Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Art After Red May (2)’

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Art After Red May (2)’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr. 58, Vol. 5, 22 – 28 October, 2010.

‘Yellow = Red = Red = Yellow’.
There was one work in the ‘Dream of Peace’ show entitled, ‘This Shirt is Yellow, This Shirt is Red,’ by Tavorn Ko-Udomwit, a senior artist and lecturer in art and an influential art manager.
It is a close-up from bust to groin of two young women. The girl on the left wears a red T-shirt bearing the message in yellow letters: THIS SHIRT IS YELLOW. The woman on the right wears a yellow T-shirt painted with the words, THIS SHIRT IS RED. Both lift the T-shirts to show their skin, their navels, their mid-sections as flat as any fashion model. At the same time, hands reach into the picture from outside its frame to check these two waists with red and yellow measuring tapes.

Many viewers, including myself, wondered what the sexy mid-sections of these models had to do with the problem of conflict between the two groups of red and yellow shirts. One couldn’t make out what the ideal midriffs of those beautiful people communicated in terms of calls for peace. Were these advertisements for T-shirts printed with clever words to remedy some ill omen, or were they making fun of the stickers seen on the backs of cars and taxis saying ‘This vehicle is yellow,’ or ‘This vehicle is red.’

Two weeks after the opening of the ‘Dream of Peace’ show, I followed up to see the answer from Tavorn Ko-Udomwit in the opening of the exhibition ‘Yellow = Red = Red = Yellow’ (Utilitarianism) at the Ardel Contemporary Art Gallery ( 15 July – 15 August, 2010). It is regarded as the first really ‘political’ show by this award winning artist, who has taken [many] prizes inside and outside the country. For more than 30 years, Tavorn has made artworks concerning Dhamma and Nature, using forms of presentation which hold to a very simple style of ‘little, but much,’ like the art of Zen. Using a branch, golden leaves, colored string, he brings real materials together on handmade sar paper, or makes pictures with graphic art to communicate feelings which are still and peaceful and meditative. The art has a rather decorative character which is comforting to look at. One needn’t think much because these images don’t critique the ideas or beliefs of any particular person or institution.

You could say that ‘Yellow = Red = Red = Yellow’ is a turning point, an about face
. It looks like the artist has great confidence not only in his own ideas and point of view regarding the state of affairs in Thailand today. But he also invests a lot in each work he makes, and he puts himself in a prominent position: he is one part of the works himself.

For example, ‘Portrait of the Artist, 1,’ a color portrait photo of the artist wearing the special kind of glasses normally used for vision examinations. They have red glass lens on one side with yellow lens on the other side. And he has a bowler hat like those worn by whites like the Mafia or Al Capone in the 1930s. The T-shirt and backdrop are black, emphasizing the face of this senior artist, age 54, with his rather straggly grey mustache and beard. In terms of presentation, ‘Portrait of the Artist, 2,’ shows just the lower part of the artist’s face because he is standing behind frosted glass. It looks like an advertising photo of the hero in a science fiction horror film rather than a work of art with political content.
After following at length the political situation of conflict between yellow and red, Tavorn concluded his opinion in one part of the catalog for his show, as follows:

“…The laws of nature – the real truths – three of them, concern impermanence, change and no-self. These help take us more easily to our goal, which is the end of suffering if we just choose to look at things that happen simply as phenomena. Something appears, stands, and is extinguished according to reason and the necessities of life. This is normal. We only remain and wait for the time of change. The context of happiness changes to one of suffering and awaiting happiness [to come back]. This chain of changes, coming in and going out is reality, and more real than the reality of any particular individual or group.”

It seems that all the problems of conflict between yellow and red stem from the fact that both sides are totally stuck and sold on themselves. But if they would only step back and ‘let go,’ allowing these ‘phenomena’ of conflict take their course, it would all calm down by itself – just like impermanent suffering and happiness which come and go in turn. Hence, one should not worry: that’s just the way it is. The important thing is for us to know how to ‘look’ at things that happen.

When one thinks like this in the large photograph entitled ‘Blind Spectacles,’ Tavorn makes plastic spectacles which are opaquely yellow and red as his [artistic] expression and as political media. Glasses like this were handed out to friends, seniors, juniors and acquaintances in the artworld to wear and to have their pictures taken in order to say that when you wear these glasses with a red-yellow view, you will not see things, which is not unlike blind people.

Playing with the idea of ‘seeing’ or ‘looking’ with ‘glasses’ is the vehicle of expression, and is the heart of this work:
there is nothing wrong with that. Political movements nowadays all use ‘color’ (which can only be comprehended by the eye) in creating ‘a political identity’ for their political body, whether yellow, red, green or blue.

Actually, Tavorn begins well by looking at ‘phenomena’ (conflict). However, rather than really going into study it, to creating understanding of the roots of the conflict and violence that arises in society, he turns back and chooses to use Buddhist teachings, which he reveres,
to explain rather awkwardly why he doesn’t get mixed up in it, and why one shouldn’t choose sides, either one color or the other. The language he uses and his way of explaining is like someone in the temple who tends to speak more about problems of personal emotion and deep feeling than about ‘burning down the city and the country.’

He talks as if ‘phenomena’ (conflicts) are not as important as ‘the one who sees phenomena’ – in this case, the artist.
Both portraits of the artist that I mentioned already attest to this.

There is another large photo of the artist which drives in the point of showing his importance.
The artist, camera in hand, has taken the trouble of attiring himself in body armor and a combat helmet upon which is printed the word, ‘ARTIST.’ The background is the Democracy Monument, dressed in red cloth. The relief sculpture decorating the monument has been splashed with paint by the red shirts and marked with words of protest. Anyone who sees this picture must conclude that this artist is in the forefront of those who ‘saw’ and went out ‘to record;’ who saw with his own eyes and charged right in, endangering his life just like a war correspondent.

But it is strange. Why are there no photos of the protest event, or of the violence, all the losses, for viewers to see. Except for the picture of the artist standing conspicuously in the middle of the picture of the Democracy Monument, for readers who are outsiders rather than insiders like you and me, it would be impossible to get politics into this exhibition.

When you see ‘phenomena’ as unimportant, the confusing, complex conflicts of Thai politics appear almost like a competitive game, as suggested in the big photographic work, ‘Twin Boxers,’ in which the artist dresses a pair of youths in red and yellow shorts and boxing gloves. Printed on the red trunks are the words ‘Dad’s son, disciple of the yellow camp,’ and ‘Red son, disciple of Taksin’ on the yellow trunks. They form a twin pastry, like patango, a bitter tonic, pickled red and yellow, or instruments of destruction such as red or yellow acid.

To so simply sum up the life and death problems of the nation without any principles or reasons to support and back up this personal analysis is not unlike a crude and shallow summary, like those conducted in the foreign press talking about the problems of Thai society today. But the rearguard here, with another kind of readymade view, sees the problem as trifling.

This is one ‘illusion’ of artists who have a ‘Dhamma’ point of view. When they take a high vantage point, it could make them lose their way, believing they understand everything about the problem. They bring and apply the teaching and principles of Buddhism to use in a slanted interpretation in order to fit with the behavior of the one making the interpretation. Sometimes they look no different from the behavior of politicians and campaigners who simply climb up on stage and call for democracy and justice.

Thai Buddhism is interpreted as asking people to surrender, endure and accept their fate ‘with awareness’ rather than interpreting in a dynamic way, to bring about change to solve problems
– deep structural problems – which are at the source of injustice and corruption and special interests in order to bring real peace to Thai society.

In this case, the ‘Yellow = Red = Red = Yellow’ show makes the process of fighting and being injured and dying on both sides to be a kind of irony or satire. Meaningless. Just a backdrop for a big image of the artist.

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