Friday, July 2, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Photos of Thai People Today: Variety and Challenge.”

Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Photos of Thai People Today: Variety and Challenge.” In Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly news magazine. Yr.57, Vol. 37, 4 – 10 June, 2010.

Taking a break from the utter depression of Thai politics, the killings between government forces and the Taksin-backed red-shirted group, I went to Tokyo to open a photo exhibition, ‘Thai Photography NOW.’ The last picture I saw before I left Bangkok was the carcass of the Central World building. It looked about the same as the twin World Trade towers in New York City into which terrorists plunged two jet passenger planes in September, 2001.

Every year in Tokyo there is a festival, ‘Photography Month.’ This is the 15th year for this event. Since 2004, however, the organizers have expanded the show by inviting other Asian countries to participate and exhibit their work. Last year they invited Malaysia. This year, they have honored Thailand.

Unfortunately, the Thai embassy in Tokyo did not cooperate, even though the host asked only for a cordial official letter of acknowledgement from the Thai Foreign Ministry. It would have displayed relations of cultural and artistic exchange between the two countries. We didn’t ask for any money. However, the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Deputy Minister, Apinan Posyanond, and the Tourist Organization of Thailand (TOT) in Tokyo gave good support, seeing this as a cost-free opportunity to encourage and build up friendship.

I would like to present here some excerpts from the catalog of the exhibitions so you can see some of the works of the artists and photographers who joined the event. There were three galleries involved – Nikon Salon Ginza (26 May – 8 June); Rinkup Ginza ( 26 May – 6 June), and Place M Shinjuku (31 May – 11 June).
You could say that ‘Thai Photography NOW’ is the first foreign show of the works of skilled Thai photographers and artists because earlier events abroad have celebrated the works of individuals [rather than making country of origin a central feature]. On this point, we must thank the Photographic Society of Japan, and the chairman, Yutaka Ohira, and committee which organized Photography Month, Tokyo, 2010, for giving us this great opportunity.

I was honored by the organizers to be entrusted with the task of selecting the works of 12 Thai photographers
for this show. The choices were not easy. There are bound to be questions about what standards I followed in making the selections.
I wanted the Japanese people to know Thailand through these varied photos. This was the determination which guided me.
It would be a waste of time and money to put up a show of photos of pretty landscapes, sunsets, limpid seas, skies of indigo blue, smiling faces. You can see such things on posters everywhere, in magazines, and on public relations websites encouraging tourism in Thailand.

Organizing a show of that sort would show Japanese viewers nothing new about Thailand
. They would not learn anything about what has happened to Thai society during the past four decades since we began our development plan for industrialization in 1961 up until the present era of IT. And [our Japanese viewers] wouldn’t know how these changes have impacted Thai people, individually, by gender or by group, and in politics, society, culture and religion.

I wouldn’t try to suggest that ‘Thai Photography NOW’ gives the complete picture of the reality of the way things are in Thai society. There were countless limitations imposed both by the host and by the invited guests. I only hoped that the folk in the land of the rising sun would be able to see a few aspects, and that they might touch and see what Thai artists and photographers feel and think about the homeland in which they live and reside.

Photos of smiles, traces of tears and worry, the strange and the weird, which you will see in these photos, should help reduce the unfamiliarity, the differences between people and cultures, between Thai and Japanese, and hopefully will create understanding to see more deeply into each others hearts.

Surat Ostanukrau (1930 – 2008) “Vanishing Bangkok.”

Surat Ostanukrau has a unique history as a photographer. He began serious picture-taking at the age of 70, which is the point at which most people choose to retire and relax. A successful businessman who also held many ministerial posts, Surat devoted the last years of his life to photographing Bangkok, which he said was, ‘slipping away as Thai society changed so rapidly, becoming a concrete jungle and a world shaped by information technology.’

What is slipping away and disappearing from Bangkok?

Surat had a long life and saw a lot of the world, the ways of life of both East and West. He reflects a great hope and respect through his very honest, unvarnished, black and white photos, pictures of things which are slipping into oblivion (one could say dying) in his beloved capital city – the old way of life and culture of gentle and cooling waters, the source, the rivers and canals, arteries of travel in daily life.

Surat created ‘Vanishing Bangkok,’ an important testimony about society, by spending more time in boats along little canals rather than walking on concrete roads. He depended on his own skill in estimating and his ability to take pictures like a news reporter, a documentary photographer. For example, he got images of children who have shed their clothes and leap joyfully into the water; a dog riding piggyback as his master swims across a canal; two dogs who stretch their necks out from the shadows to see the boat passing by in the canal; a monk paddling a boat to seek alms; a woman vendor in the floating market. These pictures are full of freshness and fun which easily call up smiles and chuckles in viewers.

Surat did not seek out depressing pictures of life along the canals, but sadness is perhaps difficult to avoid
in pictures of the old wooden houses leaning this way and that, and the neglected aged, following their lonely old way of life. You see them all along the little streams and canals, as well as buildings, offices, 5-star hotels and fancy condos in the new economy.
Surat was presented with the XI Triennate-India Award from Lalit Kala Akademi, India, in 2005 and the Photo City Sagamihara Asia Prize from the 6th General Photography Festival Sagamihara, Japan 2006.

Kamthorn Paowattanasuk (b.1980, Bangkok) ‘Holy Alloy, Pearly Gates.’

During the past 3-4 years, Kamthorn Paowattanasuk has been continuously scouting temples in and around Bangkok, not out of a wish to study Dharma or to hear monks preach on Buddhism. But he was checking out, visiting and feeling wonder at the art at these temples which have bee decorated with a ‘weird taste in art,’ unlike the way they used to adorn temples in the past when all was rooted in Buddhist stories and the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Emphasis used to be on the beauty of forms which were fine, delicate and peaceful.

No one is sure about where the taste of the weird new art comes from
. Thai temples nowadays seem to follow fashion, making excessively large edifices decorated all over with Buddha images and พระเกจิดังๆ cast from cement and painted gold, or decorated with figures of Hindu gods or the Holy Mother, Kuan-Im. Sometimes there are playful figures of traditionally groomed Thai children set up to wai people who enter the temple. There are cement dinosaurs rising up beside chapels.
Many temples like to have walls and gates of metal alloy which are actually a conspicuous display of wealth. They hope by such displays to gain the credibility and respect of the faithful, and to make the temple into a kind of tourist attraction. But with the poor quality building and decoration, they have created a new modern school of temple art which should be designated Holy Alloy – Pearly Gates.

The set of color photos in this series is really weird. The skill and keen observation of Kamthorn Paowattanasuk present Bangkok area temples as places which confuse, amuse and stun till visitors. They may even ask, ‘Is this a temple or an amusement park?’
Kamthorn Paowattanasuk finished his studies from the Faculty of Fine Art, Chula. [continued in Part 2]

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