Sunday, December 5, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Face to Faces: From Generals, Artists, Gays, Rambo, to Street People, (part 1)’

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Face to Faces: From Generals, Artists, Gays, Rambo, to Street People, (part 1)’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, 13 – 19 June, 2008, Yr.55, Vol.38.

The exhibition is “Month of Photography, Year 4,” (part of the French Cultural Festival). The hosting embassy invited me to help select works by Thai artists and photographers. They join together to exhibit with works of photography from France, pictures under the title, ‘ Face to Faces – [Self] Portraits.’ Simply speaking, it’s a matter of photographs of individuals.

It looks to me like a good opportunity to survey photos of individuals or portraits in our country and how they become tools for communication and expression. I look around in the world beyond the circle of art and artist. I look to people on the street. Why do they take pictures? I look beyond the nationality of the person who creates the artwork. I don’t look down on photographers, Thai or not Thai. I’m interested in the content of the picture – is it based on Thai society?

Because the number of catalogs is limited, I take this occasion to present the article I wrote for the Face to Faces: Part II show.

I think that Thai people became familiar with pictures of individual persons or portraits, before they knew other kinds of photographs such as views, landscapes or still-lifes. I assume this because the 4th King (1804 – 1868) had his portrait photo taken many times in many styles. He had many pictures taken in his honor. He was not intimidated by cameras, by the new technology of the whites or fear that it would suck away his soul into the box, as the country people feared. But the 4th King was aware of its power, the power of photographs which had the power to impact kings, emperors, and leaders generally of the Western nations which were looking to spread their influence in Asia. The king presented the dignity of the monarch of Siam with its ancient – not barbaric – culture. Reality seems present and concrete in a photograph of a person in formal, political communication when these things first entered Siam.

Now, however, Siam has become Thailand and follows a democratic system of government.
Thai society still worships power, people who have power, and those who are happy to use power rather than reason or justice. Portrait photos of the influential - or those who appear to have influence–are still important in Thailand. They are tools that help communicate to others the extent to which one has or is associated with power. (Certainly, important elements for such displays in photos are uniforms and signs of rank like medals and ribbons.)

The Chaiya Jitrakorn Photography Studio is one important old Bangkok portrait studio which caters to powerful people in Thai society. The establishment has been carrying on for 72 years. Established by Yim Huntrakul, his son Artorn Huntrakul carries on the philosophy and methods of his father. The philosophy of Chaiya Jitrakorn which remains unchanged is that the picture must be idealized, i.e. look better than the sitter [himself]. The torso and face, quite upright, are turned directly to the camera, looking neither to the left nor to the right. The eyes are clear and shining. (The background is blue like the sky because blue goes nicely with the color of every uniform, whether soldier, police or government officer in dress whites.) Any traces of wrinkles or spots are erased from the skin. Eyebrows and hair are darkened. All this makes the subject more beautiful, because leaders should be flawless.

Michael Shaowanasai, who likes to dress as a second kind of woman, picks up the expressive ways of local people in daily life to use in his own work. In his series, ‘The Life of One Girl,’ (2005) Michael reflects dreams which are ‘normal’ for him, for example, the portraits we find in parlors everywhere. He imagines himself as a girl in her high school uniform, winning the Miss B’Heaven Contest, finishing her studies and holding her diploma, getting married, posing with her darling son, and toward the end of her life, dressed all in white as a nun, a peaceful life in the coolness of Dharma.

Michael summarizes his own dreams (the dreams of no few young women) in just six photos which must make one smile or laugh at the artist’s foolishly impossible dream in the real world. Michael is a pretty stocky guy, but in the photo he is delicate and sweet, full of earnestness, happy, with a perfect life.

‘Pure Happiness’ (2008) is a new set of black and white photos by Isarete Sutisiri which came about when he finished his BA studies at the Fine Arts Faculty of Bangkok University.
He came to his upcountry home and was called upon to take photos of the celebration opening a new pavilion at a local temple. This group photo was the result, developed along with his own graduation photos when his family and relatives traveled to Bangkok for the event.

This picture of innocent happiness may look rather banal with no special technique of photography. But the charm of the picture is in the earnestness of the local people. The group picture is taken in a hierarchy where everyone knows their place (in society). The monks are always in front. The elders are honored to sit according to ancient seniority, which still functions in Isarete’s photo. (He stands, observing, behind the camera.) The seniority system has its way, with everyone sitting and standing in orderly fashion. The people dress quite similarly, showing their solidarity and unity. They have their picture taken in a very straight-forward way. All these aspects make the work look like an old photograph – 40 or 50 years old – though it was snapped only yesterday.

While the people in the group photo by Isarete have their individuality swallowed up, Alain Soldeville, a French photographer, is able to make some distinctions among local groups of white-collar workers, office staff, salary men in shirts with neckties. They all come out at the lunch hour in the middle of Bangkok’s Silom business district.

Alain uses speed in taking his photos. Capturing just a fraction of a second, he is able to catch images of the floating state of the subconscious world of personal thought, where we forget to notice the world and the surrounding environment. In the moments when they are not sitting in an office, but are out looking for lunch, these are the Thai people of a new era whom Alain notices in his images. He calls them ‘Busy People’ 2004 and 2008. The people don’t smile as in advertising posters for TAT. Their faces are not very happy, but full of worry, deep in thought. These are the portraits that Thai people are afraid of. They recall images of Japanese workers in Tokyo’s business district hell.

Thanapol Kaewpring, a photographer for Wallpaper magazine (Thai language), also asks about the meaning of life for us today in his work, ‘Nameless’ (2008). Thanapol reflects the lack of a core, the meaninglessness of the lives of people who only ‘eat – shit – copulate – sleep.’ He uses a slaughterhouse (pigs) as his studio. There is an executioner and there are pigs. The result is a picture in which there must be a killer and one killed. No need to doubt what the artist thinks is the state of things and what he wants to show society. But who do the viewers think is the artist in these pictures? (to be continued)

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