Monday, December 14, 2009

Manit on the Bangkok Art Project 1998

Manit Sriwanichpoom, “ Bangkok –City of Angels – for whom? ”
in Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.45, Vol.40, 7 - 13 Mar. 1999.

Probably since art first appeared in human society, it has been taken over by the governing powers and by politicians as a propaganda tool for themselves. Whether in eras of empire or ecclesiastical kingdoms, among dictators of the extreme right or communists on the left; even in liberal democracies, whoever is in power at the time. These varied groups are all quite aware of the power of art to help lead and spread their ideas and their political ideals.

Art is a good tool for brainwashing and creating belief and faith by ‘creating images,’ promises of utopias for all people – to be established sometime in the future – if only we believe and obey our leaders. (Just ask P.M.Chuan Leekpai or the Dhammakai headquarters. They expect this.)

In the era of Thai dictators before and after World War II, the Fine Arts Department and the Public Relations Department and all the military bands created a great deal of two kinds of music, i.e. patriotic – for national unity, follow the Leader confidently – and sweet, loving and consoling music to make people forget their sufferings, the oppressive dictatorial politics and the economic privations. Such music was airy and rich, an escape from daily problems and the realities of ordinary life. Dictators from Field Marshal Plaeck Pibulsongkram or Field Marshal Tanom Kittikajorn have all known and understood the power and influence of music in controlling people, and they support its use this way wholeheartedly.

The ‘Bangkok, City of Angels’ music referred to by the organizers of the Bangkok Art Project is another tune produced in an era of dictators, an era of beautiful singing, numbing rhythm, urging a lilting dream, easy to remember, by a very skilled songwriter.

The music inspired the organizers to think back on the lovely old times in Bangkok history. Though the city has changed quickly and violently, the organizers still have hope and are determined to make Bangkok a livable place, appropriate to a city of angels, a city that holds many dreams. You are supposed to look at the works of 74 Thai artists and 3 foreign artists who were selected to show. The works are like personal pieces fitting into a larger [jigsaw] puzzle.

Most of the works concern being engrossed, searching, trying to solve problems of ‘beauty’ in art. For example, the artist searches for perfection of art elements, or attempts to consider the Dhamma, the world, heaven and hell. The artist looks for a personal Nirvana. One eventually feels that we are coming from different places: the artists already have their own world: why do they need to make art?

Not many of the participating artists try to address contemporary problems. A Chinese artist;, Cai Guo Qing, for example, presents his work, The Century of Mushroom Cloud Event at Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The artist invites us to think of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and to think of the nuclear electricity generating plants that are to be build in Pathum Thani, Ongkarak District [Thailand].

WC for Bangkok, by Surasi Kusolwong is a rather playful work. It makes fun of the other works set up with it by offering a mobile toilet to audiences. At least the work is useful. Everyone has suffering – some can be excreted, but some can only be endured.

Asking a question about society in the era of consumption, Pishnu Supanimitr’s work, Mixed Cultures, and Chakraphand Vilasineekul’s Lost Angel are interesting and thought provoking.

Reflecting environmental problems and urban pollution that impact our lives, the works of Niti Watuya and Napat Tamniyar are lonely voices in this crowd.

Is this the ‘Bangkok, City of Angels’ that the organizers wanted us to know? The presentation shows people separated and focused on their own exclusive concerns. No one shares joys or sorrows together. Is this, then, the ‘utopia’ that the organizers had in mind?

To say that this project brings down to earth and along the roadside art that everyone thinks of as ‘high’ in an ivory tower; to say it participates in the people’s daily life; that it reduces the gap between artist and viewer, narrows it down, moves it out of the gallery and onto the street – really doesn’t help anything.

One must ask, in return, about the gap that needs to be reduced. Who created that gap? Wasn’t it the artists themselves? On this point, we don’t think we are more special or higher than the audience – right? (Listen to the voices. They resemble society women, sitting on the ground, humbly eating with the workers.)

In any case, ‘Bangkok, City of Angels’ is an image which reflects very well the attitudes of the organizers and official supporters. Apparently, the freedom and democracy won by the people’s struggles hasn’t helped anything.

We still refuse to get rid of the ideas of the bureaucracy (along with the products and ideas of dictators), a bureaucracy which only wants to flatter and curry favor with the powerful. (For example, the drawings of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai are exhibited as part of this project.)

We still like to create idle images fooling ourselves that everything is ‘normal.’ We remain afraid of ourselves. We dare not face reality. We still like art which is docile and timid. We don’t want dangerous art: we want to be comforted. We don’t want to think too much or get tense.

So, we seldom see a picture of an angel or fairy jumping off a building as a suicide (instead of scattering blossoms, as happens on the cover of the project catalog) the poverty-stricken fairies, like the whole country, in debt to the IMF. [They don’t show] the fairies and angels selling their bodies and getting AIDS; suffering in traffic jams and with all kinds of pollution. Or isn’t there any, in a city like this?

Changing the word from ‘traditional’ to ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern,’ which the organizers did for the ‘Bangkok City of Angels’ project is merely putting a business suit over the khaki suit of a Thai bureaucrat. It’s meaningless because the roots of the thinking never change. Nothing changes but the surface image.

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