Looking for shadows
in Bangkok

Artist Paul McLachlan recently returned from spending three months at Surface Arts residency in Bangkok as part of Asia New Zealand Foundation's artist-in-residence programme. He describes his time at the residency and the works he developed there.

Artist Paul McLachlan

Why did you decide to do the Surface Arts residency?

Last year I saw the Imagine Asia exhibition at Pataka in Porirua, which was a retrospective of previous Asia New Zealand Foundation artists. The artworks in the exhibition were dynamic and engaging, and I felt it was the sort of challenge I was ready for, so I wrote a very thorough and enthusiastic application.

What was it like working and living at the residency?

I had a rooftop kitchen and workspace, as well as a whole floor of studios, and another floor with a gallery space. The residency was situated right beside W Market, an outdoor food court and art precinct, so my life was surrounded by a very raucous and lively community of people. I worked independently on my own work, but for the first six weeks I had the company of a French photographer, who was exploring the nightlife of the city, and we became very good friends.

Despite the abundance of space I was provided with, when it came to developing my drawings I would often move to new areas of the city. Firstly, I would visit a local temple, then I would try a new blend of artisan coffee in a cafe while I commandeered a small table with my drawing pad, pens, camera, laptop, chargers, external hard-drive, tablet, smartphone and headphones. Thai people are very friendly and I met a lot people this way, and I found I retained a sense of connection to the city while I developed my project.

Can you describe the art projects you undertook in Bangkok?

I chose the Surface Arts Residency in Bangkok because of Bangkok's history with Therevada Buddhism and the rich proliferation of temples and public art throughout the city. 

This sort of mass devotion is in contrast to the secular and self-focused society cultivated within New Zealand. I was interested in exploring the connection between this devotional life and the experience of the everyday – the relationship between the mystic and the social.

Can you tell me about the exhibitions that resulted from your time at Surface Arts residency?

I had two exhibitions in the Surface Arts Gallery space in Bangkok.

Locking Antlers with the Clouds was a collection of digital drawings, the result of my explorations of Bangkok through temples, galleries, museums and the streets.

The imagery focuses on the membrane that separates the spiritual world from reality. These drawings were further developed and printed as lithographs at the University of Canterbury Print Studio, shown in the exhibition HOLY FIRE, at Chambers Gallery in Christchurch.

Looking for Shadows was a side-project. For ten weeks I left sheets of thick card hidden in the streets and near various Buddhist temples, allowing the effects of each location to impress and embed themselves into the card. Beyond the mildew, grime and humidity, heat and fumes of Bangkok, this work was an expression of the numinous, the ghostly and 'sacred' of the city.

I have continued to develop my work from Bangkok into a suite of tapestries, which will be shown in 2017 in Palermo, Sicily, where I am currently living, and are scheduled for a public gallery in New Zealand in 2018.

Paul McLachlan taking a Holy Fire lithograph off a press

How did being away from New Zealand in a foreign country influence the art you created?

Although I am continuing to explore similar themes in my work, this residency marked a distinct change in my style of imagery. I moved to flat, 2D shapes and forms, rather than the virtual sculptural forms I was previously creating. I was influenced by the black line-work of the gold leaf lacquer panels of the Ayutthaya period, and the nang yai shadow puppets, as well as European woodblock engravings from the arts and crafts movement of the nineteenth century.

The sense of being an outsider, the unfamiliar attention, along with new environments and customs, gave me a heightened awareness of the behaviour of people around me. I became more alert and sensitised to details and experiences I wouldn’t normally appreciate or notice. This is an intoxicating headspace to be in and it feeds directly into my work.