Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Wasan Sittiket (1999)

Manit Sriwanichpoom. “The Confused Life of Wasan Sittiket,” in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.46, Vol. 27, 1999.

“How are you, P’ - ? Is the work OK?” The sound of the voice suggested a rhetorical question.

“Yes, it’s good.” The answer seemed to follow suit, as expected.

That was the conversation in front of the lavatory in the gallery between two guys that I heard as I stood in line, waiting to unload my own burden.

As I stood there relieving myself I couldn’t help thinking that if anyone had asked me a rhetorical question like that, I would have hemmed and hawed and answered, “Confused.” The pictures in Wasan Sittiket’s new series are juicy and satisfying. Is that good?

Why do we have to [act so receptive] and nod agreeably when people talk? What is ‘juicy’? What is ‘satisfying’? We feel it is so fundamentally satisfying when someone throws shit in the government minister’s face, but if you experience it, you would hate it, right?

We have artists like Wasan Sittiket who are braver than the rest. He makes a picture of a nameless figure of a government minister, in full dress uniform, a man with the face of an animal and paws neatly folded on the table before him, where glasses of red wine are set out signifying a celebration of some sort.

In the pictures ‘Burden of Ministers;’ or (with a censored curse) ‘All Politicians Swindle in Order to Feed;’ or ‘Minister Approving Concessions,’ in which politicians make a public spectacle of engaging in an orgy; or even ‘Nirvana 2000’ in which a monk engages in carnal relations with a young girl in a posture of ecstatic emotion: these pictures show corruption, cheating and the personal quests for gain of politicians and clergy alike.

These stories are well known to us all. There is a morbid numbness and tolerance for the complex and insidious evil which continually grows. Wasan’s pictures scold just like the working men who swear every morning in coffee stalls near their homes where they pause each day before heading off to work. Everything drifts on that way till sometimes it is virtually a workday routine – part of the formula of daily life.

In a society where it’s every man for himself, and a slavish acceptance of evil that is ‘Thai-Thai,’ we may like having someone stand up and do the ‘bold to scold’ thing, because ‘Hell is other people.’ Evil is caused by other people, not by you or me. So we look at Wasan’s work with that sort of feeling – as if we were reading a newspaper. The behavior of corruption by politicians or the carnality of monks colors the daily newspapers. It’s exciting when the evil of other is revealed; something like being a spectator cheering a boxing match at the stadium.

It has been 20 or more years that Wasan has been showing his work and diligently joining demonstrations tirelessly supporting various causes all over the country in politics and religion, the environment. Society has branded him, labeled him, until people everywhere and art academics call him ‘an artist activist for society.’ (I don’t know how the local authorities are recording his history.) For a long time, the news tended to trivialize his status, calling him a ‘decorative flower on the stage of debate,’ or ‘colorful entertainment reporting on protests.’ (Sadly enough this labeling happens to many people – not just Wasan.)

When Wasan had an exhibition of pictures with landscapes from Phi Phi Island in Krabi, the art critics and some of his artist friends cut him violently – accused him of abandoning his political and social ideals.
Wasan felt the fierceness of the criticism deeply. He announced that he would not exhibit landscapes unrelated to social protest again.

Instead of allowing Wasan to try his hand at understanding nature, we just hold on to coarse linear images of feet sticking from trees to kick some evil person – pictures which we think has some teeth in it. We all hold on to the violence [of such images] as a style, a familiar ‘peeling,’ the glove, the outer surface, but these things cannot move anyone. They only please very casually.

There is no need to encapsulate or brand anybody. Artists don’t have to stick to any particular theory or idea (even if it is Nietzsche, Communism or anarchy). These things become entangling chains. People should know that one has a target and is aiming at that. For example, the Lord Buddha abandoned his Yoga teachers and went on to find enlightenment.

“Wasan as usual,” one admirer told me and chuckled. How can that be understood? Is it an attempt to please the artist by praising or criticizing?

Wasan’s pictures must naked people, sexual organs and intercourse in many strange attitudes, featuring exhausted villagers and brutal politicians. These things have become his trademark, his market position. Without them, he is not ‘Wasan as usual,’ and not tasty and satisfying…In this respect, ‘art’ dies quickly.

Wasan didn’t disappoint anyone with his work ‘Composite Picture of Political News,’ rage that you can buy, collect and hang in your home. However, there was a work which could be considered ‘not the usual Wasan.’ It was distinctive, coming out so smoothly in the midst of confusion: Wasan’s idea in this picture was ‘Missing Dad.’

In the picture, you see the man who is the father, bald, standing on the beach with his back turned, naked. His right arm akimbo, his left extended, his finger pointing to the green sea - like someone pointing the way. At the end of his arm a little kid (young Wasan) clings happily. The pink color of the picture is gentle and sweet, as in a dream, smooth and warm. It is a picture of love and warmth between father and son – males of two ages – a very beautiful picture.

His father died when Wasan was still a child, so he is very close to his mother.
When he thinks of his father, he sees him from the point of view of a child. Perhaps this is a picture of [Wasan’s] true feelings as a human being – not as a member of a movement, a social activist, the opposition – as he always presents himself.

Strangely enough, I don’t feel equally moved by Wasan’s, ‘I see Mother in a Golden Ricefield.’ Perhaps Wasan didn’t really see his mother in the rice field: he just wants to imaginatively compare her with Mother Phosop [the ‘Rice Mother’]. This is the difference you can see clearly between a picture felt from the heart and one created from an idea in the brain where the artist tries to insert a social teaching into his work.

It’s not like the picture, ‘Mother and Child’ in a series about love and hate (1996) which Wasan painted with tempera color on wood. There is a picture of a white-haired mother, sitting naked, holding Wasan at age 40: he wears classes, is balding and has a brushy mustache. His tiny hands grasp a paintbrush. Above his head is a black and white photo of his father in a civil service uniform. This picture is direct and charming. (While Wasan’s mother was still alive, Wasan liked to visit home and sleep with his head in his mother’s lap.) He is always a child in his mother’s eyes, no matter how old he gets. (Isn’t this true for most people?)

Not the usual Wasan is different from people’s expectations. It is Wasan taking the viewer to new dimensions in the artist – where he understands life better and is not caught up in the daily political problems. He becomes multidimensional, flesh and blood with feeling – not an art machine producing ‘anger’ on demand.

This can be true. Wasan himself must choose to make himself ‘confused.’ From following the current of social pressure, politics and activism, he can turn to create works which follow his own genuine and true feelings and ideas.

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