Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Manit on Paritat Hutangkul, Miracle Day of Observance, Apr.1999

Manit Sriwanichpoom. “Miracle Day of Observance,” Yr.45, Vol. 45, 11–17 Apr. 1999.

The image of the Lord Buddha as a woman: what will happen? What will Thai society become? I had these questions in my mind as I was walking through Paritat Hutankul’s exhibition, “Miracle Day of Observance” at the Tadu Gallery (12 Feb.- 14 Mar.).

These days Paritat has created something special by bringing a Thai style image of the Buddha returning from the Daodeung Heaven after going there to preach Dhamma to the deities above. The image of the Lord Buddha descending these stairs is created with simple yellow lines and a traffic symbol forbidding any vehicle parking. Simply put, the Lord Buddha faces a ‘no parking’ sign. If the Lord Buddha came today and came up against this sign, it’s a clear statement: you can’t linger to teach the Dhamma. Do it somewhere else. Or it could suggest a request to suspend being Buddhist for a day. Just be Buddhist on high holy days like Maka Busha, Asahabusha, the beginning of the rains’ retreat.

Paritat is ridiculing and mocking Thai people who call themselves Buddhist (mere lip service) but whose behavior in off-again-on-again (the term the artist uses). People have their own reasons for when to be Buddhist and when not to be; when to be strict and pious and when to be flexible. In fact, this state of affairs has gone on for a long time. It has become a way of life, especially in today’s consumerist society. Being Buddhist or not is not the issue any more. A religious holiday is nothing more than a day off from work. Religion has become just another commodity. Nirvana is a selling point. The abbot is the monk’s managing director who keeps an eye on alms given (sales figures). And they have their own marketing plan for spreading their franchise over Thailand and the world.

He mocks the problems of ‘religious’ people who are corrupted in his series, ‘Give Back the Yellow Cloth, No.13,’ in which we see a man who looks like a demon, and many naked people, with the words child, wife, car, money, house, father, land, adultery, and wealth which become links in an imprisoning chain. The man hands a yellow robe back to the Lord Buddha. In another picture, a male demon in a business suit is depicted with three feet standing on a car with three colors. The face has four eyes and four mouths. In one hand is a wineglass, in the other a sword. In another hand are a guitar and a British flag. Another two hands return a yellow robe to the Buddha.

Society is complex and confused. Values are mixed up and people turn to worship money as the shield of the clergy and the lay people. It seems that money can buy Nirvana, as for example at the Dhammakai center, and at many other such places.

This is more to the point-the mad search for wealth today, using money to buy paradise, readymade like instant noodles. Just boil and eat. No one comes forward to admit that they are not actually Buddhist.

Capitalism is the greediest merchant. The capitalists turn everything into money, including those, like Buddhism, who were the enemies of worldliness.

Partitat thinks in very straight, direct lines, without complexity. He talks straight. That’s why I have trouble with his work. He speaks from the point of view of a Thai male, like a very old-fashioned villager. He imagines that all the problems of desire, lust and evil originate with women.
Women in Thai art are portrayed in pictures by male artists either as very tidy, like folded linen, or as real bitches, wild and crazed without restraint or memory. (Thai artists have traditionally been men because in the past women could not come so close to the Buddha image. Things are different now. We have women doing mural paintings in temples.)

In the traditional male view, women are the enemies of virginity. That idea remains in Paritat’s works. I looked at [the reproductions of] his work and thought that, in the real thing, it would not be like that. In the set, ‘Wishing to Jump Over the Pond,’ women are presented in ‘superwoman’ outfits, carrying guns, poised to attack, with ‘Buddha – No Parking’ symbols in the corner. These images present women as fierce and very dangerous foes of Buddhism.

The face of the woman in the work “A New Face Comes Out, No. 1-5” by Paritat is very ugly and disgusting, with raw color mocking the faces of pretty starlets nowadays. Responding to his discontent, his anger with the media, he punishes and scolds, painting his emotion. But it won’t make anything better. It just contributes to the victimizing of the weak. We need to differentiate, to consider deeply.

It is possible to overlook the real enemy, the real problem. Women are always particularly targeted. In Thai society, males rule. Women are sold as commodities, whether they are starlets or prostitutes. Isn’t it the men who sit behind the scenes, counting the money? Society maintains these values. The avenues of choice get narrower all the time.

In “Got Her From Karaoke,” and “Got Her From Magazine”, the women are nude, well-rounded and approaching puberty, plump and firm, with faces like white fashion models. Their poses are provocative, obscene and teasing as in the traditional shadow plays in which I-Teng represents the village youth who goes astray in a woman’s sexual trap.

When Paritat speaks of the male in these pictures, he describes him as pathetic and backward, like the southern shadow-play character I-Teng – a rural bumpkin with a traditional dagger and only a white cloth to cover himself.

The artist emphasizes the naiveté of the young hayseed in “Ass, Take-one and Ass, Take-two.” The model stands with her back turned to the viewer. She is naked. Her face turns, her eyes seeking the make. Two hands prop up the buttocks as she twists provocatively (according to the formula pose universal in porn magazines). In the back is a young male, a boy, standing nearby and staring at the audience as if to ask what this is all about.

Paritat paints with anger and hate, rejecting the distortions of today’s society, but his intention is sincere. Even so, Paritat’s idea of dividing up the poles or parties, drawing the distinctions so clearly, does not help us understand, but leads us to misunderstand the real problem. Citing the rural culture of Thailand’s southern peoples, seeking local wisdom, is good. But one should not forget that the wrong ideas of the past should be discarded: for example, using women as symbols of lust and suggesting that religion is only about men; or picturing women as waiting on the sidelines to grab hold of the yellow robe and be pulled thereby up to heaven.

In fact, these are very distorted ideas and relatively new to Buddhism. In the past Buddhist centuries, women were allowed to ordain. They attained the highest levels of saintliness. I don’t know why, when Buddhism came to Thailand, why it happened that women suddenly became the enemies of virginity and signs went up forbidding women from entering the places frequented by monks.

The problems of backwardness and modernity, the old and the new, that we face here, are not simple. The work, “Fight On” resembles the shadow plays in which local wisdom fights with the ‘robot’ of modern times. Or the painting, “Whites Beat the Likay Actor,” in which three whites in suits beat bloody a likay actor The strategy of the West to swallow up local culture is very complex and tricky, especially the ravenous, insatiable American culture. What they call ‘pop culture’ created for the masses. It goes everywhere and swallows the world so quickly by way of marketing strategies of free trade. So it becomes the principle current in culture nowadays.

The artworks which critique our (lip-service) Buddhist society and the aggression of Western culture – I do not rush to judge Paritat’s idea, i.e. “the great evil comes from outside: it is not us!”

Paritat is brave, well-intentioned and very determined. But he may be over zealous and perhaps has come to his conclusions too hastily, not considering the problem from all sides. So some of his symbols are not correct, and we cannot avoid meeting some misshapen ideas.

Nonetheless, I like the work, “Taking Yellow Robes to Wash, No.4.” In this scene, the Lord Buddha takes the yellow robes to a laundry, and a smiling old Chinese guy in jeans stands by his washing machine. This work is very jolly, and very current as regards the monks nowadays. Paritat borrows from Thai painting technique to support his meaning very well. There is a broad scope for interpretation: old fashioned … up-to-date … old … new … You can see it from many angles.