S.E.A. Focus 2024: Übermensch with Attitude and Mortalverse AR by Be Takerng Pattanopas
Übermensch with Attitude and Mortalverse AR
By Be Takerng Pattanopas
At S.E.A Focus 2024
Date 20 January – 28 January 2024, 1 PM – 8 PM
Location: Tanjong Pagar Distripark, Singapore
Be Takerng Pattanopas has long been preoccupied with death, but his life engagement with Buddhist beliefs of impermanence became tangible in recent years when faced with his own mortality. Being diagnosed with benign, but life-threatening tumours in his endocrine system, the artist intellectualised this experience per his spiritual practice, sought to visualise the interior of his body, and transposed it into several series of his unique sculptures. These works possess a remarkable sense of microscopic views of human internal organs, fragile and bristling, and a realism was to be curiously affirmed by medical experts. This method proved transitional from early works that explored the human body as a concave space, influenced by the ethereal lighting of Buddha sculptures in Thai temples to render perceptions of impermanence, to an increased use of visual analogies for bodily organs and complex metaphors of relations between life and death. Regarding both, references to the cosmos have become pronounced: the insight that all is temporal, changeable, and ends as nothing. At S.E.A. Focus Pattanopas is showcasing his most recent works titled Übermensch with Attitude, along with excerpts from his celebrated Mortalverse AR..
Übermensch with Attitude (2022-) examines space and viscera as a tension between light and sensuality. Compulsively detailed and seemingly otherworldly, these sculptures evolve the artist’s core concern with Buddhist-influenced shifts from physicality to the intangible. Strangely seductive excrescences appear to struggle free from their geometric, steel bases and also suggest a futuristic form. Organic yet clearly manufactured, microbiological and yet suggesting queer, mutant life forms from a more advanced civilization, the series imagines a progressive relation between human and nature; a time where bodies, nature, science and the manmade meet. The whole assemblages play with a dichotomy of order and disorder, the very condition of contemporary existence, but are ultimately recognizable as unified and harmonious.
The wall-bound Blasphemized Serra #1 (2023) adds to more metaphysical implications by providing viewers with a humorous critique of the hard solidity of late modernist sculpture through adorning a geometric rusted steel base with maximalist “decorative” elements. Sharp symmetry gives way to seduction and visual pleasure and then a creepy recognition of magnified bodily elements such as stomach lining or nerve-endings. Here Pattanopas’s mature, layered, interests become apparent, and now including a subversion of historic conventions of sculpture.
Of the artist’s early works, the historian Lawrence Chua wrote, ‘Freud used the term unheimlich, or ‘unhomely,’ to refer to the fundamental propensity of the familiar to turn on its owners, suddenly to become de-familiarized, de-realized, as if in a dream. In Pattanopas’s work, what appears at first to be familiar to the point of being mundane becomes something unsettling and strange upon closer examination.’
Chua’s insight now resonates largely. Smells-Like-Teen-Spirit House #1 (2023) initially appears as a tall table on fire, but, on examination, the “fire” is revealed as a three-pointed-legged rusty steel object topped with a bizarre version of the art of ikebana, a Japanese form of organic arrangement. The height and proportion of the work is based on typical spirit-houses in Southeast Asia, the habitats of invisible beings. But whilst standing firmly, extremely sharp pointed legs perceptually suggest levitation and thus invokes the supernatural. Or, emphasizes the implications of such. We can now imagine a future-form of a ritual object where differences between our world and others no longer matter.
Man from Venus (2023) and Woman from Mars (2023) further speculate on forms that could bring a greater sophistication of understanding about human bodies. Pattanopas here imagines advanced beings as integrated with spacecrafts in order to travel through the cosmos. Torsos are minimally geometric with three strong, steady legs that are designed to reference spaceships; while their appendages resemble magnified internal micro-organs. These “excessive” elements seem functional as they occupy or even invade space. Man from Venus is mainly orange, reflecting warmth as a rare trait for normative masculinity. Woman from Mars is mainly coloured with bright green, suggesting harmony and stability against misogynistic claims for primary incoherence. While the artist’s past works have been almost monochromatic or dichromatic, the colours here celebrate inversion and diversity.
Mortalverse AR (2022) was a site-specific augmented reality (AR) installation for the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) 2022 and explores AR’s boundaries by extending the technology to three-dimensional sculptures. Originally commissioned by BAB director Apinan Poshyananda to complete his curatorial ‘death trilogy’ at the Great Stupa of Prayoon Temple, previous artists who created works for this world-heritage site were the celebrated Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Nino Sarabutra. The site has a circular vault where the bones of 1000s of deceased individuals reside. Mortalverse AR imagines the marriage and deaths of the artist and his life partner, art critic Brian Curtin – while pointing to a then heated political debate in Thailand concerning gay marriage rights and the ultimate Buddhist goal of aiming to expel oneself from the endless cycles of life and death. That is, the philosophy of reincarnation. S.E.A Focus 2024 showcases two pieces excerpted from a total of five sculptural AR triggers from the original installation.
IMMORTAL? AR is a marble death plaque inscribed with the number 1448, which refers to clause 1448 in Thai laws. This clause mandates inequality for LGBTQ marriage. Coincidentally 1448 can be written as 要死死吧 in Mandarin and there means ‘If you want to die, go ahead.’ The names and surnames of the artist and his life partner are carved into this marble plaque to signify the gay couple’s imaginary lawful marriage deaths. Through AR, the viewer sees Pattanopas and Curtin swagger towards their own deaths accompanied by a sarcastically-composed tango-ish soundtrack. The piece evokes an unsettling sensation among many viewers because of this invocation of death due to personal identity.
SAMSARA AR is derived from the image of ‘Sagittarius A,’ the supermassive blackhole at the center of our galaxy and as seen through the powerful space telescope titled JWST. While devouring everything that comes too close its vicinity, including light, the blackhole is literally the brightest celestial object in the Milky Way. This influenced the sculpture’s copper-gilded rays with an abysmal void at the centre. The narrative of Mortalverse AR is based on a Buddhist teaching of all humans being endlessly reborn unless one can discipline oneself to be free from ‘samsara,’ an infinite spiritual prison. The augmented reality reveals an animation of the couple in their vicious cycles of lives and deaths including formations of hellish demons, earthly animals, heavenly angels, and Brahmas. The sculpture and moving images are haunted by a chant-like song and altogether serve as a reminder of the necessity for everyone to persevere in spiritual understandings of their existence.
Pattanopas’s practice has been repeatedly compared to the late and legendary Thai artist Montien Boonma. Both took death as a subject and created exceptionally new forms. Nevertheless, their understandings are very different. While Boonma lamented death, Pattanopas explores mortality in daringly ambivalent terms. Working across very different epochs, breathing different air, and affected by different technologies, their repertories essentially pivot towards different though equally powerful directions of perception and insight.
Text by Brian Curtin and Be Takerng Pattanopas
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art writer and a full-time lecturer on the International Programme in Communication Design (CommDe and CommMA) at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He is one of the curatorial team of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) 2024.
Lawrence Chua (2008). Essay published on the occasion of Be Takerng Pattanopas’s solo exhibition Interior Horizons. Catherine Schubert Gallery. Bangkok. Chua is a historian of the built environment and Associate Professor at Syracuse University.