Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Parinya Tantisuk ‘ช้าง’. [Elephants]

Parinya Tantisuk ‘ช้าง’. [Elephants] in Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly news magazine, Yr.43, Vol. 43, 23 – 29 Mar., 1997 / 2540
Three months later Parinya writes once again about Chatchai’s obstructing elephant. It pops up among a tantalizing spread of cultural references. The critic’s essay in [หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม] Silpa Wattanatham on the occasion of Thai Elephant Day is illustrated with some elephant motifs from the history of Thai art. The article concludes with a plea to readers to take better care of Thailand’s own abused elephants, both the domesticated ones and those in the wild.

Elephants share the charisma of kings and deities in many Asian traditions and are a beloved motif in all kinds of artworks. In the set of examples on this page, the cutout of a bulky clay pot has full sway. The appealingly inflating skin, shiny patina, and elephant-head handle with long rubbery trunk of this strange and banal object all suggest its rough history. The rustic artifact is said to originate from the ancient kilns of Buriram, and the photo offers a radiant signifier of Thai history and culture.

At the top of the page, above the swollen outline of the Buriram ceramic, is an image of a little gold elephant, costly and cosmopolitan, crafted in ancient Ayutthaya. Parinya’s description of this jeweled work is in sharp contrast with the broad strokes with which he characterizes the clay pot. The critic savors the creature’s sophisticated and courtly behavior, so delicate and precise, and modeled in the figure of a pachyderm which appears to be no bigger than a mouse:

"With craftsmanship and artistry, the gold elephant is presented in a harness embellished with jewels. The design of the gesture is charming and lively. The animal crouches to present itself and twists a bit, looking upward. The trunk curls very politely, holding the decorative bouquet. This work of a high caliber from the Ayutthaya period is more than 500 years old."

On the bottom of the page and facing the opposite direction, another elephant is presented. It is a cameo of Chatchai Puipia’s mixed media painting, the work mentioned but not pictured in Parinya’s New Year’s column on calendars and greeting cards. The three feebly tinted representations – pot, gold-work and mixed media painting - are linked together, as if bracketed, by three tiny white elephants stacked in a red column along the edge of the page. The uppermost of these little creatures, each in a space hardly bigger than a large postage stamp, is a depiction of the first elephant ever to exist in the universe. Citing an illustration in a traditional textbook on elephant science, the picture refers to Triphumi Buddhist scriptures which state that the very first elephant was formed by a conjunction of 26 deities. The body of the tiny beast swarms with celestial beings, dancing as if on the head of a pin.

The second representation in this stack of miniatures is the mighty Erawan, steed of the Lord Indra; the third is the three-headed elephant, Kirimek, the mount which carried the demon, Wasawadi, at the head of a vile army trying to obstruct the enlightenment of the Lord Buddha. Parinya praises the neatness, precision and clarity of the drawing in these incredible traditional designs, so expressive of the Siamese artists’ tremendous abilities to think and to dream.

The critic closes this section of his essay with a reference to Chatchai’s work. Parinya describes the physical construction of the mixed media painting, noting that while rather abstract, it loosely takes the shape of an elephant.
He praises the strong qualities of the brushwork in the painting, though these features are virtually invisible in the magazine illustration. The critic continues to sing the aesthetic qualities of paint on stretched canvas despite the scant odds that the original painting will ever have a part in his readers’ lives. Chatchai’s is the only modern piece cited in the discussion:

"หันขวาง [obstructing, blocking the way] was first shown in the 7th Exhibition by the Members of the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art of Silpakorn University in BE 2533 / 1990. That show was a response to the death of Seub Nakasatien. Chatchai’s painting is a work of mixed media with a rather abstract form. The outline is free – various canvasses of different sizes have been brought together in the shape of an elephant. The colors and tones are dark, the brushstrokes decisive and vigorous. "

In this March 1997 essay, Parinya prominently associates Chatchai’s work, the school of the Faculty of Painting at Silpakorn,and venerable Siamese artistic traditions.

So very fragile, and yet so very accessible, the newsprint page brings together a pale but spirited set of little pictures of a rustic Siamese ceramic, a piece of gold-work from the palace school of Ayutthaya, some esoteric symbols from Buddhist cosmology, and Chatchai’s (greeting card) work of mixed media recalling an exhibition in a university gallery.

Again, Parinya notes that Chatchai was once a member of his faculty at Silpakorn. Like one of the elements of the painting, the name of Seub Nakasatien is mentioned in the same breath with the canvas, color and brushstroke of Chatchai’s abstract work of mixed media. The column closes on the following page with a discussion of the plight of elephants in contemporary Thailand and the importance of Thai Elephant Day.

These newsprint words and images connect ideas and echoed feelings about the dignity and tragedy of Thai history and society, past and present. Parinya’s essay symbolically summons up the idea of the art of clay and soil from the countryside, of fine gold-work from the tragic and legendary palaces of Ayutthaya, and the authoritative and finely drawn symbols from Buddhist cosmology. The critic delicately plays the Chatchai card, as well, placing the name of his former colleague among the venerable set of icons which he conjures up in this essay.

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