Friday, October 30, 2009

Dernchai Phuchana interviewing Manit Sriwanichpoom in FINE ART magazine

Dernchai Phuchana. Exhibition Review of ‘Ordinary-Extraordinary’ (a photo exhibition) by Manit Sriwanichpoom in FINE ART magazine, Vol. 4, No. 30, March, 2007.

When mentioning Manit Sriwanichpoom, many people think of his Pink Man work critiquing consumerist society. It is an art project in which Manit works with Sompong Tavi mixing photography and performance. Manit is artist, writer and critic. This set [of photos] is one of the works which made Manit’s name.

Ordinary – Extraordinary is an exhibition which just closed at the Tang Contemporary Art Gallery. The show was comprised of black and white photos of faces of individuals selected as models by Manit. About this work he said:

Manit This set comes as a result of wanting to get to know our neighbors better, because I feel I really don’t know the people in our neighborhood very well. So, I decided to experiment by getting neighborhood people to come and sit for me, focusing on just their faces. If you look at my old works, I took pictures of artist friends, people in the same line of work. Most of them live far away from me. I thought I ought to take some pictures of people who live right near our house. My life is so busy with activities away from home. Sometimes I go out to teach or attend a meeting or an artworld event. But one feels so very distant from ones own neighbors. Therefore, a work like this can be a way for us to get to know each other better.”

“The process of taking pictures only of faces, when I started I thought it was interesting because there is a story in each person’s face. There is content; there are emotions; there are feelings. So, I decided to photograph just the faces.”

Dernchai. If you follow Manit’s work regularly, you see the pieces that made him famous and that have come to be identified with Manit Sriwanichpoom – Pink Man. From that, he jumped to this. Many people may have wondered privately about that.

Manit. “ My work comes from ideas and is not tied to any particular form or style. Rather, I pick the form that suits the content. This exhibition I consider a return to the basics of picture-taking, very simply. That is, one light and one camera are used. The photography is very direct, like taking pictures in the old days. I feel that one must choose the technique which is consonant with the content. Taking photos like this gives them power and enables them to express the distinctive feelings in the faces of neighbors in a strong, straight-forward manner. I mean, you get a picture of a face and that is the content; we don’t need to provide a story because everything is there on the face.”

“ I didn’t ask [my neighbors] to express any emotion - to smile or anything. I just asked them to be still and to be themselves as much as they possibly could and to look at the camera. I believe that these things come out pretty much on their own. I didn’t know what they thought, but their faces and their eyes, so many of them, try to express a meaning to their audience. That comes out by itself. It’s something I don’t have to specify.”

“In some faces, especially, the eyes seem ready to explode…as if there is something inside – anger, perhaps – or some other feeling…as if there were a time bomb ticking.
Some faces make us feel as if we are seeing our ancestors. The faces look old and ancient and I feel we are not far from our forebears, even though we live in modern times. We see these stories and they are very interesting. Some faces show that the people have passed through a great deal in their lifetimes. The marks of time are on their faces. Children’s faces seem fresh and bright, but there is great intensity in that bright innocence. Some kid’s have the faces of warriors of old; some look like sculptures. The faces have different kinds of beauty. All have their own stories to tell.”

“Every day now we see many beautiful faces on advertising billboards; they often look like racially mixed people. A face with a classic cast is also beautiful and perfect. But the ordinary faces that we regard as imperfect are also beautiful. They have a beauty of the kind that is imperfect. This is something I got from working on this project. That is, the beauty of ordinary people appears in each face.”

Dernchai. At this point we looked at the origins of the exhibition, asking Manit about his first objective, i.e. the desire to know his neighbors better. What was the result of taking the photographs?

Manit.“ From this set of works the result was that I felt more comfortable with my neighbors. They were not such strangers to me. They wanted to know me too, to a certain extent. In being neighbors, we need to help and encourage each other, to depend on and look after each other in our neighborhood. The lines separating us were diminished by this project.”

“If you look at it from a broader social perspective, we can see that in Bangkok there has been a great deal of change. Just in the radius of my own neighborhood there are many different people. In this exhibition you can see the change – people have come from the North, from Isarn and from the South. They have a variety of beliefs and religious and ethnic backgrounds. But they all are living in my immediate neighborhood. It shows that Bangkok has changed a lot. We see so much mixing and mingling. So, when you walk in to see the show, you don’t know where the people come from, but they all live in one neighborhood.”

Dernchai. When I asked about the difference in his feelings between shooting photos of artists and of ordinary folk…

Manit. “Artists are people who already know how to express themselves. Most people have not been taught to do that. They express best with face and eyes. These things make us see that sometimes, their expressiveness is limited to their faces…round and hesitant. But if you get people to do something they are not used to, you can catch something of them in their presenting that tells a story.”

Dernchai. In this exhibition what did you hope to communicate to your audience?

Manit. “ When people come to see these works, I want them to feel what I felt – that in the face of each person there is a story. If one takes special care to notice the facial expressions and structures, one can see it. I think the audience will get this. Really, I am someone who likes to look at things, but when I did this project, I noticed that stopping time on that occasion caught the stories and brought them out with light, with the camera and with film. It made see something about life. I could see what their life experience had left on their faces, on their bodies. There were traces of these impacts. This is also a warning for us to think more carefully about our own lives.”

Dernchai. If one asks about the self of Manit Sriwanichpoom in this project, where is he expressed in all this?

Manit. “I am not really attached to the issue of my self or my style. But I think, rather, that what is most important is content. As I look at it, good art must have a strong foundation, i.e. solid content. About the manner of presentation, it may change continuously, according to the content. If I got stuck on my own stories, my own self, I don’t think I could go on [making art this way.] Lastly, I think that if we believe the philosophy of Buddhism, that there is no self; that self is a created illusion, a vehicle that carries us to get what we want; then an artist who is concerned with [Buddhist] religion in his work would be mistaken, inconsistent and contradictory to put an emphasis on self. He would be a Buddhist who talks about the no-self but yet insists on ‘being himself’ in his own style of art. We must realize that not being attached means understanding how things are. If one has Dhamma but doesn’t understand this matter of ‘expression,’ it’s not consistent. We should understand this point. We don’t let ‘expression’ become our master. Instead, we master it.”

“For the most part, the content of my work is about society and politics, which is what I am interested in.
Presently, I am working on a draft of an article which tries to explicitly address art and culture in the constitution. We want people to see that culture is not a product. It is not what has been presented in images of art and culture products – whether paintings of OTOP goods. We want people to really understand that art and culture mean more than that. These things should have a wider meaning because they are part of a whole process of using our freedom. If we don’t have rights and freedom, we can have no real art or culture. This involves the constitution and democracy. When we have rights and freedom, artists can wholeheartedly make their artwork without restrictions and conditions.”

Dernchai. We would like to know about your point of view on the artworld in Thailand.

Manit. “ I don’t think it is very good yet. I still have to write in Siam Rath Weekly News twice a month, introducing artworks. The problem is, there are no works that interest me enough to write about them. Every day there are so many shows, but in all that abundance there is very little that is intense and quality work. The question then arises, what is the process of producing artists has not brought forth artists who have sharp and penetrating ideas, whose works lack keen thoughts and perspectives? At best, the forms change in waves – that’s all. These things remain a problem in our homeland. Sometimes I feel like giving up writing.”

“ These things I regard as showing the lack of encouraging progress in the artworld. Though we have the Bangkok Metropolitan Gallery that we have worked together to create, if you brought really intense work to show there, would they accept it? When the gallery was built, the problem became finding artists of quality to come and exhibit there and the process of creating artists who can ‘feed’ this space. Do they have the necessary quality? I don’t want to set a target about the quantity or volume of works to be shown. Even a few works of good quality would be more enduring than a bigger show with lesser quality works.”

“It depends on when artists are going to start a dialogue with society. Do they have something to communicate, something to present? I think that is more to the point. For example, an artist may simply want to present a technique or style of working – only that. But is that enough in a work of art?”

Dernchai. And the artist who is really good for Thailand? Who does Khun Manit think that is?

Manit. “The artist I think is the best and most outstanding is Chatchai Puipia. His work, his skill, his ideas and his presentation. I think that in the more than 60 years that Silpakorn has been producing artists, Chatchai is the greatest painter. The others I see as indifferent. They fail to move our souls. I am always struck to the core when I go to Chatchai’s shows. This is my hope – to be able to see something that leaves me speechless. Art has to have power; it’s not decoration. I still think art has its own distinctiveness when compared to other media. One must feel the power which the artist has invested in the work.”

Dernchai. To conclude, we’d like to know what Khun Manit says about photography.

Manit. “I say it’s my good luck that I can make a living doing the thing I enjoy. In the period I have been working, photography still does not receive the status of art as it ought. I always try to present it as such. There is pride - at least at some level. Most recently, I got the 2007 Higashikawa Prize in the 23rd Photo Festa in Higashikawa Town, Hokkaido, Japan. The prize is given to one photographer from among entrants from around the world. It is a prize that reflects some acceptance in the field. It shows that some outsiders notice my work, that it is admired not only in Thailand but internationally. It means people see what is being done here. People see my work as a photographer as something up-to-date and relevant in a global context. Photos are used to expand the foundation – a means of presenting, making it broader.”

After this exhibition, Manit had a project to take this set of photos to show again in China and in France. For those who missed the show, there are more opportunities to see it, or to get a catalog. To conclude, Manit had another comment at the end of the interview. He was speaking to artists:

Manit. “I think we should be sharing our ideas as much as possible. I don’t anticipate much about skill, because Thai people are already very skilled. But we still lack ideas. We want to make art fully. When we work each time, I say we must ask ourselves what we are giving to society. Not just showing how clever and skilled we are – egoism. We should go beyond this. I understand that in being an artist, one must fight and keep ones self-confidence to gain acceptance in society. And we must challenge ourselves. But in the midst of challenging ourselves, we must have something to give society, something which will somehow meet with agreement in society.”

The exhibition, Ordinary – Extrordinary, by Manit Sriwanichpoom showed 24 Jan. – 30 Feb. 2550 at Tang Contemporary Art, Fl.B28 – The Silom Galleria, 919/1 Silom Rd. Soi 19, Bangkok, 10500. (

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