Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Form (Dissolves) Content, in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News, Yr.59, Vol. 2, 30 Sept. – 6 Oct. 2011.
At the beginning of this September there was news of the outstanding work of the new Minister of Culture (with red plates) Sukumon Khunpleum, the daughter-in-law of a Chonburi Mafioso, Khamnan Poh, Somchai Khunpleum, concerning the registration of 30 cases of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ for 2011, for example, the tale of Pla Bhuthong, the legend of Mere Nak Prakanong, Tichap, Yaa Longrue, Tom Yum Kung and Pad Thai, in order to protect Thai cultural wisdom from being exploited, adapted or damaged.
After reading it, one feels sad that Thailand’s Ministry of Culture is so backward, so weirdly nationalistic. They don’t change. This business of registering ‘intangible cultural heritage’ is so meaningless, crazy and clueless and reflects a lack of maturity, of being adults. A great lack of confidence in ones own culture to follow after the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organization (UNESCO). Why do we have to chase after the tails of the whites or international like this? They call it ‘a colonial slave mentality.’ One is not free in oneself at all.
The more one cites the reason that this heritage might be exploited by others, taken and adapted and thereby damaged, the more it is appropriate that we should be better off shutting down this ministry altogether.
Unfortunately for the people’s tax money. The culture that arises each day as ‘new heritage’ is born from the living head which is made of nothing but words like edit, adapt, embellish, increase – all old things. The old heritage is the fertile ground for the new heritage. That is how the world evolves.
If we look with a bit of understanding, what the Ministry of Culture has done is the posture of someone who is afraid of globalization. Who fears change instead of having an open policy, creating understanding of the change which is happening in Thai society now. Instead, they have chosen the path of preservation and conservation, holding on to the old, being afraid of the new.
This makes one think of a story not long ago. A friend who is an art teacher asked me, ‘Do you know [the popular song] ‘Khun Who’ (‘Itching Ear’) or not?’
‘What now?’ I asked, confused and puzzled.
My friend immediately pulled out his iphone and opened You-tube (your TV) and showed me the clip of the song Khun Who (‘itching ear’) by the pop group TURBO. The clip had already registered eight million hits in three months. (Counting every clip with this particular song, the count would be ten million hits.) That would make it the top piece of Thai art.
The reason this clip was so enormously popular was the very suggestive dance gestures of the lead female singer who arouses her audiences, especially the young men, but older guys as well. As she sings the words ‘ itching ears,’ her hand massages her cunt, which she, wearing her very revealing, close cut costume, presents to her audience. They were very short-short jeans, almost like underwear. So the hoards of males ‘in heat’ in the audience crowded up to the stage during concerts, all surging forward and reaching up their hands in hopes of lending a hand to the young woman, to help her scratch that itch.
‘Itching, itching, itching ear! I don’t know what it is? No matter how much I scratch, it’s always itching!
For those of you who have never seen the clip, you should take a look. You’ll see a young woman vocalist dressed very provocatively, singing this refrain in a very sexy voice while she dances, thrusting her hips forward, clutching her cunt in the most startling fashion, challenging the morals of the delighted audience.
If one simply listens to the music without the pictures, it is an entertaining song by a woman country singer. But when one sees the very riveting pictures of the arousing massage, it’s difficult to erase the image from ones brain - like the dancing of Michael Jackson, the way he would take hold of his balls. So every time one hears the words ‘itching ear,’ one must have a mental image of that swollen vulva. The thing plays in two ways, three pronged. We are familiar with songs which feature two singers in a musical conversation, like อีแซ่ว, or professional singers from Isarn. But the style of dancing is greatly exaggerated. The censors of the Ministry of Culture must be avoided very cleverly. So there you have it: the intangible Thai cultural heritage that should actually be registered.
All of the above is preface to the ‘Form (Dissolves) Content’ show which is on from 28 July to 28 August, 2011 at the HOF Art Gallery, Silom Galleria. It is the work of Warawudt Toh-Uruangs, a young painter of 27 from Silpakorn University. His central concept is to stimulate ‘thought’, investigate, test, and explore content, both in reasons of painting and reasons of society together.’ (from the catalog)
The artist’s method and approach is to create a situation for the characters in his paintings. There is apt to be strange behavior or unusual acts which deviate from the reason and understanding of people generally to the point of ‘madness’.
For example, a large acrylic painting (180 x 190 cm), ‘กายกำลังออก ทางกำลังเดิน’ (roughly translated, ‘doing many things while traveling), is a picture of a young man – I think it is the artist himself – wearing a long-sleeved, striped, blue and brown shirt and pale orange, cloth fisherman’s pants. He has an orange towel looped over his neck. He sits on an exercise machine on a ferry boat crossing the Chao Phraya river. The young man is single-minded in attempting to use the TV remote control to order the big tube of red paint which he has before him, gripped in the toes of his right foot. The red paint spurts out from the tube while the artist grips the paintbrush in his mouth.
The determined attempt to squeeze a tube of paint by using a TV remote control looks like the irrational act, the act of a person whose mind is ‘not all there.’ It is more like the act of a madman than the act of a normal person.
‘บ้านริมถัง เป่าริมคลอง’ (roughly translated, ‘house at the edge of the bucket; blowing on the edge of the canal’) is a large piece (200 x 200 cm). It reminds one of the lives of the homeless who hang about Sanam Luang and along Klong Lord canal. There are places the artist used to scratch around when he attended Silpakorn University. Warawudt offers a picture of two middle aged men. One is quite fat and wears only a pair of shorts. His belly is bare. He wears a plastic shower cap and swim goggles. The other person is thin and wears a raincoat. The top of his head is covered by a knitted cap as if he were living in a very cold country. The two men are cooking with a wok, frying the trash they have collected – things like floor scrub brushes, plastic bottles, tin cans, other random plastic and artist’s paintbrushes.
While the fat man is adjusting the fire to a hotter temperature, his friend blows the flame to make it stronger. But this stove is a gas burner, not an old charcoal burning cooker which needs to be fanned. Although we can see that these are the behaviors of mad, insane people, the charm of these two homeless souls is clear, their friendship, their sharing of joy and sorrow.
The by-products of these ‘inappropriate and unsuitable’ situations which occur in ‘the wrong place, the wrong way’ are stories about relationships and friendships. In the artist’s painted neighborhood, the characters have a heart. (Perhaps the artist was not intending to emphasize this aspect but it arises naturally.) The same is true in his work, titled ‘ชักผมบนสนามหญ้า กนมามาในกะละมัง’ (roughly translated, ‘washing* hair in the yard; eating instant noodles in the bathtub.’ (195 x 300 cm)
[*This particular Thai word for ‘washing’ is properly used for washing clothes, not hair.]
This is a picture of the relations among three people. The center of the story is the plastic tub. One woman is washing her girlfriend’s hair in this tub, while her friend lies having her hair washed as she uses a TV remote to read a book. And in this plastic tub, a young man (the artist) is trying to use a pair of pliers to carry cooked instant noodles to his mouth.
These works I have spoken of are attempts or experiments by the artist to ‘dissolve familiar meanings’ and arrange new ‘symbolic forms’ which give rise to new forms with new significance.
When all is said and done, this approach is not new. It was seen regularly in comic shows on daytime TV (‘ก่อนบาย คลาย เครียด,’ roughly ‘relax before afternoon’), a way of creating witty little jokes. In these paintings, which are sincere and serious, such jokes are presented in a new way. The audience isn’t brought to outbursts of laughter. Instead, some interpretation is required; some reading of what the artist has hidden in the work.
The works in the ‘Form (Dissolves) Content’ show by Warawudt Toh-Uruangse look more like reflections of the artist’s states of emotion than attempt to ‘seek new meanings in works of painting,’ which was what the artist was hoping for.
‘ข้างสังตาม’ (roughly, ‘what has already passed’) 2010, a large painting (260 -280 cm) is another piece for which he makes a similar claim. I think the work reflects very much the emotion of the artist about Thai society today. The picture presents a situation occurring in front of a street-side restaurant. A young man (the artist) in the picture has cleaned his plates … by overturning them. He now holds in each hand a left-over chicken bone, which he does not toss to the two black dogs who are growling viciously beside his table. The young man turns and looks behind him with a bad-tempered expression. What is he waiting for? Is he looking for someone to tell him what to do? The two stray dogs are going to get only chicken bones. They snarl fiercely.