Monday, November 29, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Art After Red May (3) – Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Green.’


Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Art After Red May (3) – Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Green,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.58, Vol. 9, 19 – 25 Nov. 2010.



Famous artists on the international scene at the age of 49 are the real thing, not empty boasters. Rirkrit Tiravanij is one of them, and he is having an exhibition addressing politics after the burning of the city and the other violent events on and around 19 May, 2010. The show at 100 Tonson Gallery is entitled ‘Rirkrit Tiravanij (Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Green). It is Rirkrit’s first solo show since his return to Thailand in 1998.

Rirkrit Tiravanij’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Green?’ is his coming out announcement in a sarcastic mode,
a mocking the stance toward politics by this international Thai artist who isn’t linking up with anyone or any color, period.



Rirkrit’s title for the exhibition was taken from the name of the abstract series, ‘Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,’
by the New York artist, Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970), whose paintings in this series mocked the expansion of power of the communist party during the cold war.
[Here Manit is citing comments in Rathsaran Sireekan’s article, ‘Rirkrit Tiravanija's debut solo art show focuses on Thailand's current and firmly established socio-political divide,’ in the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post newspaper, 19 Aug.,2010.]


As for me, Rirkrit’s manifesto didn’t surprise me at all, because if we look back at the works that made him famous, they all challenge authority and the meaning of ‘art areas’ like museums and galleries by changing them into creative areas. He made ‘pad Thai’ to eat instead of coming to appreciate paintings and sculptures, according to established tradition. And he posed questions about the meaning of the word ‘art’ – what it really is. If artists like him invite artist friends to have a football team to compete, is that activity art too?

In the postmodern world, in which the meanings of things are unstable, always changing, ‘art’ is also like that. But no one is bold enough to ask about whether the results make things better or worse. The murky uncertainty puts scholars, art critics and audiences into a state of confusion and uncertainty. They don’t know how to ‘take’ these new things.

We shouldn’t deny the influence of Rirkrit’s ‘pad Thai’ art on the artworld whether you like it, hate it, or feel disgusted that nowadays anyone can be an artist without even working up a sweat. The ‘artist’ in this meaning no longer needs to dirty his hands or blacken his fingernails. He need only know how to manage!

If you can’t imagine it, think of how people arrange parties or events – event organizers.
They depend on their ability to cooperate with people in many fields, for example, draftsmen, designers, set designers, lighting and sound, musicians, food and beverages (caterers) in order to impress and excite crowds or create new experiences for audiences.

From one point of view, art seems more democratic; anyone can do it. Do it yourself. No need for an institution or for any systematic education; it’s easier to achieve than before. The holiness and power of art and artists which were once monopolized by some groups and by the ranks of the old guard have become less important. There are new art powers arising like the Rirkrit school with their new ‘Ver’ Gallery as the meeting ground.



I’d like to return to the artwork of Rirkrit on the opening day of his show. Gas stoves had been set up with cooking pots, plates, bowls, and dinnerware half filling the gallery, a neat square room whose 4 white walls were beginning to show patches of charcoal drawings.

Students from PSG/SU were providing labor to make the drawings using copies of news photos which Rirkrit had provided. These images showed events calling for democracy since 14 October, 1973; 6 October, 1976; Divisive May, 1992; and the latest demonstrations by both yellow and red parties since the coup of 19 September, 2006.

Today, Rirkrit invites audiences to come to party, to eat curry – red, yellow and green – in the midst of an atmosphere calling for democracy. While waiting for Rirkrit’s cook to steam the rice and heat the curry, the heat from the stoves made the gallery, very warm indeed, too hot to discuss politics. And really, no one felt like talking politics either. Maybe because we had just passed the violence of 19 May such a short time ago. Everyone preferred to party instead.



On the last day of the exhibition, the gallery had a talk by knowledgeable persons and artists to close the event. On that day the 4 white walls were so completely covered with charcoal drawing that everything seemed darkened from ceiling to floor. In the month that passed, the scenes of events and protests with different fates and agendas (hidden) had been drawn over by the young artists till the images had mutually absorbed each other to become a single story, becoming a picture of great power.

The artists responded to questions by saying that he chose these events because they took place in a period when he was growing up and he had heard about them in the news. He believed that the people’s fight for democracy would continue.

Unfortunately, at the discussions closing that show, neither Rirkrit nor any of his famous guests had anything to say about the present political situation – not a single word. The artist himself avoided talking or giving his thoughts about what is happening in Thailand now. He let the audience figure it out for themselves. He did, however, express his opposition to the former US president, the obnoxious George W. Bush.

When the country is in a state of unrest and brokenness, publicizing ones own political stand is something we should do with caution, since one never knows if dear friends share the same ideals or not. This is especially true for Rirkrit, who lives in Chiang Mai – that is his home. Whatever he says can come back to torment him. Nowadays one hears that young men and women artists, great and small, are in conflict among themselves over the state of the country and the central, principle institution.

It would be too much to expect that while the artist is still in a state of fear, we could discover clearly where he stands, or how deeply or shallowly he understands Thai politics. We do know for sure that he does not support ‘violence’ or ‘soldiers.’

The day after the 100 Tonson show, the artist opened a new show entitled ‘erasing 22’09” (unfinished), 24.05.2010’ at Ver Gallery (from 29 Aug. – 16 Oct. 2010) which has a new location at the Kokwua intersection, the site of a clash between Red Shirts and soldiers. That was the first time [i.e. during the recent violence] that the ‘men in black’ were seen, which showed the red-shirted people not to be – as they had claimed - a non-violent movement for democracy.

Rirkrit sent a pencil sketch (drawn by one of his anonymous assistants) to his white artist friend, Nico Dokx. The sketch was a copy of a newspaper photo from the NewYork Times. That photo, taken at a fairly close distance, showed a line of soldiers shooting as they advanced. Nico then used an eraser to wipe away the sketch of the photo while recording the sound of the erasure as it took place. Those sounds are replayed for listeners in the gallery at the exhibition.

In the middle of the very bright and roomy exhibition room, a record player has been set up. The listener can sit and listen to a recording of the ‘erasing of the image.’ The sounds resemble something scraping on metal.

At some points sounds of the blowing and heavy breathing of Nico can be heard, along with the ceaseless noises of passing traffic outside. We must put our ear near to the speaker while listening and try to imagine the slowly disappearing image of the pencil sketch of the soldiers firing their guns at the demonstrators. To testify to what was done, the artist has brought to show as well, in one corner of the room, a picture of the soldiers. It is about the size of a piece of typing paper, and more than half of this record has been erased, though we can still make out the forms of the soldiers holding guns.


The choice of this picture to create this work must surely raise some questions. We well know that the original photograph presented only a fragment of the facts – not the whole event. Those who see the picture could easily misunderstand what happened, or get an inaccurate or distorted view of the reality.

Using this news photo without any explanation from the news report, the audience will not know if the soldiers were using real bullets or rubber bullets to put down the riot. They cannot know whether the protestors, who are not seen in the picture, were armed and were fighting the soldiers. At the Kokwua intersection, the black-suited figures appeared with serious firepower to shoot back at soldiers, wounding, even killing them.

The question arises, then, as to why these two artists chose to focus only on violence from the government side. Why are there no pictures of those black-suited killers on the side of the Red Shirts? We cannot deny the negative image of soldiers from the past as regards calls for democracy. But the demands of the Red Shirt group were questionable and doubtful: were they really calls for democracy? If they were genuine, why were there ‘men in black’ with dangerous weapons at work, too?

Presenting a one-sided image of soldiers is a simplistic and ready-made view of the problems of Thai politics
, one which has been put forward by no few white news services (including the New York Times, from which Rirkrit took his photo). It is a very slanted presentation which is indifferent to the fact that the protesting Red Shirts also used violence via their black-suited men. That fact has been intentionally overlooked.

This is one of the problems of looking at Thai politics and of artists’ pictures of the violence.

In any case, if you consider the creative process of the work of Rirkrit and his friends in both shows, their method illustrates ‘[historical] revisionism’ very clearly. Using a piece of charcoal to sketch the picture in, ‘Who is afraid of red, yellow and green’ builds onto what is there, making ‘additions.’ The opposite takes place in ‘Erasing 22’09’ (unfinished), 24.05.2010,’ in which pictures are wiped out, demonstrating the preference for ‘subtracting.’

The artist makes us recall that history should not try to flee from the facts which it tends to obscure in euphemisms or swallow altogether in order to make the story fit with the hidden agenda of those who write it.

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