My body as a domestic object

This conversation took place via Zoom on 26 January 2021 between Kawita Vatanajyankur in Bangkok and Rachel Ciesla and Robert Cook in Boorloo/Perth.

RC After you’ve performed does that sense of being a tool or being erased stay with you afterwards?

KV When I performed The Ice Shaver [2013] I completely transformed myself. I entered the work as myself, as a human being – my face was almost frozen from the coldness of the ice and I felt a sense of pain – but then as time went by (this video is about three or four minutes long) there was a transition from human to object. My face was numb and I felt less and less a sense of self, in terms of a being or feeling. Then, both physically and psychologically, I was transformed into a complete object.

This is also the result of practicing for the performances. Sometimes it takes me about two to four weeks to be able to complete the action for the entire duration of the piece. I can’t just go and do a new performance; I wouldn’t be able to. I would fall or give up in the first minute or two because of the challenge I have to face. Some tasks are easier than others, but many are very hard to do. Mostly, I can do only one or two minutes at the start. The next day I can do five minutes. I practice until I can endure it for long enough to do the final shoot. And after a while I am still that object. I still think of it now; I think of the endurance. I think that kind of endurance has stayed with me forever. The limitations of my endurance have been extended.

RC You have people ‘assisting’ you in the videos. Who is the woman in the other works? Is that your mother or a friend or family member?

KV Most are family members, like my mother; and sometimes its my housekeeper. My housekeeper is also my inspiration. She gave me a lot of ideas for my earlier works, and my later works about labour as well. In a lot of the works, she created equipment or props for me, or constructed the studio, or helped with the actions. So she is my collaborator actually.

RC How does she see the work? Because in a way it’s a critique of that type of labour that she’s involved in? And how does your mother see the work from her perspective?

KV In every work that I’ve done with my housekeeper or with other women who are constructing the equipment or building the studios with me, I think they see it as valuing their hard, difficult work. It’s regarded as an abstract thing, ignored and not seen within society. The work called Plough (Plow) [2020], is performed by myself and two other women. One is a machine or an animal, the other is a plough that is adjusting the soil. My face was being dragged through the soil and I was falling and coming up again. There was a moment in that project when the other women both cried.

After that I started to also look at how the invisible labour occurring within the house is only a tiny part of a large systematic problem within society. The workers behind mass production are abstract. They are the ones at the bottom of the hierarchy, working behind closed doors. My series Field Work [2020] explores how humans are being objectified and dehumanised by a society of capitalism based on materialism. The series is geared towards questions of equity and equality, and I’m researching the factories and looking inside the fruit markets to see the labourers behind all these productions. And there are so many women, for instance, within the local markets in Thailand, who are working almost like tools in a machine. My family (except for my mum and my dad) are all lawyers, so I have the scales of justice everywhere, just lying around my house. I have seen them since I was very young and I think they have been a constant reminder of questions about whether fairness is real within the current system of capitalism.

Doing my own research into labour practices I found that Thailand has one of the highest rates of human trafficking and labour exploitation in the world, especially in the fishing industry. I did a series called Splashed [2017] where the body is a carrier or a large net which is going down into the blue ocean and carrying the saltwater fish up and down, up and down. Many documentaries show how labourers in the fishing industry are being treated as human nets. These human nets are being locked within the boat at night, sleeping on top of each other, and then forced to work for many hours. Sometimes they work for three days in a row without sleeping to catch as many fish as they can for the seafood exporter. I really wanted to research that series further, but my aunt, an attorney, warned me that it is very dangerous because law and policies do not cover activities offshore.

Around that time, I also went to several factories in both Thailand and India, and started talking to the labourers there. While I was in Bangalore, the female textile and garment workers were protesting against the government because their wages were so low that they couldn’t survive. During the protest I saw a woman holding a sign that said ‘Are we machines?’. There are many protests in Thailand as well as Bangalore, Bangladesh and Cambodia, where these workers are demonstrating for their rights, for their own voice, for more wages so that they can survive. Most of the time they are being pushed back violently by the government or the police, and their treatment never makes it to the news. I really wanted to unmute their voices.

RCo You do this in a sense by acting it out. In this regard, do you agree that your works are becoming more complex in relation to both industrial and mythological connections?

KV Yes. At one of the knitting factories, I saw a weaving room that had a very large circular loom. The needle in the middle was going around and around to create a tube of fabric. It inspired me to incorporate this element into my live performance The Spinning Wheel [2018]. In this work I am the needle that is going around, and I am using my whole body, especially my legs and my mouth to bite and to knit the tube of fabric. Towards the end of this performance it is almost like I am knitting a spider web. And so I reflected a little more on the story of Arachne who was a weaver that was turned into a spider so she has to continually spin thread. Athena set a test for her because she felt that Arachne insulted the power of the gods, and so she was turned into a spider as punishment for not following what the higher beings demanded. I see a connection between my work and myself as a human spider who is forever knitting a web, like Arachne. Knitting is a form of work, a form of labour, but also a form of survival. To perform this work, I must use all parts of my body like the spider with its eight legs – I am being that machine.

Extract from the interview ‘Kawita Vatanajyankur: My body as a domestic object’ by Rachel Ciesla & Robert Cook, originally published in ‘BODIED’, ed. Rachel Ciesla & Robert Cook, AGWA, 2022. Available for purchase online at the AGWA Design Store