Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on the photography of Takenori Miyamoto

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Ghost Children,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.47, Vol. 38, 16 – 22 Feb., 2001

I can remember at the end of 1999, I used to embarrass myself by doing something wrong in a train from Narita airport going into Tokyo. By having good manners – which I seldom have in Thailand – I stood up and offered a seat to a Japanese school child, 7 or 8 years old. The group had all climbed on the train with heavy book bags hanging over their shoulders and on their backs. The train was getting crowded. I hurried to vacate my seat and stood up immediately. Instead of sitting down and thanking me, however, the whole group pretended not to notice and even seemed displeased at what I had offered. They stood together chatting in front of the empty seat as if I was still there occupying it.

My face was as numb as if the children had slapped it. I looked all round the bogey, seeking an explanation for what I had done wrong. I saw all the adults, mostly men in their dark colored work clothes, sitting still with eyes expressionless, not moving a muscle. Some closed their eyes; some were reading cartoon books. These heartless adults – not would answer my question.

Suddenly, I ‘got it.’ I was a weirdo, an alien who didn’t understand the customs of normal people in this society. My decision to give up a seat to a child was something they just didn’t do, and these unfortunate children were disturbed as well. Perhaps they had been taught to be patient and strong. I had cast doubt on their roles as good children who don’t whine or complain.

My intention is not to scold the Japanese, whom I respect – to say they lack compassion or are cruel to their children. I think they have as much compassion as anyone else. But this is the way of life in the city: biting and kicking – every man for himself. The children refused my kindness because they did not want to appear weak in anyone’s eyes. Not to appear feeble or lacking in endurance.
This was an expression of the Japanese culture of endurance, something they are trained in from a very early age indeed. Hence, offering a seat might be an insult. In fact, the faces of the children were cold, regarding me with disapproval.

Cut back to Bangkok: an art exhibition at the Nam Thong Gallery in February, 2001. Takenori Miyamoto, an artist from Tokyo, is showing works of photography and slides in Blue Spiral. Problems in Japanese society are reflected in pictures of children - symbols which communicate ideas. The children are impacted by their culture.

Miyamoto is a teacher at Japanese School in Bangkok. He has had a chance to travel in the countryside in rural areas. He has seen the variety of culture and how free Thai children are. Things are not the same: they are very different from Japanese children.

As we know, Japanese people, wherever they are in the world, remain strictly Japanese – as if they had not left their country at all. Japanese children in Bangkok or Tokyo – they are just the same. They are firmly set in the ways of their own culture; they make Miyamoto feel very uneasy.

A large color photo of a bird in hand must very much express Miyamoto’s feeling. The hand is as big as a giant’s and could be compared with a great and powerful culture which children cannot resist. Children are powerless and delicate. Unable to flee, they are at the mercy of their society.

The room where the slide show is presented is 3 x 3 meters. All over the floor in front of the screen broken glass is scattered. Pictures appear on a blue screen (กระจกฝ้า) which is about a meter long. The pictures change continually about every 8 seconds. They show, up close, the eyes of Japanese children.

The dull blue evening sky of the suburbs. Close-ups of the children’s eyes. A caged dove. A young teenage girl in a skirt squats and looks up at the camera, her eyes staring questioningly. A pillow on a disorderly bed. Children with eyes closed. A teenage girl, asleep in bed. A close up of the clear eyes of a child. The blue evening sky in a theme park. Children seated, holding their knees, eyes downcast. A child’s hand offers a large butterfly. More close ups of children’s eyes. You see the tears. Two children sleep with arms flung wide in peace in a grassy field. Broken glass, sharp and cutting, atop a wall.

These slide images in sepia and blue tones are very sad, lonely as the poem “ดวงตา.” So many eyes of children staring back at the viewer in doubt, wonder, and questioning. Sometimes with disappointment. They have no mouth with which to scream and cry to let someone know what they really feel. An image of the blue evening sky, waves on the sea, a carousel, the colored lights on a Ferris wheel, a messy bed, the sad face of a teenage girl. These could represent times past, memories which turn and revolve monotonously on the screen. The glass broken and scattered on the floor must represent clarity and brightness, ease, the fragile character of youth, now smashed on the hard stone floor of a spoiled world.

Miyamoto is fretting about times past, the time of childhood. Or is he sad at the loss of trust and purity in the children he teaches. Some of the children have told him they don’t want to grow up; they want to remain children. If being an adult means only working for a company or in a factor, to have a wife or husband, to have children and a house, then being a child is happier and more free.

Miyamoto sees that as the children get older, they are less innocent, less simple, more tainted. It follows like a shadow. In a photo installation where children go round and round like a carousel, Miyamoto uses about 18 photos arranged in an orderly horizontal line around three white walls.

In each picture you see a boy or a girl, half a figure, standing with arms outstretched. The pictures are taken from a low vantage point, looking up into the children’s faces, toward the sun and clouds in the sky, all white at midday or in early afternoon. By design, the faces all come out dark. You can’t see the details; you don’t know whose face it is. You see only the form and figure of a child. Thus, the children look like ghosts standing with hands outstretched beneath a sky of dark blue, too blue to be real. It’s chilling, scary.
When the audience stands in the midst of all these pictures, one feels surrounded by the ghosts of children without souls spinning round and round with no sound of the gay and silly laughter of kids.

I’m not sure how many of the children I saw traveling on the train to Tokyo were soulless ghost children already. And I am not sure I agree with Miyamoto’s view that Thai children are so enviable for their liberty and freedom, compared to Japanese children, who are so repressed by their own culture.

I think Thai kids have their own kind of cultural problems, for example, having their own way until they are spoiled; being over-protected – like the mindless son of Chalerm Yubamroong. I still have to figure out what I think for sure here.
However, I certainly do agree that the more children grow up, the more evil in adult ways they become.

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