Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Censorship in the Art and Culture Museum of Chiang Mai University, Sept.2002

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘The Art Museum of Chiang Mai University Lacks Freedom and Knowledge about Art.’ Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr. 49, Vol.15, 6 – 12 Sept. 2002.

On 2 Sept. 2002, Chiang Mai is a city with an image of complete freedom, with a full component of intellectuals, scholars, artists and poets. It is rich in the civilization of Lanna, with a climate and natural surroundings so comfortable and livable. It’s the ‘younger sibling,’ you could say , ‘an ideal city.’

But the order by the rector, Dr. Nipon Tuwannond, to remove artworks in the Art and Culture Museum of Chiang Mai University, shocked many people who heard the news. They were stunned, not believing that such a thing could happen in an educational institution like CMU.

The order came to the dean of the Fine Arts faculty, with the reason:

“At present there is a painting exhibition on the topic
The Story of I installed in the area of the Museum of
Art and Culture of Chiang Mai University. The exhibition
will close on 31 Aug. 2002. Because CMU has received
complaints and warnings [Manit’s bold type], saying that
the pictures on exhibition are unsuitable expressions of sex,
copulation and symbols of the American national flag as a
sex organ, displaying intercourse and carnality in a clearly
porno- graphic style (as in the attached examples)…

“Chiang Mai University, after due consideration, sees that
There are very many pictures on display which stimulate
negative feelings about CMU as the host and venue,
which could create conflicts among institutions. Therefore,
the faculty should kindly take action to quickly remove
these images…”

This order came on the 21st of August, as if slashing open the heavens, after the exhibition had been open for one week. A. Amnuay Kan-in, the dean of the faculty of Fine Art, came down hard on A.Uthit Atimana, standing in as the the director of the museum, and Kritya Kawiwong, the curator of invited artists. There was no face saving and the individual integrity of these persons was not considered. They were given no opportunity to explain or defend themselves against these accusations as they stood. It was a mindless use of power, without studying the problem. It was certainly undemocratic. (Even at a police state, the police will hear both sides of a story!)

“It’s About Me / The Story of I” is an exhibition of contemporary art with content about being ones self, about society, politics and sex, in the form of portraits. There were invited artists:

Wasan Sittiket presented three very large works, self-portraits with anti-war themes, against repression, poverty and the USA covering the whole canvas. Wasan’s figure is half covered with a suit, and he carries a gun and a satellite. The lower half of his body is naked, showing testes with penis erect. He wears socks featuring on one foot a Japanese flag and on the other an American flag. He stands on the heads of farmers and an image of a giant lizard, surrounded by all evil and bringing everything low in society. For example, monks carry machineguns; students sell their bodies, and politicians ignore the people. In the midst of the madness of gambling and risk-taking and male sex organs, a man wearing Uncle Sam’s hat rapes his victims. There are large graphic images of faces, both Thai and foreign – Mr. Geo. W.Bush, Mr. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, PM Taksin Shinawatra, Pa Prem and Mr.Sanoh Tienthong.

Michael Shaowanasai presents an investigation of the basic character
of self and sex. There is a poster, a medium shot of the artist, inviting the audience to respond to questions. There are slides and video art as well.

Lilian Sumkemi, a Swiss artist and art teacher, presents a photo
installation of more than 100 pictures – T-shirt pictures in the collection of Wasan Sittiket – hanging on a wire rack and packed into the exhibition space.

I’m the last one: I presented the series “In Your Face,” 29 black and white portrait photos of artists reflecting the human condition. They are the same set which were on display at the Namthong Gallery in Bangkok.

The works which were censored and removed from the exhibition were the 3 large paintings by Wasan, my naked portraits of artists and the video images by Michael of young male a-go-go dancers. Lilian’s work was not affected.

The end of the rector’s censorious letter (CMU) gave a warning:

“Because this art and culture museum is government
property, I wish to communicate to you the following:

‘The Committee of the Art and Culture Museum’ and other
relevant persons responsible for considering the works of art
of persons who request permission to use the facility in future
in an entirely correct manner, before granting permission to
rent or use the premises to exhibit their work, if the works that
are to be exhibited express negative feelings toward persons
in the community, offend morality, or give rise to conflict in
society or in agencies associated with religion, culture, tradition
or politics, including matters about sexuality, permission should
not be granted in order that no negative image should arise to
besmirch Chiang Mai University, which would cause problematic
impact on the feelings of people in the community or between

If you read the whole of Dr.Nipon Tuwanond’s order and the interview in Matichon and The Nation (Wed. 28 Aug. 02) newspapers with the rector and the dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, you might think some of the following:

1) What is the role and duty of Chiang Mai University in the face of complaints and protests concerning certain ideas and morals? Why isn’t the art museum understood as a place of study in which opinions can be expressed and opportunities opened for learning? In such a circumstance, everyone benefits academically and socially. The problem is not simply swept out the door of CMU, letting the conflict work itself out on the streets.

2) When the university doesn’t understand what its own role and duty is, how can CMU be a place of academic freedom?

3) An art museum in also a place of education. When there is no academic freedom, how can the Museum of Art and Culture at CMU operate with freedom?

4) Since the artworks in this exhibition were accused of being pornographic, I must ask directly of the rector and the dean if they understand the difference between art and pornography or not. If they don’t, it’s worrying indeed for art students. What are they studying? Isn’t this important? It is the duty and function of the art museum to teach people generally and help them understand how art and porn differ.

5) The claim that criticism of the US and Japan will stir up conflict between organizations shows that the administrators at CMU still don’t understand how to manage democratically, with a more open system, hearing criticism and different opinions, not being narrow and dictatorial. Those two superpowers are being scolded by people round the world every day, sometimes violently. Why would they be unduly concerned over the criticism of Wasan Sittiket? Furthermore, these paintings are only the ideas expressed by an individual – they are not officially sanctioned views. (Please don’t get confused.)

6) Who is CMU? Is the university wholly represented by the opinion and taste of Dr. Nipon Tuwanond and A. Amnuay Kantanond? The issue involving CMU is tied up to the personal taste and preference of these administrators rather than being understood in the clear light of any philosophy of education, which is quite dangerous. Things rise and fall according to ‘what he likes,’ rather than by reason or principle. The complaints about a negative image for CMU are also very strange. Didn’t these men think they would throw the university into a bad light by enforcing such censorship?

Some people think that the censoring in this case was a particular example involving ‘radical’ artists like the three of us – only that. (Some people will say we got just what we deserved.) And they think that’s the end of it. I’d like to give the example of what happened under the government of Adolf Hitler. First they oppressed the Jews and other minority groups and the general population didn’t care. They figured only those few were being dealt with. Eventually however, the whole nation was drawn into terrible suffering.

Today the extreme right is coming strongly forward calling for a ‘Ministry of Buddhism and Culture.’ I don’t know where it will end.

I have to write this in protest because it is like a cancer in society which is dangerous. As to those who condemn me and say I’m just looking out for my own interests, let them think what they want. It can’t helped if they think that.

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