May Adadol Ingawanij is a writer, curator and teacher. She works on Southeast Asian contemporary art; de-westernised and decentred histories and genealogies of cinematic arts; avant-garde legacies in Southeast Asia; forms of future-making in contemporary artistic and curatorial practices; aesthetics and circulation of artists’ moving image, art and independent films belong to and connected with Southeast Asia. Her major research and teaching themes intersect film and media studies, art history, curatorial practice, artistic research, and area studies. She features on ArtReview's 2021 Power 100 list. She is Professor of Cinematic Arts and Co-director of the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media.
Through wide-ranging publication forms and curatorial research initiatives, May’s work is recognised for its contribution to studies and practices of Southeast Asian artists’ moving image, contemporary art, and independent cinema. Her research creatively develops decolonial methods for studying histories and genealogies of cinematic and artistic practices, and for conducting artistic and curatorial research situated in and related to Southeast Asia.
May writes in English and Thai for many academic and arts publications. She is writing a book titled Animistic Medium: Contemporary Southeast Asian Artists Moving Image. Her English-language publications include ‘Stories of Animistic Cinema’ ‘(2021); 'Cinematic Animism and Southeast Asian Contemporary Artists' Moving Image Practices' (2021); ‘Ghost Cinema for a Damaged World’ (2020); ‘Comedy of Entanglement: The Karrabing Film Collective' (2019); ‘Aesthetics of Potentiality: Nguyen Trinh Thi's Essay Films' (2019); ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Late Style and Chiang Mai Social Installation’ (2018); ‘Itinerant Cinematic Practices In and Around Thailand During the Cold War’ (2018); 'Exhibiting Lav Diaz's Long Films: Currencies of Circulation and Dialectics of Spectatorship' (2017), ‘Long Walk to Life: the Films of Lav Diaz’ (2015); 'Animism and the Performative Realist Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul' (2013); Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia (2012); 'Mother India in Six Voices: Melodrama, Voice Performance and Indian Films in Siam' (2012).
Her curatorial projects are collaborative, speculative and open-ended. They include: NANG10 Futures (with NANG magazine and others, 2021); Legacies (with CIRCUIT Artist Moving Image Aotearoa New Zealand, 2022); Animistic Apparatus (with Julian Ross and others 2018 - ); Lav Diaz: Journeys (with George Clark and others 2017); Fields: On Attachments and Unknowns (with Sa Sa Bassac 2017); Comparing Experimental Cinemas (with Experimenta India 2014); Bangkok Experimental Film Festival 2012: Raiding the Archives.
May’s research projects have received funding from the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, EU Asia-Europe Foundation, and other academic and arts grants.
One of May’s major curatorial and publication projects is Animistic Apparatus, funded by the British Academy’s Mid-career Fellowship (£121,000) and international arts funders. Placing contemporary Southeast Asian artists moving image in constellation with the region’s itinerant film projection rituals performed as an offering addressed to powerful spirits of local territories, Animistic Apparatus conceptualises the cosmological, agential, and relational characteristics of Southeast Asian artists moving image.
This experimental project has taken multiple forms, including exhibitions, screenings and an artistic research field trip. Another component is the monograph in progress, Animistic Medium: Contemporary Southeast Asian Artists Moving Image. This is a book project conceptualising a contemporary artistic praxis: Southeast Asian artists moving image. It pursues two related concerns: to understand the relationship between regional legacies of vanguardism and contemporary artistic practices, and to think about modalities of artistic agency creating Southeast Asian artists moving image. The artists studied are, primarily, Lav Diaz, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ho Tzu Nyen, Kidlat Tahimik, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Riar Rizaldi.
Animistic Medium tries to understand what has become of the avant-garde’s aspiration to change life. It asks: What are the characteristics of contemporary Southeast Asian artists moving image? How are such artistic practices entangled with the failures and the aftermath of the region's historical vanguardism?
An increasingly common way to validate Southeast Asian contemporary art is to affirm artistic criticality, accompanied by the notion of the civic and transnational agency of the Southeast Asian contemporary artist. Yet such artistic practices tend to produce fables with oblique links political circumstances and legacies. The artists in the book tend to fabulate temporally heterogeneous worlds enlivened by beings of the deep past, the undead, spirits, and mythical creatures. They tend to reflexively dwell on the precarity of artistic subjectivity and expression, and to simultaneously ask what art can do and not-do. This is where the conceptualisation of Southeast Asian artists moving image as the making of animistic medium comes in. The book theorises the connection between regional contemporary art, legacies of vanguardism, and heuristics of Southeast Asian animism, through interrelating four research methods: criticism, conjunctural analysis, curatorial thinking, and storytelling. It theorises the entanglement of historical vanguardism and contemporary art via the proposition that that Southeast Asian artists moving image are practices that make animistic medium within circuits of global contemporary art. And it thinks the contradictions and potentialities of artistic expression and enunciation by essaying the resonances between regional artistic agency and regional animism, defined as the praxis of agency of precarious beings in vast worlds of hierarchies and entanglements.
Animistic Apparatus is an example of May’s effort to develop experimental and decolonial methods and concepts for researching cinematic arts in Southeast Asia and the global south. In the past decade she has been developing speculative approaches to historicising genealogies of cinematic practice in Thailand and Southeast Asia, her motivation being to shift away from the established narrative of cinema as the cultural form and cultural contribution of cosmopolitan urban elites. In her work on cinematic dispositif and circulation in Thailand during the Cold War period, she researches practices of projection in itinerant open-air and junk print circuits in order to conceptualise the role of humans as intermediaries in the cinematic dispositif. Her proposition is to consider what cinema is when humans form part of the ecology of cinema as voice performers in intermedial live cinematic performances, or as projectionists in rituals of cinematic offering to spirits. Funded in its first phase by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (£80,000), her de-centred historiography of cinematic dispositif has resulted in a number of journal articles and public engagement texts, which are widely used in academic teaching, artistic and curatorial research. These are such as the journal article ‘Itinerant Cinematic Practices In and Around Thailand During the Cold War,’ which tells a story of a cinematic practice that came into being from unpredictable processes metamorphosing film technological material and matter, war infrastructure, and the wartime and transnational circulation of films, into an animistic cinematic ecology and ritual.
As an academic and curator working with filmmakers and artists whose contexts of creation are ones of fragile and at risk artistic and cultural infrastructures, May prioritises spending time and effort supporting the creative processes of filmmakers and artists, and relatedly, situating her written publications within curatorial projects with multiple components and many collaborators. One of her longstanding research commitments is to the praxis of Filipino radical filmmaker Lav Diaz, whose films she has been curating and writing about since the late 2000s.
With international academic and arts collaborators, May is developing a large-scale, multi-strand research initiative on speculative practices of future-making involving film and moving image creation and circulation. The first strand proposes to explore how Southeast Asian artists-initiated and artistic research platforms are addressing climate and ecological change, and climate justice issues, and how such initiatives draw on the technics, circuits and cultures of moving image as part of their speculative, redistributive and future-oriented practices. The second strand is a film curation and film magazine editing project exploring critical, historical, speculative, and retroactive visions of the future of Asian film and artists moving image.
May has won a number of research and arts grants including:
May is regularly invited to give keynote addresses and lectures on her research, and to contribute curatorial activities, at academic and arts institutions worldwide.