Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on a photography show on life today in the great cities of Asia.


Manit Srimanichpoom. ‘Polypolis – Supreme Cities,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr. 48, Vol.5, 29 June – 5 July, 2001.

Photos of Shanghai in 1999 – 2000, the work of Im Foyer, a German photographer in the hall of the Polypolis’ show of the Kunsthaus in Hamburg shows the grand and flourishing state of that city. When many people see it they forget themselves, saying, “Oh, my god, what happened?”

Many tall buildings popping up like mushrooms in the rainy season. Pictures of beautiful old buildings being torn down and replaced by concrete block structures are so common. Pictures of young Chinese in suits that look new and don’t really fit well; a photo of three young men sitting cross-legged on a bridge, waiting to find work. Flyovers cast dark shadows on the people below. Crowds of people walk the packed streets like ants from a broken nest. At the corners of many streets, a symbolic letter ‘M’ pops up to mark a McDonald’s outlet, the American restaurant chain.

These lively pictures of a gold rush period of Shanghai bring back memories of Suatao, which I visited in 1996. At that time, I went to visit my aunt and other relatives who hadn’t emigrated to Thailand with my grandfather and my father. My eyes were opened, and I was surprised at Suatao after the opening of China by Deng Hsiao Ping. It wasn’t like the old Suatao, all broken down, as my father had described it. Not like the movie set of the old Chinese martial art films that I had imagined it would be.

Suatao must be like many cities on the map of China, and like Bangkok as well, all over the world, where prosperity calls people from the countryside to crowd into little concrete boxes. Here I had a chance to stay in the city, to stay with relatives in a newly built flat like the ones we see in Hong Kong films.

Early the following morning, my cousin came to pick me up and take me to visit his mother, my older aunt, and uncle in the suburbs. From there, they took me to visit the village where grandfather and grandmother used to stay, where my father used to run and play as a kid in this little village.

Now this looked like the set from a Chinese martial arts movie – Chinese provincial houses. They all looked very old and told of lives which knew hardship – like taking plain rice soup with eyes on a salty fish hanging above, and no chance to taste it at all. The lady of the house was very worn, but still beautiful and exotic.

“Where have all the villagers gone?” I asked. Things seemed to look strange.

“They have all gone to the city,” my elder brother said. “No one wants to remain here.” We went on and stopped before the door of Grandfather’s house.

“Oh! Why did they keep this?” I asked, still wondering.

“As a remembrance of ancestors,
a place to pay respects,” my elder brother answered as he turned the key in the lock.

When the door opened, I saw dust and cobwebs. Silence, empty and lonely, held the whole house. I walked straight back to the earthen kitchen. There were pictures of Grandfather and Grandmother, pictures of relatives sent from Thailand hanging nicely on the walls. I saw myself at 10 years old, having my picture taken with all the relatives and guests at the Chinese style funeral of Grandfather. The feeling was very strange. I can’t explain it. Many dimensions of feeling, all layered, as if I were in a time capsule, and there was no change. But no – everything was changing. No one lived here. No one lived in the country. This house, the whole village, was only a ‘graveyard of memories.’

The feeling I have never forgotten to this day was the sadness, sadness of life full of good-byes because of the conditions of survival and the meaning of life.

“But why doesn’t anyone stay here?” I began to ask stupidly.

“Well, this house is available if someone wants to come and visit. They are welcome. Tonight is OK,” was my answer. There was a tone of annoyance regarding people who are romantic about the past.

I wasn’t intending to stand in judgment of the changes of my elder brother and all Asian people who went crazy with the soap bubble economics of the past 10 years. I don’t want to say people get their just desserts, especially the Thai people, when the bubbles burst again and again.

I only thought that we should think back on those times of extreme consumerist madness, the kind that takes only the worst aspects of East and West, especially the Americans. They come to create hybrids till we have a new breed of Asians who are nothing but the prey, the marketing targets for multinational merchants.

The art exhibition about cities in the Asia-Pacific region – Polypolis- is another attempt to bring artworks which reflect content so the people of Hamburg and other Europeans can know what’s happening in the great cities of Asia. The works in this show were selected by three persons – Ludwig Seyiarth (Gm), Changtsung Zung (Ch), and Gregor Jansen (HK). They chose 17 artists from Asia Pacific to show. Seven artists were selected from China; two from Hong Kong, two from Japan, three from Taiwan, one from Singapore and two from Thailand (Kamol Paosawat and myself.)
Erika Yoshino critiques the urban societies of mega cities like her own Tokyo with Take You Higher,2000, a work of 56 black and white photos (20 x 24”), of people packed into streets, beaches, public parks and fairgrounds where only swarms of people are to be found, a blur of people filling every space, as if individuals have no importance other than being a sort of living thing that moves about here and there.

Kanemura Osumu, another Japanese photographer, also expresses feelings of unease in the work, Someday OK, Prince Will Come, black and white photos of the narrow streets of Tokyo, cluttered with utility wires for electricity, telephones, advertising and signs of shops. So we see that beneath the greatness and order of mega cities is a lack of order and a confused jumble.

Leung Chi Wo offers photos of the sky seen in the spaces between tall buildings in Hong Kong. He colors the sky red and a rich blue till it looks more scary than beautiful. Chi Wo speaks of the problems of limited areas for living and nature, which is extremely hard to find.

Tsang Tak Ping, a Hong Kong artist, speaks of the same thing. He uses one of his father’s old yellow [sleeping] nets, setting it up in the exhibition room to show the personal space of one Hong Kong person. He takes a piece of toilet paper for wiping a child’s bottom - a Handy-Wipe – and lays it out instead of a mat, putting a gem down on every inch to reflect the value of area in his country.

The seven Chinese artists who joined this show are generally speaking in the same vein – i.e. ironic, mocking and slapping – insulting the Western craze, as in the photos of Shi Yong. The video art of Xu Tan speaks of the loneliness of the era of individualism, and makes a fond goodbye to the old buildings which are being smashed. (They represent Chinese culture.)
Huang Yan uses Chinese Sar paper over walls, doors and windows, rubbing them with charcoal crayon to collect patterns and create mementos.

Polypolis may be a picture which reflects only part of the fate of people in the Asia-Pacific region. Though it is only a partial view, we can see some dissatisfaction and dismay with the changes happening in each country where these artists live.

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