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Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow

Barakat Contemporary, Seoul

Artist: Pratchaya Phinthong

Barakat Contemporary presents Pratchaya Phinthong’s first solo exhibition in Korea: Today will take care of tomorrow. The exhibition provides a comprehensive view of the artist’s practice that brings together heterogeneous social, economic, and geopolitical systems into constructive yet open-ended friction.

Installation Views

Installation image for Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow, at Barakat Contemporary Installation image for Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow, at Barakat Contemporary Installation image for Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow, at Barakat Contemporary Installation image for Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow, at Barakat Contemporary

Widely dubbed an alchemist of disparate socioeconomic values, Pratchaya Phinthong often acts as an intermediary introducing an exchangeable currency through which distant realities reciprocate. Primarily through extensive traveling and dialogues - from Southern Africa to the South Pacific Ocean (1) - Phinthong finds and gathers materials and narratives for his art projects, allowing them to interplay in both ironic juxtaposition and fateful harmony. His works' minimal appearance and open-endedness correspond to his particular methodology, which openly invites all relevant partakers and coincidences rather than controlling them. As a result, Phinthong’s works encompass the fluctuation of meaning over time and the human agencies that shape their courses.

The exhibition addresses a selection of important moments from 2012 onward in Phinthong’s expansive practice through which one could segue into some of his journeys. Examples include devising an ecological alternative to the eradication method of tsetse flies that transmit the deadly sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa (Lines of the Hand, 2012); tracking the provenance of the ‘Broken Hill’ skull in the Lusaka National Museum collection, Zambia, after hearing a rumor that it’s a fake (One, is the number divided by, two, 2021); collaborating with villagers in Ban Napia located in northeastern Laos that remolds the UXOs (unexploded ordnance) left by the US army during the Vietnam War (Spoon [disk], 2019-, The Organ of Destiny, 2022-). For this exhibition, as an extension of The Organ of Destiny project, he traveled to the Korean DMZ, an important habitat for an endangered species of cranes in paradoxical association with the recent test flight of the US Air Force’s B-21 stealth bomber (The Organ of Destiny (Assembly)), 2024 and A Little of Everything and Nothing at All (Cheorwon and Sarang), 2024). The selection of works in Today will take care of tomorrow particularly notes on the vast spatiotemporal distances Phinthong takes up between the diverse geographical locations and socioeconomic functions. They signify the notion of mobility - the capacity to shift grounds and cross borders - as one of the momentous instruments in his works that enables and manifests in both conceptual speculation and the act of traveling. Mobility expands the elasticity of the spatiotemporal range and hence one can formulate conceptual suppositions outside an individual’s reach. One can imagine scopes that seem undetectable and invisible because it is often beyond the human lifetime’s scale of time and space. Moreover, mobility challenges the abstraction often employed in modes of capitalist circulation and valorization via concrete interaction with the individual relations surrounding a story. Through mobility, each established autonomous system that Phinthong brings in for an exchange of values can be provoked and opened up for conversion.

The subtle presence of his artworks may not visually convey the vast spectrum of geographies and subject matter Phinthong covers. The range is condensed to his continuous deployment of diptychs both literal and figurative in his works. The artist places two different systems in close proximity, which largely operate in two modes: pairing/doubling and exchange. In pairing/doubling, Phinthong presents two distinct subjects conventionally understood as opposites as a pair, in intimate, humble scale and form. They are so close to each other that it is uncanny, ironic, or even surreal. For example, in the photograph Lines of the Hand, a pair of dead tsetse flies simply lie on the artist’s hand. The flies that transmit sleeping sickness, fatal without treatment, are in direct contact with a very much alive person, observing the doom-cast past and future. In some cases, the works are duplicates of another work. For instance One, is the number divided by, two is a painting duplicate of documentation from Phinthong’s 2013 solo exhibition Broken Hill at the Chisenhale Gallery. It is part of a recent series in which Phinthong has been collaborating with a painter to copy online photo documentation of Phinthong’s works photorealistically. Here, a digital photograph, a reproducible material, is reproduced again but manually by someone other than the author; as a result, it becomes a unique work of art that cannot be reproduced again. This work questions the autonomy and ownership of art, contingent on its materiality and maker and its status as a commodity and documentation. Through the formal and conceptual usage of duality, Phinthong resists a singular authority and interpretation and instead advocates coexistence and collaboration.

Furthermore, Phinthong mediates an exchange, a two-way correspondence in his artistic production and engagement sites. In the ongoing series Spoon [disk] and The Organ of Destiny, he has been working with the villagers of Napia in northeastern Laos, who have been melting UXOs to create silverware and souvenirs to sell to tourists. Phinthong pays the villagers the production fee he received from galleries and institutions and as a result produces materials that extend bilateral fields and values. The villagers’ renewal of once a lethal munition, still a threat to many people in Laos, into something functional and tradeable is similar to Phinthong’s artistic gesture of transforming the original context into another. David Teh, a writer and curator, as well as a long- term collaborator of Phinthong, stresses that the gesture is not to merge the different systems but “...instrumental, the exchange always two-way: the artist sacrifices the symbolic and economic privileges of art in favor of nonart actors, but in return, appropriates their nonart material as an artwork.” (2) By transferring the seemingly bound values and resources from one system to another, another social route is paved that could unsettle the rigid, unilateral flow of means and recognize the tangible realities of abstract macro economies.

Pratchaya Phinthong’s emancipatory as well as reductive strategies together coincide with an organic behavior that is cyclical, one that abides by natural law to self-regulate to stability. The dynamic approach, which oscillates between the macro and micro, community and individual, art and nonart, is further intensified in the variable placement of his works in this exhibition. Not the first time employing this tactic to integrate the nature of sociality of materials, (3) Phinthong has proposed two installation variations of The Organ of Destiny (Assembly), the newly commissioned work for the exhibition Today will take care of tomorrow, to alternate periodically throughout the exhibition. This work is an extension of The Organ of Destiny: five pairs of The Organ of Destiny are rearranged in the shape that resembles a B-21 Raider in one iteration, and a selection of five poses a couple of cranes take to communicate with each other, in another. Like the forest in the video work, Today will take care of tomorrow, which ironically can protect itself from illegal loggers due to the embedded metal shards damaging their machinery, one bird of destruction is repeatedly transformed into the other of hope and regeneration.

Pratchaya Phinthong draws novel cartographies of meaning by revealing events and social relations hidden under generalized definitions. However this cartography is not merely a conceptual one, but it is through direct and concrete encounters in his travels. At times the problem seems too abstract and overwhelming in scale in the complex systems of neoliberal globalization and ongoing histories of trauma; Phinthong takes the basic method of exchange in an economic structure as a pragmatic opening to conversion. And soon enough, we see the world as interconnected structures, the local and global simultaneously. Like a kind of holistic but subtle transformation one experiences long after a good journey, a series of encounters unknowingly leave an imprint in time. But as the way nature heals itself, it is difficult to notice them as “evidence” because it takes a lifetime or even generations. As today takes care of tomorrow, it happens in time without us even having to try, and we may have to simply observe and listen today.

(1) Although not exhibited here, a well-known artwork by Pratchaya Phinthong If I dig a very deep hole (2007), an installation including two photographs of a full moon, is a good example of his boundless traveling. Phinthong took a picture of the full moon in the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific Ocean because it was the place where he would land if he dug a hole straight through the Earth from Paris. The next day he went back to Paris to take a picture of the same moon.
(2) David Teh, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017), 78.
(3) Pratchaya Phinthong, This page is intentionally left blank. Dec. 2, 2018 - Jan. 27, 2019, BANGKOK CITYCITY GALLERY, Bangkok. The arrangement of precast concrete parking curbs was adjusted daily throughout the show.

Installation view, Pratchaya Phinthong: Today will take care of tomorrow, Barakat Contemporary, Seoul, Korea. Courtesy of Barakat Contemporary

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