Friday, September 3, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Eastern Corner,’ the photography of Sakesan Prasertkul

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Eastern Corner,’ in the Silpawattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, 18 – 24 Dec. 2009.

Sakesan Prasertkul is welcoming his 60th birthday with a photo exhibition and a book of photographs
entitled Eastern Corner (or in a broader sense, ‘eastern ways’ might not be too far off the mark). The exhibition is being organized in two places: at the Pridi Panomyong Institute (14 – 27 Nov.2009) and at the Hemlock Restaurant on Phra Ahtit Road ( 1 Dec. 09 – 31 Jan.10).

The book has been published in two languages – Thai and English – by Praphansart. The volume is smaller than A4 size paper with 128 pages. The pictures are all black and white, but they are 4-color black and white, which helps preserve the quality, value and detail of the pictures. As to the price, one would have to say it is rock bottom at 350 Baht. (Praphansart Publishing is certainly not looking for a profit. They just wanted to disseminate the works of P’Sakesan.)

I don’t think I need tarry too long over any introduction to the personal qualities of Sakesan Prasertkul because the public knows this former student leader from the calls for democracy in the 14 October era of 1973. People remember. Now Sakesan is retiring from his position as a teacher at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat. Then he will simply be an intellectual and a writer – one who has so many works to his credit (he is a winner of the Sriburapa Prize, a guarantor of quality) - and his newly attained status of photographer. Though he has long loved photography, it is only recently that he has moved toward doing it seriously, publishing a book of his pictures.

But this new status must bring with it the expectation that he will help create the atmosphere, liven things up, vitalize Thai photography circles. At the same time, there must e challenges, tests, and questions from Thai and foreign audiences which cannot be avoided. Writing exclusively in Thai, a language used only by people in this country, around 60 million people, is like paddling a boat on a lake and presents its own obstacles and resistance. But when you cross over into photography in the visual arts, all the limiting factors of language are gone. The cultural barriers come down, blown away. The lake suddenly becomes a great ocean.

Admirers and collectors of Sakesan’s work will not be limited to Thai people. Henceforth he is a newly arrived ‘artist-photographer’ with the whole world for an audience and for the critics. Certainly an event like this will shake up artists everywhere, Sakesan himself without exception.

‘Eastern Corner’ is a compilation of Sakesan’s photos from the period of 1994 to 2009, the span of 15 years during which he was traveling around Thailand and the region – to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, and to China as well. His pictures fall roughly into three groups. There are those which resemble travel documentaries, those which have Zen Buddhist themes, and those which concern society and the animal world.

The documentary images taken by Sakesan during his travels were used to illustrate his own writings. They have the air of pictures taken on tour, not expressing any particular opinion of the photographer, but simply and directly recording various events or activities which took place before his camera – for example, among his photos from the island of Bali, the image of Balinese musicians playing a flute and beating a kamalan, or women in traditional garb raising their offerings at a temple (1995). In a photo from Yunan an old uncle dressed in local garb draws his bow across a stringed instrument which resembles a very small cello (1995). There are pictures of a Laotian musical ensemble from Luang Prabang (1996) and a Burmese puppet performance in Mandalay (2008). A large proportion of his pictures are of this kind, and most of his book is devoted to them.

The photos which have a philosophical Buddhist character have extremely simple elements. They express belief in a way of life in which ‘small is beautiful.’ Anyone who has followed Sakesan’s ideas and thoughts during the past ten years will find that he has a profound interest in Buddhist philosophy. These ideas are expressed in his works of photography. His photo of a wooden bridge spanning a very rapidly running stream was taken during his visit to Monton Sechuan in 2000. This image is an example of the symbols he uses to express his feelings and thoughts; he does it very well.

The pictures open possibilities for various interpretations. This photo of a bridge is taken from a high angle.
The wooden bridge, slung across on ropes, looks like it very well might swing and rock unsteadily. It is the only way across to the jungle on the other side. Someone might see himself in that decayed, narrow and unsteady bridge. Another might compare it with his own life, a journey full of anxiety with no guarantee of what lies at the end.

The photo of a great mountain veiled in mist in Sechuan looks like an old traditional Chinese painting(2000). In a picture from Luang Prabang, two boats are seen from afar, tied up at the quay on a still and peaceful evening. The water is shallow; the tide is out (2004). There is another picture of boats from the same place, taken from a high angle. All you can see is the beautiful shape, the body of the boat. It is like an abstract painting.

Another picture from Luang Prabang is a close-up of the gilded wooden face of a Buddha image.
You can see the cracks and breaks on the holy visage. The eyes of the Buddha gaze down. [The weathered face] looks painfully wounded, which contrasts with the beautiful character, so still, peaceful and cool, of the Buddha image.

Turning to pictures of human societies and wild animals, these reflect the photographer’s keenly observant and analytical eye. Sakesan critiques contemporary society with his own mixture of humor and sadness. For example, there is a picture of a Buddhist nun who stands, seeking alms, under a pedestrian walkway in the vicinity of Siam Square. This photo, in which he dares to crop off the head of the nun, is one of Sakesan’s best. Only the body is left, swathed in white on white, hands holding an alms bowl covered in white lace.

At the same time, on the right-hand side of the picture, you just catch sight of the feet of a woman descending the stairway. She is wearing a pair of cheap high heels. Sakesan is good at catching a composition, pulling focus and snapping the image. The values in the photo are perfect: the nun stands in shadow. The feet of the anonymous woman are in sunlight. Sakesan catches two worlds - that which is above, and the temporal world. He has brought them together in a single picture in a very balanced way. (It’s a pity this picture is not in the book.)

Sakesan’s pictures reflecting the possibilities in society have more objective than subjective features, which allows viewers to make their own interpretations. Sakesan is merely the one who captures the phenomena or event and who brings them to show. There are some outstanding pictures presenting conflicting pairs of worlds, or sets of ideas which ought to be incompatible. There are many [of these contrasts] in his pictures.

A photo taken in Burma of a mother carrying her child (2008) might be very ordinary if it were just a woman with her child on her left hip, her right hand holding a bunch of flowers. But because she is wearing a soldier’s helmet with a Nazi swastika affixed, the picture isn’t true to type. Perhaps the helmet is nothing more than a safety precaution, or meant to keep the sun off. Maybe the Nazi symbol is simply a decorative addition, just for ‘kicks’.

For German people and for others round the world, her helmet might be very offensive. In this globalized era, this post-modern period, meanings are slippery and are continually reborn anew. Some people might say that this Burmese mother will have to be as tough as a soldier (even as tough as a Nazi dictator). She tries to maintain the role and dignity of ‘motherhood’ in the ‘Eastern’ tradition, hoisting her child with one are while the other hand holds to the beauty and delicacy of flowers – symbols, though not, unfortunately, lotus blossoms.

Sakesan’s photo of a white woman buying papaya salad somewhere in the Chatuchak area(2005) is another which presents sharp and striking contrasts between cultures and tastes. The white woman in her black lingerie (the Ministry of Culture hates this intensely) wears leather shoes and black knee stockings. Her back and arms are bare. She faces away from the camera, reaching for the papaya salad which the little vendor is about to deliver. The Thai woman stands only to about the shoulder of the white. This picture might be far less interesting without the black dog which sits gazing raptly at the white woman. There is droll humor here which we find more often in Sakesan’s later works.

Speaking of his images of society and forest animals, many of his local readers probably know that Sakesan is a traveler who loves the wilds as he loves his own life.
Hence, the close-up of the chained leg of an elephant in Chiengmai (2009); the picture from Burma of an eagle whose wings are overshadowed by the bars of its cage (2007); the sad tiger chained up in eastern Thailand; the close-up of the face of a gibbon, sitting sad and staring in his little black cage. (No date or place names for these – they aren’t in the book.) Such images speak eloquently of the artist’s feelings.

What this exhibition and the volume of collected photos need most in ‘Eastern Corner’ is a photo editor. The artist seems reluctant on behalf of his audience and for himself as well. He is so willing to compromise. And then the works lack a strong and distinctive character. The travel documentary photos – which represent the largest proportion¬ – tend to overshadow the artist’s outstanding abilities, especially in the realm of social and animal pictures. The more philosophical images with a Buddhist character also have potential to present more clearly and sharply the ideas and thoughts of Sakesan Prasertkul.

In any case, ‘Eastern Corner’ has now left port and sailed into the wide ocean. It is indeed like the picture on his book’s cover: a charming little Khmer girl, trying to paddle and maintain her balance afloat in her plastic wash-tub, working hard not to be overturned by the turbulent wake of a passing tourist boat.

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