Primitive is a multiple screen video installation, created specifically for display within a gallery, by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It consists of seven videos of differing durations in which the history of the border town of Nabua, in northeast Thailand, is re-imagined as an elusive science fiction ghost story rooted in Thai folklore. The work comprises eight projections, since one of the videos, Primitive which gives the work its name, is shown on two synchronised screens. The seven videos are: Primitive (duration 29 minutes 34 seconds), Nabua (duration 9 minutes 11 seconds), Making of the Spaceship (duration 28 minutes 13 seconds), A Dedicated Machine (duration 1 minute), An Evening Shoot (duration 4 minutes 10 seconds), I'm Still Breathing (music video, duration 11 minutes) and Nabua Song (music video, duration 4 minutes 12 seconds). Nabua, situated where the Mekong River divides Thailand from Laos, was historically the scene of considerable racial strife and violence. From the 1960s until the early 1980s it was a ‘red zone’ where the Mao-influenced Communists hid in the jungle. The Thai army curbed the communist insurgent farmers through physical and psychological abuse and murder. The town also harbours an ancient legend about a widow ghost who would abduct any man who entered her empire, earning it the nickname ‘widow town’. Weerasethakul transforms the town into one of men, the teenage male descendants of the farmer communists, freed from the widow ghost’s empire. These teenagers fabricate their own memories and build a new world, manufacturing a spaceship in the ricefields.
For Weerasethakul the jungle is a place of darkness and mystery, in which distinctions between the fictional and the real dissolve. It is a parallel world, populated by enchanted spectres, where mystery and emotion mingle in shadow. The jungle forms a perfect stage for the artist’s fascination with reincarnation, transformation and light. Curator James Quandt has commented that Weerasethakul’s work turns ‘everyday objects and images into the ineffable and enigmatic, inhabitants of a phantom zone where the hard, “real” world of cars and bodies and buildings cedes dominion to a magical realm of reverie and desire’ (Österreichisches Filmmuseum and SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien 2009).
The artist has stated that Primitive is ‘a reincarnation of presence (and absence). It’s also a reincarnation of cinema as a means of transportation as it was in the time of the early cinema innovator Georges Méliès: the “motion picture” carries us from our own world. Primitive is a meditation on those voyages in fabulous vehicles that bring about the transformation of people and of light’ (unpublished artist’s statement, September 2008).
Inspired in part by surrealism, Weerasethakul’s films present a world that is distinctly mutable and elusive, evoking the artist’s interest in the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, whereby players add words or images sequentially to a sentence or diagram without knowing what came before, so as to construct a fanciful, multi-layered scenario. Conventional narrative unravels as storylines change course and genre morphs from fiction to fantasy to documentary. Drawing heavily on anecdotal traditions from rural Thai villagers, as well as personal politics, social issues and his own early fascination with science fiction, Weerasethakul crafts a unique approach to history which is seemingly caught in an endless cycle of dreams.
James Quandt, ‘Exquisite Corpus: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’, Artforum, vol.43, no.9, May 2005.
James Quandt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Österreichisches Filmmuseum and SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien, Vienna 2009.
Jessica Lack, ‘Ghostly Video Art’, Guardian, 8 October 2009,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/08/thai-film-liverpool-primitive, accessed March 2010.