belonging by elaborating an extended notion of home where one’s psycho-geographic markers manifest as an eternal “line of flight.” This fluid and open-ended  

structure is at the core of all Ma’s work, which celebrates nomadic and shape-shifting identities as future-oriented guides necessary for navigating the unfamiliar and interstitial. Although precarious in nature, such positions of uncertainty provide possible sites for radical re-articulations and revised definitions of who and what we are, and what it is to belong. It is in this direction that Ghosts Can Cross Oceans gestures towards.

Ciara Ennis, April 2015


Born By The River

I am a nomad. I journey through my dreams, my consciousness, my past and perhaps my embedded future wandering in the subconscious; at times, sprouting through the conscious. The circular road is round and about meanderings. Periodically, I stop. I write recollections from my dreams and unfolding events from the everyday, the mundane. I labor their connections to construct stories about the shaping of our cultural identity, cultural dislocation at the price of loss, longing and memory, about turning the chaos around to re-tell empowering stories about becoming, about flowers blossoming from solitude.

On May Day 2011,born by the river I embarked on a long walk. I titled my walk Born by the River. For over five days, I walked. I walked. I walked. I walked from Badwater Basin in Death Valley to Whitney Portal located at the trail head of Mount Whitney with a handcrafted boat over my head. The humble action merely shadows other walks – some heroic, some unheroic; however, both equal in stature. Countless stories of families, orphans trekking through the land to reach another place abound. They wash the fabric of our cultural identity. My first interaction with such story came at a young age. I was nine; newly arrived to the US. We had just finished dinner. My mother’s colleague from work and her sister visited. They recounted their trek through the jungle from Vietnam through Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand. I can recall one image; that is of the two sisters drinking dew drops from a leaf.

Other journeys spark movements. Gandhi’s twenty-four day march from Almedabad to a costal village of Dandi where he harvested salt from the sea in protest against the British imposed salt tax touched the spirits of a nation under colonial rule and led to an unrelenting shift towards independence. In a different generation, though only one mile apart, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial staged a sea of marchers, singing to the anthem of civil rights. I cannot even begin to understand the shear will and longing connected with such arrivals and departures but to embark on one myself. From Badwater Road to Highway 190 to Highway 395 to Whiney Portal Road, I set one foot in front of another, my face veiled inside an upended boat, I steer myself as a mobile memorial, commemorating those who employ such humble actions as a means of survival, as a means of questioning the current power structure placed upon the powerless.

Flow to sea
Born by the River
did not start from an ah-ha moment. Quite the contrary, composted layers of thoughts, events and dreams led to my disembarkment to Badwater Basin. These non-linear blocks of time within multiple spaces interweave themselves to cultivate the work. March 2009, I camped out near Furnace Creek. My maiden trip to Death Valley bore semblance to that of a typical tourist; camped at Furnace Creek, drove to Badwater Basin, visited sand dunes, took my afternoon tea at a local resort. What snapped the allurement of my Disneyfied experience was my chance encounter in the Borax Museum. There, in the midst of all the artifacts, tools, unknown laborerphotographs hung salon-style, one image stood out and cried my name. The black and white photo was of a Chinese migrant working in the fields. Next to the photo read a caption: Chinese laborers hired by Coleman to gather cottonball from the valley near Harmony Borax Works @ 1885. I left speechless, numbed.

The contact with the unknown Chinese laborer lives within my notebook. Photos and writings from the experience stored away. I continued with my daily routine. I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, take breakfast, drive in traffic, park my car, clock in my time at work, stand on the sales floor, greet customers, sell merchandise, clock out for lunch, clock in from lunch, drive home. My art practice weaves within the confines of the clocking in and clocking out; intermittently, the ritual is broken by an installation work or a performance piece. In the case of Born by the River, my routine was disrupted by a dream and a jarring event that took place on the sales floor. Perhaps it was the incubated experience with the Chinese migrant worker hatching through my subconscious; who knows.

On the morning of 15 January 2010, I woke up from a dream. I dreamt that my body rested inside a boat that washed ashore. Steps led up a mountain side accompanied by two naga figures. I heard sounds; drums, wooden sticks tapping on a big hollow seashell. I ascended half way only to realize that my physical body remained in the boat by the riverbank. I retraced back. I asked passerby to help me carry the boat up. We reached the top of what I recalled being an open field. I woke up.

The second catalytic event occurred at my workplace. I cannot recall the exact date except that the event took place on a busy Sunday afternoon autumn 2010. I was working on the sales floor, helping customers. One of my colleague approached me looking deeply distraught. I asked her what happened. She said, “Nuttaphol, they’re watching us.” I said, “Who’s watching us?”. “The managers [they were watching us] on the computer monitor in the office. I saw. The door was opened.” I placed my hand on her shoulder. Our distressed eyes consoled the moment. I left the conversation numbed, angered. I woke up feeling like a grain of rice under a microscope.

Winter 2010 settled. I exhausted my emotions. I began to question the power structure which prescribed my being; namely the shopping mall – the place where I work – and the corporation – the system which employs me and finances my everyday cost of living. While existing under this structure, I set out to create my own structure. Though my gesture is a small individual act and unlikely to change my situation, I constructed the very boat from my dream. Using measurements of my body parts, I shaped the boat’s bamboo frame, sewn each joint together and weaved processed threads made from castoff plastic bags within the bamboo shell. Upon completing the boat, I struggled with the object’s presence as it reflected both my dream and my naked reality.

I absorbed back to my encounter with the Chinese migrant worker, I took refuge within my imagined systems and environment that prescribed his being. On May Day 2011, I drew upon his courage and decided to set sail with the handcrafted boat over my head within close proximity to where he once worked. The walk reenacted my prophetic dream; only in this reality, the riverbank becomes the blinding white 004bbtrdesert floor 282 feet below sea level, the open courtyard becomes the trailhead of Mount Whitney, a doorway to the highest point of continental US. The structure which I constructed becomes my shelter from the sun and the unforgiving wind.

The sky becomes the sea, the wind becomes waves, the boat becomes a container of lost emotions. I propelled on with a great deal of time to reflect. I pondered on my dual realities; one being my mundane retail world and everyday routine. While the other rests within my long walk and surroundings. Both are harsh environments which I find myself treading carefully with each step. Working within conditions consumed by the time clock, the shopping mall and the corporation do not by any means exude beauty. The vast desert sea, the mountain, the empty lakebed, conversely, hark back to the sublime. My walk taps into the power structure of the landscape – one that eclipses all the malls and corporations put together. I asked myself, “how can I draw strength and beauty from such a vast vast place?”

I walked. I walked. I walked. I imagined my boat, my body from an aerial view mirroring an ant carrying a grain of rice marching through the landscape. At one point, two fighter jets carried out maneuvers 10 feet above my head; not once but twice. The third flyover flew adjacent to myself and highway 190. I wonder if the China Lake Naval Base located nearby picked up on an ant carrying a grain of rice from their satellites footage that sparked the surveillance maneuvers. I will never know.

I hummed Sam Cooke’s song A Change is Gonna Come. I thought about the Chinese laborer from the 1800s. I thought about the migrant workers laboring in the fields of Central California. I walked. I walked. I walked. My vantage pointed downwards, veiled by the upended boat. I saw dirt, gravel, the white line on the asphalt; at times, specks of color from wild flowers broke through. I stopped around midway; collected a bouquet of wild yellow and pink flowers. I placed them at the bow. I continued my walk.

Nuttaphol Ma . 秉宏
Los Angeles . Winter 2011