Humble Materials: NuttapHol Ma
The Artist Feels the Earth Move
On a hot August night in the Pico-Union neighborhood near Downtown Los Angeles, Nuttaphol (pronounced nut-tah-pun) Ma welcomed me to The China Outpost, the project the 43-year-old artist calls a nomadic, self-imposed sweatshop, which bleeds into his living space at the St. Valentine building just a few blocks west of the Staples Center. From the balcony of his apartment, the buildings and neon lights of LA Live, which cast a strange aura over this old neighborhood, were visible. Lemongrass plants like those in his recent Barnsdall Park (The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery) solo exhibition, “Ghosts Can Cross Oceans” (May 17–September 20, 2015), curated by Pitzer College Galleries Director Ciara Ennis, lined the balcony perimeter, along with Kaffir Lime trees and a patchwork of fabric screens that provide a modicum of privacy.
Ma offered me lemongrass tea. He had harvested it from a few surplus specimens intended for Barnsdall that he later planted at his parents’ house. (Ennis called Ma’s work “entropic,” noting that the materials used for his China Outpost products are harvested from Ma’s existing artworks. There is a continuous overlap between his art, life and The China Outpost.) He announced his plans to bring some of the dried tea to the gallery attendants. “They really cared for the plants—it has grown so beautifully in that space,” he said. In tending to everyday experiences in the context of his work, Ma downplays the delineations between elevated art objects and humble materials or unadorned experiences. Ritual becomes a reference in his performances, taking shape as ordinary, unburdened with the weight of symbolism.
Soil, plants and ritual—recurring themes in Ma’s art—infuse “Ghosts Can Cross Oceans,” as do allusions to the migration of people. Other projects also address migration and its implications. Ennis refers to his work as episodic, likening it to a root structure that runs beneath the soil and sprouts new growth. “Born by the River,” Ma’s 2011 video installation at Barnsdall Park, recorded his six-day performance in which he walked 138 miles from Badwater Basin, Death Valley, the lowest point in the continental U.S., to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental U.S., carrying a lightweight canoe over his head. So named after a line in Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” Ma’s performance was based on a dream.
The resulting work was a mixture of personal and cultural-historical referents. “For me, it was a reenactment of my dream, but in comparison to the distances that other people have walked, this was nothing. I thought about Gandhi walking to the sea to make salt [in protest of the British salt tax]. He walked many more days than I walked. I thought about the lost boys of Sudan, walking through the desert—they had to do it,” Ma said.
Ma’s own history of migration is not easily summed up. He is ethnically Chinese but born in Thailand, and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. While studying in Hong Kong as a young man, Ma visited his family’s rammed-earth ancestral home in rural China, which figures prominently in his imagination. A few years later, he recounted, he would regularly hike into the foothills above Altadena to form the floor plan out of compacted soil. His plans for future works include reprising his 138-mile walk with a new performance in which he will hike to the top of Mt. Whitney to spread the ashes of his canoe, cremated after finishing “Born by the River.” His definition of home reflects the fluidity of a wanderer: “Where my foot touches the ground is the Earth, and that’s home for me.”