Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paisarn Plienbangchang with Thai Artists in Graz, Austria, 2000

‘Travel is the vision of the writer.’ These are the words of a big member of the Suan Toon-In generation, Rong Wongsawan. It’s very true. Travel makes us take a wider perspective; makes us collect information and knowledge about what we see and meet before transforming it later into our own work.

We used to sit and argue about the meaning and the difference between ‘travel’ and ‘tourism.’ If one doesn’t think much, one would not feel any difference at all. But if we see deeply, we will find that it has something to do with seeing or understanding those two words very well. One travels somewhere for a reason, to earn a living, to get in touch with someone, or to search for something very personal within.

But tourism arises out of pleasure seeking. Sometimes we call it traveling, but it is traveling as tourism. When people learn how to look for their own pleasure this way, by going to various places round the world, the many service trades rise up in response, from little businesses to great big ones. And they divide into classes as well – for example, from 5-star hotels like the Oriental to the backpacker lodgings of Kaosarn district in Banglamphu.

Tourism in some countries has expanded to provide major earnings, more than any other business. Then it becomes a national policy to expand and promote this trade in order to accommodate the many tourists coming in from round the world. The picture we see today is not a small one: it is a big picture – so big that many people refer to it as the ‘tourism industry.’ If you look at the earnings generated from so much tourist spending for services, satisfactions, conveniences and comforts, it looks good!

But we can also look back again at another side of this, i.e. what is lost, and the big problems that follow after tourism - the changes in once natural areas which have been ‘improved’ or eliminated in order to receive visitors and the inexorable change in old ways according to what kind of tourism comes through. We can see the impact on hill tribe peoples deep in the mountains, or on sea people in the islands of the South. They may not change overnight, but the familiar sights we know today will soon be gone.

That is one little reason why the art series, 'Tourist Industry', came into being, a project by 10 Thai artists. We had a chance to bring our work to the city of Graz, Austria last June. It was both a journey and a tour this time (it couldn’t be helped). Eva Ursprung and her group of Austrian friends arranged it. Thanom Chapakdi, a Thai professor and art critic, acted as liaison.

The event did not focus only on artists. There were NGOs concerned with social problems, too, for example Chanwipa Apisuk’s Empower Foundation was also involved. Empower educates and otherwise assists groups which provide sex services, at Patpong in Bangkok, for example. That is an international tourism venue. Foundations like this know very well the problems which arise as a result of tourism.

Eva and her friends used to do the Women Beyond Borders project. They traveled from Graz, Austria by train through many countries as far as St. Petersburg in Russia. Along the way, they showed artworks by artists at various train stations. It was a presentation which crossed borders and frontiers, denying the limitations and walls thrown up between nations. Because humanity really is people everywhere. People were related before these boundaries were set up classifying them into this group or that one. Simply speaking, when we Thai cross over into Laos, look at the people and their way of life: they are no different from Thai people just on the other side of the divide, in Isarn. And many people have relations on both sides of that line.

Graz is in the South of Austria, not far from the border with Hungary. It is a small town, peaceful and quiet – just 250,000 people. We arrived in the city in the middle of a long holiday. Many residents of Graz were out of town on holiday. The place was more or less deserted, the shops all closed. One couldn’t find any place to eat or shop. That had to wait till the holiday was over. And don’t even imagine that you could find a 7-11 store or a food vendor along the side of the road.

We were to show in a public park in the middle of the old town – the Forum Stadtpark. The weather was cool and many people came through the park. The building, which had been single story, had been repaired and extended to two stories. The local artists there fought with the city administrators for the right to use this building as an exhibition space.
It would be a good idea to ask an exhibition hall like that for local artists in Lumpini Park in Bangkok!

Setting up each artist’s work was really chaotic – not that we hadn’t prepared in advance – but because no one came to help or coordinate, and because no one felt much like presenting when they had a chance for a long holiday. So we were kept waiting, and some works were ready only a few hours before the show was to open.

In the various cities of Europe, when the summer months come, they have festivals in various cities. Many are art festivals; people enjoy and come to see them. Works of well known masters like Paul Gauguin are on show in Graz, so we had a chance to see the originals of his early work up to the paintings made in Tahiti. And we saw many of the works of his contemporaries. All of Gauguin’s paintings were borrowed from private collections from around the world. It was good luck for the audience because it is not easy to bring such a number of works like this together in the same show.

Another show was, ‘100 Museen 100 Events,’ which all took place in the city on the same day. There were musical events in the city center with restaurants joining in the celebration all day long. And there were many openings at art galleries. One ticket gave you entry into every gallery for one day. The Thai artists’ show, Tourism Industry, was part of this.

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