Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Nina Saunders' Horrifying Chairs, Copenhagen, Oct.2000

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘The Horrifying Chairs of Nina Saunders,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.47, Vol. 21, 22 – 28 Oct. 2000.

The other day, I went into a private hospital [in Bangkok]. In front of the elevator, I saw a ‘Louis’ chair – soft, crème colored, and elevated on a dais about 20 cm high. The chair stood upon red velvet. Around the four corners of the dais were shiny brass rods, like pillars, very shiny, about 80 cm tall, and roped together with a red velvet cord. When I saw it, I knew without being told that it was a sacred chair. No one could sit there: it was only for looking at. The holy thing was put on display to honor the exalted.

Why did I know that this Louis chair, the kind sold in furniture stores everywhere, had become sacred? I know it even before seeing the photo of the important personage hung in the gold frame, explaining the source of the holiness of this seat.

This sort of story, we might say, I knew by ‘cultural instinct.’ No one needed to tell me, but I was able immediately to read the code and translate the meaning of what I saw. We can do this because society has already trained us.

The Thai are a society with lords and masters. A hierarchy of high and low is arranged with the importance of class clearly designated. Most people cannot find or enter into equal associations. There must always be one who is above the other. Whatever way you look at it, we inevitably find differences, inequalities of class for example. And society also demands placation, coaxing, flattering and buttering up. We excel at that.

This ‘Seat of Honor’ at the hospital was a kind of ‘installation art’ reflecting the state of society in a very sharp way, (of course, the creators did not intend it as such- I am interpreting for myself) taking away the veils to let us see what society is really made of, defining and characterizing the things society admires and pays homage to.

I mention this because I want to write about the art of Nina Saunders, a Danish artist who has become famous in London. I see she uses furniture, especially chairs, sofas, etc. to help comment on society in a very interesting way. Sometimes she goes very deep to the subconscious: many pieces are expressive, surrealistic forms.

I saw the furniture works of Nina at the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, an art venue created out of an old church.

Looking from the outside, one sees it as a functioning church. It’s very pretty. But when you go inside, you find that Jesus on the cross has been replaced by contemporary art, which is a new god of this century. I saw it and felt sad about what had happened. I found many churches in Denmark don’t have God there any more, even when they have religious ceremonies. The souls of the people and the communities are no longer in the churches. Most of the churches are dry and soulless: you can feel it.

Nina’s exhibition is entitled ‘The Tempest,’ referring to the play by Shakespeare. I understand that Nina was playing with some meanings of the play. I’m sorry I don’t know anything about that play, so I can’t say. There was nothing for me to do but look at the works themselves.

Walking into the exhibition, we see wooden ladders hanging on the wall. Each ladder is decorated with wire and color. Some are wrapped in cloth. Some have steps made of leather cushions. When you think carefully about these ladders, you see that each one has a different personality, and each has a different occupation. For example, the soldier ladder is covered in green ‘camouflage’ cloth. The ‘intellectual’ ladder looks very serious: the steps are in leathers with all the buttons tastefully done. The artist’s ladder is colorfully painted, the design almost abstract. This set is called ‘Let Us Proceed.’ (1990 – 1992)

Walking further in, you pass a ‘chair of someone crazy for white.’ It is untitled, dated 1993, but one immediately understands the work, because Nina has put the two chairs back to back, using white canvas like a strait jacket to restrain someone in a rage. These jackets have been put on the chairs, which convey a sense of being suffocated and constrained.

Escaping from these pressures, we hear classical music playing softly among another group of chairs. This set is called ‘Conversation Pieces, 1997.’ There are six chairs, all different. Each chair has its own personality. One is like a well brought-up girl in a white dress, very tidy. One is like a plump girl. One is orderly and straight, another like a girl with mannerisms. They are like a group of high society women at an afternoon tea party, happily gossiping about their husbands.

There is a sofa with two chairs, very interesting, imaginative and surreal, ‘Never 1999.’ The sofa is flowered, red and white. One of the cushions has a collapsed center, and the pattern of flowers seems to have leaked off and run all over the floor. It looks creepy and horrifying indeed. ‘Ever Onward, 2000’ is a brown leather chair, very dignified, in serious taste, solemn as in a library of some wealthy old family (English). The chair has been twisted, an arm extended to an unrealistic length. It looks like an old scholar in a suit, sitting drunk, asleep and alone. These two works made me think of the drawings of Salvador Dali, a Spanish Surrealist painter who made pictures of melted clocks.

The last work is hidden behind a wall. Walking in, we can hear the sound of pop music from the past – Perry Como – along with the sound of something banging on walls and ceiling, rhythmically and continuously. Bang! Bang! When you peek behind the wall, the first thing you see is a wooden swing, empty and swinging itself against the wall of the room like a crazy, mindless person. Bang! Bang! The wall is being banged in, caved in, it has been hit so often. Seeing it, one gets chills, like in films about ghosts where objects move on their own.

The wall is covered with wallpaper - old, crème colored, with flowers. There is a plant, all withered, in a pot in the corner of the room – which is even more chilling and sad.
While looking at this work made me think of my childhood and smile about the swing which was destroying itself, it wasn’t really funny. It was depressing and sad. It’s hard to put into words.

I wonder what an artist like Nina Saunders would think of that sacred chair in the lobby of that private hospital.

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