1.Paisarn Plienbangchang. Problem of the Environment for Creativity.
Yr.48, Vol.32, 5 – 10 January, 2002 (p.58 – 59)
Paisarn comments first on activities going on in Bangkok. He notes the great success of the ‘Miracle on Silom Rd.’ event, a project to reduce pollution on a major avenue in the heart of Bangkok’s financial district. Paisarn takes a jaundiced view of the government’s investment in a ceaseless string of celebrations and events aimed too often at making Thailand into nothing more than a tourist haven and playground.
Paisarn speaks of the neighborhoods and roads in the capital which have their own, long-cultivated ambiance. These are likely to be destroyed by government development to encourage tourism. Paisarn mentions with sarcasm the procession of war elephants paraded through Kaosarn road, a famous pack-packer district. “They put whites atop as mahouts,” he notes. “ It looked so very unpleasant indeed. One can’t see how they could possibly go so far.”
In Chiengmai this month there is ‘ A Social Installation,’ an international event, not state-sponsored, arranged by the artists themselves. They are showing all over Chiengmai, not in galleries or exhibition halls but in rooms.
In Srisaket province, the Women Artists International of Thailand, ‘Womanifesto,’ who used to exhibit in the Wang Sarn Rom public park in Bangkok, went up to visit in Srisaket to study the way of life of the local people there. That activity was only rather dimly heard of in Bangkok, as it took place far away up-country.
On the topic of the environment, Paisarn sees a theme of development and destruction. The environment of the country people is being destroyed to enrich ‘the nation.’ The natural resources they traditionally depend on are being sold off, but the local people are not part of any gains or benefits from this ‘development’. Provincial people stand protesting in front of Government House in Bangkok. The few are being enriched at the expense of the many. The forests of Kanchanaburi were disrupted by the laying of a natural gas pipeline. The damming of rivers to produce electricity for industry and the cities gives little benefit to the countryside. City people don’t seem to realize the destruction brought about by ‘development’.
Paisarn speaks bitterly about artists who cooperated with the government’s ‘Magic Eye’ campaign to clean up the environment and to raise awareness about the condition of the Chaophraya river. But such campaigns do not reveal the extent of exploitation.
Paisarn closes by mentioning the Yatra Nature Project, a private group organizing trips from the headwaters of the Moone river in Nakorn Rachasima province as far as the Pak Moone dam itself, in Ubon. Some artists have recorded the heart-rending experiences of local people who have suffered greatly from this government action for ‘development.’
Commentary: Paisarn’s column documents the activities of the Thai artworld in the private and public sectors. Clearly, he sees art and culture as fully integrated topics. He views official efforts to develop the nation’s environmental resources as destructive, wasteful and oppressive of the common people. Exploitation and waste outrage him as a citizen, and offend his aesthetic sensibilities. Paisarn is more sympathetic to private sector initiatives such as Womanifesto, Social Installations, and the Yatra Nature Project. The state is seen in a more adversarial relationship, launching campaigns, projects and festivals to achieve dubious ends.
2.Manit Sriwanichphum. “Vanishing Bangkok.”
Yr.48, Vol.33 11 - 17 January, 2002 (p.58 – 59)
Manit reviews the first official solo exhibition of black and white photographs by Surat Ohstanukrau, a well-known local businessman, at the Museum of the National Gallery of Art, with a book of photos under the same name.
Manit praises the former government minister as ‘reborn’ at age 72 to ‘raise up the torch of art.’ Manit admires Surat’s energy and determination to document and express his vision of ‘Vanishing Bangkok’
Manit appreciates the older man’s regret that the old life of the city is passing away. “The more Bangkok develops,” Manit declares, “the more it’s like hell.” He mentions some of the vanishing images presented by Surat: an old monk paddling his boat for early morning alms; old wooden houses and children playing along the canal; noodle vendors afloat.
Many photos take the elderly as their subject, symbols of a passing era : grandmother alone on a pier with her cats, missing her recently deceased husband; a group of people in a traditional pharmacy; an old Chinese shopkeeper tending a pot of steaming noodles; a female likay actress backstage with her child. Manit gets a laugh from a photo of a monitor lizard at the front gate of the home of a high-ranking military officer, then expresses dismay at the painful image of a young fellow on the street ‘fulfilling his desires in full public view’ in the photo ‘Feeling Abandoned.’
Commentary: Manit presents a familiar example in the history of art: a wealthy businessman and former government officer taking art seriously. Although the exhibition and accompanying book of black and white photos is titled ‘Vanishing Bangkok,’ there are many permanent fixtures of urban landscapes -- lonely old people, the abandoned and the disturbed, people alone in crowds, cats and stray dogs. Manit shows a member of the patrician class doing art himself and encourages his efforts. By treating these photographs seriously, the critic prompts his readers to take a closer and more thoughtful look at their own photos.
3. Manit Sriwanichphum. Miscellany: On Women Artists.
Yr. 48, Vol. 34, 18 – 24 January, 2002 (p.58 – 59)
Manit presents Thai women artists who, in 1997, formed the Womanifesto group. Chumpol Apisuk urged them to push for empowerment of women by organizing women’s exhibitions with international participation, but after 3 exhibitions (1997, 1999 and 2001), the group began to doubt the need for feminist activism in Thailand. Non-Thai women artists seemed to feel much more strongly about the issue.
Manit assesses the works of Thai women artists in Womanifesto as ‘rather superficial’ and ‘not deep.’ They just don’t appear to feel that they have that many problems.
Manit tries to imagine what difficulties women might face. Women must have many frustrations in a society where men hold the greater power over bodies, laws, society and custom. Women must have stories to tell, but Thai women seem to be afraid to talk about gender issues.
Hence, the focus of the group is changing. Rather than emphasizing calls for more women’s rights, rather than making gender an issue, the leader of Womanifesto proposes to open a museum for women artists in a park in Srisaket. Manit is quite disappointed with this apparent retreat, backing away from feminist encounters. He bemoans the Thai women artists’ lack of vision and will to engage.
Commentary: Manit’s sharp disappointment with the fate of the Womanifesto group is reflected in the ironic title of his article, which (bitterly) equates women’s concerns with miscellany, trivia. The critic sees art as an active agent; art takes sides in society. Manit’s discussion of the birth, growth and imminent demise of the Womanifesto initiative reflects his (frustrated) confidence in the power of art to address tough social issues in constructive ways. Clearly, he expects Thai women artists to address social issues in their art and to work actively on behalf of the rights of women in Thai society.
4. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “ Sensitive Areas”
Yr.48, Vol. 35, 25 – 31 January, 2002 (p. 58 – 59)
Paisarn observes that the convenience and comfort of new technology changes our behavior in ways that we may not notice. Despite all the developments in communications technology, people still seem far apart, strangers to each other in the same society. What happens to emotion in a world of rapid change where the mind must continually check and adapt in order to keep pace?
In this issue, Paisarn reviews ‘Move to Sensitive Space,’ a show by Sittidech Rohitasuk (MSW Prasarnmitr) at the Space Contemporary Gallery. The artist’s photo installation is hung at intervals with overripe bananas and garlic, some sort of enigmatic personal symbol. There is also a videotape of the artist’s performance on the opening day of the show.
Sittidech’s topic is ‘sensitive areas.’ Like the ‘forbidden areas’ of military sites and danger zones? Paisarn ventures, then notes that the artist has explained (with a wink) that we often pass ‘sensitive areas’ which people like to go into – entertainment venues, department stores, centers of teen fashion like Center Point, fast food joints like MacDonald’s and KFC. Into these places, the artist and his team march, carrying large photos of eyes, mouth, ear and nose, pictures of hands grasping randomly, feet sticking out.
What is Sittidech playing at? Paisarn wonders. Is he saying that all these places encourage consuming and collecting in an era when investment capital leads everything else? ‘The artist says that every time we go into those ‘sensitive areas,’
we forget our former culture till we appear to accept a ‘mixed culture’. Because we get lost in consumerism…our eyes and ears collect everything that comes from elsewhere…we go along with new information …we forget what used to be before. Everything is ‘real Thai’… whatever day in which Thai people join in happily together – Chinese New Year, Vietnamese New Year, or Christmas, or Hallowe’en – whatever!’
Paisarn concludes that Sittidech ‘uses various symbols of the body to represent collecting, hearing, eating or sniffing, feeling the taste, the fragrance, the sound. These are parts which involve the desire (greed) to know. When greed is stimulated, the desire to own follows, as Buddhism warns.’
Paisarn is not convinced of the impact of Sittidech’s demonstration, since the pictures of mouth and extended tongue, eyes, distended nostrils, etc. seem to express pleasure rather than to critique or ridicule consumerism. Either Sittidech’s message is not presented strongly and clearly enough, or the places into which he and his team marched have simply swallowed them up. His display tends to become simply an element in the larger setting. In a society where advertising goes on, non-stop, who can long resist visiting these powerful ‘sensitive areas?’ Are we aware of what is happening? Are we prepared for this?
Commentary: This report by Paisarn of Sittidech’s work provides a thumbnail sketch of a contemporary artist bravely invading and challenging the modern world of merchandising. Recognizing that the artist is badly out-numbered, surrounded, and enveloped by the glamour of these shopping venues, Paisarn supports Sittidech’s critique. He moralistically connects the concept of ‘sensitive areas’ (pictures and descriptions of sense organs – mouth, ear, tongue, etc.) with Buddhist warnings about how our greed becomes inflamed. Both artist and critic struggle together to understand the meaning and to cope with the power of the modern marketplace.
5. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “The Good Citizen.”
Yr. 48, Vol. 36, 1 – 7 February, 2002. (p.58 – 59)
Paisarn is annoyed with promotions by entertainers who ‘deceive people into dipping wrongly into their pockets,’ enticing them to buy low quality goods. He criticizes a famous singer for buying up land in the provinces in order (supposedly) to be a filial son by making a grandiose gift to his mother. But Paisarn sees this as only as a pretence of virtue, ‘So one can say I AM Somebody…’ but he asks, ‘Is a good person like that or not?
Paisarn warns against playing lightly with deception and pretence. ‘While we seek sincerity and integrity, when we actually find it, we find our hearts are counterfeit. We are able to deny the truth’.
So Paisarn presents Kraisorn Prasert, a young male artist from the north of Thailand whose work in the past 3 years has focused on the idea of good acts by ordinary people helping other people. In ‘Art After Death’ Kraisorn publicized the story of a samlor driver who attempted to help a woman fend off a robber and was stabbed to death by the thief. To show the tragic and heroic story, Kraisorn put up posters and banners around a local temple ‘It was quite ordinary..’ notes Paisarn, ‘ that there were banners hung up there one day; they looked like advertisements or something.’
After that, Kraisorn did his ‘Art Project to Honor Good Citizens.’ He honored the selfless action of Christopher ‘Jack’ Benchakul, who was seriously injured while helping some people who had been in a road accident. Then, Kraisorn did ‘Remembering the Heroism of Khun Kitti Amnuaywichai, a good person of Ayudthya.’ Kitti was shot and killed when he refused to cooperate with a fleeing robber.
Kraisorn did not want these genuine acts of heroism to be forgotten.
Paisarn is sympathetic with Kraisorn’s efforts, since there is a too much showing off of virtue nowadays which is not really admirable. He agrees with Kraisorn that we should be honoring and not forgetting the ordinary good citizens who make real heroic sacrifices.
Commentary: Paisarn is comfortable with artists who move through society creating art out of life. He praises Kraisorn’s efforts to honor the spontaneous heroic deeds of ordinary citizens. For Paisarn, being an artist can be more than the making beautiful objects. The artist creates mise- en scène, activities and events in the midst of daily life intended to heighten people’s awareness of values in their society.
6. Manit Sriwanichphum. Honest: Children’s Art Teaches Adults.
Yr. 48, Vol. 37, 8 – 14 February, 2002. (p.58 – 59)
A children and youth’s art competition has been sponsored by the Pridi Panomyong Foundation, the National Office of the Committee to Promote and Coordinate Youth Activities, the Anti-Corruption Network, the Thailand Agency for Transparency, and the Asia Foundation. The theme of the competition this year: Honesty.
Manit is attracted to the activity by the explanation of the project’s director, K.Sinsawat Yordbangteuy, who said that the organizers chose the word ‘honest’ because they didn’t want the children to give up hope. Manit is sympathetic with the struggles of the NGOs. ‘If you don’t take a positive view,’ he agrees, ‘ they might not have the heart to go on fighting various evils in a rotten society…they might lose hope..’
Taking a positive view offers more possibilities for optimistic images. Even so, however, more than half of the 708 works from 109 participating educational institutions still reflected the dark side, a moral decline in Thai society. Politicians were mostly targeted in images which also suggest brute strength (lions, tigers, bulls and rhinoceri). In one prize winning picture, the parliament is depicted as a zoo.
In another, a politician comes to buy votes one scary night. The atmosphere in the picture is chilling and lonely, with dogs howling as if a ghost is near. Manit looks closely at this picture, admiring the drama in the picture which condemns dishonest behavior, cheating and lying. In the picture, the words on a campaign brochure are legible: ‘End corruption for the nation, the king, the people.’
In the children’s paintings described by Manit, many seriously doubt the integrity of elected parliamentarians. The children also show dubious views of government officials, merchants, vendors and taxi drivers, but not of crooked policemen! There were some images of honesty – an honest schoolboy, the true love of a married couple (‘very charming’). Some children honored the honesty of their dogs, finding them more trustworthy than people.
Commentary: Various art competitions for Children’s Day have been going on for quite a long time now. The character and content of the children’s work and the winning entries would make a very interesting research in itself.
7. Manit Sriwanichphum. Thailand – Whose Land?
Yr. 48, Vol. 38, 15 – 21 February, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
Manit reviews art exhibitions by Tasnai Setaseree showing at 3 locations simultaneously, opening at Project 304 in Bangkok on the 13th of January, at Osaka on the 14th and in Chicago on the 16th. Manit wonders at the effort to open in 3 galleries in 3 countries. Take your pick! He attended none of these openings, but went to the Project 304 location to see what Tasnai wanted to say.
Manit finds the exhibition room at 304 transformed into a parlor, the bright, fresh colors of southern Europe – orange and scarlet, yellowish green and orange (‘like ripe maprang.’) There are couches for guests and books with white people’s books, but without text - they are fake, with nothing inside. The woodcarving from Vietnam, fake flowers and folding chairs are all tasteless and cheap, but Manit finds the center of the show in the hundred postcard size photos, hanging on a wall in brightly colored plastic picture-frames. The pictures came to Tasnai from admirers, acquaintances and Thai friends in America. He has invited people from many countries to express their idea of ‘Thailand-ness’ by means of photos which recall the atmosphere they experienced when visiting.
Manit remarks that he felt tense and cramped, looking at wall of typical family photos (of people he didn’t know) on holiday, for example, with relatives, making merit, pictures of the children of doting parents, etc. Still, he sees that photographs ‘are a tool for pounding in ‘being someone with roots.’ They connect people with a society, ‘keep them from floating away… from feeling lonely.’ Manit approves of this vision of a nation,‘ with life and heart, not like Field Marshall Pibulsongkram.’
As Manit points out, powerful politicians have formed the nation to serve their own interests or to transform it into little more than a vehicle for consumer tourism.
Manit quotes Tasnai, ‘ I became interested in the concept which explains what it is to be a nation and the process of creating history. It’s not necessary to say that this process can create an incomplete picture of the reality of the concept of nationhood. I think that in this unfinished picture, we can find a story or a situation, and an interesting discourse in society. And sometimes the story is so realistic it raises a doubt…It is a well-told story and has been made very interesting…but is has a little slice of truth, enabling us to write a new kind of history – not a history of any particular country, but a history of the world. It is a story and atmosphere of the struggle of ideas of invisible countries whose names we cannot give. For now, we will call them ‘a fraternity of shadows.’
Commentary: Clearly, the critic sees art in a context of the larger story of the life of his society. Reading the critic’s review of the show at Project 304, we find ourselves in the midst of a discourse on what it means to be ‘a nation.’ What could be more exciting?
8. Paisarn Plienbangchang. Nordic Heaven “Beyond Paradise”
Yr.48, Vol. 39, 22 – 28 February, 2002 (p. 58 – 59)
In a world numbed by the monotony of violence, people dream of a peaceful society where there is no need to struggle so hard. An exhibition of art by the Nordic Group of Scandinavian nations (Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden) is showing in Thailand now, and will be traveling for a year, going on to Malaysia, Vietnam and China. Curated by Dr.Apinan Posyanond, the title, ‘Beyond Paradise’ may come with a wink, and we ask ourselves, is there a heaven [on earth] within our grasp? These Scandinavian societies are economically strong and stable, but the people live constantly under cold and grey skies where the sun hardly reaches. The temperatures are bone-chilling; one feels cold and lonely. It is difficult to get about or to go visiting. People contact each other by phone. Such a world is reflected in the art works selected by Dr.Apinan for the show. The artists have used all kinds of technology – computers, videos, photos, animation, music and synthesized sounds, creatively mixed together. Despite the modern techniques, the stories are [not new]. They concern loneliness and suffering, the monotony of life, boredom and meaninglessness which can drive people to strange, sometimes violent actions.
Artists mentioned: Peter Lund (Denmark), Maria Friberg (Sweden), Elena Brotherus (Finland), Jonko Lehtola(Finland), Magnus Wallin (Sweden), Helena Hietanen (Finland) and Vibeke Tandberg (Norway).
Commentary: Paisarn briefly describes 7 artworks, all dealing with some of the social and psychological struggles faced by individuals in Scandinavian societies, as interpreted by seven artists. The critic, like the curator of the exhibition, helps these artists unveil the specter of the hell of alienation in developed societies.
9. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Sorry for the Inconvenience”
Yr.48, Vol. 40, 1 – 7 March, 2002 (p. 58 – 59)
Paisarn complains of the increasingly hot weather, the irritating feeling of being sticky and sweaty. The smoky, polluted, noisy traffic jams makes one not want to get out or go anywhere. Travel in the city is a serious problem requiring careful planning ahead of time. Although public transportation has improved quite a lot, it remains slow for many areas, and the cost is still high. Life in the big city, so often portrayed as glamorous, also has a dark side – deterioration in the shadows of tall buildings, refugees from the countryside looking for work, poor and becoming poorer. Problems turn into crimes.
‘Sorry for the Inconvenience’ is an exhibition by ten artists from three countries (China, India and Thailand) addressing some of the problems of big cities. The curator, Kritya Kawiwong, has the show running in three places – at Project 304 in the Samsen area, at Bangkok Gallery (Kluay Namthai) and at Siam Art Space on Rama IV Road. Paisarn attended all three openings – no easy task!
So much is going on in Bangkok, if you stay away too long, you will be confused about places when you return, not knowing which way to go. The artists take this sort of urban change and its impact on people as their subject.
Chuy Chiohwern carried a small video camera into the women’s bathroom in some of the Karaoke venues so popular in China and Thailand. The artist covertly filmed staff in the ladies room, their personal behavior of which customers have no idea. The work is clearly not loved by all the women employed there.
Wang Kongching also uses Karaoke as his subject. He shows how people lose inhibitions with a Karaoke microphone. The artist presents large close-ups, both funny and slightly scary, of the lips, teeth and gums of singers.
Chern Saochong looks at crowded city streets, allowing us to examine the details of little corners of city life.
The Indian artist, Supot Gupta expresses an idea about being oneself. Being Indian is tied up with religion and provincial life. The artist uses cow dung to pour on himself, then bathes, washing it off. But he presents the video of this action, played backward, i.e. beginning with bathing and ending covered with dung. Perhaps he is saying that we can’t be completely free of our roots.
Partri Kaar, also from India, presents sculptures of dogs coupling. She places the bindi (usually on the forehead of Indian women) symbol on the bodies of the dogs. This may be a critique of some aspect of Indian society and what Hindu women have to endure.
The work of Montri Termsombat shows children tending buffalo. His video tells a story of country people who lack education and who labor in exchange for money. Light and dark mingle in the city; it depends on which side of the city one looks at.
Commentary: Paisarn’s commentaries typically give the pleasant feeling that the critic is shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity, with the common people. He is not above the sweaty crowds in the street as he moves through the city to do his work. Likewise, the artists and exhibitions he favors bear the imprint of the lives of ordinary people. These artists come into the daily walk of the common life, examining the lives of ordinary citizens and asking us all, in their artworks, why people live as they do.
10. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Nude” Yr. 48, Vol. 41, 8 – 14 March, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
In February there were at least 3 exhibitions in which Thai artists presented nude images of themselves.
First, Tawisak ‘Lolay’ Sritongdee (33) presented a new series entitled ‘Trance’ or ‘Possessed’, showing in 2 venues, on Satorn Road at Soi 12 and at the Eat Me Restaurant on Convent Road / Silom. 2 Feb. – 26 Mar.
Also, Michael Shaowanasai (38) had a photo installation, MS@OAS (Michael Shaowanasai at Open Arts Space). 14 Feb. – 14 Mar.
And finally, Santi Thongsuk (33) presented a new series of paintings, ‘The Power of Human Beings’ at Tweeboo Gallery. 15 Feb. – 10 Mar.
Curious about conventions of nudity in the history of Thai art, Manit checks over some historical materials, and finds that Thai angels, demigods, kings, concubines, royal consorts, royal servants and members of the royal entourage, as well as adult commoners, all typically appear with upper body exposed. The only ones depicted completely unclothed were children and the damned or demons in hell. Manit cites the book, ‘Photos of Thailand in the Early Days,’ by Anek Nawikmul, with many pictures of upper-class individuals appearing only half clothed. Both in formal and informal situations, young men typically went shirtless.
Thai draftsmen used clothing to indicate different social classes. It was only in the 4th reign when the colonizers tried to describe Thai people as ‘uncivilized’ that the King had to insist that ‘government officers on official visits cloth themselves entirely. This prevented the red-headed whites from citing this stupid reason as justification for usurping the nation.’
In modern society, people do not normally walk around naked. Michael Shaowanasai’s nude image is free of offending sexual details – i.e. his ‘manhood’ and his nipples. ‘He becomes a (gay) human of a new kind, bald and completely hairless. More important, he is sexless and without sexual feeling. This eliminates all [sexual] problems. No argument, no need for censors to sit and be annoyed. They’ll have nothing to do, just laugh and be happy.’
Tavisak (Lolay) Sritongdi makes fantasy images of whites who like to carry guns or play guitar. His fantasy is like a white cartoon or graffiti in a bathroom somewhere. Lolay expresses in a post-modern way - influenced by fashion magazines, advertising, music, violence, sex, terrorism and the development of genetic engineering. A girl with a gun strips; a young white male carries guns tucked in to his underwear.
Santi Tongsuk celebrates the beauty of the nude human body, but in tortured gestures, as in his own nude self-portrait. Does he want to tell viewers that torture can make a beautiful image, too?
Commentary: Artists continually challenge the public’s ‘comfort zone’ where displays of nudity are concerned, leaving censors, art and social critics to deal with whatever protests or condemnations arise when too much skin is showing. Since only children, the demented, or the damned go naked in Thai traditional art, images of nudes in modern high art face an uphill battle for acceptance. Manit’s discussion of the topic generally shows that he is all too keenly and cynically aware of the politics of nudity.
11. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Singapore – Ben’s House”
Yr. 48, Vol. 42, 15 – 21 March, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
Manit’s article is a gem, a polished little account of his visit to galleries in Singapore which turns into a tale of life on that highly regulated little island, but with a stinging moral at the end about dubious social controls at work in Thai society. In Singapore, Manit tours the 6-story MITA Building (the so-called ‘gay building’), painted in rainbow colors. There, he finds works on sale by a number of Thai artists (Jintana Piemsiri, Wasan Sittiket) as well as works of traditional and avant garde Chinese art. Manit notes the assessment of his Singaporean guide (Josef Ng) that Singaporeans don’t seem to have much faith in the worth of their own, home-grown artists. Ng tells the story of Benjamin Puah, a 26-year old Chinese-Singaporean artist whom Manit describes as ‘ wearing the uniform of a hip-hop kid… red T-shirt decorated with yellow stars…short, khaki-colored pants…black sneakers with no socks. On his back, a bulging black knapsack, on his head, a cap with the brim turned to the back of his head. His face was appropriately young and bright… with a sparse beard coming.’ Benjamin tried to stage an exhibition of his own artworks in his aunt’s apartment. After only 3 days, government officials called to say that such commercial activities were forbidden in a residential block of flats. There were some protests about the closing. Though people accused the Singaporean government of repressing creativity, Manit does not see much to be disturbed about. He quotes instead a story from a newspaper in Thailand about regulations coming out of the Ministry of the Interior stating that any woman seen walking into a bar unaccompanied could be taken into custody on suspicion of soliciting as a prostitute. Manit quotes the conclusion drawn in the newspaper, ‘If you don’t want your girlfriend to be accused of being a prostitute, make your date at a pub in Singapore. It’s safer [for her].’
Commentary: In this description of his experiences in Singapore, Manit’s keen journalistic skills clearly reveal how even a very modest artist and his art can reflect the nature of the society in which he lives. Manit does not focus on the appearance of any of the art objects, but on how they function in society. In the reactions of society to the artist and his activities, the society reveals itself.
12. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Report on Happenings in the Land”
Yr. 48, Vol. 43, 22 - 28 March, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
Paisarn’s review of Wasan Sittiket’s latest works on show at the Akko Gallery (located at the entrance to Sukhumwit soi 49) begins with a stream of bitter grumbling about the political scene. Politicians with ideas like dictators…the fox becoming visible under the sheep’s skin…On the rough road to democracy, Paisarn hopes that ‘the prime minister who sits on his high palanquin will soon change his ways.’
Wasan’s exhibition appears at this precarious moment. He is well-known for ‘his zealous passion to criticize... directly and harshly, for defrauding and trickery which have far-reaching impact. At times, Wasan’s work was banned as ‘red’, i.e. ‘fresh, bloody red meat and political content bluntly presented.’ Paisarn quotes the artist’s catalog, ‘I’m only a recorder of history,’ says Wasan,‘ using the artistic attitudes and skills that I have…[and, yes,]…I am certainly someone who looks at the world in a negative way.’
Wasan’s view of the present state of the world is bleak indeed. He uses images from traditional Thai mural painting to talk about ‘the era when the waters covered the sky.’ Disaster will come from the acts of greedy humans against the earth. The super-powers and grasping merchants will persuade people to follow along the paths to decline. There is a picture of a boat taking people over a troubled sea in search of a new land. A poem comments:
In the time when the flood covers the sky, overturned, gone,
The snow melts from the mountains over the sky.
The generals and captains, false capital,
The criers of false religion. God sinks, vanished.
For Wasan, capitalism and love of power, spreading over the globe by market mechanisms and technology, serve their lords, not the people. What lies! What evil!
Wasan has another bit of poetry: The World Bank is Evil
World Bank Over-powering Kali
Evil Money ADB Oppressive
Threatening the earth with disaster.
The youth go astray, dazzled, flocking after the culture of advertising and commerce, who think only of profit, forgetting the disaster which lies ahead. In all this state of collapse, can Wasan see a way out? Wait and see, says Paisarn; just don’t blink!
Commentary: Paisarn and Wasan seem to be in agreement in foreseeing dark days ahead. The folly of the powerful bodes ill for the nation, especially the greed of merchants and politicians who have no genuine concern for the long-term welfare of the people. Here, the critic and the artist are prophetic allies, crying out in anger and alarm at a society drifting toward disaster.
Paisarn’s style of writing is quite colorful and expressionistic, a nightmare for this translator, who admittedly cannot do real justice to the poetry and lively colloquial style of his writing.
13. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Between the Lines … Journey beyond the Goal”
Yr. 48, Vol. 44, 29 March – 4 April, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
In response to recent headlines, the artist pays a visit, in a group, to the Baw Nawg and Hin Krud Ma neighborhoods to see what is going on. He finds bitter people who have worked in a area for generations, only to wake up one day and find some stranger is eating up your land, your birthplace. The media don’t tell the story fairly. The common people and the marginalized are swallowed up, persecuted by state policy that favors investors and dishonest officials. The Kaeng Soeur Ten Dam and Pak Moone Dam projects are prime examples. The people are divided and set against each other. It wasn’t Paisarn’s bad luck, but he went to observe the people who lost everything because of the destructive effects of ‘influential persons.’ So many villagers have suffered because of government policies, especially in building and operating these dams. Paisarn goes to see with his own eyes, to hear with his own ears…to know the weight of truth, of suffering, how heavy it really is.
Returning to the matter of the art museum in honor of HM the King and the cancellation of the original project design, we won’t allow the museum to be stuck in a shopping mall as BMA Governor Samak imagines, Paisarn vows. If art and culture are treated as commodities, there will be a whole trend of art museums springing up in shopping malls all over the country. Will the Bangkok Bank’s Sapan Pan Fah gallery also be moved, as some have suggested? Paisarn is against it. “It’s very sad because this place has been there for 20 years. It brought together the local culture for people to see: studying for free every Friday. It could be called a cultural area. Doing this would mean we destroy local culture, our roots, without realizing what we are doing.”
Paisarn announces an upcoming art exhibition - walk to raise money for the protest against the [governor’s] art museum in a shopping mall. Come and walk, and we will find success together, friends…
Commentary: Paisarn illustrates Thai people’s endless struggle with officialdom. At stake for the rural and agricultural poor are their homes, their very livelihood, their culture. In Bangkok, urban intellectuals struggle against the heavy-handed bullying of the municipal authorities. All of this is part of the critic’s weekly report on art and culture.
14. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Jealous of Singapore”
Yr. 48, Vol. 45, 5 – 11 April, 2002. (p 58 – 59
Manit quotes a recent poll stating that, if only they had a more liberal record in terms of democratic rights and freedom of expression, Singapore would widely be considered one of the best places in Asia to live. Manit cites Singapore’s efficient transportation infrastructure and enlightened attitude toward foreign investment, generally. The city-state has a ‘National Heritage Board’ charged with implanting in their citizens awareness and sentimental feeling for their culture. The Board (rather a scary entity, Manit notes) can set the nation’s direction in art and culture because it has a substantial budget and monitors all the country’s museums. The Substation is one art center funded by the Board, and the PKW – Plastic Kinetic Worms is another. It is similar to Kritiya Kawiwong’s Project 304, but the latter has never received any funding from the Thai government.
For those who were unaware, Manit notes that all the land in Singapore belongs to the government. Citizens thus rent their places from the state. (This gives one chills, comments Manit.) It is very effective form of social control. Singapore’s art museum (known as SAM) collects works by artists all over the ASEAN region. In both Singapore and Japan, the state collects art for the nation. In Singapore, a separate curator is appointed to seek out collectible art from each of the nations of SE Asia. SAM has been a leader in supporting mobile exhibitions of ASEAN artists in many countries in Europe. Clearly, Singapore’s aggressive campaigning of this nature – for example, ART Singapore, the Contemporary Asian Art Fair -- gives the city state surprising power, even power over neighboring countries which look down on them. “The ambition of Singapore is not just as a commercial center for various businesses –finance and banking, stock market, investment market, commerce, shipping and air travel – You can just call it the center of materialism in ASEAN, but this country hopes that it is going to be a cultural, artistic center as well. Call it a ‘Mecca of the spirit of ASEAN’, not simply a ‘tourist spot” says Manit.
Lee Kuan Yu has become a role model in the eyes of many would-be political leaders, but that is not an easy role to play, by any means.
In closing, Manit mentions the continuing efforts of the Artist’s Network in promoting a BMA Contemporary Art Museum in honor of HM the King, despite the unwelcome interference of Bangkok Governor Samak. The exhibition in support of this aim at the Tadu Gallery, RCA, will be open till 11 April.
Commentary: Manit makes clear how completely art, culture, commerce and politics become integrated in the example of Singapore’s art market and artworld. His readers can compare for themselves the advantages and drawbacks of that sort of state support (and control). Thai artists and their supporters continue to fight tooth and nail against the museum-cum-shopping mall design of Bangkok’s municipal governor, Samak Soontornwej.
15. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Bangkok Buffalo Boys”
Yr. 48, Vol. 46 12 - 18 April, 2002. (p 58 – 59
Manit cites the video art, “Bangkok Buffalo Boy – bkkbffboy,” by Montri Termsombat, in the ‘Sorry for the Inconvenience’ show at Bangkok University in March. The boy riding the buffalo in Montri’s video wears a motorcycle crash helmet and a designer outfit fashioned by Montri (himself a fashion designer). That video also contained images of Thai rural school children, talking about the quality of the traditional Thai farmer’s water buffalo. Seeing that image, Manit tells how he was reminded of posters of a Thai villager charging forth on a buffalo to defend his village from Burmese invaders in the patriotic film, Bangrachan. Finally, he recalled something he had seen on local television of a new tourist attraction in ‘Buffalo Village,’ in Supanburi.
Manit tells how Montri had told him of being homesick for his old country home. He tried to move back, but found that things had changed greatly. The old peaceful atmosphere was gone, replaced by noisy motorcycles and amphetamines. This shock of the meaning of change was not new, Montri had said, recalling a heart-rending moment from his childhood: “Before I graduated from 6th grade,” Montri told Manit, “ I heard about projects to speed up development of the countryside. Dad said he would buy a’metal buffalo’ to plow his field instead of our old buffalo, which he would sell. On the day our beloved buffaloes were loaded on the trucks, my friends who had been cow-herds with me, could only pullout a strand of the animal’s hair to save, tied to the barbed wire fence.” [So the animals were taken off to the slaughterhouse.]
Montri’s video, ‘Cowherd with Crash Helmet’ suggested the inconsistency of development; that it is alienation, a hoax, foisted upon the country people, laid upon it like a motorcycle helmet. And the country people have no real choice in the matter.
The very popular patriotic film, Bangrachan, showed rural villagers fighting to defend their homeland, but now what is there left to defend? Everything is for sale.
The economic crisis of 1997 left the farm sector to dig the country out of its financial mess, but what reward are the farmers reaping from false development and endless servitude?
Manit closes with a bitter report about the Buffalo Village which is being touted as a tourist attraction of Thai farm culture. Some people dress as farmers and walk around leading buffaloes, or they ride a buffalo and play a flute. Or they let the tourists ride the buffaloes or try plowing with a buffalo. Government officials were pleased. “The important thing is that it creates work, creates income for the farmers.” Are they turning the countryside into a Disneyworld theme park? Is that what the country is becoming?
Commentary: The critic brings together disparate images – the rather cynical work of video art and the artist’s sad personal memories; a patriotic film which presented heroic images of Thai villagers defending their country to the death; and a television news report of some humiliating official initiatives ‘to help farmers gain more income.’ The art critic weaves the information together, protesting to readers about what is going on in their country.
16. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Kwangju Biennale: Taking Difficult Steps”
Yr. 48, Vol. 47, 19 – 25 April, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
Kwangju is a big Korean city with a long history of violent conflict, of people rising up against injustice and brutal repressive reaction, and the leaving of some wounds that may be covered over in the history of Korea to this very day. Paisarn congratulates countries like Korea which want to present themselves as more than capitalists and merchants. Wanting to show their taste and sense of beauty, they invest in cultural exhibitions such as the Biennale. Even Vietnam, still recovering until only recently, has foreseen the importance of this dimension. But in Thailand, for example, we continue to quarrel about the Ministry of Culture; will it be directed toward tourism, art or leisure? Thai people are so proud of their long history of art and culture that they do not give enough importance to contemporary art. The government lacks enthusiasm for the new.
The Korean’s Kwangju Biennale, with the theme of ‘PAUSE’ is organized from the end of March till the end of June. Many tourists will be in the city for the period of World Cup Football. Originally held in 1995, this is an international event. It was not easy to organize. Local people didn’t understand what it was about. Even for this the 4th such event, not everything went smoothly when 300 artists
17. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Kwangju Biennale: Similarity in Difference”
Yr. 48, Vol. 48, 26 Apr – 2 May, 2002. (p 58 – 59)
“As I said in the last segment, in the midst of chaos and lack of preparedness, it is still interesting, the varied artworks from groups of artists in each country who bring them together to show in the exhibition this time under the idea of the show, PAUSE”.
Paisarn revels in the disorder and unpredictability of these events. Reflecting global possibilities, things move quickly. Though they are tired and the forum is all too limited, each artist creates his own meaning and his own standpoint, speaking up about what is going on in his society.
Paisarn is in his element. “The people who do art are all alike. They work by their own means and beliefs.” He is pleased to find many similarities in the variety of methods and points of view of the many participating artists. Paisarn mentions the Documenta X show in Kassel, Germany, 5 years ago, which encouraged more appreciation of these kinds of events. “When works come in from all over the world and are selected by the curator to enter the same show, it all becomes clearer by its sheer quantity.”
The importance of computers in today’s world is reflected in their use by artists and organizers. Not that the value of beauty as traditionally understood is gone altogether, but there is a new context and many new points of view overlying the old.
Paisarn is skeptical of some very minimal works in which, for example, there may be nothing but a single TV monitor and a pillow. Did the artist think it through properly?
Paisarn describes the work of Yeon-doo Jung, a Korean artist, whose work consisted of a room with a teacher available to teacher visitors the rumbah or cha-cha-cha. And the installation by the Danish group of artists, Superflex, who created a house in the shape of a dome or cave, a strange form, filled with the sounds of a Korean teenage DJ playing music there every day. Another work mentioned by Paisarn is Surasi Kusolwong’s [eviscerated] VW beetle which the artist has suspended, on its back, and turned into a comfortable swing for visitors to sit in. All around are cabinets of canned drinks and juke boxes, and of course an internet connection available 24/7.
Many artists addressed the attempt by ‘the American world police’ to punish those in Afghanistan responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. There are expressions of grief, anxiety and fear about the possibility of an expanded conflict, as well as criticisms of the superpower and its policies.
Some works and dramatic performances express criticism of Mahathir, the ‘eternal leader’ of Malaysia. A new generation of Malaysian artists from Artis pro active and university bangsarutama finds relief in voicing the criticism which is opposed and forbidden by their own government.
Some of the installations by European and Asian artists bring in food and dining. The aroma, sights and sounds of delicious food expresses the distinctive character of the people in those regions.
So-called ‘Alternative spaces’ included areas for privately financed installations from Thailand’s Project 304, the Loft, from China, Parasite from Hong Kong, cemiti art house from Indonesia, and plastique kinetic worms from Singapore.
“All and everyone are involved in the chaos which you can see in Kwanju. Anyone who wants to experience the real thing is welcome!”
Commentary: Paisarn has great enthusiasm for the spontaneity and chaos of these international art events, the brief contained outbursts of a crowd of different voices, playful, yet smart and serious, defiant, insubordinate, creative. Paisarn gives the impression of being an energetic maverick, comfortable in the throngs of artists and performers who are often regarded with disdain by ‘respectable’ society. Paisarn lends some refreshingly reckless, disreputable romanticism to the ranks of Siamrath art critics.
18. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Songkran Wars”
Yr. 48, Vol. 49 , 2 - 9 May, 2002.
Manit surveys the hazards of celebrating the Songkran festival this year. Over 800 dead in accidents during the holidays and more than 70,000 reported injured. Most of those killed on the highways were motorcyclists, drunk, not wearing safety helmets or involved in water-play in the streets. The Tourism Authority reports that last year about one million tourists came to Thailand during the festival period, with more than 11,000 million baht changing hands in the process.
Looking at the statistics of dead and injured, Manit sympathizes with those who call Songkran ‘a war’ (in Thai, songkram) rather than a holiday. The outlook is not optimistic: next year’s accident statistics will be even higher, predicted one doctor interviewed on television.
Manit faults the Tourism Authority for investing so much in Songkran tourism while no one seems able to improve public safety during the week-long festivities. Manit notes that America stimulates their economy by going to war on other countries because war is excellent business. “It’s a pity,” suggests Manit, “that the Thai government tries to improve the drooping economy with merrymaking, [unlike the Americans who] collapse nearby countries, throw carpet bombs, and hunt terrorists in Afghanistan. [Instead] the Thai government chooses to stimulate the economy by starting a war inside their own country.”
Manit notes bitterly that the authorities try to improve the nation’s economy by urging Thai people to vacation at home, or by turning religious festivals into tools to encourage spending. “Whatever you do, get the money out of their pockets. Don’t let it remain still and the economy will grow…In the end, they hit upon something easy. No need to strain your brain – Have festivals the year round – like in a shopping mall. There is always a SALE sign up.”
Manit comments ruefully on two types of posters being circulated by the Ministry of Culture during the holidays. The lady featured in one poster appears to have been seriously abused; the lady in the other looks comfortable and cheerful, but both posters bear the same message: “Keep Songkran tradition alive with a gentle splash of water…please!”
Immediately after Songkran, preparations for the “220 Years Celebration of Rattanakosin” will begin. “Do you see? Now there are only celebrations. Celebrate…celebrate… 220 years – celebrate. No need to wait 50 or 100 years as we did formerly. Next year we will celebrate again. 221 years...Rattanakosin still stands..hooray…..
Commentary: As the column concerns art and culture, Manit comments upon the celebration of the Songkran festival. He observes that the way the holiday is celebrated is at once anomalous and degraded. The critic is hostile to the policies of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the inept attempts by the Ministry of Culture to persuade revelers to mend their ways. Some single-minded avarice appears to be at work in turning so many aspects of Thai life into tourist attractions. We see here the struggle to define culture, an unequal battle between a newspaper critic and two powerful government agencies.
19. Manit Sriwanichphum. “I’m Marvelous”
Yr. 48, Vol. 50 , 10 - 16 May, 2002.
Television melodramas on every channel were interrupted for breaking news on May 2nd to broadcast live the return of young Duangchalerm Yubamroong, the son of Police Captain (and well-known political figure) Chalerm Yubamroong. The dear son was coming out of hiding in Malaysia to report to the police in Bangkok, facing accusations of murder in the death of one Petty Officer Yim. There were bouquets of flowers, signs of encouragement, and an army of police and media, “ready to trample and be trampled on in carrying out their duties.” The young man stepped down from the car and faced the welcoming crowd with a raised fist, ‘a clenched fist, like a winning boxer, even as the light in his eyes could not hide his fear and worry.’
Manit sees a political exchange in the making, ‘pork for chicken’ in Thai parlance. The dad would make a deal that would get his son off the hook.
‘So strange. No one saw anything wrong with Khun Chalerm helping his son escape..(the) raised fist, like the victory of Duangchalerm, and the crowd to encourage him not to lose heart. The psychological impact on witnesses is to make them tremble, in any case. ..They see many hands, forces and influences of the police, of Chalerm. One must accept that he really is cool indeed.’ In all this Manit sees reason for the general lack of confidence in the legal system.
Meanwhile, Prapan Kamjim, curator and art teacher at the Faculty of Fine Art, Chulalongkorn University, uses the phrase “I’m Marvelous” as the title of his latest exhibition, which includes the works of 5 of his senior students. (The show opened on 6 May at Project 304.) ‘ The word usually appears under the shadow of humility, self-sacrifice, being unselfish…Most of us grew believing in the ideal of a great hero, a model. As we grow older and have more experience, these people tend to change in our estimation.’
Manit mentions other shows by Acharn Prapan in which he showed an interest in the words and style of Thai language - ‘Kala Tesa’ (‘at the appropriate time and place’), ‘As Far as the Eye Can See – Sudsakorn’ (solo,2001) and the latest show, “I’m Marvelous.”
The show ridicules television soap operas with photographs and videos of Kaewkaw na Chiengmai, a sort of socialite figure from a melodrama about the northern elite.The audience gets confused as to whether this is a real person or a virtual one.
Chaiyani Anuraktpan presents satirical works of scenes mixing elements of Thai, Lanna and Indian tradition in the form of video karaoke, which also include people in swimsuits jumping into the water, laughing and splashing.
Patrawut Sriyingyong spoofs interviews with artists in the video, ‘Presentation Presentation 2002.’
Unfortunately, in today’s consumerist culture, people are hardened to sarcastic criticism in every form, which is a challenge for artists who want to make art with social and cultural content. Even so, Manit concludes that a show like A.Prapan’s “I’m Marvelous’ is very meaningful, especially in light of the story of Duangchalerm Yubamroong quoted at the start.
Commentary: In the tradition of the Silpa/Wattanatham, Manit is very sensitive to events going on in society and is clearly partisan, reminding us that art and criticism do not function in a vacuum. In contrast to the power of a corrupted judicial system sketched by Manit at the beginning, we see his network of like-minded friends and allies in A.Prapan and his students and the “I’m Marvelous” show at the Project 304 exhibition space.
20. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Surrealism – Returning Home”
Yr. 48, Vol. 51 , 17 – 23 May, 2002.
Paisarn is saddened by feelings of remorse and loss at the recollection of the death of a friend, Jirasak Patanapong, in an automobile accident last year. Jirasak was working in Phuket, where he had taken refuge after leaving Bangkok some 8 years ago. He had some new work on show at the Bangkok Gallery, but it was overshadowed by the new schools which use techniques, instruments, tools and points of view of a different kind. But Jirasak held fact to the ways he preferred and was confident in, ideas in a surrealist vein, a kind of art that has not ever declined. He is gone now, but his work remains. His friends brought his latest works together for a show at the Akko Gallery as a recollection and a farewell.
Jirasak had joined a group with 4 friends to form Kanghang (a Thai word meaning the sail of a windmill; a pinwheel). Their pictures were very serious, ‘hard as stone’. They could see no way out of the political situation. Paisarn quotes Jirasak:
“Under these beautiful heavens, there is still much life which must fight and struggle to survive in society. I speak of my feelings of oppression and pain. Like being caught in a cloth sack, struggling to find a way out…But how can it happen, when society is so aggressively competitive with no end in sight?”
Paisarn is sympathetic to Surrealist philosophy and to the creative process going on inside the artist. ‘The artist bows to receive what comes in to him, exerting himself mentally to soak up and absorb, to plait and weave a doorway leading to a way out, to a vast exterior, the bottom of the swamp of the mind, hidden under the pile. Sometimes it looks reasonable, sometimes, senseless, catching anything passing through.’ Paisarn describes many of his pictures as showing objects or lives that are rotting away, old and ready to disintegrate, ready to become the past, ‘a boat or an elephant, sagging skin covering a skeleton...reflecting a state of repression...objects and bodies bound in fetters by higher powers, oppressed, longing and struggling to be free…grey color parched, dry and gloomy. A clock with no hands. A trapped butterfly. Someone very thin, head drooping down, weeping. Paisarn sees here the agreement between this surrealism and the ‘art for life’ movement.
Paisarn recalls how Jirasak knew he had been influenced by Dali and Magritte. Some people cannot ‘case off the skin of their predecessor which covers them,’ but Paisarn does not seem to think Jirask was caught under such shadows. In Jirasak’s later work Paisarn sees a considerable lessening of tension in the forms and colors –they are spread out ‘with new emphases, ideas and floating dreams, sexual instincts, desires and needs buried inside humans. They are revealed for us to see…the solemn rump of feeling.’ Paisarn describes the content of some of the works – a fish swimming in the sky, a naked embrace, a staring owl, the desires of self, loneliness and the exhausted search. Paisarn sees Jirasak becoming cooler, trying to understand in order to escape, looking for a way out. How unfortunate that his life was so short, is ended. Darkness shrouds the air like a blanket.
Commentary: Paisarn’s descriptions are moving, poetic and compelling. The care with which he describes Jirasak’s work persuades the reader of its value and dignity, engendering a wish to see the originals and to ponder the life and ideals of an artist whose life was snuffed out too early.
21. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Chiang (Mai) With Energy Exhausted”
Yr. 48, Vol. 52, 24 – 30 May, 2002
Paisarn visited the city of Chiengmai and has been taken aback by its rapid growth. ‘If it wasn’t for DoiSuthep standing and blessing the city, one might think it was Bangkok 20 years ago.’ However, he was also alarmed and angry at the inappropriate renovation of historic structures and the new buildings which are distorting the cityscape. ‘The Tha Pae Gateway, for example, has been renovated in a wrong shape, with a wrong plan. This gateway was a cultural object which expressed the roots of the nation, and it has been destroyed. It is gone, the meaning changed. The corners of the city wall, the moats, have been taken over for new construction. Old chedi are crowded in and surrounded by row-houses till they lose their shape, dignity and holiness…fake development. Selling things that don’t belong to you…how embarrassing to be eating oneself up that way?’
The latest news is that there will be buildings as high as 12 stories. ‘When built, the cityscape and view of the Ping River will be utterly disrupted.’ With scholars disagreeing on the best way to preserve and to develop the city, Paisarn blames the short-sightedness and obsession with tourism of government officials for causing these problems. ‘In my opinion,’ says Paisarn, ‘Chiengmai has far too many tall buildings already (and they are unbeautiful). [How can they think of] building government offices which stick up like tufts in the middle of the city.’
Paisarn wonders why the city planners aren’t thinking in terms of satellite cities, new neighborhoods and areas for residences and government offices. Doesn’t anyone know this concept? He complains of the short-sighted development which can only think in terms of making something extraordinarily new or amazingly big. (You must be able to see it from afar…) Paisarn notes that the old things are rather worn because they have not been passed carefully down to the younger generation. Building goes on in terms of sales, to promote tourism. ‘As if, in order to pass on and preserve culture and old tradition, and to keep them alive, they have to sell, sell them. Even ceremonies involving holy things…get dragged out for sale shamelessly..’
Paisarn describes how the Chiengmai Contemporary Art Gallery, something the local community is very proud of, became a venue for a kind of local fair which was supposed to support traditional culture but quickly turned into a commercial market.
Commentary: Paisarn becomes the unwilling witness and documenter of the on-going transformation of Chiengmai from an historic, Lanna regional capital to an economic and commercial center of Thailand’s early 21st century. Paisarn bemoans the obliteration of the old cityscape and culture. Paisarn, like Manit, regards the economic pressure of tourism as a major factor in the rush to sell off the old city and culture.
22. Manit Sriwanichphum. “ 911 ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 1 , 31 May – 6 June, 2002.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US State Department and the Museum of the City of New York organized this example of political propaganda for the American government, using the photographs of the well known NY photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, as the medium. The exhibition, ‘After September11: Images from Ground Zero’ is showing at the Museum of the National Gallery on Chao Fah road till the end of May.
Color photos 30 x 40 inches show the morning cityscape of NYC when the two shining gold bricks of the twin World Trade towers were still standing.
The pictures show events after the crash of the 2 airplanes into the 2 buildings, 110 stories each (built in 1970), collapsing into a mountain of metal scrap, glass and concrete dust. Other pictures show officials sweeping up the remains, damages to nearby structures, exhausted firemen, people killed looking for bodies, pictures of those who lost their lives – people from all over the world.
Manit explains the camera and film used by Joel Meyerowitz, who is especially well-known for his pictures of the sea and of beaches. Meyerowitz uses a large camera producing 8 x 10 inch images. Certainly, with such a camera, each picture will show the details and feelings very well.
Manit describes a sampling of images: 5 November, Twilight; 8 November, Smoke rising through sunlight; 29 November, Smoke and Steel. He also quotes Meyerowitz on his feelings and ideas about the work of collecting photographic evidence of the 911 tragedy. The exhibition includes a 10 minute video of the news footage of the event, with background music from Band of Brothers, a television show about World War II and US soldiers fighting Nazi Germany. Manit commented:
‘After seeing this show, I was sorry that this photographer had put his hard and good work in the hands of the US State Department to be used for political purposes, rather than using them in a campaign for peace.’
‘I also think that this agency of the US State Department, whose job is education and culture, did not make any effort to seek peace. All they wanted was to establish legitimacy for their own government, using photos as tools to emphasize the news the whole world over.’
Manit identifies the propaganda effort to legitimatize the ‘war on terrorism’ to catch Osama Bin Laden. He sees the twin towers of the World Trade Center as symbols of American capitalism.
Manit notes that most of Meyerowitz’s pictures were long shots, taken from a great distance. There are no obscene images of bodies. Manit mourns the fact that the US search for Osama Bin Laden hassled to the death of many innocent Afghanis, many more in number than the 3,000 people who were killed in the 911 event. In fact, people who gave their opinions at the exhibition said there should be pictures of those people in Afghanistan who were killed, to make the picture complete. The US presentation was seen as very one-sided. Manit scolds George W. Bush.
Commentary: Manit appreciates the artistry of Joel Meyerowitz but is offended by the use of skilled and artistic photography for propaganda purposes. Manit’s measured hostility is typical of the response of much of the world, i.e. sympathy in the wake of 911, soon lost due to the ugly irrationality of the US ‘war on terrorism’ that followed.
23. Manit Sriwanichphum. “ 100 Years of Hem Wechakorn ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 2, 7 – 13 June, 2002.
Manit appears to be feeling some ‘burn-out’ this week as he begins by saying he is not finding any new art around that he feels like writing about, this despite the fact that there 2 or 3 exhibitions open almost every week. ‘The woes of the economy have not had much effect on the creativity of Thai artists. They go on making art without missing a beat.’ The problem is not quantity, but quality. The artwork he sees appears to have been rushed hastily to exhibit, not much reward for the critic after his harrowing journeys through Bangkok traffic. Work crudely done, lousy ideas, unforgivable lack of skill, signs of mental and professional laziness. It’s not that the critic admires ‘white’, ‘chink’ or ‘Jap’ artists (to use Manit’s colorful terms) more than Thai, for many foreign artists get inflated prices for their works.
Manit longs for the experience of ‘walking into a show and being spellbound, as if one should say the magic word. You can look on and on and never get bored because there is something to seek…and one becomes intellectually satisfied.’
Under these circumstances, Manit was very happy to see the ‘100 Years of Hem Wechakorn: the color of painting’ showing at the new Jamjuri Gallery at Chulalongkorn University (10 May to 28 June). At last, ‘I have an opportunity to sample the atmosphere of plenitude for which I have lately been searching in vain in Thai art.’
Manit’s article provides a very good introduction to the life and work of this pioneer of Thai contemporary art. Subjects in the works of the artist-illustrator include, in great number, thelife of Buddha, Khun Chang-Khun Paen, Sritanonchai, Puchana Siptit, Kamanid, Thai culture and history, Thai ghosts, and literary subjects, both Thai and foreign. Master Hem was very prolific, producing an estimated 47,000 images in his long working life fo 43 years – i.e. about 3 pictures each day.
Manit provides many biographical details of Hem’s early life in this article, describing his family background and how he grew as an artist. Manit describes some of the history of development of Thai art in the 19th and 20 centuries, the work of Krua In Kong at Wat Suwanaram, of Prince Naris and of Master Hem, ‘who succeeded in comfortably bringing together the ideals of beauty ofThai art and the ‘white’ Italian school.’
Manit describes Hem’s success in portraying, ‘heroes and heroines…with beautiful bodies, well proportioned musculature, like Roman sculptures which honor and praise the perfection of the human body.’ At the same time, the dress worn by these characters, ‘make me think that the drawing is by an Indian.’
Manit notes the great influence of Master Hem on Thai provincial artists who tried to imitate his drawings and paintings.
In Manit’s assessment, ‘The important point about almost every picture by Master Hem is the point of view.’ Hem’s work reflects the eye of a camera, or of someone planning a storyboard for a movie. ‘How did Master Hem understand that good illustrations need ‘an angle’ – [suggesting that] someone is looking from a certain vantage point, sees it a certain way, at a certain time and place? They [Thai artists] didn’t do that in illustrations of his day.’ According to Manit, ‘When all Master Hem’s works are brought out to show, it will be like taking some frames and stills from a movie..’
Manit regrets that the feeling and fineness of line, color and detail in Hem Wechakorn’s works are not visible in reproductions. Just because of these fine aesthetic qualities, his works are expensive, and much sought after by collectors.
The critic concludes that, ‘many artists think that they are making works of art, but in the end, they are only illustrations. Hem Wechakorn, however, only planned to illustrate, but he created works of art. Something to think about, indeed.’
Commentary: Manit’s practice is a good example for would-be critics: he visits countless exhibitions, almost till his head spins. Still, he carries on, till finally he finds himself in the presence of works of art which are almost magical. These are the moments critics live for. With relish, Manit recounts the story of Hem Wechakorn for his readers, adding his own assessments and embellishments, keeping alive another example of what is best in Thai history and culture.
24. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Bob Sees Consumerist Rust”
Yr. 49, Vol. 3, 14 – 20 June, 2002
The mood in the introduction suggests struggle, dire and dark, and is full of warnings of darkness descending. Things may look shiny and beautiful, but what appears is not to be trusted. Paisarn hopes we can see our own mistakes and correct them before it is too late.
This dark atmosphere reflects the works presented by Bob Garlick, a Canadian designer, photographer and computer geek. Paisarn is reviewing Bob’s show at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT), entitled ‘Rust’. The works reflect the conflicted and contradictory state of people in society today. Growth has been rapid, a worldwide flood controlled by financial and stock markets.
Paisarn is in sympathy with the dark view of these works. Every day, every minute, it becomes more and more difficult to find time to stop and rest. We never ask ourselves questions like, who are we really, or what is it we are really seeking.
Paisarn points to the contrasts in Thai society. Thai people still eat fish paste and mackerel, sour curry and spicy soup, but the market is full of pizza, fried chicken and hamburgers. They still dress in Thai silk, but extremely expensive brand name clothing from abroad has also invaded. Thai youth are becoming like Japanese youth, or like the Italians and the French. Consumerism covers the world like a wave: ‘consuming, marketing, catering to frivolous comfort in response to the endless lust and desire of humanity. It’s easy to see in much of the advertising that we see on the television, every time you turn it on…Even the way we think and read has changed in the same direction. All swept away in this great flood.’
The artist’s works speak of corrosion and destruction, and disintegration. All his works have a rusted plate of zinc as a background, ridiculing the image of a society preparing to collapse. Led by over-confident leaders and lost in the mad scramble of consumerism, there will be a collapse like a row of dominoes.
One work has a wooden Buddha image surrounded, like a Dhamma wheel, by a ring of nine cell-phones. In another work, Elephant Profit, a wooden elephant is partially burned and chopped up with knives, its back legs almost gone. It might refer to a real elephant, or to the power of the government, or the power of the media. Is it all real?
The critic doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Everything is rusting. What we thought was permanent is rusting away. Everything gets rust colored.
Commentary: The critic is in a black mood, perhaps because of the domestic political situation in Thailand. His pessimism is in tune with the Canadian artist’s symbols of decline and impending collapse. Paisarn’s litany of complaints against consumerism is all too familiar. He rails against alien cultures which, though seductive, are already in a state of decay.
25. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Who Owns Women’s Bodies?”
Yr. 49, Vol. 4, 21 – 27 June, 2002
The World Cup football fever is raging, teams dropping fast out of the competition. Hope we can all remember that it’s just a game, counsels Paisarn. Formerly, it was just a game for kids, but now so much has changed. Even women are organizing teams, even boxing. If men can do it, so can they, the women are saying.
Paisarn quotes the French intellectual, writer and feminist, Simone De Beauvoir, ‘We were not born women, but we became women.’ She was speaking of the idea that so well gave birth to the awareness of the position and rights of women. Actually, we are all humans, both male and female. But what happened in society to reduce or eclipse the value and rights of women?
‘Who Owns Women’s Bodies’ is an art exhibition showing at the Witayanitat Gallery, Wityaborigan Institute, Chulalongkorn University. The show, with artworks mostly by women artists from the Philippines, asks the same question. The exhibition is on tour to many countries.
Long entrenched social problems are considered in these artworks – women as second-class citizens; women honored only as wives and mothers; women’s lack of political rights; women marginalized in religious observances.
Paisarn mentions some of the prejudicial aspects of women’s roles in Thai culture, i.e. women confined to minding the home and to meal preparation, for example.
In contemporary society there are problems of physical and sexual violence against women. As consumers, women become tools for advertisers, deeply involved in beauty products.
The exhibition concerns not only artworks, paintings drawings, sculptures and installations. There are also discussions and exchanges of information among women. The work entitled Muslim Women 2000 concerns the strictures placed on pious women by Islamic cultures. In Search of Other Worlds by Sandra Torrijos is a woodcarving which resembles an idol. It is surrounded by coconut husks and dozens of condoms.
The form of women’s genitals and breasts are presented in a collective call for recognition and a reference to motherhood. The compromised sexuality of attractive young women. Women as sex objects bought for money. Women’s bodies as advertising tools. In the end, the question is, who owns this body? How do women live with equality and with sexuality? The picture by Brenda Fajardo, ‘The Answer is My, Myself,’ shows a woman holding a red heart. Various words are all around her, telling of her inner power. This power must be expressed to protect her own life and existence.
Commentary: The contrasting images of World Cup football and a feminist art exhibition by Filipino women artists suggests what a long way women have to go before they find ways to fully express all their capabilities. Paisarn’s review is sympathetic in a gentlemanly fashion. The on-going story of the critics of Siamrath Sapdavijarn, Silpa/Wattanatham, trying to deal with women artists is a notable sub-plot in the history of the column.
26. Manit Sriwanichphum. “ Life’s Taproot: Art and the Santi Asoke Community” Yr. 49, Vol. 5, 28 June – 4 July, 2002.
Manit considers the trend of ‘art and community,’ a current fashion in the art world. The Fukuoka art show in 1999 was just one example in which organizers brought art into urban neighborhoods, closer to the people.
As modern and contemporary art serves art museums, galleries, businessmen, merchants and collectors, ordinary people find difficulty in connecting with this realm of aesthetic quality. Certainly, great originals can be owned only by the wealthy. Art is treated as a ‘holy’ word, but the money business of galleries and the controls of the museum system suggest that the claims about ‘art heritage’ or ‘wisdom of society in art’ are just marketing concepts.
The museum and gallery system in Thailand is just in its infancy, but the ‘art and community’ trend has arrived. While not doubting the sincerity of some who organize events along this line, Manit remains skeptical. He raises the example of “Taproot of Life: Art and the Soul of Society,” Organized by Kongsak Kulklarngdon and Pisate Popit, the art project was carried out during the month of June in the Santi Asoke community at Klong Koum in Bangkok.
The Santi Asoke group, established more than 30 years ago, has famous associations with the controversial Phra Potirak, who ran afoul of the Sangkha and was disrobed in 1989. The famous politician, Chamlong Srimuang, once generally referred to as ‘the great Chamlong,’ is closely connected with this Buddhist group as well. These pious companies often have some dubious aspects - Manit recalls the case of the popular monk, PhraTham Chaiyo Thammakai, who was charged with embezzling property of a temple. (The case is still not wrapped up.) Santi Asoke has been a self-sufficient, independent community, however, and earned some respect because their simple life styles were not affected by the economic crisis that devastated the country in 1997.
Never having visited a Santi Asoke community, Manit expected great simplicity, and he is not disappointed in the set up of the community or the way of life of the members. He is, however, taken aback by the domed Pavillion of 1000 Years, the reverend Potirak’s project, investing in the construction of a monumental structure to illustrate the three worlds: heaven, earth and hell. Though it is only four stories, (including the ground floor, made like a large, artificial waterfall), compared to the encampment surrounding it, the pavilion appears quite large. When I sat in it, I didn’t feel comfortable or clear. This confused me. I didn’t understand the reverend Potirak’s idea. Why would he be so ambitious to see his heaven and hell for a thousand years? He likes to talk about ridding ourselves of lust and greed. Or does he think this is a ‘good’ desire.
Manit recalls the criticism, by Sor. Sivarak, of the monk Phra Phuttathat’s Suan Moke ashram. The famous gadfly characterized Suan Moke as having become ‘a kind of Disneyland’. Everyone went there on holiday, and the monastery was not longer peaceful.
‘I didn’t think that the monk Potirak would want a Buddhist encampment to become a theme park…I couldn’t fathom why the reverend needed to build hell and heaven so hugely and didn’t make himself small at all.’
In the presence of this monument, the works of the five artists from the neighborhood and the twelve invited artists which were set up round the pavilion seemed to be swallowed up by it. Was this intended, so that the ego of the monk did not collide with the egos of the artists? The works of the artists express humility and reverence, for example: Plenitude of Merit, by Kongsak Kulklangdon - a sculpture which compares the minds of good people with nourishing food; Nature, by Pencare Perngyar, a rounded shape of about 90 cm with a tiny glass chedi on top; and Universe, by Wichoke Mukdamanee, which places shapes like seashells to represent the three worlds, the Triphumi.
Manit concludes that art is called upon to serve society and religion, sometimes in very small projects, like this, giving us images of ways to develop our communities.
Commentary: Manit’s review, mentioning a number of famous monks and their devoted followers, a military man turned ascetic-politician, a famous social critic, and some well known and influential artists gives some hint of the connections between religion, art and politics in Thailand. Manit is capable of scathing criticism, but in this case, the sharpness of his skepticism and cynicism about religious leaders such as the reverend Potirak is kept pretty much under wraps.
27. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Site + Sight: Contemporary Art and Globalization”
Yr. 49, Vol. 6, 5 – 11 July, 2002.
Manit notes the riveting power of World Cup Football, 2002. Everyone is focused on the games. ‘No one, no government anywhere is able to resist its power… Dr. M. Mahathir Muhamad…and Thailand’s parliamentarians’ included. In fact, Manit points out that Burma’s dictatorial government closed Thai-Burmese border trade, which cut off the broadcast of the World Cup games in Myanmar. ‘It makes the gamblers and football fans in Burma furious with their government.’
‘FIFA, the multi-national corporation organizer of the tournament (the owners of World Cup gambling) are hardly different from other ‘great lords.’ [It is a] stateless organization more influential than many governments. You can call it as powerful as the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO.’
But Manit concludes, ‘One thing I felt when looking at the conclusion of World Cup Football is the empty ending of ‘power and meaning’ in the status of individuals, societies, states and countries. This is the power of globalization (the disaster of greed )which no one will be able to resist henceforth.’
As if to comment further on this situation, Manit notes in detail the life-size photo at the entrance to the Site + Sight exhibition. The First Intellectual, by a Chinese artist, Yang Fudong, shows a young man standing in a city street, his face and clothing covered with blood, his gesture full of anger and confusion, his right hand tightly holding a red brick.
The exhibition was held in Singapore from 7 June – 26 July. Curated by Binghui Huangfu, director of the Gallery Earl Lu Singapore, the show concerned the impact of globalization on culture in the contemporary world. There were 26 artists from 10 countries. This number included the works of Manit, himself, and Suthi Kunawichaiyanon, artist, critic and art teacher from Silpakorn University.
The works include installations – site specific, electronic and time-based art, digital art, sound art and video games. Some are like toys, experimental and new. Sometimes the audience is confused about what the artists and the curator are trying to say. Manit sees weak points – artists following after fashion, using computer programs imperfectly – but he finds interesting works. International Flight, by Yin Xiuzhen, is a commentary on modern air travel. She sews discarded clothes into the shape of airplane passenger jets. These are symbols of globalization: able to shrink the world but also fatal when they crash.
Leung Mee Ping’s So Near Yet So Far – Mongkok Version, 2001 – 2002 features interviews with more than 100 people living in homes and apartments all over Hong Kong. The interviews are recorded and placed in the mailboxes collected by the artist from the people she interviewed. The audience is able to plug in and listen to any of these individual stories, as told by all kinds of people – taxi drivers, prostitutes, hair stylists, old people, blind people, cleaners, fake dentists, etc. Each mailbox is like a person.
Manit closes with a note that he fears the voices of Leung Mee Ping’s mailboxes and the other artists of Site + Sight will be drowned out by the cheering for the Football World Cup.
Commentary: One gets the feeling, repeatedly, from reading this column that the voice of the critic is as one ‘crying out in the wilderness.’ Manit, like Paisarn, is gloomily aware of the tremendous forces at work having impact on human civilization globally. Manit identifies with an image by a Chinese artist in Singapore, a large photograph of a young man in a bloodied suit pitching a brick. World Cup means world gambling, Manit notes. Taking note of what is happening in the world, Manit also gives voice to new, young Chinese artists in a show curated by a Chinese. Despite his fears that the cheering of football crowds will drown out the Site + Sight show, his report in black and white is there as documentation.
28. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “About Houses Without People”
Yr. 49, Vol. 7, 12 – 18 July, 2002
This round of World Cup football is over. The joyful winners and disappointed losers have all gone home. The noisy world of cheering slowly returns to face reality where the struggle goes on. The national economy bobs down, politics are polarized, danger comes from nature and from humanity. Perhaps we should forget our problems and listen to economists talking about the numbers. The PM avoids responding to political problems for a while. The opposition forgets to scold. All were distracted by football, but the problems are still here. The poverty of the people remains as ever.
‘I used to sit many times, conversing and exchanging opinions with friends in art circles. There were many opinions. Artist’s shows were opening almost every week, so many and so varied. Works by the new generation and works of older artists to collect, too. But these artworks don’t grab our interest as they should…It’s as if the same old thing is presented to the brain…a repetition…as we have seen before.’ Here, however, Paisarn reviews the show by Niti Watuya at the Namthong Gallery, ‘The Countryside.’ The works are done in watercolor, very simple and direct, but something hidden in the content where the artist went in to touch the feelings of rural life in Isarn. ‘This land on a plateau, Isarn is known as a hot, dry place, empty, fields, far vistas. In the sky, the sun is blistering. The land is full of the marks of drought. Who wants to fight and win against nature to just survive from one year to the next?’ But it is an ancient land, a central place of old culture.
Niti feels drawn back again and again to this northeastern region, drawn back to experience the reality. What does he find in the countryside? ‘The villages of Isarn are abandoned, abandoned by progress and technology. There are only old people looking after little children. So there is no ambition, no burning hope.’ Going as far as Mukdahan province, whose capital is on the Mekong river, Niti feels the closeness of people on the two sides of the river, sharing customs and beliefs.
‘The Isarn countryside, which is far from progress and wealth, is the same everywhere. Development by the state has never arrived. Whoever is there must look to themselves, must fight on alone. In some village, where scarcity and lack are most critical, the young boys and girls flee from this poverty to seek work in the city. From being farmers, they become laborers, working for wages in factories. They leave their villages behind. Only the elderly and little children remain, waiting and watching, sending their hopes along with the strong, hot winds from the fields each day.’
In Niti’s pictures we do not see old folks or parched fields. Niti chooses to make pictures of houses such as we see in the Northeast, the houses from which the young men and women fled to go to the city. Each house is old and leaning, but we feel in them the daily way of life of the villagers, all the things they use. The paths they tread, the way they carry on their grinding, backbreaking labor.
The artist uses themes expressing extreme aridity. Brown covers all and tells of feelings and stories in each house. They are houses where no one lives. The feeling is lonely, gloomy, blurred.
The artist records on and on. Full of prayers, charms and mysterious communications, the village tells stories of a way of life integrated simply with nature, based on the dryness and aridity of the soil. Tones and voices unheard, the villages watch their dreams. A song of loneliness comes through me. Yes…someone is missing their old village.
Commentary: Paisarn contrasts the concerns of World Cup football and Bangkok politics. Artist and critic agree on the tragedy of poverty and neglect in the nation’s rural Northeast. In his columns for Silpa/Wattanatham through most of the decade from 1987 to 1997, I suspect that Wibul Lisuwan tried valiantly to arouse interest in preserving and developing rural arts and craft traditions. By the year 2002, village life in the Northeast appears to have been defeated by globalization. But Thai Rak Thai’s politicization of the countryside still lies ahead.
29. Manit Sriwanichphum. “What is the Real Idea of Silpa Pijarn?”
Yr. 49, Vol. 8, 19 - 25 July, 2002.
Having read the SilpaPijarn column by Amnart Yensabai in Matichon Weekend (8 – 14 July) entitled ‘The Artist’s Network, the BMA and the Art Museum,” Manit is moved to write about the beliefs of the campaign by the Network for a Bangkok Metropolitan Contemporary Art Museum in Honor of His Majesty, the King, and the call to reinstate the former plans for the museum’s design.
Bangkok Governor Samak Suntornwech had replaced the original plans for the museum with new designs for a ‘museum- shopping mall – parking lot.’ In April, however, the Artist’s Network petitioned PM Taksin Shinawatr and the Minister of the Interior, Purachai Piemsomboon, Bangkok Governor Samak, the Director of the Bangkok Municipality, Kriengsak Lohachala, and the Administrative Court, calling for a public hearing regarding the plans for the projected museum. This would be in accordance with Article 59 of the Constitution.
Looking back over Amnart’s comments on the matter in earlier SilpaPijarn columns (23 Oct. 2000; 12 Mar.2001) Manit concludes that the writer understands all that is happening. Amnart appears guardedly sympathetic to the campaign of the Artist’s Network. In the most recent SilpaPijarn column, however, Amnart appears to have changed his stand, and to see the Artist’s Network as an irrational group of diehards calling people to protest without adequate reason or explanation. The latest SilpaPijarn article also presents a design for the art museum and pictures of a 30 story building (dubbed ‘the twister’ for its unorthodox shape) which, Manit notes, may not satisfy construction codes of the Ministry of Public Works. He notes that there was only one bidder for the construction project, but because of a lack of proper funding, a new round of bidding is scheduled for August (Thairath, 25 June). Manit also quotes the end of the SilpaPijarn article, in which Amnart expresses dismay over the move to take protests to the Administrative Court, since doing so clouds the atmosphere and makes negotiations more difficult. “I’m very surprised that Acharn Amnart pretends not to understand the aim of the suit to the Administrative Court which asks that the Bangkok Municipality be ordered to hold public hearings on the art museum…Governor Samak never thought of allowing scholars, critics, religious leaders, leaders of art and culture, and committees in the parliament to hear and exchange ideas about their new projects.’ The governor gave interviews to the mass media many times to the effect that the demonstrators were violent and destructive, but when the Artist’s Network checked the Din Daeng police station, no charges had been filed. Manit emphasizes the importance of a public hearing, ‘for all the people, so they can know who benefits, who loses; what the people get when they have to take what the Bangkok Municipal government (which belongs to the people) allows the private sector to reap…and the art museum they get, will it be a real art museum or just a box for slapping the people’s face.’
Samak and the BMA must answer to the people. They say that a public hearing is unnecessary for every project. ‘That is not right,’ says Manit, ‘when there are people calling for the state to organize such a hearing. If it’s all transparent, what are they afraid of?’ So, Manit wonders aloud, why doesn’t Acharn Amnart see that a public hearing is the best solution?
If the governor’s plan for the museum is accepted, and conditions posed by the private sector are agreed upon without any further negotiation, private companies will be doing business for 30 years in a publicly funded space belonging to the public. Manit hopes that the Administrative Court will rescue the museum project from ruthless pork-barreling. And how did SilpaPijarn manage to obtain images of the ‘twister’building from the municipality when others in the press and the Artist’s Network never could?
Commentary: Manit provides us with a snapshot of this incredible moment in the history of Bangkok’s contemporary art world. Two critics in two different news magazines comment on actions by elected public officials who have power to influence the shape and character of a proposed new art museum. Artists organize demonstrations to oppose the plans of the city government, and petition the court to initiate more democratic processes (a public hearing) which the artists claim will result in a better museum and better service of the arts for the public. The struggle involves political processes and the role and character of high art in the life of the society.
30. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Views of Religion”
Yr. 49, Vol. 9, 26 July – 1 August , 2002
Paisarn seems to be in a pensive mood as this article opens. The critic is warming up to deal with the topic of art and religion. The style is familiar and occurs periodically in Paisarn’s critiques -- poetic rambling round some mysterious point in an opaque introduction which gradually becomes more transparent and reveals the scene of this week’s story.
‘Yes…in the season when drizzling rain meets and diffuses in the heat of the atmosphere, there is something that makes one think of Art, Religion, Faith, Vision…the themes of the exhibition at Wityanitat Gallery, Chulalongkorn University, with seven Thai artists participating in a solemn and priestly Buddhist ritual from the viewpoint of what they know and see, perceive, understand, feel, till each person expresses as he knows.’
Paisarn expresses some reservations, suggesting that not all such works reflect a convincing depth of understanding. He mentions conceit, pride, fumbling, and the need to be a thinker and not only a maker. Not only that, but there is always a danger of repetitiveness, forms and states of being which we have seen before…nothing new created. Whose problem is this? Paisarn asks.
The works showing in the exhibition hall are by well-known artists – Montien Boonma, Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wasan Sittikett, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Sutee Kunavichayanont, Songsak Saetang, and Kraisorn Prasert. ‘They are all of an age and create works which differ unequally over long periods of time. That might allow us to see and understand their points of view, which are so different.’
Paisarn emphasizes that none of these works on show this time are new for these artists. They have been seen before at other exhibition. This time simply brings them together. A curator selected the works one more time, in part as a memoriam to Montien Boonma, a Thai artist famous internationally who passed away 2 years ago.
Paisarn notes that too much religious practice has drifted into the current of capitalism – not only Buddhism, but Christianity and other faiths as well. We need to soothe and uplift our ideas and actions.
Paisarn shows a measure of skepticism about religion; it is something which should be studied carefully and understood anew. Many people turn to religion and faith to show the way, to calm themselves when they see the world.
The later works of Montien Boonma bring us toward faith…a big, tall chedi in earth colors speaks of the origins of birth and returning to that former place when the time comes. The work is inspired by a Kom religious site, a place to heal the pilgrim’s pain, healing the mind of the pious believer.
Kraisorn Prasert brings together the faith of the northern people in the symbols of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. These are old influences, still compatible. This work is an old one, which Kraisorn made for his earlier project, ‘The Good Citizen.’
With quite a different point of view, Wasan Sittikett is critical of what is happening today in religion. Neither the guardians nor the monks stay on the path as they should. Monks are killed for protecting forests. Monks become involved in repressive politics.
The work of Songsak Saethang comments on people in consumer societies. Everything in advertised, and we are constantly urged to buy new things. We don’t examine the real value of all these things. Have they any true value? Songsak may regard religion as a competing product on the market.
The ideas are so varied, observes Paisarn. Each person must come to his own conclusion.
Commentary: Surely we should regard this as a fine opportunity to discover more in the great works which we have seen and admired before. It is a rare and sterling opportunity, especially as each of these works stood in the company of outstanding peers. I think this is not just Paisarn’s missed opportunity to make precious comparisons from which we can learn more. It suggests that historical, artistic and critical discourse at this stage may still be conceptually in its infancy for many contemporary critics.
31. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Facing up with Portraits of Artists* ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 10, 2 - 8 August, 2002. * ศิลปินระห่ำ
Manit has been invited by Namthong Saethang to present a solo exhibition at the Namthong art gallery in the vicinity of the Samsen Railway Station. The gallery owner had seen Manit’s show, Artists in Black and White, some 11 years ago and made a serious offer. After careful consideration about his own ability to preserve his dignity in such a show (‘One fears the work will not match the seniority.’ ), Manit decides to do it. He has been doing portraits of foreign artists and Thai artist friends for many years, but he didn’t want to show them now and be scoffed at. They were only middling good (in terms of aesthetics, beauty, angle, values of dark and light, visual elements, etc.) A magazine editor abroad had said they were interesting, might be OK for a show.
‘Still, I kept mulling it over. I wanted to do something new for myself and for audiences. I wanted the works to say something representing my feelings and ideas. Could I push forward the meaning of ‘portrait’ to the farthest edge of our understanding? More than just a likeness or recording of a person in a photo ID card or passport. Going farther than even just catching their personalities and characteristics, or revealing their identity.’
Manit feels his work has already done that in the portraits he made of slum people, artists, entertainers, singers, bankers, elites, even the PM. He made those when he was a newcomer to making portraits, communicating from a very basic level.
This time, he wanted the new works ‘to be able to express a state of emotion and feeling, not only of the subject, but also of the photographer’s feelings as well, and very clearly, and with impact, too. That is, the photo would be a collective effort – not separating subject from photographer. I wanted it to be a set of portraits reflecting the ‘human condition’ altogether.
Manit recalls his artist friends whose works reflect their feelings about themselves, society, the world they live in. ‘I saw their works, floating like flashes in my mind…those artists like Wasan Sittikett with a penis as big as a dildo coming from his mouth, as he likes to swear in his works, because of his anger at Thai society, gnawing away, full of political faces, cheating civil servants, corrupt monks…
I saw the face of Chatchai Puipia, sucking on his big toe because he doesn’t know how to manage the problems of life. I see Sompong Tawi, sucking on and licking his fingers, all five covered in condoms…and Sutee Kunavichayanont puffing on a rubber tube connected to his navel, like a rubber doll full of air.
Manit also mentions Mongkok Plienbangchang, a performance artist, with a bloodied breat in anger…and P’Chum, Chumpol Apisuk, roaring in a clean white suit, roaring at the camera like a captive lion.’
‘I choose artists like writers and poets choose words and sentences to communicate meaning. If I were a musician, the artists I choose would be like the notes.’
Manit relates the story of Josef Ng, a performance artist and art critic living in Singapore. In one performance, the artist, half naked and raising a fist in defiance, with his back to the video camera, pulled out some of his pubic hairs. The Singaporean government responded by forbidding him ever again to do performance art, and demanding that all performance artists submit scripts of their planned performances beforehand. This made Josef very unpopular with his fellow artists in Singapore, who blamed him (and not the government, strangely enough). Last year, the ban on Josef Ng was lifted, and he came under the same rules as the rest of the performance artists in ‘Green Noodle City’. ‘I have a photo of the face of Josef Ng, hiding in the shadows…’ Josef told Manit that he was willing to shave off all his body hair, and wondered what the response would be. Eventually, he did exactly that: hair all gone - head, eyebrows, mustache, beard, under arms, pubic hair, facial bristles, and any other hairs that could be found anywhere on his Singaporean body.
‘I had him stand on a white paper, before a white backdrop. [Hairless] Pure Josef opens an envelop and picks his pubic hair out of it and puts it in his mouth. Three or four fingers full, like a student forced to eat the cigarette he has been discovered smoking in the boys bathroom by a cruel teacher. It shows clearly in the photo. Then he carefully pulls out the hairs from his mouth, dripping with saliva. He holds them like a philosopher, a sage who likes to toy with his own beard. Now Josef Ng has a very strange body for a human. A hairless variety, like a mangy dog, and a long black tongue. Scares everybody. ‘In Your Face’, Namthong Gallery, near the Samsen Railroad Station. Till 21 August.
Commentary: Manit gives his show some good advance publicity. In doing so, he records some of his thoughts as a creative artist, talking about the art of portrait photography. He also records some expressions by artists he knows and admires whom he has photographed. In these somewhat provocative images, we are reminded that Thailand and Singapore also have currents of ‘art in the dark’ for which artists sometimes draw flak as they mock and challenge social taboos.
32. Manit Sriwanichphum. ‘In Your Face’ Portraits of Artists ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 11, 9 - 15 August, 2002.
‘It wasn’t simply that I decided one day to ask these people to take off their clothes for the camera. I think disrobing requires a reason in itself. Some people delight in their own bodies and so disrobe. They want others to admire them. Some people disrobe for political reasons – in protest – to demand their rights.’ Nitaya Eua-arimongkol, was an organizer for the Womanifesto group for many years, a group of artists with a feminist perspective who called upon society to look at itself and see the importance of women more clearly. Nitaya drew headless nude women in weird poses, bodies soft and limp, boneless, in a heavy, depressed, gloomy atmosphere. ‘I wanted to do a portrait of her to match her painting, meaning that she would disrobe. Then, I realized that I had never seen a nude in which the model was a Thai woman artist… It’s difficult. Getting a woman to disrobe for you (without paying). Especially a Thai guy who is sexually repressed like me, and like the rest of you. Thai society has no culture of disrobing. Spaghetti straps or no bra looks drive adult Thai males crazy. They have their labels ready: good girl; bad girl, and the labels are applied.’
Nitaya eventually agreed. ‘Two or three months later, she told me, ‘OK’ and she laughed loudly, as if she had won something. I respect her for her keen determination, courage, to pose her body which is not perfectly beautiful like Metinee Kingpoyom in front of the camera, posing like a lizard (a creepy lizard…her nickname is, appropriately enough, ‘Liz’. )We both had a lot of fun taking the pictures that day because we knew, at one level that the pictures we were devising were strange and very meaningful. I’m sure that disrobing was a very liberating experience for her.’
The gay artist and scandalous guy, Michel Shaowanasai, by contrast, sends a message, gleefully challenging society, by taking his clothes off as casually as we put ours on. But this became a problem for me. Michel half naked is certainly nothing new. He also has a beautifully exercised and muscled body. This time, however, ‘he would be totally nude, and I gave him two large, imported cucumbers and let him hold them as if he were a magician… He gazes provocatively at the camera. This was the picture I was seeking – a bald man with two long male sex organs, but at the same time, having a large chest with breasts like a woman. Michel’s sexy attitude …makes me think of Samantha…in ‘Sex and the City’…She eats men like meals..’
Manit quotes some of the comments on his portrait show by Apinan Posyanond, Director of the Silpa Wittyanitat Gallery at Chulalongkorn University. Apinan noted that the previous generation of artists, such as Tawan Dachinee, Prateuang Emcharoen and Chalemchai Kositpipat emphasized attire, ornamentation, beards and long hair to create a picture of ‘an artist’ over their own bodies. That becomes a kind of uniform, just like those worn by soldiers, government officials, policemen, etc. Manit understands this as an attempt by artists to create an identity for themselves in the perception of the public, who are not familiar with the concept of ‘artist.’ The artists had to appear as ‘cool’. But the younger generation will not wear uniforms. ‘They wear brand name clothes, drive off-road vehicles like yuppies, and travel in flocks. Just like the public generally. But this new generation…uses their own bodies as sites for researching life and emotion. They use their bodies as a canvass on which to express themselves. Apinan also pointed out that the artists cultivated a state of mind in which they experienced healing, a return to a childlike state. Like Sigmund Freud, Wasan Sittiket holds up a white penis like a cigar. ‘Freud might not like this work, but the sex symbol used by the artist and myself in this work goes with his unconscious…’
The portrait of Chumpol Apisuk, the lion roaring in pain, was on the cover of the catalog for the show. A portrait of Ing Kanchanawanichai had black trails of tears running down his face. The final work showed Kamin Lertchaiprasert, closing his eyes in meditation, the choice of a real Thai Buddhist. ‘You choose to open your eyes or close your eyes. You choose to see or not to see,’ concludes Manit.
Commentary: Manit continues the review of his show at the Namthong art gallery in the vicinity of the Samsen Railway Station. He describes what seems to be a ‘first’ for Thailand’s artworld, i.e. persuading a woman artist to pose in the nude as a subject in the work of a fellow artist. Manit’s description of this coup, though colored by sexist asides, records a truly remarkable event in the history of contemporary Thai art. One only wonders if the experience was as liberating for Manit as it was for Nitaya.
His skills as professional critic and writer enable Manit, the artist, to vividly describe the creative process behind his own works in this show. The comments by Apinan Posyanont lend depth and more scope to the analysis.
33. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Stepping Over the Line”
Yr. 49, Vol. 12, 16 – 22 August , 2002 p.58 – 59.
Paisarn considers the habits of agriculturalists and herders. The farmers would seem to be more attached to their homes than the latter, he reasons, since they remain settled in one place, near a source of potable water like a river or a lake. Sometimes people are driven from their homes by war or epidemic and must go seeking some new place to live. So populations and tribes get mixed together. But no matter where people go, living in the hottest desert or the coldest latitudes, carry with them their culture and beliefs, the taproot which allows them to go on confidently. The Chinese, the Italians from Sicily, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese: wherever they go, they hold on to their own distinctive depths. Even so, there must be some adjustment. There are new foods, new environments. Things get mixed together, and finally go together smoothly.
At the end of last month there was a little art project passing through Thailand, a project by some Koreans, “International Culture Art Road – Living together in the global village.” The group was led by Song Jin Lee, a performance artist well known in Korea, and included artists, sculptors, university teachers and a cameraman.
Paisarn and friends met with the Korean group at the About Café, an art venue in the area of Wongwien 22. The Thai and Korean groups exchanged performances. ‘It was no big deal, because there was very little time to arrange it. But it was very warm and friendly. Song Jin Lee expanded on his own ideas on the About television show, a broadcasting project by About Café which puts stories and new on the internet.’
The Korean group was starting out from Bangkok on an itinerary that would include Angkor Wat andPhnom Penh, to Yunan and many cities in China, finishing their 2-month journey in Busan, S.Korea. They will travel, live together and roam about in their group, collecting information and getting to know the peoples and cultures of Asia better. ‘Actually, when Asian artists go out looking for experience abroad, they mostly go to Europe or America. They seldom go traveling in Asia and so don’t get to know their Asian neighbors better.’ Paisarn agrees. ‘Many times, I asked my friends who are interested in such things. We have many foreign artist friends, but they are Europeans mostly… [but] we hardly know any Cambodian artists, or artists from Laos…we are blind to them, even though they are right next door.’
Paisarn agrees that traveling in real life is more revealing of much that is concealed in internet encounters. Unfortunately, the Koreans would have only the most brief stay in the various countries they were visiting. Something like tourists. But it’s not a waste, Paisarn notes. ‘In any case, the world is opened up anew for them. It becomes much broader. It is a good beginning…They found a way to bring, to take themselves to the wider world which they want to know. Testing, to find out what the result will be.’ The critic approves, since, he says, many times the artist is managed by others but doesn’t know how to manage himself.
Commentary: Paisarn muses on the subject of habitation and migration of peoples and how people go searching. The ambitious project of this Korean group illuminates the possibilities of Asian artists wanting to get to know each other better. There is an exchange of performances by Thai and Koreans and a tape made for internet broadcast from the About Café. One feels this is a glimpse of artworld subcultures connecting internationally with brief visits in real time and extended communication by internet.
34. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Gardens, Paddies and People”
Yr. 49, Vol. 13, 23 – 29 August , 2002 p.58 – 59.
Paisarn’s opening theme is memories of the past, how we tend to recall what is good and beautiful, and forget the suffering and bitter difficulties. The grandparents and parents spoke of patience, endurance and determination in working for a better life for their families. In the end, they tell of dreams come true, happiness attained. We prefer to remember things that please us. We avoid touching the painful wounds of the past.
‘I used to tell some new acquaintance that, though I am a Bangkokian, my family were farmers. This seemed incredible to them, so unrelated to the modern world of technology.’
In fact, many Thai artists are inspired by the world of paddy farmers and vegetable gardeners. Tinakorn Kasuwan, a well-known graphic artist, has a show along these lines, “Inspiration From the Motherland,” opening at the Surapol Gallery in the Saladaeng area.
‘Tinakorn’s past work has been about life in the countryside, the life of people bound to the land, growing and producing for their living, their way of life, broad and deep, and the traditions of country communities.’
If one goes out to watch the country people, one can see how difficult farming is, how much back-breaking labor goes into agricultural living. ‘Where are their smiles? They smile at the sight of ears of rice blossoming and ripening. They see it is time to go to work again, harvesting for barn and granary. It is a smile in exchange for their own labor. But when the fields have untimely floods, or there is drought, the young rice dies before their eyes. The pain is intense, so very hard to bear.’
Tinakorn refers to the tools used by farmers in his works, telling a story of plenitude and wholeness in the earth. ‘Everything born is part of the chain of diligence, determination and endurance which the land gives as a reward to humans.’
Tinakorn’s pictures seem dark, but Paisarn sees the warm simplicity of rural life presented there. [These images are]scattered with warmth – an ordinary story – normal – which we have seen before. Like two men sitting drinking whisky in a little hut. The hut is full of the fruits of the farm. There are domestic animals round the house. Temple fairs and merit-making. As if real happiness can be found in this sort of simple life.’
Paisarn feels that this dream, this fantasy which Tinakorn creates, is like an illustrated fairy tale. Lots of little stories, rather surreal - ‘farmers floating boats in the sky in the dark night, with stars sparkling and fish flying and floating on the surface of the water.’ (A work entitled ‘Dreams of Farmers’)
Perhaps the artist is inspired by old stories, old tales absorbed in childhood. We may have heard such tales ourselves. They are full of symbols. Milk and breasts signify wholeness and plenitude, gender and sexuality. Fish swimming can suggest deep desires.
‘It is a story that stays on in our memory – when farmers still followed their old ways, still plowing with a buffalo. Not using modern machinery, mechanical plows. Farmers used to make their own tools and share among themselves. Unlike nowadays. The farmers are all exploited by merchants and rice mills.’ Prices are low and they are all in debt. Harvests are small and income insufficient. The dreams of farmers today come out in the numbers of the underground lottery. Their dreams are not as beautiful as they used to be.
Commentary: The vision of an agrarian lifestyle of natural simplicity dies hard. The same illusion holds in countries like America, where Americans imagine that farms still consist of single families with a handful of livestock, a little red barn and clean, healthy country living. (See the recent film, Charlotte’s Web, to see how the illusion continues to be propagated.) Paisarn cannot be tempted to romanticize too much the realities of the countryside nowadays, and repeats a familiar litany of blame against merchants, rice mills and market forces as the cause of the poverty of the farmers today. His review of Tinakorn’s work is therefore divided. Paisarn appreciates the poetic beauty of these fantasies and the folk culture they honor, but the critic cannot escape the knowledge of too many bitter realities about farmer’s lives today.
35. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “The Era of Bald Heads”
Yr. 49, Vol. 14, 30 August – 5 September , 2002, p.58 – 59
Paisarn begins with the aggressive Pop Art style and Andy Warhol, who used images of Mao Tse Tung in his graphics just as he used Elvis Presley, James Dean and other Hollywood stars. But when contemporary Chinese artists take Chairman Mao as their target, though the approach and technique are similar, the meaning is much deeper and not easy to see.
After Mao came the era of Tung Tsio Ping, who announced that cats of all colors are good if they can catch a mouse. As China opened wider to receive many things from outside, there were more opportunities to join in the social currents of the world, including ‘Western culture’, i.e. Coke, rock music, punk, and McDonald’s. This sort of phenomenon has quickly had impact on Chinese artists and the artworld in China. Chinese artists take modes of presentation from the West, and with a very critical character which some scholars call Political Pop.
It comes in quickly like a raging flood, and the smell of freedom is intoxicating. ‘The emotion in the modern or contemporary art in China is alienation mingled with Westernization. Like someone of mixed ethnicity dying their hair red. There is meaning reflecting wider circles and meaning of self-identity that came before. Try to shake it off, but one doesn’t know oneself.
When there is acceptance from abroad, outside (the global artworld, collectors of outstanding works selected by curators), they take works out of their old context to show in various places. Anything can cause a stream to change course – rising investment, and efforts to free ones self from the old framework in which one was formerly confined.’
‘Bald Heads and Fashion’ is the title of the series by two artists from China, Lui Fei from Nanjing and Zang Hongbo from Kui Yang. Their work is now showing at the Tang Gallery in the Silom Gallery building. ‘It is an area of old shops, jewel shops, shops of all kinds, and artworks old and new on Silom Road. Silom – the Wall Street of Thailand.’
Paisarn finds the works of the two artists interesting in their similarities and differences. One similarity is that all the people shown in their pictures are bald. Is it a natural condition from birth? Or is it the creation of ‘a look’?
‘Take Your Photo’ by Lui Fei ‘pictures a young female model, posing in various attitudes, leaning faces, twisting shoulders, lifting the butt, or jumping in the air. The atmosphere behind is blurred, like a photo shoot in a studio. All the models are bald and all have a broad grin, so broad you can almost see every single tooth.’
‘Lui ridicules the influence of fashion in society. The old pictures of Chinese women were so self-composed, shy and embarrassed. They covered themselves when in public. Youthful girls in the revolutionary era were stern and serious. Now that is changed by beauty products and clothing from the garment rooms of Europe…Modern Chinese women change from admiring themselves with a distinctively Chinese look. They become Nongmui Inter(national) in Pierre Cardin, or something like that.’
‘In the work of Zhang Hongbo, ‘The Cat’s Eye’, the artist puts his own face in place of persons he wants to present. It’s a matter of human relations. Pictures of families – father, mother, child, husband and wife, friend and friend – With women’s bodies, the faces are made up with lipstick. And there are flowers such as roses or lotus which create a theme.’
Paisarn senses a suspicious gloss over these pictures. What deep dreams and individual desires are hidden under these images? Living together in one home, what lusts and hidden sexual behavior? And these men with their lacy underwear? The flowers also have different connotations in terms of belief and sexuality.
‘Bald heads lacking hair. Do they say to us that we must change to enter a new era? A bald-headed era? Or is it just a fashion?
Commentary: Paisarn communicates a sense of how destabilizing and disorienting the influx of Western culture can be in Asian societies. The adjustment is not going to be simple. Paisarn mentions the history of fashion in portrait photos from pre-revolutionary through revolutionary China. The changing values of society in each period are suggested in the photographs of women. The Chinese artists’ use of baldness as a theme in their exhibition stirs up many issues of sexuality. Hair, or the lack of it, seems to be a universal human concern. Manit touched on this issue in his discussion of the experience of Singaporean artist, Josef Ng. (Yr. 49, Vol.10, 2 - 8 August)
36. Manit Sriwanichphum. “The Art Museum of Chiengmai University Lacks Freedom and Knowledge About Art.” Yr. 49, Vol. 15, 6 - 12 Sept., 2002. p.66-67.
On September 2nd, the reputation of Chiengmai as a liberal and intellectual center, rich in civilization was rudely shocked and many people were stunned to learn, Manit reports, of an order by Dr.Nipon Suwanond, the rector of Chiengmai University (CMU), to remove some artworks on display at the CMU Museum of Art and Culture. The order from the dean of the Fine Arts Faculty stated that the university hd received complaints and warnings that ‘the pictures on exhibition are unsuitable expressions about sex, copulation, and symbols of the national flag of America as a sex organ. Showing intercourse and carnality in a clearly pornographic style.’
Unwilling to allow such pictures to ‘stimulate negative feelings about CMU as the host and venue, and to avoid creating conflict among institutions,’ the order came in on the 21st of August, after the show had been open for a week. ‘As if the heavens were slashed open, A.Amnuay Kan-In, the dean of the Facuty of Fine Arts, harshly pressed A. Uthit Atimana, then standing in as director of the museum, and Kritya Kawiwong, the curator of the show… not permitting anyone to explain or defend themselves against these accusations…without studying the problem, and certainly in an undemocratic fashion. (Even at the local police station, the police will hear both sides of the story!)’
The content of the exhibition of contemporary art, entitled ‘It’s About Me – The Story of I,’ addressed issues of being oneself, society and politics of sexuality. The show included works by Manit himself, naked portraits of his artist friends. These were the same set shown earlier at the Namthong Gallery in Bangkok and were among the works removed from the show.
Three huge paintings by Wasan Sittiket were also removed. Wasan’s anti-war themes particularly targeted America (Geo. W. Bush) as an aggressor, but included jibes at the Japanese, the Thai Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatr, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other well known figures in Thai politics. Wasan also detailed images of corruption in Thai society with monks carrying guns, students prostituting themselves and politicians ignoring the public.
Using slides and video art, Michel Shaowanasai presented issues investigating basic characteristics of self and sexuality. The video images were removed from the show.
Manit, Wasan and Michel were joined in the show by a Swiss artist and art teacher, Lilian Sumkemi, whose works went uncensored, presented a photo installation of more than 100 pictures hanging on a wire rack, showing some of the T-shirt pictures collected by Wasan.
The rector’s censorious letter ended with a warning (reminiscent of the Singaporean government’s response to Josef Ng’s display of nudity and pubic hair) that ‘the artworks of those who ask to use the museum for exhibitions in future will have to be reviewed first before permission to show will be granted. Should the works offered express negative feelings against groups in society, or be morally offensive, or be a cause of conflict in society, or in institutions of religion, culture, tradition, politics or in sexual matters, they should be avoided in order to prevent the creation of a negative image of CMU which would create problems and damage the feelings of local people or related institutions.’
Manit challenges the university, ‘What is the role and duty of Chiengmai University in the face of complaints or different ideas of what is morally acceptable? Why do they not open the museum as a place of study? To hear opinions and take this case as an opportunity for study? Everyone would benefit, academically and socially. Not just sweeping the problem out the door of the university to leave the conflict itself in the streets. When CMU doesn’t know their own role and duty, how can academic freedom exist at the university? How can the Museum of Art and Culture operate freely? Freedom of the art museum is academic freedom in another form.’
Manit challenges the rector of CMU and the dean of the Fine Arts faculty as to whether they know what the difference between art and pornography is. If they don’t know, how can students in their care be confident? In fact, the university art museum has the duty to teach people, to help them understand the difference between art and pornography.
He also chides the claim that any criticism of America or Japan by works in the show might cause some conflicts ‘between organizations.’ ‘These two superpowers are being scolded by people around the world every day about many things. Sometimes violently. What notice would they take of Wasan Sittiket? And his expression is purely individual – not on the government level.’
By taking these steps in the name of CMU, the rector and the dean have identified the policy of the university with their own personal tastes and preferences. This hangs the behavior of the university on ‘what he likes,’ which is unprincipled and unreasonable. Apparently, however, censorship is much safer than discussion.
‘Some people think that ‘censoring’ in this matter was a particular case of ‘radical artists’ like us three, only that. (Some will say we got what we deserved.) They think that is the end of it. I’d like to give the example of Hitler’s period. First they oppressed the Jews and other minorities. The people didn’t care…Eventually, however, Hitler made the whole nation suffer. Today the rightists are coming forward strongly. They are calling for a ‘Ministry of Buddhism and Culture.’ When will it end? I have to write this in protest because it’s like a cancer in society which is dangerous…’
Commentary: The exhibition was certainly abrasive, but the administrators of CMU appear to have handled this case in a very heavy-handed fashion, if Manit’s description is accurate. Taboos on some kinds of sexual images in high art are fairly rigidly enforced in some institutions in Thailand, as in Singapore. Nor was it possible for the CMU administrators to engage in academic discussion and debate first, before ‘disappearing’ the offending images. Hence, the question, which comes up every now and then in the Silpa Wattanatham column, of identifying clearly the difference between art and pornography, continues unresolved. At least, there is some public study of the issue in Siamrath Weekly news magazine, if not at CMU.
37. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Office of Contemporary Art and Culture – something our artworld needs” Yr.49, Vol.16, 13 - 19 Sept. 2002. p.58 – 59.
On a Sunday afternoon, 8th of September, the Bangkok Municipal Art and Culture foundation, with sor-wor Kraisak Chunhavan, chairman of the foundation’s executive committee, conducted a panel discussion to mobilize opinion about organizing a Ministry of Culture, with emphasis here on an Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.
About 100 people from the artworld came to join the discussion, not only artists, but also art scholars, experts in managing art and culture, architects, decorators, performers, composers, dramatic artists, filmmakers and television producers. It was truly a coming together of members of the world of contemporary art and culture, something you seldom see.
As a rule the state leaves the management of art and culture to the Fine Arts Department and to the Office of National Culture. But these agencies tend to focus on traditional art and archaeology. They take little interest in modern and contemporary art. But, we live in modern times...always changing. Things are being produced…something new every second. But these things, the government doesn’t manage…They leave the private sector to struggle among themselves in an aggressive tangle. Of course, we don’t want management on a scale of the era of Field Marshall Plaeck Pibulsongkram and Luang Wichit Wattakarn.
‘But the meaning of ‘state’ is to build ‘cultural infrastructure’ such as museums, galleries, playhouses, libraries, movie theatres, centers for IT, and work to create people capable of managing and administering culture and capital which supports the work of contemporary culture.’
Art research is needed to promote contemporary culture, both locally and internationally. Liaison is needed between public and private sectors. Legal and tax codes need to be revised as well.
Dr.Nirand Pitakwachara, representative from Ubon, with some direction from Acharn Kraisak and Chatwichai Promtatweti, former director of the Silpa Bhirasri Gallery, supported and were willing to develop the idea of an office of contemporary culture in a new Ministry of Culture.
There were some objections to opening new offices which would replicate work already being done by some other agency, but Dr. Nirand explains that developments in the field of contemporary art are being neglected by agencies which lack the necessary expertise to deal with this particular area. Sawai Pramani, the chairman of the Senate committee which is considering the matter may see the need to establish a new department, not just a working group.
There are some fears that any ‘Office of Contemporary Art and Culture’ might turn into an opportunity for some sort of pay-level C8 civil servant –artist dictator. Hopefully, the new agency will serve artists – the creators of works of art – rather than functioning as a tool of the government. The organizers hope for some sort of agency which is an improvement over the present arrangement, and not just a change in the sign on the door, with things drifting back to what they were before. The new agency will be expected to cultivate and encourage tourism as well, ‘a cash-cow for tourism-GDP i.e. with the emphasis on money, money, money, rather than on work which develops the mind and way of life of people in Thai society, as we hoped for.’
Commentary: The diverse members of the world of contemporary art and culture looks to the state to provide leadership and order by authorizing some sort of state agency to mediate development. Otherwise, the private sector is left to struggle among themselves in an aggressive tangle. The Fine Arts Department is no longer up to the task. Manit offers another glimpse into the relationship between the arts and the ruling bureaucracy.
38. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “The Abstract Forest Reaches the Concrete”
Yr. 49, Vol. 17, 20 – 26 September , 2002, p.58 – 59
Some people do well in life; other spend their whole life searching and never get what they hope for at all. Will we blame fate? Our lives are ordered by unseen powers. It is a box from which we cannot escape. One man, says Paisarn, ‘tested himself by following a path he set for his own life, and with devotion and confidence, swooping down in search of inner knowledge and much philosophy. Till at last he set forth a great work commensurate with that life. It transforms power, inside and out, bringing together the quality of the work, and great knowledge, at once hidden and shining forth.’
Jarng Saethang passed out of this world in 1990, but his work did not fade away. It still comes on exhibition and we still enjoy the beauty of it.
‘When one studies and gets into things more deeply, what looked difficult becomes easy. So it’s not strange that when philosophers look at the greatness of nature’s face, they smile and laugh with nature rather than becoming tough and aggressive.’
The abstract paintings of Jarng were strange and new from the start, since 1962. White on white; black on black. ‘Violent brushstrokes, full of power, vigorous, excessive. The discovery of beauty in a state that lies hidden in the canvas. A secret he was able to find, a door through which he entered in.
The forest of abstraction…when one finds it, one walks directly into the center…and don’t lose our way…becoming more export, bringing stories from the forest to tell of the mysterious beauty hidden there…’
Paisarn admires Jarng’s abstractions, though some ridicule. A lifetime of searching and experimenting is required, and Jang’s works were so varied, so real and timeless. Jarng’s contemporaries didn’t understand the content embedded in his work. ‘The artist must control his feelings in order to make these works which he respects, and he studies, always transgressing and slashing away.’
Jarng came from a Chinese family in Thonburi. He had a very humble education. ‘There are still a lot of people who say with contempt that [Jarng] can’t write…his letters are so simple…straight to the point, like the poems that come from the depth of his heart.’
Paisarn relates how Jarng wrote poems consisting of a single word repeated many times, like a poem which, roughly translated, goes: ‘people people people people people people people – standing in line for a bus in Bangkok – in the crowded capital city.’
In his ‘Concrete Poems,’ Jarng made pictures out of words and letters. Paisarn describes a poem about a flower garden which is sweet, delicate and colorful.
‘But there is always the poverty and the dense malice of society, of family life, and of politics…the rule of dictatorial soldiers. The lowly must endure the power of unjust rulers… In one verse he creates the form of a swastika, and adds, “Know as much as you need to know.”
Paisarn cites Jarng’s ‘Literary Picture’ of the Democracy Monument, about which the critic and the artist express passionate feelings. ‘The picture of the monument which signifies freedom of expression and of the people, the form of a democratic government. So many times the people have given their flesh and blood and energy to fight dictators, till they got those rights back again. But when they succeeded, the power of the old dictators was still there in our society. Still today.’
Jarng wrote the phrase, repeatedly, ‘People with guns,” to make the shape of the Democracy Monument. But for the part representing the silhouette of the constitution on the monument, he writes in repetition the single Thai word, ‘Tamil,’ [an ethnic reference which means ‘black’ in Thai]. In another of the works in Jarng’s monument series, the artist used the word ‘people’ repeatedly to form the shape of a human body, suggesting latent power. Paisarn closes with a description of one of the artist’s short but painful poems, devised in the shape of an eye. ‘In the eye of Jarng see people killing people.’
Commentary: Many times, Paisarn’s style of introducing his articles is rather impressionistic, at times almost stream-of-consciousness, resembling a meandering warm-up. Such paragraphs which would be summarily chopped in many basic writing courses. One might say that there is often ‘a mist [an Impressionist fog] in front of Paisarn’s house,’ where his articles are concerned.
Paisarn has reprinted Jarng’s word-picture poems to illustrate his article, along with a portrait photo of the artist. The article is a paean to Jarng, his tenacity in following his chosen path, and his political and philosophical ideals.
39. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Must it Change or is it Likely to Remain the Same?” Yr. 49, Vol. 18, 27 Sept – 3 Oct , 2002, p.75 – 76
It’s that time again – this will be the 48th National Art Exhibition in the 53 years since its inception. Five decades is quite a long time. Paisarn gives a nod to Professor Silpa Bhirasri, who worked hard on behalf of contemporary Thai art and artists to open modern art to wider circles and find more support. In the Thai artworld, the national show‘ is an honorable stage which almost everyone hopes to enter, at least once. And whether they know it or not, especially if one wins a medal, one feels that one has been born into the world of Thai art and artists. As to who will become more famous, or who will fade away –that’s another story.’
Paisarn recalls a major conflict some 20 years ago, centering on the judging of the National Art Exhibition. Works such as had never been seen in the exhibition before were able to enter at that time and even win medals. But it was a brief episode. Things calmed down and returned to the previous state of affairs. Paisarn comments, ‘I don’t believe that the current of art and culture which has been born came into being by policy decision, or by a pointing finger (as with Moses) commanding the dividing of the waters. And even though anyone tries to create a structure and to form it after their own wishes, in the end it will only be a rigid, lifeless structure, clumsy and stiff, that doesn’t breathe properly on its own. It will only be a horse with wooden legs…not really viable…’
Paisarn is not saying that art is everything, but that it is a necessary part. ‘Art encourages innovation with many kinds of knowledge for humanity. The evidence is in the works, as when there is a breakthrough in art…it is hard to explain if you don’t see it with your own eyes.’ There is evil in society, Paisarn muses, and sometimes art can show the way out. These art competitions have limitations. Sometimes we don’t see what is happening till we look back, 10 years later, examining the past and comparing it with the present.
The ‘national’ exhibition, which used to be of such great interest, slips out of the spotlight. It has become a forum for young artists, the new generation. But that is as it should be. It is difficult for the organizers of the competition to adapt old traditions to the state of the modern world. They should loosen up, get some new faces.. In fact there have been some changes in the content of prize-winning works and of other works which gain a place in the exhibition. Some works are coming closer to the realities of society, the problems which have arisen, reflect back on society ‘like the artworks that they call ‘for life’ which don’t have much place in this exhibition. They reflect the state of life of the lower classes who must fight and struggle in the very repressive situation of today’s economy. Other works speak of the strange, wild separation of youth who cannot find their way…’
In the end, Paisarn concludes that there are some valuable developments to be seen in the show. Artists cannot put their minds on hold, freeze their thinking or turn away from the riveting thing they see. The works in the show confirm that. In any case, the critic warns that many artists have been brought to a halt altogether by winning a top prize in the national show. Something to think about.
Commentary: The National Art Exhibition is showing its age, but acts as a sort of ‘rite of passage’ for many youthful talents. The history of the exhibition suggests the history of Thailand’s contemporary art world in its first 50 years. Paisarn notes that to take a prize in this show is receive a passport as a true citizen of the artworld. At the same time, the critic warns, like a Midas touch, the gold has been known to petrify the one who gains it.
40. Manit Sriwanichphum. “King Kong and Night Butterflies” Yr.49, Vol.19, 4 - 10 Oct. 2002. p.66 – 67.
A foreign tourist just stepping off the bus at Silom Gallery where antiques and artworks are on sale, or walking along, admiring the 117 works at the ‘19th Contemporary Art Competition for Young Artists’(aged 16-25) might get some ideas about Thailand. They might think the country has only ‘King Kong Siam’ and ‘Night Butterflies’.
Why ‘King Kong Siam’?
The two, brightly colored silkscreen prints by Tanapon Sertsanit (Land of Smiles #1 and #2) show white tourists, a young husband and wife, and a white female in a skimpy outfit, welcomed by the smiling young male King Kong Siam. The image provokes a hard, bitter laugh, at first, but then it is not so funny. In the second picture, the ape, rather meaty, wears a Thai flag on its too small T-shirt. Artists see the government’s Amazing Thailand tourism campaign as ‘monkeys playing tricks on the well-heeled’ or ‘King Kong taking a cut of the whites. ‘The attempt to sell the exotic, to market what we call the Thai people’s ‘Thai-ness,’ or ‘being Thai,’ is not much different from selling pictures of ‘the primitive’ to Hollywood movies. Thai charm=primitive (backward, undeveloped)= King Kong Siam.’
Jittrakorn Kaewtinkoi presents an image of ‘King Kong the Zombie’ in his work, The Opening. The painting shows a ribbon-cutting ceremony, as we often see in the society columns of the newspaper. ‘The artist has created the atmosphere well – gloomy color, scary, chilling people – as the presiding figure opens the event. The honored guests are like zombies more than living people. Their faces lack feeling. No eyes [no soul]; green, red and purple faces. As the ribbon is cut, the zombies are free to descend upon us!’
Arthit Amornchorn’s acrylic painting, Victim of Emotion, or ‘King Kong Craving Sex’ shows a girl on a bus heading home in the evening. Above her are some fierce, cold-blooded looking males in a state of sexual excitement. A warning from the artist about sexual hazards in society.
Why ‘Butterflies of the Night?’
The painting by Nittipan Hoisangthong is a big rust-colored painting of girls in high school uniforms with their backs turned to the viewer. A giant butterfly with a demonic character looms threatening near them. The artist is telling about the problems of prostitution among young students. ‘Girls are like butterflies with life and beauty. They fly upon the earth for a very short time before they die. It is a sad story, and very depressing that they must sacrifice their precious maidenhood for money, convenience and luxury.’
Tanwa Wongsamutorn is another artist who presents ‘night butterflies’ very beautifully and full of sadness in the work, Hesitate#2, a scene of young girls, handsomely dressed, but imprisoned in their brothel. There are many other works in the show criticizing ‘butterflies of the night,’ which reflect the decline of society. Manit mentions works by Amnart Kongwari, Worapote Rodsuk and Sittikorn Thepsuwan.
This is the 19th year of the Contemporary Art Competition for Young Artists. The show gives us a preview of the up and coming new generation in the artworld. ‘There are famous artists who have passed this stage on their way up, for example, Chatchai Puipia, Jakapan Vilasinikul, Sakwudt Wisetmani and Nawin Lawalchayakul.
But don’t give too much importance to prizes, because the prizes usually go to works that all the committee can agree on. So a prize doesn’t reflect more than the political acceptance and close-knit attitudes and ideas of the judging committee.
I think we should look around at works which didn’t win prizes so we can understand and see the whole picture, the bigger, wider picture and more clearly. That means, we can see the whole of Thai society in the attitudes, ideas and skills of these young artists. It’s happy news that they see and understand Thai society very deeply. They are not stupid – they are not victims of the consumerist trend, as people are always saying.’
Manit mentions another exhibition, underground, in a shopping mall, “Passing On the Culture of Sukhothai in the Millennial Year 2001.’ It is a show of historical pictures of Sukhothai by 50 senior artists with support from many sponsors. The catalog is in 4 colors, very good and free. The artists are very well known.
Manit closes with a scathing remark…’Pray these young artists don’t group up to be ‘King Kong Siam’ and ‘Night Butterflies’ like their elder artists, the seniors, always spinning round and round…amen.’
Commentary: A lot of anger expressed toward tourism, white tourists, the society page, and the sex services industry by the young artists, points of view which are appreciated and seconded by Manit. He has some steam left over to finish his review with a jab at senior generation artists. All in all, not a flattering picture of anyone in the artworld here. (One assumes that this critique reflects the critic in a bad mood.)
41. Manit Sriwanichphum. “The 5th Bangkok Film Festival” Yr.49, Vol.20, 11 - 17 Oct. 2002. p.66 – 67.
Manit recalls that 5 years ago, he attended his first international festival for short experimental films in Singapore. He and his friends brought their own short film which they had made in a workshop sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Bangkok. Though it was not a razzle-dazzle Hollywood or glittering Cannes event, it was organized by those who truly love, not just making money or publicity, but seeing and making movies.
‘I remember that every day, from mid-day to midnight…I would run from one theatre to another in order to see a film selected from among entries from all over the world. At least 4 films per day; if I worked hard, I could see 5. My eyes suffered as a result. My brain was packed and overloaded. Like a beggar in a desert who finds an oasis-
I was like that.’
Thailand’s film industry operates under the heavy hand of the local ‘mafia,’ where the censorship laws date back to grandfather’s time, old fashioned, with double standards, in conflict with the freedom of the latest constitution. Viewers had few choices before the era of Nontri Nimibutr and Benake Ratanareung, just wheezy Thai efforts and Hollywood formulas. Or you could see films at the university, or at the Goethe or the Japan Foundation or the British Council.
‘The film festival in Singapore was a lucky break, like winning the lottery! A chance to meet film directors invited from all over the world, to talk with them and exchange experiences. The make new friends and create a network of information, a great bonus. It was a golden opportunity for me.’
Not long after, the 1st Bangkok Film Festival was born from the skills of Brian Bennett, ‘a young American who loves Thailand from the heart.’ Brian described how, in the first year, when people said no one would come, they showed 50 films and attracted 16,000 viewers. In the 3rd year, 22,000 people came. Most people don’t understand what a medium-sized film festival is about. ‘People kept asking which Hollywood stars were coming,’ said Brian. ‘That became a little office joke of ours (our office was a borrowed room in a kind friend’s home).’
Brian first went to film festivals as a filmmaker. He took his films to various festivals – little ones in little towns in America and giant international ones. He was happy to be able to see movies that you normally don’t get a chance to see. He found the atmosphere of these festivals creative, encouraging and inspiring. ‘I began to understand deeply the good energy reflected from film festivals,’ said Brian. ‘They are useful to everyone associated with them – the audiences, the filmmakers, the sponsors, and the cities where the festivals take place. The city looks more intellectually alive with an atmosphere supporting art and culture.’
With such efforts, Bangkok now begins to appear on the map in film circles. Prize-winning filmmakers allow their films to be shown at the Bangkok festival. For example, this year Sister Helen and A Wedding in Ramallah will be showing. Sister Helen is a documentary about a nun named Helen who works with people such as drug addicts and drunkards. It is a true story which seems to be a fairy tale, unbelievable, dark and beautiful, with both selfishness and mercy. The Bangkok Film Festival this year has 80 films. Your eyes will be swollen. Showing in EGV Siam Discovery from 24 Oct to 3 Nov. Get details…
Commentary: Manit puts in some good words for film festivals. Sponsored by the Goethe Institute, the art critic has practiced filmmaking and is enthusiastic about ‘indy’ films. The event has a decidedly international character, a non-commercial subculture of film makers and lovers. The cultural ambiance is not of an art museum but of a movie theatre.
42. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “RENCONTRE –wide open in the middle of Quebec” Yr. 49, Vol. 21, 18 –24 Oct , 2002, p.58 – 59.
Paisarn makes the long flight to Canada, ‘traveling to turn back the sun and time.’ Security is tight on the anniversary of last year’s disaster in the US. Not even nail clippers could be carried in one’s pocket! With such precautions in Vancouver, what must things be like in America?
At the end of the journey, me and Toi (Padungsak Kochasamrong, artist and teacher at the Faculty of Fine Art, CMU) were in Quebec, across the continent from Vancouver. A time difference of 3 hours in the same country. Just imagine…’
‘Rencontre Internationale d’art Performance de Quebec, 2002, directed by Richard Martel, the artist who defined the festival as an‘Art Action.’ This was more than an event, being so very broad and varied, exciting to follow – fun, refreshing, bitingly enjoyable.
The venue was Lelieu Centre en art actuel. The organizers were concerned with art actions, not just art objects. This opened a broad and deep new approach, in the characteristics of the works, in the experimental thinking, in presentations made in public places.
‘Late one afternoon, after a smooth glass of beer, Richard was talking about doing a magazine on this kind of art movement 25 years before. That was the start. These works have no fixed endings, and certainly, no borders. They question and experiment with things and with the beliefs of the artist who present the works, the people who create with them, the artists themselves. Musicians, poets, various art experimenters, art theorists and other intellectuals (groups similar to the influential group, FLUXUS, which has existed for more than 40 years.)
After 5 years of the magazine, Inter, which still publishes, this festival was first organized. It has been growing, bit by bit, for 20 years. That is a long life for a small organization, working the without the state controls that we usually feel so comfortable with.
Paisarn concludes that Richard’s group must have the right to speak up, tough and clear, as a spearhead for cultural activities. They managed to obtain public funding while keeping their dignity. But they had to fight for it.
Paisarn appreciates this approach. He says: ‘I think it’s a very important way of moving art and culture in whatever country. People create or initiate a cultural current among themselves. The people in the neighborhood take it up, and it reflects a picture which is bright and lively, or falling and rising clearly, genuinely, more so than if the state were leading or setting a path.’
Turning back to Thailand, Paisarn wonders aloud: ‘Looking at our own country, with our Ministry of Culture to promote enduring and beautiful Thai culture. But it’s confusing. What does the word mean, ‘culture’. What is it like? Like Thai Buddhism? Or like Thai ghosts? One cannot see it as the essence of nation or group and still believe that it is something entirely dictated from the center.’
Paisarn recalls seeing an interview of politicians on television. The reporter said that the minister was saying that he saw kids who didn’t wai as they should. Paisarn toys with the thought. Is it necessary to wai? But why? Why is it wrong not to wai?
Two weeks before Paisarn and Padungsak arrived to perform, there were Mexican artists performing. Then came the ‘Black Market’ group with Boris Nieslony and senior artist friends from Europe. The programs for the next 3 weeks were full of heart. You could watch them on and on till you ran out of steam. The people were up to date with art. The city was perfumed with the atmosphere.’
Remarkably, this festival has been going on for 20 years, with artists coming from all over Europe and Asia. Performance art been going on for quite a while, and this festival is well known. These artists are free to bring their works and need not fear local laws forbidding them to present. They work to full capacity, free to critique politics, religion, sexual issues and various contradictory things in society and the world.
Commentary: Paisarn’s description evokes a sense of the history and intellectual and emotional richness and color of this festival of performance artists coming together from around the world. Paisarn is struck by the political freedom to do performance art, unhampered by the state. In the midst of this festival, this island of performance art, Paisarn wonders how the Ministry of Culture will define culture for Thailand. How can culture be dictated from any one center?
The wai, a cultural symbol, has become a political issue in Thailand. The artists asks why, and then reports home to his readers that artists were free to express ideas and feelings about many of the topics that are taboo in their home countries.
43. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “By Maturity and Duty” Yr. 49, Vol. 22, 25 –31,
Oct. 2002, p.58 – 59.
The work of artistic expression requires endurance and maturity, a sense of cause and effect before any expression takes place. These artists are not just outrageous frauds who trick everyone (including themselves) with their actions. Well, there may be some who weren’t truly focused; don’t admire them. But one can’t deny the efforts where people go in deep and find meaning and value.
You might not see the importance of the little things in life that annoy and bother us. But these things happen in our lives in society for a reason. Maybe we should take some time to try to understand.
There are no shortcuts on the paths of creative art. People who get lucky and find a loophole will find their path narrow and short. This doesn’t work for long if society doesn’t cheat along with them. ‘The work is the clear witness which cries out on behalf or which condemns…believe me.’
Paisarn warns about being obsessed with rank and position that we forget other values. We abandon the real, standing on a weak foundation till we fall and break or wrap ourselves in the cotton softness of forgetfulness. True or not? And we lose the understanding a the connections among things of value. What a pity. Have to keep a watch on these things.
Returning to Rencontre internationale d’art performance de Quebec 2002, ‘the culture of art circles in this part of the world, their ways of thinking, are influential and far-reaching…[there were] different cultures or sources of art stories for these artists. There was a great variety of backgrounds, ideas, expression, and individual style, both in process and in use of media and technique. And certainly, different emotions, too: excited, moved, amused, depressed, all mixed up.’
Paisarn gives some summaries of performances which particularly impressed him:
Suzanne Joli, a Canadian artist. ‘She used only one chair, of the most ordinary kind, with sound equipment. Picking the chair up and moving it about, turning and rubbing it, she elicited all kinds of sounds from the chair – groaning, lamenting, howling. She helped us see that these objects have a nature of their own.’
Osamu Kurod, from Japan. ‘Comes with an empty rice bowl; using the body to speak of a wandering beggar in a big city, singing for pittances. Growing weaker, but life must go on.
Steve McCaffery, Canadian. ‘He reads poetry while using a video about himself reading poetry. From time to time, as he reads, he blows a mouth organ. There is a rhythm with the videotape, on and on, as if the two persons were doing the performance together.’
Joel Hubaut, from France. ‘He ridicules and criticizes capitalist society and the Fascist ideas of the powerful. Flinging sausages from a frying pan onto the stage, the artist crushes the meat underfoot, shouting poetry all the while. He increases the effect with audio equipment, as if it were a rock concert.’
Lone Twin, two artists from England. ‘Their program was called, ‘Believe it or not.’ One of the pair says her friend dreamed of being able to create clouds of smoke or fog. One chants dozens of rules and the other, wearing a raincoat which covers her whole body, obeys. She dances non-stop in a hall with no air-conditioning till the sweat pours off her. Then, she runs out of the room, tears off the raincoat, and pours water on herself. Soon, we see steam rising from her body. Playing with ideas burns and destroys as well.’
Lorna Stewart, English, ‘covered her self with a handkerchief as the chariot scene from Ben Hur is screened on her naked body. The chariot wheels turn, the spectators cheer, the emperor presides. The artist tosses her handkerchief along with the king, as if to mock his dictatorial powers.’
This is the variety there at the Rencontre festival. ‘People making their (art)works, looking for meaning, and sharing it.’
Commentary: Paisarn shares some glimpses of some of the performances he witnessed in Quebec. Quite a different experience from seeing art objects in a museum or exhibition hall. The critic helps readers to imagine the expressiveness of performance art. When familiar with this medium, one sees easily that some things can only be expressed in performance art, which is the beauty of this art form, so ephemeral by nature, and so nicely recorded by Paisarn.
44. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Females Have Wool; Males Have Thorns”
Yr.49, Vol.23, 1 - 7 Oct. 2002. p.58 – 59.
Manit knows that he should not go to more than one exhibition per day, as he said, ‘because it prompts comparisons between the shows immediately.’ First, he visited the Space Contemporary Art Gallery on Ekamai to see the Women Ween* show, the new generation of women artists, making a scene,* from 10 Oct. to 10 Nov. Then we went on to the Fake Me solo exhibition of mixed media by Montri Termsombat at the Japan Cultural Center exhibition hall (Oct. 11 – 31).
Manit finds Montri’s show ‘powerful, repressed, full of pain. It pretty much washed away the women’s show completely.’ No offense intended.
‘Montri is gay, homo, fag – whatever you prefer. He stays openly with his male partner.’ Manit tries to figure out why he found Montri’s solo show more affecting than the group exhibition by five women. In their show, the women, ‘tried to use “symbols of male sexuality” as feminist artists like to do to provoke, challenge, arouse and stimulate the ideas of the audience.’
Manit proceeds to describe the various works by Kethathai Sing-Intorn, Kanokwan Boonsornwai, Duanghatai Pongprasit, Muay Briewudtipong and Tantika Saiwongnuan. ‘Altogether,’ Manit concludes, after his assessments, ‘Women Ween doesn’t make enough of a scene to merit the title of the show which this troupe of women (dykes) thought up.’
Manit describes Montri’s installation, beginning with the hut constructed out of corrugated zinc panels dividing the exhibition space into two parts. The artist has laid these panels on the floor surrounding the hut as well, and ‘it is reminiscent of a Japanese garden, from which Montri took his inspiration.’
In the middle of that garden is a suit of barbed wire which the artist used in a live performance. Manit and everyone else who saw Montri assume this ‘garment’ were taken aback, as the artist would certainly be feeling every bite of the barbed wire wrapped around his body. More frightening still, the artist held a coil of barbed wire on his tongue. Not moving a muscle, not closing his mouth, Montri’s performance lasted for one and a half hours. ‘How was it possible? Montri is very polite – speaks little – and he becomes a masochist hurting himself in order to be happy…is that what happened? Or is this an effort to communicate and make people understand that deep inside his (strange) self, how much he suffers.’
During the performance, the artist held a live white bird in his hand. ‘Soft feathers, warm and beating heart. What did it say to the artist who was being pierced by barbs all over his body?’
Manit also mentions the work Barbed Wire Bonsai, which protests against the intimidation of excessively controlling rules and regulations in society.
Inside the metal hut, walls, floor and ceiling are covered with purple-red fake fur, ‘soft, bright and garish inside…and hard, bright zinc outside…a violent contrast…Inside, a videotape is playing. A man wraps himself in bandages. A violin plays, sad, lonely and pained. The sound of the waves on the shore can be heard in the background. If the house is a metaphor for the body, it’s pretty clear…outside, endure. Within, pain and moaning.’
Commentary: Judging from his description of the Women Ween exhibition, Manit was justified in panning it. However, the question arises as to why he would see and then review two shows in one day, against his own better judgment, especially when the first seems to have been a total embarrassment. It is quite rare in the Silpa Wattanatham column for a critic to describe in such detail any artist’s folly on exhibition. Is the critic practicing a double standard?
Considering the article’s sexually charged overtones, what can we make of this sort of critique? Is the practice of art criticism a legitimate weapon in the war between the sexes? Is the artworld well served by a critic’s decision to make an example of failed art? Not that we insist that the critic never approach events in the artworld with negative feelings. We feel glad when critics express outrage against injustice and when they speak eloquently against heavy-handed censorship, exploitation or political manipulation. But the discussion in ‘Females have Wool…’ seems to represent another, more controversial kind of practice.
45. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Face and Figure of the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture” Yr.49, Vol.24, 8 – 14 Nov. 2002. p.58 – 59.
Just as Singapore is celebrating the opening of their Esplanade, a new ‘art coliseum,’ a 338 million dollar pair of giant golden durien, Thailand is reviving its Ministry of Culture. Tipped for the top position in this important agency is Uraiwan Tienthong,
the wife of Sanoh Tienthong, the leading advisor of the TaiRakThai political party.
Singapore has a formula for their creative plan: A + B + T = CC, that is, Art +Business + Technology = Creative, Connected Singapore. Think for yourself. Build it yourself. Stop copying and following others.
‘Many groups in Thailand were shaken when Uraiwan Tienthong, the brand new Minister of Culture expressed a vision of turning back the clock, reviving patriotic plays by Luang Wichit Wattakarn from the Pibulsongkram era. [The youth] should write Thai beautifully and have good Thai manners – because PM Taksin complained that Thai kids nowadays don’t know how to ‘wai’ properly.’
Although the leaders of the government don’t seem to understand, art and culture in Thailand does have some friends – A. Kraisak Chunhavan, Dr.Nirandon Pitakwachara, Malirat Kaewkar, some senators and others. Together, they have pushed to create the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, despite opposition from some politicians and highly placed bureaucrats. To many people, this is ‘a lamp and a light and a hope for the contemporary art circle in Thailand.’ Manit lists the official duties and workload of the new office under the Ministry of Culture. The information presented comes from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, itself. Some examples:
Promote and support and establish galleries and museums to disseminate information about contemporary art and culture
Liaison and network among art and culture institutions and organizations, both public and private, local and international
Create an information IT center on contemporary art and culture.
Study, research, and develop knowledge, wisdom and applications concerning works of contemporary art and culture.
Gather resources and create funding or sources of funding for contemporary art and culture.
The list is quite long.
An appointed committee for contemporary art and culture made up of civil servants, scholars, and representatives from the private sector, both by rank and by general search, to give the Minister of Culture their opinions regarding policy. Manit concludes: ‘this new agency is to promote and support only. It’s job is not to dictate or control contemporary art and culture, moving it either to the left or to the right, as many people worry it may try to do.’
Commentary : Singapore is an apt and convenient comparative reference useful to Manit when he is trying to gage developments in Thailand. The critic often seems both admiring and repelled by the social system on the island city-state. While cringing at the appointment of a politician’s wife as head of Thailand’s new Ministry of Culture, an important post which the politicians don’t seem to take seriously, Manit takes hope in the establishment of the new ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.
46. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Smudges on Canvas” Yr. 49, Vol. 25, 15 –21,
Nov. 2002, p.58 – 59.
The current of change in Thai society and politics is very strong today, and very provocative, including explosions, nasty and oblivious to harm to local people. Fake fertilizer shamelessly palmed off on the farmers. They are neither stupid nor spineless as is popularly thought. But the culprits are never apprehended.
Especially when it concerns a new ministry, newly invented, whose policy states that it prepares to integrate society and human development for the millennium ahead. We certainly must look carefully at the work of these ministers and ministries. How is the work coming out? Taking a wrong turn? A bad driver taking us all to disaster?
Paisarn points to the new Ministry of Culture, ‘whose head is sister Urai (Sanoh’s wife) Tienthong…One feels very heavy-hearted, looking at the state of things, and the management policy that his wife talked about in an interview. If you ask me, it’s really a matter for concern. The viewpoint of the wife is so narrow and limited and doesn’t fit in to encourage the development that our culture needs.’
Paisarn calls for some response ‘at the middle level, where we are, with enough of a base to have rights, a place in society broad enough to have bargaining power. We should help each other push forward the means of the culture by which we can find the image of what it really should be. We should not simply accept things and let the system drift on, determining who will be overcome by the rubber stamp. Things are not clear, fake. Power has gone astray for a long time.’
The critic rails against the cultural management by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which is ‘supporting the old local culture and tradition as something to be sold to someone else. They look at everything as profit and loss, which really distorts the meaning and content of these things. [The old culture]gets swallowed and eaten up with the flood of capital and the ignorant victory of the state. It gobbles up people in the countryside who don’t understand what is happening.’
Paisarn longs to revive the old knowledge and old awareness of the local people to see what it all used to be before capital and state policy took over.
This week Paisarn reviews an exhibition at the Marsri exhibition hall in Wang Suan Pakkad in the Phyathai area. ‘Patches of Color on the Ta Taem Cliffs’ is a show by Chokchai Takpoti, an artist and teacher of art from Ubon. ‘Chokchai is another artist who makes very intense art, who has endured for along time since the historic 14 October event when young men and women fought for their high ideals. His works reflect feelings about repressions of all kinds; images of rural poverty, the heat and drought of the earth; faces of pain and suffering; deep creases of old wounds from the past. Such things have appeared in his work in one period or another.
The Ta Taem Cliffs are watercolors with charcoal crayon. The works are inspired by the landscape of and around the cliffs in Kong Chiem district of Ubon Rachathani province. There are ancient drawings on these cliffs, pictures of prehistoric rituals and ways of life. ‘Paying respect to nature with the Mekong River flowing before the cliffs: Chokchai Takpoti expresses some states of nature which move him as he stands in its presence…In an ordinary picture, simple realism would not be able to capture the whole meaning or the beauty we need.’
Paisarn describes the paintings, the cliffs brown and dark, contrasting with the green of the great forest and the clear blue sky in many pictures, all suggesting the greatness of nature. But looking at it more deeply, to the content hidden there, we may perceive human emotion expressed there.’ ‘From Light to Dark – Vision of a Rainbow – Straw-colored field’ records a period of change in nature. ‘ Straw-colored Field After the Rain,’ is another which studies the changing face of nature, a story, a cycle which is always there. The artist also looks at the waters below the cliffs, places where the water has collected. He looks at the little details in the midst of a mightier story.
Paisarn notes the artist’s interest in Buddhist philosophy and teaching. Chokchai’s works are not ordinary landscapes at all. ‘We see abstractions which glitter with line and water colors scattered over the page, creating forms which surprise the eye. In the traces of water we see traces of a state of feeling in one period of time, not patches of color on stone.’
Commentary: Most of the critics in the history of Silpa Wattanatham have shown sensitivity to what is happening on the political scene. As the state leans, so leans society and culture. The artworld is inevitably affected. Paisarn states his very negative view of the present political leadership and grinds his teeth over the defrauding of farmers who were sold useless fertilizer under state auspices. Like Manit, Paisarn is deeply dismayed at the government’s campaign (via the Tourism Authority) to turn Thai culture into an economic commodity, and at the choice of leadership for the Ministry of Culture. Nonetheless, he calls upon ‘those at middle level’ to resist. His review of Chokchai Takpoti’s ‘Ta Taem Cliffs’ watercolors is heartfelt and enthusiastic, likely to stir the acquisitive desires of many of his readers.
47. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Just a Shape on the Dwelling of the Body? ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 26, 22 –28, Nov. 2002, p.58 – 59.
Paisarn returns to telling more about the Rencontre Festival of the Performing Arts which he attended in Quebec. The shows by artists in groups large and small went on, continuously, for 3 weeks, non-stop. Then, many artists, some groups and some individuals, went on tour to do their shows one more time in other cities. Paisarn joined them on this extended itinerary. They went on to show at the Atelier Silex in the city of Trois Rivieres (Three Rivers) and at the Grave, in the city of Victoriaville. Both these cities are about two hours from Quebec, peaceful little suburban towns.
The Atelier Silex is not a gallery, but a collection of many studios used by members under a single roof. Part of the money from sales of works made in these studios (wood working, ceramics, glass blowing etc.) is used to support the whole project.
Grave is supported by a well-known woman sculptor, Chantal Brulotte Like the Atelier Silex, Grave receives subsidies from their city governments. Even in little towns like these, the people are willing to provide some tax support for art projects. Even so, ‘the people who come in to set things up are the artists themselves, not government officials who set things up with a bureaucratic approach, as many people misunderstand.’
Paisarn compares this with Bangkok, where artists have been crying out for an art museum to represent the nation and the governor of the municipality pays no attention.
Chantal Brulotte said that performance art is still new to the people of Victoriaville, but she wants the people to be able to see the new kinds of art media. ‘It is something good, to open the vision of people to see other kinds of work, wider, more in another stream.’ During Paisarn’s visit, he saw two women artists exhibiting at Grave, a Canadian, Reine Bonthat, and a Mexican, Alejandra Duerte. Paisarn considers the idea of what women mean: ‘gentle beauty, delicate build, sexy, attractive; ladies undressed, plum, sexually exciting; the motherly sex who give birth. There are various ways to think of women (he muses), many angles, but mostly from a male angle? Still, there is something more important than the shape of a woman’s body.’
Yes. And these women have expressed thoughts and ideas, relatively and humanly speaking, reflecting various feelings of being a woman in the societies from which they come. The Canadian artist at Grave made an installation using mannequins which were hung by clothes hangers on the wall. There were many kinds of materials sitting about the room – old cans, pieces of wood, earth and rocks, colored sand, pictures from old newspapers, feather, fruit… The Mexican artist made drawings of older women’s bodies, wavy and loose. And they use all kinds of techniques and means to dress themselves. The artist uses many kinds of materials to make these drawing shapes swell out, piled on, peeled off. In these layers, the artist suggests that the women are still oppressed. Paisarn finds her work thought provoking and powerful as she speaks of the status of women in her society. Paisarn is pleased to find value here beyond that of the body alone.
Commentary: The main festival appears to be shutting down, but Paisarn goes a bit further, joining other performance groups who are taking their work out to audiences in the suburbs. The critic takes a look at an example of contemporary art in small French Canadian towns. He is not disappointed. Traveling abroad to get some comparisons with the artworld in other countries is a familiar part of the job. In Victoriaville, Paisarn again grapples with the age old question for Silpa Wattanatham critics of what women really want.
48. Manit Sriwanichphum. “Wai (Oppressive, Pretentious, Cunning and
Essentially ‘Thai’)” Yr. 49, Vol. 27, 29 Nov - 5 Dec. 2002, p.58 – 59.
Manit doesn’t feel good about the ‘wai’ these days. Hands like wood, hard, stiff. Especially when meeting seniors – politicians, bureaucrats, police, mafia – the hands just don’t go up. And he doesn’t want anyone to ‘wai’ him either. One feels so uncomfortable. Negative thoughts. ‘That dumb kid has to wai to me out of fear or to flatter.’
Manit prefers shaking hands like the whites do. It feels democratic. We are equals, neither one superior to the other. No assignment of who is bigger and stronger than whom. Chatting is full of equality and parity. No need to make oneself small and charming. The ‘wai’ is a cultural problem, an obstacle to expression in a democratic society.
The wai must come from India, Manit concludes, ‘because I see Thai people wai each other as in a stage play or an Indian Bollywood movie. I never saw anyone wai as in a Chinese movie…the wai is a heritage from the feudal system. (It means one has more merit than the other; one is bigger than the other.)’ Manit doesn’t believe that the wai is simply part of democracy, ‘Thai style’.
‘I suppose that the gesture of the wai comes from raising two hands in a request for mercy from the more powerful…So, in itself, the wai is not just an expression of respect; it is a sign of accepting something greater, like ranking in society.’
Manit points to the popular stationing of a woman in traditional Thai costume at the door of an airplane to wai the people getting on and off the plane. This symbol becomes the archetype of Thai service, someone ‘smiling like an angel.’ The practice has spread ‘like an epidemic over the land – in food centers and food courts, in massage parlors, karaoke and night clubs, a-go-go spots and even at white Tesco-Lotus and 7-11 stores…in hotels, shopping malls, department stores – even in brothels. They do it as their bosses force them to do it. It is part of their duty, like washing dishes or lying on a guest. Many times it is maddening. Annoying. Why do they wai, standing or lying down? [The customer is]purchasing your service, not making merit or extending a favor. No need to way.’
Manit states that forcing employees to wai like this is ‘dismantling and reducing human value, taking away people’s dignity, turning them into robots.’ He accuses Uraiwan Tienthong of ‘using culture to oppress people, destroying the value of the individual.’ Worse still, the Minister of Culture points to the airplane ladies as the best model for Thai children to copy when they wai. Even the Prime Minister, Taksin Shinawatr is pushing the importance of the wai. The PM pointed to the [bending completely from the waist with face parallel to the floor] wai of the tennis star, Paradorn Srichapant, as another good example for Thai children. ‘This is an attempt to arrest, pull back and control, keeping the culture of the wai alive for a bit longer in our society,’ says Manit, ‘ without asking questions about who in our society is suitable to receive a way.’
Manit complains that Thai society is full of boasters and bluffers trying to win the admiration and servility of others. Thai society is competitive, and the one who does not wai is seen as stubborn and a troublemaker, not knowing what is high, what is low. Hence, ‘the complaints and the campaign to promote the wai and contests of manners is hollow and superficial – signs of people who are losing their grip of power over others. Who likes to talk about ‘the essence of being Thai, Thai cultures, Thai values’? Mostly it is those in power, as a rule…Civil servants who are offspring of the old feudal system.’
Manit imagines the people generally, the poor, asking the prime minister and members of parliament to shake hands like the whites they saw on TV, instead of making a wai. That would be good for the process of democracy. Sometimes, to show special closeness, Thai people will shake hands, such as when the prime minister shook hands with Paradorn during a media photo shoot.
Manit urges Thai people to do more shaking hands. He concludes with the slogan, ‘Greet each other with a handshake to help Thai democracy.’ No need to give up the wai altogether. Says Manit, ‘I wai holy things every evening and as the Lord to help protect us from the demons of corruption which consume our country daily. And please help Thailand to be happy. Amen.’
Commentary: Manit critically considers the role of the wai in contemporary culture, especially as it has become a marketing tool. Gimmicks invented by creative directors such as an obligatory wai to be given all customers, for example, by cashiers, clerks and air hostesses, now become the model for the nation, to be taught as a rule to school children at the urging of the Ministry of Culture. The article is illustrated with a photo of an extremely low bow (‘Proud to be Thai’) by the Thai tennis star, Paradorn Srichapant, and pictures of sculptures by Sutee Kunavichayanont which ridicule the wai as obsequious and mindless bowing and scraping. The wai is a feudal symbol which emphasizes the importance of the power hierarchy, says Manit. This kind of discussion and commentary serves as an important counter-weight to the official and commercial propaganda described by the critic.
49. Manit Sriwanichphum. “The Monster has Reasons: Art which Refers ” Yr. 49, Vol. 28, 6– 12 Dec. 2002, p.66 – 67.
‘If anyone concludes that art is all about referencing,’ says Manit, ‘I for one agree…speaking from my own past experience in making art.’ Manit explains that referencing is one of the ways the brain works concerning study, memory and creative analysis. When prehistoric artists lived in caves, their reference was nature, which was the source of their creativity. We believe that the pictures they drew were not for beauty alone, but were made as part of rituals by which they hoped to have better hunting.
Artists today still depend on such ‘referencing.’ Postmodern art cites art from the Modernist era, suggesting new interpretations and new definitions. Without this counterpoint, postmodernism could hardly exist.
So, Manit concludes, ‘ You can say that, “I reference, therefore I am.”
The new paintings of Nati Utharidt, Reason and Monster’s Project, should be understood accordingly. Nati’s project comes in three sets: Silent Laughing of Monsters, Painting with Pure Reason, and Silent Laughing of Monsters/Large Scale. Understanding the works’ references to the painting of the Italian Renaissance and to abstract painting of mid-20th century is important in understanding the artist’s expression. If the audience has no background in the history of Western art and knows nothing of famous paintings and painters, they will hardly be able to grasp the meaning of Nati’s images.
Like a researcher in art history, Nati has selected, cropped and enlarged parts of pictures by great artists of the world. However,‘ rather than making the meaning of these pictures clearer, these images appear dustier, dirtier and more obscured. They are muddied and difficult to see. This technique is part of the charm of his works..’
In fact, millions have been spent on cleaning the dust and grime off the original works of art, but Nati’s replicas are harder to see than the originals were even before they were cleaned. ‘Why has he done this? What made the artist want to ridicule these images cut from classic pictures? Is he ridiculing them? Is he playing with the very being of artists who were grand teachers of the world? Or is this Nati’s fantasy, to disfigure great masterpieces?’
Another set of works is ‘Painting with Pure Reason’ and refers to abstract paintings, for example, like those made by Op artists. The images of ‘Silent Laughing of Monsters’ contrast strongly with Pure Reason. ‘Whatever is a straight line with corners seems reasonable, is mathematical. Whatever curves, bends this way and that, uncertainly, is about emotion and instinct and cannot be trusted.’
Manit quotes Nati’s very abstract statement about his work in the exhibition catalog, but seems to find little further clarification. If Nati was going to reference the works of great masters, he could have done better than this, concludes Manit.
Commentary: The subject of ‘referencing’ in art which leads off the article points to Nati’s reproductions of works by other artists in his own paintings. Manit asks very interesting questions about why the artist has so ‘muddied and begrimed’ the reproductions of the bits of the old images so referenced, but the critic offers no answer. The quotation of the very abstract statement from the artist’s catalog is not helpful. Is the artist saying that these treasured old art images are not, in fact, becoming clearer with the passage of time, but rather become ever more obscured? Is Nati disfiguring these masterpieces in a kind of Oedipal murder of the father by the son? Is this the necessary rebellion of youth, breaking away so that they can be free to create their own world? There are many questions which could be asked, but it’s difficult to deal with too many abstractions in one short article.
50. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “ASIATOPIA Is it a Question for Asia?”
Yr. 49, Vol. 29, 13 –19, Dec. 2002, p.58 – 59.
It’s like a time of turning, moving along, wanting to open and release, needing to explain, needing help in understanding…or not? At the same time, searching and setting up anew, the movement forward of Thai culture being passed on…pioneering the true beginning of Thailand, this hybrid land, Asiatopia.
Paisarn invites readers to ‘take some time to sample the works of an international group of artists from round the world, bringing their experience to Suan Santi Chai Prakarn in Bangkok, and again in Lanna, Chiengmai.’
Understanding information on one level without seeking cultural variety in the neighborhood – what they know and practice generally – is risky. The vision of administrators is narrow and blurred, though they are confident they can lead the nation along. ‘But now, I can smell something strange and out of place. I smell nationalism, a nauseating wave from the era of Field Marshall Pibulsongkram which invites disaster again. I want to know: is it developing culture as racism?’
Is our world a cage? Rain falls out of season for the festival, but the content is clear and full to the brim. If you don’t see it, you’ll find it hard to imagine. This is the 4th International Festival of Performance Art, ASIATOPIA. The festival has grown a lot. Now it includes artists from Europe and America as well as Asia. The network gets wider, joining together artists from around the world.
‘It may be a sign or point of change in some things; it’s possible. Because the things happening in this performance arts festival are carried out by the artists themselves. This didn’t happen via the arrangements of any government agency. The problems and all the successes are the doing of the artists themselves.’
‘Usually, artists work alone, but this time, three big groups of artists came together to make these works. The Black Market, with artists from many places, mostly from Europe, were led by Boris Nislony, a German. The Artist Village came from Singapore and Ukabaht from Thailand. It is not easy for individual artists, each with his or her own distinct style, to come together to work in the name of the group.’
Black Market has been well known since the 1980’s. All the members of the group are well known individually, and they have extensive experience in this kind of work. ‘When they come together to make art, it rises to yet another level. They defined working together as a kind of ‘ discovery encounter.’ Some talking is needed, some exchange. Then, as the artists talk together, everything changes into relations via art. They allow various stories to grow, stories from the past, about destruction, politics between nations. They take a long time to work, many hours, sometimes, a whole day.’
The second day’s performance was given by Ukabaht, the group of which Paisarn is a member. ‘Mostly we made works reflecting various problems in Thai society, and about political events around the world, the fight for a place in society, as we see in the news so regularly.’ Paisarn mentions the Pak Moone dam, in which the state destroyed entire communities, citing the need to produce electricity, and the gas pipeline project at Jana which showed no regard for the lives or rights of local people.
‘Ukabaht tries to reflect what happens in the process of art, telling and mixing with tension and sincere feeling. Sometimes with boisterous sounds. Sometimes with many materials which help carry forward the emotion and feeling of the local people.’
The Artist Village presented ‘Singha (lion) Dancing’
The population of Singapore is quite cosmopolitan. It is a society developing economically, lively and modern. Technology, comfort and convenience are important. On the other side, however, there is a desire to express, but people don’t know how to communicate. Artist Village scattered all over the park, telling what they wanted to show in their own country, words of freedom. After that, they came together again to sing and praise their country, as their leader’s policy in Singapore would have them do. More to tell later.
Commentary: Paisarn introduces a performance festival in Bangkok, the 4th Asiatopia. He revels in these people-to-people gatherings which are, as he noted, discovery encounters, especially in the fact that individual artists can submit to a group effort in order to create a performance. In the next issue, he describes a number of performances by women participants.
50. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “ASIATOPIA 4 ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 30, 20 –26, Dec. 2002, p.58 – 59.
There are many questions about the people who make performance art, the organizers of the festival and the nature and meaning of performance art itself. Sometimes the performance is easy to understand, but other moments are just so very difficult.
Sometimes the performer realizes that he took a wrong turn and was off course for the audience.
Paisarn admits that it is not that easy to understand the content and emotion being expressed. This kind of art has no fixed or certain guidelines. But it does have a rhythm which rises and falls in the body of the work. ‘Sometimes there is a fresh breakthrough in something which is overripe. But there is no fixed theory for this sort of work. It is elastic and challenges both the performer and the audience; that’s the charm of it’.
Paisarn mentions the women artists in the project. ‘Fumiko Takahachi, the Japanese artist, put herself in a white robe, a pure princess. Her performance required two hours. A bride on her wedding day has equipment to use for the banquet scattered about everywhere – champagne glasses, white dishes, spoons and forks, food, fruit. But Fumiko covers everything with plaster. Everything is piled over with plaster, so very white. Tables and chairs…even one of her hands, all encased in plaster.
In the end, she saws the legs of the tables and chairs and uses a hammer to break up the piles on the table, smashing everything before the eyes of the spectators. It is like releasing the fetters by which society holds women captive.’
Another woman performer was Mimi Fadima whose work criticized women who go astray in the world of fashion. Under brand names sold round the world, she is transformed and follows happily along. Eventually, she concludes a hot time on the catwalk to pour water on herself and to sponge herself thoroughly clean, head, arms, legs, breasts, belly, everywhere, as if she peels off the old to find her own body.
The woman artist from Hongkong, Ko Siu Lan, ‘uses more than 300 chicken eggs tied to balloons before squeezing and cracking them underfoot in order to release the balloons and allow them to fly away. The remaining eggs, she attaches to herself, so she is covered with the bulbous forms. None of her beauty remains. And she dances happily with joy.’
Aung Myint, an artist from Burma, used poetry, and Aye Koh, also from Burma, posed the question of breaking down walls and seeking freedom.
Roi Vaara from Finland, one of the Black Market group, used words written in a whorl on the floor. The words are eliminated and changed into new words with opposite meanings. The work concerns having to be someone (by decree) or choosing ones own path. ‘In society today, where people deal with one another by economic force, everything and everyone reflects what happens in the world. This bites our feelings and wounds us. We rethink things when we see our scars. Next time, it will be better.’
Commentary: The pages of newspapers and weeklies such as Siamrath and columns like Silpa Wattanatham become the ‘museums’ in which such performance art lives on. This is a great service to the artworld and to society.
51. Paisarn Plienbangchang. “Something New in the New Generation? ”
Yr. 49, Vol. 31 27 Dec 2002.- 3 Jan. 2003, p.58 – 59.
The year has come round to a close so fast, it’s scary. Paisarn muses on the way things are going and the meaning of life. ‘The year passes and there are so many things happening, scary things and happiness mixed. Bankruptcy and government economic policy, despair and broken hearted people once again. The word is ‘lie.’ Things are so uncertain. It becomes more difficult each day to be sincere. The bomb has a timer on it. If we don’t get to it, find the essential problem, we hope it won’t be passed on the unsuspecting people.
Of the varied case of the American airliners crashing into the World Trade Center on Manhattan Island and the Pentagon, the Defense Department, crashing into the heart of the American government, and then arguing American-style with flocks of flying bomb, trying to kill Bin Laden and the Taliban. Is this right?
But the ones affected and killed are seen on our television monitors and on the pages of newspapers each day – the children, the people of Afghanistan who lack food and necessities, trapped, cut off, casualties from bullets and bombs going astray from American planes [strafing] villages where people live. Is it a mistake? Or does this satisfy someone? When will it be over? Must we accept this as normal? Accept the legitimacy of the American government, of Bush, in cutting these people to pieces?’
Paisarn mentions weapons merchants and nations which control the market for war materials.
The plans of the governor of Bangkok regarding the proposed new contemporary arts museum also weigh on Paisarn as the year comes to an end. He regards Governor Samak as stubborn, with outmoded thinking. It is going to be a long story; please stay tuned.
‘After the fall and retreat of the Thai economy and the government of ‘Big Daddy’ Jiu was hit by the IMF, the people were impoverished so shamefully. The artworld was also badly set back.’
There were many artists at that time who were comfortably selling their work. They produced artworks like goods for sale with the idea that value depends on price. People bought art at high prices, not understanding what they were buying. The artists were deceiving themselves, too.
‘The sad part of those sales, if you look carefully, you see the birth of new groups and a new generation of artists. Their works are taken from the frames of old exhibitions and rotated to fancy hotels. Pictures sold commercially. It becomes a business.’
Paisarn notes that artists, galleries, and exhibition venues for art have all been changing. He mentions many new spaces: About Café, 304 Art Gallery, Siam Art Space, Patarawadi Theatre, Space Contemporary Art, restaurants (as on Phra Ahthit road), neighborhoods and public parks.
‘Many new young artists were born, both men and women. They experimented with works in new areas – new techniques and methods of exhibiting art, using video cameras and computers. Some people rejected painting on canvas, saying it is out of date, out of the mainstream. Playing with new techniques, no content which requires much thought. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it. Why is it like this? Or does it reflect their period? Having a happy life in a big city and consuming, while in a state of unknowing about the problems in society. This can be seen often in their works: a shiny surface, but unreal, like plastic.’
Paisarn is not bitter, but artists are people in society, citizens. There is so much going on in society; the state of society ought to be reflected in works of art.
Commentary: As the year ends, Paisarn has much that is worrisome and depressing to review in the world and in Thailand. It has been a hard year for the economy, and a year full of violence, fueled by American lust for revenge. He mentions the good news of more galleries and exhibition spaces opening up, and welcomes the new generation of artists. Still, he yearns for more art that is explicitly socially conscious.