Monday, July 30, 2012

“Politics of Me” by Manit Sriwanichpoom in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr.59, Vol. 43.  13 – 19 July, 2012

                This past week you might have heard the hot statement from Wasan Soipisut, President of the Constitutional Court, asking  that the defendants in the case concerning amending the constitution (whether it was against the constitution or not)  stop using the expression, “Your Honor, Mr. President of the Constitutional Court.”  Wasan found it tedious and annoying, because this was the Constitutional Court, not the Parliament, so, it wasn’t necessary to follow such a practice.  Besides, the speakers  were not  really expressing the respect suggested by such a form of address.  Everyone knew that outside the courtroom  they were cursing the court.

 So the head of the Court told the defendant, (the Puer Thai Party and their coalition partners) to stop telling lies and being so pretentious.   If they have something to say, they should say it, and stop wasting time.  I think that, as regards this sort of thing, the Thai Parliament should take these suggestions to heart.  They should give up such two-faced behavior.  And they can also stop saying, ‘Your Honor’, ‘Mr. President’, and ‘the Honorable Chamber of Representatives,’ because not a single one of them in the Parliament believes in or actually does as he speaks (‘walks as he talks’).
                I don’t know if ‘Planking, 2012’, an art video by Junyanont  Siripon  will communicate any meaning in the same direction as the President of the Constitutional Court or not, but I can’t help thinking it does.  When Junyanont lies face down, breathing in the floor, his body stiff and hard as stone, as most people stand up straight at attention, paying respect at the playing of the national anthem of Thailand at 8am and 6pm daily.  The artist chose to ‘plank’ on the public floor, for example, at the entrance to the BTS skytrain station or in public parks and cafeterias. He uses a video, but he removes the sound of the national anthem from the clip and leaves it silent.  All we see are large groups of people standing rigidly, all hard verticals, as if some special video technique has frozen them all.  They contrast with the horizontal line of the artist’s planking. (One wonders why no one comes to forbid or censure the artist’s actions, which are out of harmony with the acceptable mode of behavior of the majority.) 
This clever video critiques this particular expression of patriotism as something very superficial, carried out like automatons.  ‘Standing at Attention to Honor the Nation, Sovereignty and Thai Heritage’ is the first work which welcomes visitors to the contemporary art exhibition, ‘Politics of Me,’ or if I may translate more directly, honestly, ‘the politics of (rude) me.’  It is the work of outstanding young artists, aged 30 or less, both men and women, who like to use the language of the ‘marketplace’ [Note: Thai language has a many pronouns which are used in widely differing social situations to express many shades of intimacy, respect, politeness or rudeness, etc.] in order to look ‘tough’ and to fit in with the era in which the common folk are in conflict with the lords.

                I understand that Pichaya Supawanich, the regular lady curator for the BMA Art and Culture gallery where this show is taking place, is a polite and mannerly person.  So she used English instead of Thai, giving everyone the option of translating as they prefer.  No need to interpret the exhibition simply as macro-politics on a national level.   It comes down to micro-politics– i.e. on the level of the family, the individual – of myself, mine [pronouns of varying politeness].

                This is the first show in whichPichaya has truly and completely shown her skill. From the time she joined the work of this gallery, there has been very limited time and budget.  But she has been determined and tried to find seventeen, interesting, contemporary, bright stars.  The subjects are divided into six areas:  

  1) Graduates in the class asking questions (the Why Generation)
  2) The Negotiating Self
  3) Cut ‘n Paste Realities
  4) DIY/DWO – Do it Yourself/ Do it with Others
  5) Revolution Downloading 
  6) The Good Life

                I don’t want to address all of these categories, but I will look at the works of artists I find interesting.  Besides the art video ‘Planking’, there are portraits of people which look like ID photos.  These are ‘Children Doing DVD Tutorials’ by Nattapat Jirasatit-Worakul.  This is a work which asks a question about the quality of Thai education nowadays in which students have to do so much special tutoring in order to get good grades.  High marks increase their chances of entering the university of their dreams.  Studying at tutorial schools has become a really huge business. Some centers are so popular, some of the students have to watch the tutor on DVDs, rather than having a teacher standing with them, face to face.  We see the blank faces of students looking at monitors suspended from the ceiling.

                Nattapat asked ten students to take a tutorial by looking up at a TV monitor and then he records photos of their faces at close range.  All the photos are suspended high up, causing visitors to the exhibition to look up at the images, just like the students who have to stare upward as they study.  The students in the photos look up toward the ceiling, but because there is not any actual monitor in the exhibition hall, we don’t know what these students, these teenagers, are looking at.  But their faces are full of worry and doubt;  some even look like they are rather frightened.

                Next to this piece is a dark grey room, the private world of Paen Paen Nakprasert, a Thai artist who grew up in America.  He clearly announces, doesn’t hide the fact that he is gay.   The work entitled ‘Kiss My Reer, 2010’, is a tale for children in photos and videos.  The protagonist of the story is named Reer, an imaginary, four-legged, black, short-haired animal who looks like a mixture of a bear, a dog and a deer.  The artist says that it was born from a mixture between a lesbian deer and a gay rabbit. (I don’t know how they could ‘mix’).

                In any case, we can see a nude picture of the artist in a loving embrace with black, short-haired Reer, which he created.  It is a world of fun, deliciously satisfying for the artist.  But it might make some people feel not a little uneasy.  Another aspect is the gentleness and intensity of his need to win acceptance, as a homosexual, from society.  The artist seems compelled to show everyone his anus, which suggests how much pressure the artist is under from his family and from society.

                Leaving Paen Paen’s grey and black room, feeling very heavy, moving on to a bright white room.  This room has no artworks on display.  There are only speakers on the four sides of the room and music getting louder and louder, like in a white peoples’ church.  The feeling is light and weightless. This is ‘Military Droning’ by Patompol Tesprateeb, who created this song and got the cadets from a military music school sing it.  The singers must not open their mouths.  It’s an unnatural revival of choral singing: the artist wanted to get the sound created when one is coerced and prevented from opening his mouth.  What the sound would be like.

                For those who feel nothing much in particular about choral music, standing nearby listening to the sound of humming which has a pleasing rhythm like church music.  I might not be inclined to make any judgment about in what way it was good or bad, but I rather liked the empty white room where the eye can rest from seeing. Only the ears have to listen.

                The last work that I want to talk about should be the hero of the exhibition because of its place at the center of the 9th floor show.  It is entitled ‘Naripol’ by Prasert Yordkaew.  It is a white, mixed media sculpture.  The artist has created a short tree with a large trunk. It has no leaves but has two, half-female fruits.  One fruit is a male whose sexual organs are a faucet and whose chest is a durian with a zipper by which it can be opened and closed.  It resembles a spirit house on wheels. Many things and materials used by the artist to create it come from daily life.  Cast off materials are used to ornament the shrine.  They have been assembled to create an interesting form.

                This tree reminds me of a work of graphic art by Francisco Goya (1764 – 1828) [from a series] entitled ‘Disasters of War’ in which we see three men who have been brutally hanged from a small tree.  One of the men has been beheaded, his head stuck on a branch.  One arm has been chopped off and hangs like a slab of pork from a rack.  The headless torso also hangs from the tree.  Another man has been bound to the tree, his genitals slashed off.  The last body is that of an old man who has been hanged upside down from the branches of the tree.

                A few meters off to the side of the ‘Naripol’ tree,  Prasert has set up a little scene with a bicycle.  The rider is a girl with red lips who wears an old-fashioned headdress. She reminds me of Lady Gaga, who recently was accused by the Thai Ministry of Culture, as follows: 

                “ Wearing the traditional Thai Chada headdress and placing the Thai flag on the back of a motorcycle, as happened in the concert show with the female artist sitting on a motorcycle, wearing a bikini is not appropriate and impacts the feelings of Thai people.”

                At this point, one understands why the Gaga Naripol tree by Prasert Yordkaew is riding that broken-down bicycle which drags behind it an old pot, crushed coffee cans, and tattered plastic water bottles: it’s no different from the state today of Thailand’s Ministry of Culture.

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