The Art of Being Bombarded by Watermelons

DANIEL McDERMON​, The New York Times, 13 September 2017

In her 2015 video, “The Scale 2,” above, the artist Kawita Vatanajyankur hangs suspended from ropes, eyes closed and arms outstretched, supporting two wide, flat baskets. A neon green background blazes out at the viewer, and dried rice begins to fall into the baskets. The trickle becomes a torrent; grains ricochet off her face as her arms sway under the load.


The downpour intensifies for two increasingly uncomfortable minutes before fading out. Throughout, her expression remains unchanged.


“It’s quite violent,” she said. “You see the strains, the injuries, and all of that.”

Ms. Vatanajyankur, 30, who lives and works in Bangkok, has been creating these alluring, acerbic videos since 2012, turning her body into a variety of simple tools and machines. In “The Dustpan,” from 2014, her body is a broom and her hair, the bristles. In 2012’s “Wet Rag,” we watch from above as another woman uses the artist to scrub a floor.


Her performances evoke the kind of physical labor that has traditionally fallen to women in Thailand, linking their subjugation with backbreaking work. This is perhaps most clear in “The Scale,” from 2015, below.

We watch as she holds a yoga-like pose on her neck and shoulders, her feet aloft and supporting a plastic basket. Chunks of watermelon — 60 pounds’ worth — rain down, crashing and splashing on her, but Ms. Vatanajyankur is unfazed. The performance is startling, amusing and appalling all at once.


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The vivid colors, Ms. Vatanajyankur said in a recent interview, are inspired by the striking designs that make consumer products stand out on a supermarket shelf. “You see those beautiful packages,” she said, and you don’t think for a moment about the labor that’s behind them.

She has had solo exhibitions in Thailand, Australia and Japan, and is included this month in “Stamina,” a two-person exhibition (with the artist Liza Buzytsky) curated by Alexandra Fanning at Secret Dungeon, a Bushwick project space.

Creating these works takes time. Ms. Vatanajyankur spends anywhere from two weeks to two months working out the details and choreographing each performance. For the watermelon piece, she said, “I had to practice a lot.”


During the performance, though, she aims to lose her sense of self and “really become a part of the working tools or machines.” Getting to that point requires a great deal of meditation, she said.

​Ms. Vatanajyankur’s work has inspired very different reactions. In Thailand, the response has often focused on gender equality, “female strength and endurance,” she said.


But in Japan, she said, “it was a completely different story.”

Viewers there sought her out, sharing feelings of inadequacy in their jobs, a sense of shame in being unable to meet expectations of perfection. “It was like a confession, almost,” she said. “Two people came to me and cried.”

Other videos, like “The Carrying Pole,” above, suggest torments worthy of Dante or ancient mythology. And some audiences have asked whether she had a political aim, or if she meant to criticize abusive interrogation tactics like waterboarding in these endurance works.

That was not her intention, Ms. Vatanajyankur said. But “these layers are also quite interesting to me.”


Some works escalate those kinds of bodily violations. In a 2013 work, “Poured,” she appears serene as an improbable amount of water gushes from a funnel into her mouth. For a new work, “Big Fish,” she hangs suspended from an oversized hook.


These tableaux may present an extremist vision of labor and its depredations upon the body, but Ms. Vatanajyankur offers another interpretation: “It’s almost impossible to transform yourself into a machine or a working tool, because we are human and we have our own limits.”

But, she added, “Our bodies and our minds have an amazing ability to adjust.”