Monday, November 16, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Beggars and Tourists in Graz, Austria. Aug 2000

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Beggars and Tourists,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.47, Vol.12, 20 – 26 Aug. 2000.

‘Why do you give money?’ A big, middle-aged female rushed forward to ask me in English when she saw me walk toward the money basket and throw five shillings in.

‘I think the artist who made the sculpture should get something in return.’

We were talking about a sculpture along the roadside, an image of someone on one knee with a gesture of begging. The whole figure was made of wrappings of reddish brown bandages.

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a real person, dressed as a mummy. Or was it really a mannequin? Many other parts of this road were full of performance artists. Some young men were dressed as astronauts. Some young women were dressed as angels from a white people’s fairy tale. They stood stock still for hours in exchange for coins from the tourists passing by. Those people weren’t sure either whether the models are actually real people or not!

‘Do you know why I made this beggar sculpture?’

I stood still, listening.

‘Do you see any beggars around here?’ She pointed to the surround. ‘No-o-o!’ A long, drawn out sound. ‘Because the authorities of Graz took them all away, preventing them from offending the eyes of tourists.’

‘Why did they do that? There are beggars everywhere in the world.’ I gave my idea.

‘Our country [Austria] is Catholic Christian. That we have beggars is very embarrassing,’ she said. ‘So the police come and collect them all and chase them away to somewhere else. When tourists come, they won’t see them, and they will think our country has no problems. It’s a society which salutes to your face and tricks you when your back is turned.’ This white female artist, whose name I learned later was Gabriele Foissner, cut her government to pieces.

I rather enjoyed exchanging ideas with her. ‘My country is the same. Not long ago, Bangkok’s municipal police swept up all the beggars and homeless people who sleep on footpaths or at the foot of tamarind trees at Sanam Luang in order to tidy up and make the city safer – but especially to make the view more comfortable for tourists.’

So I asked quite directly if this work of hers was a protest – right?

‘Right. We want them to know that there are people who don’t agree with what the authorities have done and we protest. But the politicians don’t listen.’ She turned to her daughter and said, ‘ This young man understands it very well.’ Then she excused herself and turned to speak to another onlooker who had done as I did, i.e. give money to the beggar sculpture.

PINK MAN (represented by Sompong Tavi, the man in the pink suit) and I were invited to show our work at Forum Stadpark in Graz , important and large Austrian city, second to Vienna. There are about 250,000 inhabitants. (Actually, the town is smaller than Trang [Thailand], Chuan Leekpai’s town.) The theme of the show (15 June to 8 July, 2000) was ‘Tourist Industry.’ The show includes artists selected by Eva Ursprung and Thanom Chapakdi. They chose eight artists – Jumphol Apisuk, Paisan Plienbangchang, Jittima Polsawake, Sermsuk Tiensuwan, Nitaya Ueareeworakul, Oranong Klinsiri and Sompong Tavi and I.

The begging sculpture made me see how the problems of today are impacted by the industrialized world and tourism all over the globe. It is not just the third world (like Thailand) as in the works that I and my artist friends are showing here. The problems happen in the first world, too, but they are hidden away, swept under the carpet so we don’t see them, and we think the whites don’t have any.

‘Tourism,’ when it becomes an industry, means arrivals in sizable numbers and quantities. They tour and everything is transformed. Everything is changed to make it easy to consume. Even art and culture are touched by it. For example, Mozart becomes a symbol of Austria. His handwritten musical scores are reproduced as gift wrap for boxes of chocolate and his face is on the stamp guaranteeing that the product is really from Vienna. The herds and armies of tourists with their trunks and shopping bags voraciously consume art and culture, but they are like sheep led to the slaughter.

They are looking at some deep things which elude them, and they waste their time, getting much more than they need. They pass so quickly through museums and galleries that the farts hardly have time to dissipate before the crowd is gone, rushing off ‘to see’ and to have things to talk about when they go home and chat with friends at dinner or at the office. Most of their time on tour is spent shopping. If tourists have time for galleries, large or small, why not add art products, art sacks and bags, in order to know and show successfully. The offer is ‘2 in 1’ – for example, the face of Mozart on a bar of chocolate.

When there is no moment in which understanding is created, when there is only being overburdened with shopping or beggars, the scenery of pleasure and progress may be spoiled. Beggars annoy ones eyeballs or prod the heart with guilt that ‘there are still poor people’ who are hungry and need help. It’s not right! Tourists might pull out their wallets more slowly and spend less if the thought entered their mind that they could just as well end up as beggars too.

In Italy, the state doesn’t arrest women gypsies who perform in shows to get money from tourists. The gypsies provide color and atmosphere around the churches and ancient temples, and old beggar ladies in black leaning on their canes may help someone get to heaven or succeed in their battle to live in chastity. The image of a beggar in front of the church is very good – exotic in another way.

It looks like the tourism industry and the administrative municipal authorities from Bangkok to Graz need only ‘cultural shoppers’ with no heart. So, when Prince Siddhartha makes a royal visit to either of these cities, HRH may not be moved to become a wandering monk. Perhaps the Lord Brahma will send an angel in a vision to give the message of birth, aging, suffering and death to ensure that the shoppers get the picture about the uncertainty and illusoriness of life. We all need to remember that life shouldn’t be spent carelessly – there is only one per customer.

Traveling on a pilgrimage, like they used to do, has become a romantic idea. At one time, in whatever religion, a period of travel was called for in order to develop the heart – to elevate it. One went to hear the Word, or to meet a truly holy monk, to receive good teaching and principles to use in leading an exemplary life.

Because the Buddha saw the use of pilgrimages, before he entered Nirvana, he entrusted his relics to his disciples to put them in scattered places so that his followers could travel to pay respect. That journey, naturally, forbade the pilgrim from bringing too many comforts along. Only the bare necessities were allowed – nothing more, no useless trifles. This was the rule of the Buddha, who understood travel (both in the worldly sense and as Dhamma).

As for travel nowadays, what they call the ‘Tourism Industry,’ it measures everything in numbers and produces only greedy, selfish, insatiable, childish ‘cultural shoppers.’

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