Fireworks (Archives): Impressions

Madeleine Wall: After some time, I’m quite certain the best thing I saw at TIFF was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s installation Fireworks (Archives). I saw a lot, and, to be honest, too much, but this was the only piece that I was excited by.

After being told by the ticket vendor that it was “very dark, very scary, and that people are going to get hurt,” I met up with Maddie, and knowing only that warning, entered the installation. The vendor wasn’t wrong — we had trouble orienting ourselves in the space, and only after some time did we realize there were chairs, and that they already had people in them. This difficulty in situating ourselves didn’t change in regard to the video piece. An inaccurate summary of it would be a man and a woman wander around a statue garden, which is sporadically illuminated by fireworks or the flash of a camera. The subjects, whether the moving people or the many statues, are only ever seen briefly and partially by these lights, and the sound of fireworks turns into the sound of gunfire.

For me, this piece is very much engaged with the sleight of hand that is inherent to cinema. We believe, when watching a film, we can see it all, that we are presented with an authentic, as close to reality as possible, picture, and that sound functions to reinforce that illusion of reality. In actuality, light, darkness and sound are three separate parts that work together, in ways that are not perceptible to the human eye, to create the illusion of the moving picture. Light becomes something we take for granted, and we trust in its abilities completely.

Here, on the other hand, the light only partially illuminates, and is meant to function as such. Fireworks are a spectacle, meant to distract rather than illuminate. The flash of the camera and the click of its shutter only provides a brief glimpse of what is going on, and the image it takes the audience does not see. It is a film of mostly darkness, with the light adding to the disorientation rather than clarity. When we see fireworks going off as they should, there is silence, and the sound we expect is replaced with gunfire, but at times it is difficult to tell the difference.

On a technical and aesthetic level I loved it, but lacking any context, I knew this was (pun not intended but I’m keeping it) only part of the picture. The statues in the garden were such a mishmash of figures that its reason for existence remained unclear. If this is an archive with gunfire, there’s a history and politics here that I’m missing.

Madeleine Lee: A few hours before I met Maddy, I went a few floors down from where Fireworks (Archives) was playing to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul in conversation with critic Dennis Lim, where they discussed both Fireworks and Apichatpong’s new film, Cemetery of Splendour. I hadn’t yet seen Fireworks in motion, so my initial contact with it was the opposite of Maddy’s — I only had the context.

Fireworks (Archives) is an offshoot of Cemetery of Splendour in that both works were shot in the northeast of Thailand, the area where Apichatpong was born, and the two actors who appear in Fireworks are also the main actors in Cemetery of Splendour, more or less as they appear in the full-length feature. The major context of Fireworks, however, is the location: the Sala Keoku Temple, founded by a handsome, charismatic mystic who had fled from Laos and established himself as a guru of sorts back in Thailand. He covered the walls of the temple with his portrait, and designed all of the sculptures in its garden. The sculptures draw on images from multiple religions (including Buddhism and Hinduism) as well as contemporary culture, giving them a primal, pantheistic look.

Apichatpong also explained that the northeast of Thailand has been traditionally a marginal area of the country both economically and politically. An audience member who had seen the piece asked about the photographs of people that are shown at the beginning and end of the film without commentary or labels. The filmmaker identified them as people who had been executed in uprisings against the government. He had included their images in the work so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Given all this context, I couldn’t help but come to Fireworks already viewing it as a heavily political and intellectual work.

At the same time, I kept thinking of one of my favourite moments in the Q&A session earlier: An audience member had asked Apichatpong about his intent in using black and white versus colour in a different short film, and what kind of statement he was trying to make by choosing one or the other (for instance, evoking a certain sense of time). The filmmaker’s response was, “I choose according to what looks right to me” – not an evasive answer, just a simple one.

From its historical context alone, Fireworks is a political work. But it is also a very visually and aurally striking one, and by its creator’s own admission born as much of experiments with capturing different sources of light on camera as it was of historical research into the location. In Fireworks, the political and the aesthetic are not two different layers or different readings of the piece, because both are located in one place, in one person: the work’s creator, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If Fireworks has a political viewpoint, it is the political viewpoint he expresses; if it has aesthetic value, it is the value of the creator’s instinctive choices, “what looks right” to him. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his aesthetic choices are subconsciously informed by his politics, because he is the one person making both decisions. And I don’t think it’s much more of a stretch to say that his taste for formal experimentation and fascination with the images found at the Sala Keoku Temple might come from a similar place as his political leanings.

MW: It’s interesting, because without the context I assumed that the photos of the men were those of the perpetrators. There is an overwhelming sense that something is not right in this garden, and beginning the film with the photos of men does alert one to some historical event. (Though since we walked in half way through the film, we didn’t see their photos until the end, so our time line was off, or at least mine was.)

I suppose it was a kind of Act of Killing syndrome, where I assumed the only evidence we have of any crime in the non Western world is only of the perpetrator, and most certainly they were not punished. Here, these men become part of this archive, and though what happened is never explicitly stated, we still understand it, predominantly because of the aesthetic/political alignment you were talking about.

ML: I think your initial impulse raises an interesting point, which is that despite designating this work as “Archives”, the photos are not labelled, and there’s no designation given to the exact location within the work itself. In the Q&A, his insistence that his purely aesthetic choices be recognized as such also leaves them open for alternative interpretations (or shuts out the possibility, depending on how much authorial intent matters to you).

I think the ambiguous identities of the people in the work for anyone unfamiliar with them works into the overall theme of ambiguity in the piece that you mentioned in your initial impression — the firework noises that become gunshots, the parallel drawn between the flash of a camera and the lights given off by fireworks, the part where the two actors hold hands and are conflated with a statue in the temple of two skeletons holding hands. Even just the fact of all the lighting being done by a single source in each shot confuses the concept of an archive: rather than preserving these things in their whole form, only their impression is preserved, if that makes any sense. I think this plays into the photography as well, then: the people in the photographs are presented not with biographies and history, but only as impressions.

The artist’s statement is here:
fireworks (Archives) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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