Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Manit Srimanichpoom, ‘Art of Ambiguity’

From the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news magazine,
Yr. 60, Vol. 47, 8 – 15 Aug.2013

                “It is a crisis that strikes at the heart of some of our most treasured illusions, those which have sustained us for centuries and that only we Thais can understand in the context of our own society and our own cultural beliefs.” Natee Utarit, 2010.

                These are Natee’s words.  He is a famous artist, about 43 years old.  He wrote the words in English about 10 cm high in pale grey, a single line more than 8 meters long, written out on a brownish grey wall.  You could say it was a show of confidence – experience - of the artist, because now people value quotes from this or that person, boasting to or bluffing each other.  You can see them on social media, especially on Facebook.

                I don’t know if Natee said these words to which Westerner, or on what occasion. But when he brought them to paste up for Thai people to read in his latest show, “Illustration of the Crisis” at the Bangkok University Gallery (the show will be on till 31 August, 2013). I don’t know why the artist or the organizers didn’t think to translate [that quote] into Thai, so that it could be easily understood.  One mustn’t forget that this art gallery is part of an educational institution.  It should provide convenience to their own students and to persons who come in from outside.

                OK!  I’ll overlook the affected manners of people who only want to speak with those conversant in a foreign language.  I see the titles of each work, taken one by one.  There’s not a single Thai word among any of them.  The artist must prefer speaking English with foreigners more than Thai, or to take a more positive view, one might say that the artist has something that he doesn’t want to state directly, so he evasively uses English instead.  Like the words ‘treasured illusions.’ As to the words on the wall that I copied at the beginning, does Natee mean the institution of the Thai monarchy or not?

                Actually, in deciding to put up this exhibition so that Thai people can enjoy the charismatic greatness of a world class artist, there should be constant synthesis throughout to allow the common people who lack wisdom to understand some part of his [lofty] works.  There should be some explanation posted somewhere explaining the various symbols which this [notable] artist has chosen to use…telling of how the hidden meanings are expressed in these works.  Why did the artist choose models of a face, head and brain, muscles, a human skull, these models which are like the ones used by medical students to study the systems of the human body and the ways its various parts and organs work?  And how does this relate to the toy ancient Roman soldier?  As in the picture, ‘The Praise and Horner.’  The title of the picture is really spelled that way. (I don’t know if it was intended, or not.  But I would interpret it in fact as “Praise and Honor”.  Looks like a typo to me.)  And the toy soldier from WWI in the work entitled ‘Insomnia’?

                Andy why, in the work ‘Honor is Grey’, does the little Western toy white dog with brown spots stand staring at the figures of giant human teeth lying there propped up one against the other?   What has this to do with the social crisis and the Thai politics to which the artist is referring, the creative context from 2010 – 2012 for the 23 paintings which he brought to exhibit in the show?  This is not counting the host of texts about Western civilization which show that the artist is very well informed, truly wise and intellectual, and well able to quote the Westerners,  as, for example, in the painting entitled ‘Twilight of the Idols,’ ‘A Place in the Country,” or ‘ Gossip.’

                As to referring to Western sayings, which many Thai academics like to do these days, I say it’s out of date and mediocre.  The crisis of Thai politics after the coup of 19 Sept. 2006, also discredited many such academics in political science and new analysis, as well as Western news agencies like BBC or  CNN.  Many Thai people were disillusioned at that time because they saw that Westerners as no better than they were. Western morality, ethics and sense of democracy had always seemed so much higher than in third world countries or among the Thai ‘barbarians’.  But Western groups were seen to still be analyzing Thai politics in a colonialist style – very narrow and arrogant in their view of other peoples, whom they see as lower and lagging far behind. 

                People in red shirts were represented as fighting for the lower grass roots people and democracy.  Taksin was a leader who came from a legitimate vote.  People in yellow shirts were the royalists and the ones who cheered the coup.  Such were the commodity labels pasted on conveniently for consumers of news. But these over-simplifications reflect a lack of true understanding of the roles and complexities of Thai politics in Thai society.

                I myself try to think of the reason why I don’t ‘get it’ -  why don’t I understand the substance of Natee’s expression and his use of symbolic anatomical models, toy Romans, plump sparrows and all those Western textbooks on art?  I tried hard to succeed in squeezing through it, a task that figuratively left my ribs scored and bleeding.  I’m still unable to make the connections to discover ‘the hidden meanings’ that the artist has stashed away here.  All I see is that these symbolic things are just pretty paintings.  But they are cold, insipid, lifeless, and arid.  They are nothing more than still lifes,  painted like the works of Western Renaissance art which can be seen in the museums of Europe.

                In fact, the artist must have intended that those who look at these works of art will feel just like that.  The design and composition of the works express those [cold and lifeless] feelings very well.  It’s very impressive.  The walls of the exhibition hall have been repainted grayish brown, very tense, dark and intimidating.  There are paintings, large and small, with very expensive frames ordered to specification from Italy.  Even just the cost of each frame would easily be enough to purchase works by more junior artists. To further emphasize the expense and value and increased dignity, there is also a barrier, a restraining wire, which holds viewers at a distance from the works of art.  These are investments in creating a ‘look’ for the artist and for the works of art which have been placed on display to be admired.

                How unfortunate! To invest more in creating a ‘look’ than in trying to create understanding between the artwork and the people who come to see them.  These works simple abandon the audience to view pretty pictures in an atmosphere of a European museum.  But there is no document or any other such information which might help explain the artist’s idea behind each of the works.  (If anyone goes to a real European museum, they will find placards accompanying each work with information to help the audience better understand and appreciate the work.)

                If there are some questions or points remaining about this show, they should be about ‘crisis’ and ‘symbols’.

                I would like to address the issue of ‘symbols’ first.  The past works of Natee have touched somewhat upon society and politics, but only indirectly and not clearly.  In terms of artistic interpretation, nothing has been simple or in black and white terms.  But he has relied on fuzzy pictures, shadowy and blurred.  This is a means of surviving, a way of avoiding criticism.  For example, the work on the Equestrian Monument of the 5th King, grey and blue, facing east.  Or the transformation of the national flag, changing all the colors to blue.  It looks so sad!

               These earlier works were easy to understand and interpret because the symbols which Natee chose have meaning and were part of the nation's ‘collective memory’, unlike the show, ‘Illustration of the Crisis’[in which] the symbols used by Natee are limited in what they communicate and interpret.  Because these things have no place in the Thai collective memory. They are not part of a shared cultural experience. Rather, they are particular and individual 
in character. They connect, instead, with the personal preferences of the artist. As a result, these symbols don’t do the job as well.  They don’t work.  If you compare it with a gun, you could say that it’s a beautiful gun that doesn’t shoot!

          The artist does not even designate or give details as to which crisis he is referring to.  He only cites the period of 2010 – 2012.  The audience has to guess if it concerns the case of "The Nation is Burning!" of the people in yellow shirts, or  "Savage May – Soldiers Killing the People!" of the group in red shirts.  But for me, as I have written addressing this point, I see in Thai society a completely different view of the history that took place only yesterday. 

Let’s just say it! I really don’t know what Natee thinks about the crisis in the country.  This time, judging from his choice of words, ‘treasured illusion’, and his painting of ‘King of Sparrow’ (a sparrow with a gold crown), I could say that he leans toward a stance that is anti-royalist, which would be nothing unusual.  It is the ‘in’ fashion for some of the new generation of artists.  In any case, I’m not sure that an ‘art of ambiguity’ which avoids explaining anything clearly at all, has any use, especially when Thai society is in need of intellectual clarity regarding the way to resolve the crisis we are presently in.

                If there is any wake-up call that is useful coming from this exhibition, perhaps it appears in two of the smaller pictures.  One shows an ear in a big red clamp; the other is an ear lying on a small electric stove.
                These Dada-esque warnings about hearing and listening to information and news may be urging us be a bit more mindful!

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