Category Archives: Essays

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.

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