by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum
“A Room with a Coconut View” (detail), 2018 by Tulapop Saenjaroen, Looped Digital Video with Sound – Courtesy of the Artist
In last month’s column, I focused on the feature-length film A Machine to Live In — there’s only one more opportunity to see it at the Roswell Museum: on Oct. 29 at 3 p.m., included in the regular cost of museum admission. This month, I would like to continue celebrating Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow, a large exhibition inhabiting three galleries at the Roswell Museum co-curated by Roswell Museum Executive Director Caroline Brooks and myself. This month, for my last column on this exhibition, I would like to focus on another participating artist: Tulapop Saenjaroen.
I first became aware of Saenjaroen’s work in 2019 when I was working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and saw his film A Room with a Coconut View, in San Francisco Cinematheque’s CROSSROADS — A Festival of Artist-Made Film & Video. That work deeply resonated with me over the ensuing years, and the exhibition Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow finally presented an opportunity to work with Saenjaroen. I was glad he accepted my invitation to participate in this show, particularly with regard to its theme of ways of being and seeing beyond boundaries.
Artist and filmmaker Tulapop Saenjaroen was born in Thailand and is based in Bangkok. His work has been widely screened in film festivals and exhibited in galleries around the world. He received a Master’s in Fine Art Media from the Slade School of Fine Art in London and a master’s degree in aesthetics and politics from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
Through his work, Saenjaroen questions the relationship between the production of images and the production of subjectivity. Deftly combining narrative film, the video essay and desktop cinema formats, he explores the effect of capitalism on notions of freedom and control and re-interprets the industry of produced images through subjects such as tourism and labor.
The Gene Siskel Film Center describes Saenjaroen’s work as “darkly funny and breathtakingly original” offering “incisive commentaries on work, leisure, tourism, and self-care in today’s relentless culture of self-improvement. Borrowing elements from social media, meditation apps, virtual assistants, and cinema history, Saenjaroen’s works also ponder the ways proliferating media imagery shapes our inner and outer lives.”
Saenjaroen’s 2018 video A Room with a Coconut View is displayed in the Roswell Museum’s Donald B. Anderson Gallery as part of the exhibition Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow. In this short work (28 minutes, 25 seconds), artificial intelligence virtual assistants explore Bangsaen, a Thailand resort destination, through the lens of tourism.
Born in Bang Saen Ville (a town famous for its beaches in eastern Thailand), Saenjaroen explains his desire to make a work about his hometown in a 2018 interview with SINdie (an independent film publication out of Singapore): “Although it was where I was born … I’ve never really lived there — only visiting on weekends or holidays since my childhood. It’s a kind of double binding impression that intrigued me, the feeling like being a tourist in my own hometown — familiar yet alienated, a constant questioning of what does it really mean to know or to feel (like you) belong to a place, or even the idea of being a forever tourist everywhere.”
Indirectly referencing E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, Saenjaroen’s A Room with a Coconut View uses no actors and tells a narrative story using various visual techniques including 3D printing, animation, commercial virtual tours, footage from old Thai films, frames-within-frames, images actively being edited with a specific software platform, live video of people with emoji-like coconuts covering their faces and digital slide presentations.
Saenjaroen makes the distinction that this is more of a “short video” than a “film” that explores local history in addition to touristic sightseeing in a way that interrogates the relationship between censorship and truth. Reflecting on making this work, Saenjaroen describes the result in the 2018 interview with SINdie as “… when a portrait of a tourist town becomes a portrait of the making of the portrait of the tourist town.”
The two main characters of A Room with a Coconut View are Alex, an American-sounding automated voice visiting Bang Saen Ville and Kanya, a Thai automated voice giving Alex the “official” tour. As the tour continues, Alex starts asking Kanya questions she’s not programmed to answer. At one point, Kanya falls asleep, likely from being overworked, and Alex sees her “dreams” represented as technological glitches and fragments of still images and videos both included and not included in the sanitized tour Kanya was giving him earlier. Alex decides to explore Bang Saen Ville on his own, using the images from Kanya’s dream that weren’t part of the tour as starting points. As Alex explores on his own, he begins to question how his understanding of the world has been manipulated through commercial technologies and curated content.
As Saenjaroen explains in the same 2018 interview with SINdie, “… the project aspires to be a catalyst for different ways of seeing the existing or to somewhat dissect and deconstruct the pre-interpreted, rather than to offer more unseen/unfamiliar images.” As Alex is, himself, a robot, he becomes frustrated with his inability to experience what is beyond the video’s frames. As we view this visually captivating work that is raising existentialist questions, we are prompted to consider what we have in common with Alex or Kanya as our daily lives are inundated with automated technologies and commercial forces and how our vision might similarly be limited to the edges of the screens in front of us.
In this exhibition, Tulapop Saenjaroen and other artists seek to think through (in)visible forces such as global migration, capital interests pushing consumption and state and non-state interests pushing surveillance and violence to devise new ways of being and seeing beyond boundaries.
Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow is nearing its end. It is on display in the Roswell Museum’s Donald B. Anderson, Spring River and Russell Vernon Hunter galleries through Oct. 30.