By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Erik Knutzen|
The Pearl M. Mackey Apartment House on Cochran Avenue between Olympic and San Vicente is one of R.M. Schindler’s later architectural designs, dating to 1939 but retaining the airy, humanist modernism of his best early work. I’m lying face-down on a futon in the light-filled front room of a ground-floor unit, with one leg stretched straight behind me. A diminutive Thai gentleman stands over me — well, actually, on me — his bare foot in the small of my back, as he stretches my other leg up toward the back of my head — just a little too far. I feel the burn and delicious ache of a difficult stretch, and the subtle tingle of unclogged chakras stuttering back into circulation. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.
Suwan Laimanee is a Thai artist whose home base is Vienna, and he has set up shop in the Schindler apartments through the artist-in-residence program of Austria’s MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), a branch of which maintains and operates out of the Schindler House on Kings Road. (That’s where my massage was supposed to take place, until cool-headed administrators, sensing potential lawsuits — “My energy flow was so balanced I could no longer function sexually!” — forbade it.) Laimanee has been performing traditional nuad pan-bo-rarn (Thai massage) as part of his art practice since 1996, though it was an integral part of the culture in which he grew up. Nuad Thai massage, sometimes called “yoga for lazy people,” is a therapeutic Buddhist tradition dating back more than 1,000 years and incorporating still older healing practices from India and China.
The yoga influence is the most apparent, as many of the positions into which the Thai masseur contorts the client’s body echo the familiar asanas of hatha yoga. But many procedures are also similar to Japanese shiatsu or reflexology techniques, while the underlying philosophy of sen, or vital energy lines, closely resembles the similar Chinese concept of qi. Working symmetrically, from the tips of the toes to the crown of the head, Thai massage seeks to unblock and realign the balance of this energy, through kneading, poking, chopping, deep-pressure application, and stretching, stretching, stretching. A full-body Thai massage can take more than two hours.
After walking out of Thailand at age 20 and wandering for many years through Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Laimanee found himself studying art in Vienna, mentored by Michelangelo Pistoletto (whose Super-8 documentation of himself pushing a giant ball of newspaper through the streets of Rome was my favorite work in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972 at MOCA last year). Laimanee and Pistoletto had already been discussing ways to bring spirituality into contemporary nonobjective art when Laimanee felt an urge to return to his home city of Chiang Mai for the first time in many years. When he wrote back that he had decided to pursue certification in massage, Pistoletto was enthused, and arranged for an invitation for Laimanee to perform his traditional therapeutic treatments for four months at the Florence Biennale. He has been treading on the art world’s back ever since.
Laimanee’s massage business is only one of the areas of focus in his work. He’s also deeply concerned with the recent genetic alteration of Jasmine rice, mutated so that it can grow outside of Thailand’s unique climate, a development that could well destroy the livelihood of thousands of independent Thai farmers and deal a serious economic blow to the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized. He gently shares information about this and other social, political and spiritual topics during occasional art events at which he prepares and serves Thai food.
But it was another artist of Thai descent who first got famous for cooking in an art gallery in 1992. Rikrit Tiravanija achieved art-world notoriety by cooking and serving Thai food to the public at 303 Gallery in New York. (The show, which also included a literal exposure of the gallery’s backroom dealings, was almost identical in spirit to an earlier pair of works by Chris Burden, incidentally a MAK favorite: For a week in August 1976, Burden anonymously served cappuccino to visitors at the Hansen-Fuller Gallery in San Francisco, and shortly afterward displayed records of all his 1976 business transactions in a piece called Full Financial Disclosure.) Although the predictable “You call that art?” was indeed forthcoming, skepticism was tempered by the connotations of charity and nurturance that attend feeding the multitudes — and how scandalous can a bowl of pad see ewbe?
Tiravanija was one of a handful of artists in the early ’90s practicing what French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud termed “relational aesthetics.” In his essay for “Touch: Relational Art From the 1990s to Now,” an exhibit created for the San Francisco Art Institute last winter, Bourriaud defined this term as “a set of works that take place within interhuman relationships in a deliberate and articulate way — by building alternative social models; producing concrete interactions; collaborating with other people; or even examining social exchanges in a critical way.” That’s a pretty inclusive set, and the idea of contrived social situations as an art form has become a grad-school bandwagon of epic proportions.