Summary, 2001 - Paisarn Plienbangchang and Manit SriwanichphumPaisarn brings the year 2000 to a close, and opens 2001 in a festive mood with a review of the erotic drawings of a respected senior, Chuang Mulpinit , whose works offer sensual visions derived from Thai classical art and literature. Paisarn praises Chuang’s lively imagination, stylized eroticism, and keen powers of observation which made Rong Wongsawan call him ‘the artist who sees an ant smile.’ Paisarn also pays homage to the late, greatly respected journalist, researcher, astrologist, art historian and art critic, Prayun Uluchata known more widely in Thailand by his pen name, Nor Na Paknam. Following in the great writer’s footsteps, and along the way also trod by Pishnu Supnimitr and Wibul Lisuwan, Paisarn is a new generation in the relatively young, but dedicated tradition of Thai journalistic art criticism fostered by Siamrath Weekly. Another artist whose life and works Paisarn warmly admires as truly visionary is the late Jarng Saethang in whom the critic sees a bold and courageous spirit. Of Jarng’s work, Paisarn says, “It is abstract emotion which we can see…We see abstraction within the picture…He paints with no fear of theory or rules of art or anything about painting. He works directly.” ‘The Sweltering Environment’ describes Nakorn Sawan Province, where Paisarn travels to visit Saksiri Misomseub former schoolteacher, winner of the SEAWrite Award, and an accomplished painter. Paisarn contrasts the image of hundreds of rural students at a summer art camp organized by hardworking teachers in the school where Saksiri used to teach with descriptions of the harsh life of the farmers and the beauty of the fields in the flaming heat. ‘Saksiri uses this environment – the colors are there – the hot sunny reds which contrast sharply with the green of the garden trees, or the yellowish red sparkling of the earth in the fields and on the housetops, together with marks of the brush that cut across the canvas with feeling…One feels the bright clarity of the fields, the great heat of the earth. I look at the difficult work of the farmers each day in rice field and vegetable garden…their hands touch the earth each day.” One thing that seems clear about Paisarn is that he is a man who lives in a border area between two worlds. His life and his heart sway back and forth between the cosmopolitan sophistication of Bangkok and the amazing world ‘outside,’ and back to the land and people of Thailand’s traditional provincial agrarian culture, the society ‘upcountry’. As an art critic for a well-established weekly, Paisarn passionately supports calls for a proper metropolitan contemporary art museum in the capital, and is ready to join artworld allies in fighting for one. As a man of the world who has often traveled abroad and seen many great cities, he knows by comparison that Bangkok could be made more livable, especially with more parks and green areas. At the same time, he is aware of the many hidden costs of urban living, that “each day 500 million credit cards are used, and the number continues to increase…and the environment continues to be destroyed. When you look at it this way, the environment is not just a matter of being ‘green.’ There is also political impact and impact on production and consumerism, which is not equal.” Perhaps that awareness enables Paisarn to urge Bangkok’s urban unemployed masses that, “Going back to the land is nothing to be ashamed of. To return is one way to recover ones life and ones future.” But he describes, almost in the next breath, the crucible of poverty and natural deprivation so well-known in rural Thailand, especially in the Isarn region: “Fiery sun and drought everywhere – empty heavens, listless wind, dust swirling in the air. Working hard and struggling in life – such is the lot of the people of Isarn..” Paisarn’s love for the Thai people’s traditional agrarian culture finds voice in his review of an exhibition at Khon Kaen University by Sompop Butrach . Born in Isarn, the artist reverences the holiness of the land and the people’s timeless struggle. Out of this poverty comes cultural riches and true holiness. “In suffering,” artist and critic agree, “there are still things that spur life on… legends, art, and culture that have been passed on for a thousand years.” Making his regular rounds in Bangkok, Paisarn reviews a show at Gallery 253, a small private showroom in the area of the Taiping Building, Ekamai. He notes, in his introduction, that 6,000 people just spent more than 6,000 million baht on new cars at a recent motor show. (So much for the economic privations of the public in Thailand’s IMF era. Apparently, not everyone is suffering.) At Gallery 253, Pirapong Limtamrong presents collages which are like a diary of daily happenings and emotional responses. Paisarn tries to draw some sense and order out of the cascade of disturbing images.The following week, Paisarn is at Project 304 Gallery, a converted flat –turned- gallery in a condominium near the Samsen railroad station where Kamol Paosawat presents a mocking installation of real apples and plastic apples, stuffed and skinned crocodiles, and miniature golf courses (a favorite investment target for big spenders/ big borrowers before the crash). A fortune teller is on hand to sell advice. Critic and artist share bitter musing on the state of the Thai economy and those who led the nation into this morass.Back at Gallery 253 once again, Paisarn reviews a photo exhibition, ‘WHO ARE YOU?’ By Wisutr Sutikulwej Wisutr has asked us all a very good question, Paisarn agrees, but chides the artist for not making a clearer stand with an answer to his own question.Reading Paisarn’s columns this year is like dipping briefly into a whirlwind of Thai society in the midst of economic and social upheaval. The voices of foreign visitors are part of this complexity. In 2001, Paisarn covered two shows by foreign women artists at the Wityanitat Gallery, CU. A February column describes succinctly but vividly the work of Marina Abramovic , born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Late in June, Chula exhibited works by Mella Jaarsma , an artist who was raised in the Netherlands but who had lived in Indonesia for 20 years. These artists treat with deadly seriousness such topics as war, civil strife and ethnic cleansing. At the same time, the apparently rather sweet and vaguely earnest show by Kathryn Forrest and Montali Wijitanasarn across the Chao Phraya river in Thonburi, near the Patarawadi Theatre, Paisarn described in his column as The Wishes of Young Girls. As the year moved on, Paisarn can report that “Despite the weak state of the economy, there are art exhibitions by artists great and small almost every other day. Sometimes opening on the same day! The exhibition halls were deserted years ago, but now there are many new places and many new styles appearing round the city.” Paisarn notes that sales have been reviving as collectors are investing more, including Thai buyers of foreign artists showing in Bangkok. The critic visits Tadu Gallery in the RCA district to look at the apparently angry and anxious work of Vincent Leoh , a Singaporean artist. If Vincent had more freedom to express himself, Paisarn observes, reflecting on Singapore’s repressive censorship, his work might be a bit easier to understand. In mid-year, Paisarn also reviewed a show of graphic art at C.U. Wityanitat Gallery by Prawat Laocharoen. With the perspective of a Thai long resident in the US where there is a large population of Thai immigrants, Prawat’s work turns traditional Thai proverbs into critiques of Thailand’s present political situation. Seeing these varied perspectives in art exhibitions is like seeing the world reflected in a many-faceted mirror. The critic experiences the art works directly, but by the time his review is published, the shows have often ended. Many readers, especially those who live far from Bangkok, would be unable to travel to the capital to see these shows. We rely on critics like Paisarn to share these valuable experiences. As the critic describes the art of Marina Abramovic, for example, Thai readers can almost see the grease and gristle of the bloody bones she is scraping clean; the horror of mass murder is like a smell coming off the page. When Paisarn, filled with emotion, describes the culture and traditions of the Isarn region, and pictures the works of artists like Sompop Butrach or Saksiri Misomseub, one cannot help but feel a thrill of pride, even as indignation rises at the poverty and neglect suffered by so many good Thai people. At the same time, readers would be glad they lived in Thailand, not the Philippines, after reading his review of a dark and extremely emotional traveling exhibition by Filipino artists . Paisarn communicates equally well the faintly neurotic anxiousness of the Singaporean artist stepping outside his so boring, too tidy, too controlled society to show his angry pictures in Bangkok. Toward the end of the year, Paisarn was greatly refreshed by traveling to Japan to take part in and report on a gathering of artists in the town of Kanakawa, Japan, on the outskirts of the great city of Yokohama, to create artworks on site in the city, and in the nearby Midori Ku pine forest. Later, in November, he made his first trip to Korea, where he took part in and reported, also (despite the cold) with great enthusiasm, on a similar event in the city of Kongju. Modern Thai society has a history with the month of October. It is the month of 14 October (1973), and 6 October (1976), the first a bloody, but triumphant day for democracy in Thailand; the second, a day when the dark powers came back to revenge themselves. Paisarn’s heart is with the October people, to whom he offers praise and encouragement: Every year in October, the October people have a ceremony to remember those events, so as not to forget the fight and the loss, telling people to remember that society has progressed because it has passed through the thorns of difficulty. That we should not let the ruling classes or dictators in whatever form oppress us again.” In 2001, however, the critic notes that this year many of the artworks honoring the democracy movement seem tired, repetitious and uninspired. In SilpaWattanatham 2001, almost half (11) of Manit Sriwanichphum’s columns were devoted to photography and photography shows, including one critique of the use of photographic images in Thai Farmers Bank Automated Teller (ATM) machines. Another 8 articles delved into the treatment of religious issues in contemporary Buddhist and Christian art, sensual imagery in advertising, and some examples of excess and aggrandizement in art commissioned by private sector patrons. Manit devotes three full columns to the controversy over the redesigned plans for a metropolitan gallery of contemporary art, and three to art exhibitions addressing other aspects of the modern political history of Thailand. An exhibition on ‘the nude’ at the Museum of the National Gallery provokes a discussion of art and pornography. Manit begins the new year by firing a salvo at the ATM customer service imagery of Thai Farmers Bank. Playing with the use of a familiar vulgar expression, Manit labels as ‘e-girls’ the suggestively posed women who appear in the ATM monitors, inviting customers to ‘insert,’ call, or ‘use your fingers properly.’ The critic chides bankers, who once presented themselves as prim, proper, clean, and well ordered - a bunch of respectable old aunties. Now, however, they present ambiguous new signals. The bank represents itself, instead, with ‘call-girls’ selling sexually enhanced services. In the changed aesthetic, the critic sees changed moral and social values. Rather than emphasizing staid but upright service, the bank is advertising itself as more exciting, more risk-taking, and perhaps not playing 100% within the rules. The connection between beautiful female bodies and goods on sale is also all too clear at the 22nd Bangkok Motor Show. As Manit notes: “The car is an instrument which announces social class and status and the ultimate taste of the owner. Apparently, says the critic, this is the reason the whole government becomes impoverished.”
Mythology, religion, and political and economic power inevitably mingle in high art and official monuments. The opening for public viewing of art and interior décor commissioned for the Siam Commercial Bank headquarters on Rachada Road occasioned a second column by Manit critiquing the aesthetic preferences and tastes of Thai bankers. Manit comments on excess corporate egoism and how it is served by luminaries of the Thai high artworld. Some of Thailand’s most famous master artists help lavishly ornament what the critic describes as a virtual ‘celestial palace’ for banker-demigods. The ‘Nirvana’ theme for the debut of a new gallery (Open Art Space) also appears to have put the critic into a bad mood. Manit generally discourages contemporary Thai high artworks with overtly metaphysical themes, since it too often looks like empty posturing. In fact, Manit’s back-to-back critiques of Whose Nirvana? and Chakkai at His Ease illustrate his aesthetic and moral point of view very well. Manit writes a brilliant article praising Chakkai Siributr’s show, The Hiatus, which opened to an enthusiastic evening crowd at the Eat Me Restaurant on Convent Road. Manit welcomes the artist’s search for enlightenment in the common world of his own daily life, and finds satisfying truth in the artist’s smiling dogs, mandarin geese and fanciful mosquitoes. “Chakkai creates Dharma images with hardly a reference to symbols such as representations of Buddhas, temples, or the atmosphere of the wat, as Buddhist art likes to do.” Chakkai at His Ease daringly suggests that Buddhist practice among urban youth is less likely to take place in a temple than at home, and that young people enjoying themselves at a nightspot could be Dharma seekers, as well. Manit deals with religious themes again later in the year, beginning with Faith and the City at the CU Wityanitat Gallery. The exhibition from the Philippines, which included many pictures with explicitly Christian themes, was first reviewed in a gingerly and polite fashion by Manit’s colleague, Paisarn Plienbangchang. Manit reviewed the show one more time, a week later. Unimpressed with the cathartic emotionalism of the ‘Takalog,’ Manit for the most part assessed the exhibition rather coldly and unsympathetically. The inability of Filipino artists to communicate the nobility of their faith or the dignity of their people’s suffering to the Thai critics should be a sobering warning to artists with ideology to sell. Pictures sometimes have a surprisingly limited capacity to deliver emotions or cherished ideas, in tact, across cultural boundaries to people who live by very different value systems and traditions.In November, Manit discusses two more shows with definite religious and mythic overtones in Molding Dust Into People and White Sculptures. Open Art Space, a new gallery on Silom road, hosted the first show, Yellow Simple, by Sakharin Kreu-on. This was another Buddhist-themed show which appeared to Manit to pander to white buyers, offering works which were hollow and empty in every sense. Manit gives a ruthless negative critique of the Sakharin show, along with some good critical advice to Thai artists generally, that they should refrain from making art which offers fake metaphysical insights. He is much more sympathetic and enthusiastic, a week later, about Somboon Homtientong’s show at CU Wityanitat Gallery, in which the artist presents a giant snake which, like a figment of the mind, nightmarishly reproduces itself in crowds of little offspring. Before discussing this show at the Wityanitat, the critic recalls two splendid installations, which he also admired, by Somboon, about six years earlier, i.e. Mekong River (Con-tempus Gallery), and Sounds of Voices Unheard, at the Museum of the National Gallery. Manit warmly and wholeheartedly praised both as spiritually and aesthetically sensitive.The critic, as we see, does not shy away from ridiculing art which seems to illustrate the egoistic fantasies of corporations. (Grandiose images of the high and mighty are not unknown the history of art.) He also rejects empty posturing in pictures and sculptures which pretend to Buddhist themes. At the same time, he rejoices when he finds an authentic voice, as in the painting of Chakkai Siributr or the sculpture of Somboon Homtientong. Manit gives voice to the suffering and neglect of the people in the rural countryside as he describes, in May, Tawatchai Homthong’s experience of returning home to the distant province of Ubol, in Have You Ever Seen This Land? an exhibition hosted by the Goethe Institute. In August, Manit protested, in two articles on History and Memory, the official tendency to bury the repeated calls and sacrifices for democratic reform in modern Thai history. These acts are recalled with fierce reverence by Manit as he describes the exhibition and the works of Suti Kunawichaiyanond, at the CU Wityanitat Gallery.‘The less history we have about calls for democracy in our children’s textbooks, the clearer it is that our country is not democratic at all…We should not be thrilled by the ‘people’s constitution’ of 1997, because we are just fooling ourselves.’
Illustrating his second installment (finish)on the History and Memory show, Manit offers a reproduction of an old AP photo from October, 1976, of a jeering crowd at Sanam Luang desecrating the body of a young man who was lynched during the violent events at Thammasat University. Also pictured from the show are two paintings by Ing Kanchanawanich, i.e. Grandmother Nue (Sucher Singhaseni) with a portrait of her late husband, Chit, and night-time view of a young woman seated alone at a bus stop, her figure contrasting somberly with the garish advertising on the bus-stop wall behind her. Manit, himself, ironically salutes his fellow citizens in this show with his Pink Man, a consumerist tourist (with shopping cart) who drifts through the events of history with nothing in mind but acquiring more and more things, a sort of ageless (mindless) shopper. The critic also cast a cold eye on the Some Things About Nudes show at the National Gallery. His rather low opinion of the show is signaled as the discussion begins with how to separate ‘art’ from ‘porn.’ [By definition, of course, the National Gallery could not put ‘porn’ on exhibition.] Manit notes the ambiguity, and illustrates, by giving a history of his youthful experience trying to distinguish the two categories. He finds the debate about which depictions are art, and which are pornography, largely fruitless and ineffectual. Perhaps the critic senses the vulgarity of such a debate carried on among male artists and critics, but what is the alternative when the women are silent? Manit ‘s writing is inspired by photographs and photography in 11 columns in 2001. The first of these studied the commercial-sensual images of women featured on Thai Farmers Bank ATM monitors. In terms of high art photo exhibitions, however, the organizers of Charming China impressed Manit with their freedom, practical flexibility, spontaneity and thrift. He admires the Chinese for their familiarity with up-to-date computer editing technology, and for their keen and cutting artworks, which criticize abuses, and ponder the strategies at work in the development processes of their own government and countrymen, and of foreign capitalists. The critic celebrated the history of photography in Thailand as a triumph of the use of acquired technology to defeat colonialist incursion. Manit’s own cultural roots in China come alive in memories stirred by photographs of old Shanghai at the Polypolis exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsthaus. It was apparently during that stay in Germany that Manit saw and reported on the Bodyworlds show of ‘anatomy’ or ‘plastinated’ corpse art by a German anatomist-turned-artist. Grim.A photo exhibition by a Japanese school teacher residing in Bangkok brought back memories for Manit of not knowing how to conduct himself in an awkward public moment aboard a Japanese commuter train. In Ghost Children he looks, with the school teacher, at the seemingly numb, sad and lonely consciousness of many Japanese children. Thai children are happier and more free, the school teacher said. Manit offers several perspectives of people in different cultures observing themselves and ‘others.’ As a teacher of photography at a local university, Manit receives some unexpected images of naughty Thai children in response to one of the picture-taking assignments he gave his students. The experience leads to self-examination and readjustment by the critic, as he reconsiders his own preconceptions and prejudices about children – how they are and how they ‘ought’ to be. Manit and friend, Somneuk Meunmansakul participated in the Photo Espana 2001 International Photo Festival in Spain . Besides detailing the extremely well-organized show and the excellent works by Spanish photographers, Manit took a close look at some of the works of another participant in the Photo Espana show, Argentinean photographer, Martin Weber. Yet, even as he considers the dreams of Americans, North and South, he thinks back to the dreams of overseas Chinese who emigrated to Siam. “All they had was a mat and a pillow. They had to be industrious and thrifty. They built big business kingdoms, leaving treasures, inheritance, fame and wealth for their children.”
In October, Manit and Somneuk again traveled together, this time to China and the International Photo Festival at Pingyao. Manit delights in the experience, patient with the 8 hour bus ride from the airport, with official controls on what can be exhibited in the show, and with the relatively modest size of the exhibition. He is happy that there are plenty of local Chinese visitors but few white tourists coming to see the photo exhibition and the historic little town which is far from Beijing. Rejoicing in the warm, friendly and sincere atmosphere among photographers gathering there, the critic clearly feels happy and at home.Manit finishes his writing for Silpa Wattanatham in 2001 with the Photography Month in Bangkok event which brought the works of dozens of well-known photographers from around the world to exhibit at more than 10 venues around Bangkok. He closes the year with Borderline at CU Wityanitat Gallery, one of the venues in Photography Month and a show in which Manit participated. Apinan Posyanond the curator and director of the gallery set the subject of the show, as Manit describes, “ whatever is in the fuzzy, blurry, dimness – unclear, in between, on the line, on the border of custom or value in society…what they call ‘gay’, ‘fag’, ‘homo’, ‘tom’, etc.”Manit would probably say about much of the most expensive, locally produced, high art in Bangkok more or less what he said about the officially sanctioned photographs at the Pingyao show in China, that it is, “Impressive. Easy on the eye. Not too much to think about. Tame. Nothing recalcitrant, nothing negative.” Unwilling to remain inside this narrow framework, Manit is enthusiastic about all the exciting and much more adventurous photography that the world has to offer.