Surprise and a certain thrill are expected with the act of unwrapping, and both were certainly delivered in Pichet Klunchun and Alvin Erasga Tolentino’s collaboration, Unwrapping Culture. An elaborate and darkly comedic exercise in building and toppling order, this new work melds the traditional with the contemporary to decipher popular culture in Thailand today.
Best described as performance art, Unwrapping Culture involves the audience moving into the space en masse to either sit cross-legged or remain standing. The black-box staging is bare bones, with only a video screen on the back wall loudly playing a Thai rap video. In the centre are carefully assorted piles and clumps of miniature to massive soft and cheap plastic toys, as well as mechanical animals, gizmos and tacky tourist temple souvenirs.
Once the audience settles, the duo rushes out in bright Hawaiian shirts with music at full blast. Taking on the hyped-up personas of game show hosts, they energetically dance to the rap song with silly and loose movements while quickly introducing themselves and welcoming everyone to Thailand. The mood is ultra-positive to sell, sell, sell — a satire on night-market hawkers. Tourist-tat trinkets are talked up as exquisite antiques, and cultural clichés are thrown about, such as asking if we know The King and I — it is fun, colourful and visually busy. It is also filled with jarring and grim undertones.
The two performers are at total ease, joking around, applying a white mixture to their faces and piling us with the same perfume used to make the traditional face paint. Audience participation runs throughout the sixty-minute performance and is especially amped-up later in the work with two rounds of ring toss — throwing plastic bands at a lineup of small goddess statues placed on flat, round, flickering bike lights. Tongue-in-cheek humour mocks how religious icons are used for entertainment in a tourist game.
In one of the first vignettes, Klunchun arranges the real and fictional, contemporary and extinct animals from the piles; a chair is dressed as a makeshift altar with the toys now arranged in a V-shape on the floor. Klunchun adorns himself with a bright paper garland, a toy gun/noisemaker and a headdress that includes a plastic dinosaur and paper flowers secured with painters tape as he tells a story of the history of his culture. Unwrapping Culture embraced a low-tech aesthetic in its delivery with a good dose of the absurd. The visual result was comedic; the symbolism was stark and deeply political.
While our main focus is on Klunchun’s construction and storytelling, Tolentino steals away and slows down his pace to construct a large circle by scattering thousands of multicoloured neon elastics and plastic stars from a garbage bag slung over his shoulder — methodically adding layer upon layer, reinforcing excess and waste, but also growth and change.
Klunchun and Tolentino first met in Thailand in 2013. Filipino-Canadian Tolentino is the artistic director of Co. ERASGA in Vancouver and was interested in studying and working with Thailand-based dancer Klunchun. Klunchun is a master in khon, a classical mask dance from Thailand, and he has become an influential and controversial figure in his home country for contemporizing the form. Khon is usually performed by men who wear full head masks with ornate and garish imagery, with narrators telling the classical tales for a royal court. Klunchun plays radically with the form by dancing without a mask and by taking on the narrator role. He is a risk-taker, breaking with centuries of convention. During the course of the performance Khuchun gives several short demonstrations — he is mesmerizing, punctuating his slow undulating and exaggerated movements with delicate hand gestures, fingers flared, and circling hip motions.
The notion of the master-novice relationship is implied several times during the work. Tolentino echoes Klunchun’s traditional khon-styled movement, but more timidly than his master’s confident grasp — perhaps a nod to the difficulty in understanding another’s culture.
Nearing the end, all the mechanical toys are animated, moving independently throughout the space. The lights are dimmed, creating a surreal dreamscape that is visually captivating. While a video plays monks chanting, the pair drape themselves in orange, returning to the mock altar in prayer, and begin to shake in an ecstatic frenzy towards the light. A Buddhist blessing is pronounced, stressing the desire for material wealth and status in this life and the next, as the performers shower the audience in confetti of neon elastics.
The performance space is much altered from the opening, and there is a desire by some to take a moment to linger and look more closely at the detritus strewn about.
Many of the vignettes in Unwrapping Culture ridicule materialism and waste, attacking globalization and the co-opting of culture for economic gain. Klunchun’s warmth was infectious, and while the approach was lighthearted, the work tackled serious concerns about social change — the erosion of religion and tradition in favour of technology and consumerism. There was some lag in pacing with the construction of scenes, but it did succeed in engaging attention while posing important questions with great moments of charm and reflection, as well as visual playfulness.