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An Interview with Manit Sriwanichpoom

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An Interview with Manit Sriwanichpoom
Installation view of Fear. Image courtesy of Yavuz Gallery.

Manit Sriwanichpoom is one of Thailand's leading photographic artists, examining and commenting on the contemporary socio-political context in Thailand through his works. He is well known for his ongoing Pink Man series, which addresses the culture of consumerism in Thailand. The Artling interviewed the artist on the occassion of his recent solo exhibition, Fear, presented at Yavuz Gallery concurrently with three other galleries in Bangkok, to find out more about his thoughts on the current situation in Thailand and his advice for young artists. 

You started your career as a photojournalist. What prompted your shift towards using photography as an artistic medium as opposed to documentation?

After I graduated in visual arts in 1984, I felt that I knew nothing about my society and the world. Being a photojournalist was a good way to learn about it. After a while I found that the job I was doing had its limitations; I couldn’t include my opinion on the subjects I was photographing. I had to be objective, not subjective like an artist. I’m not supposed to say anything good or bad about persons or situations I don’t like in my photoreportage. That’s why I decided to quit photojournalism. I wanted to be free and be myself 100%.   

Manit Sriwanichpoom, The Parliament of Happy Generals #09, 2014, series of 60 photographs, archival print, 62.5 x 50cm (each) / 125 x 100cm (each)
Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

The current exhibition at Yavuz Gallery, FEAR, is part of a series of exhibitions that is happening in multiple locations (in Singapore and Bangkok) concurrently. These exhibitions each show different combinations of works, and even have the works presented differently — in Thailand, Queuing for Happiness was displayed on a plinth on the ground so it was viewed from above, and in Singapore, it's displayed directly on the gallery wall. How do you see the display/presentation of your works affecting the viewer's experience?

The political and cultural context is the key of my decision how to present art works to the public. In the case of Queuing for Happiness that reflects how the ruler (coup maker) treated the ruled people as helpless children. Actually this kind of attitude is common for people at the high levels of Thai society. That’s why at H Gallery where Royal Monument, Chakri Dynasty series was hung on the walls, I found that it’s much stronger to lay Queuing for Happiness on the floor. It wouldn’t make sense if I do that at Yavuz Gallery since Singapore has no monarchy.  

 

On a similar note, your works often engage with distinctly Thai [socio-political] issues, but are also exhibited widely overseas. When your works are brought outside of the Thai context, how does this change the way that viewers approach and understand the works?

I’m lucky my medium is the photograph, a universal language that’s easier to understand, not literature with Thai language that needs translation. I do realise the political, social and cultural differences, but I believe that if I can move some Thais’ feelings I can move others too.

Manit Sriwanichpoom, Queuing for Happiness, 2014, set of 11 photographs, archival print, 33 x 210cm / 110 x 704cm
Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

In a few of your recent series, the solar eclipse features as a visual aspect of the work, and also serves as a metaphor for the current Thai situation. Could you elaborate on the symbolism of the eclipse within the current Thai context?

Like many countries in Asia, in Thailand, people still believe in superstition. The solar eclipse is one of the phenomena that heralds changes to people’s lives, even the nation’s fate. It’s common in newspapers to report about fortune tellers’ prediction on what’s going to happen to our society and country. The last eclipse in Southeast Asia was in March 2016 (the full eclipse could be seen in Indonesia), and our Thai fortune tellers said that a big change at the core structure of the country would happen. The prediction reminded me of the solar eclipse of August 1868 during the reign of King Mongkut who led Siam (the country's former name) into the modern era. He used his own scientific prediction of the eclipse to assert Siam’s modernity and sovereignty in the eyes of the colonial powers, and to convince his own countrymen to embrace the rationality of science, and abandon their superstitious fear of the total eclipse. It’s a tragedy and parody that when he and his son, the crown prince, went back to the palace after the trip to view the eclipse with foreign diplomats they both got malaria. Just over a month later, the King passed away but his son survived to succeed him to the throne. Our present King, Rama IX, has been hospitalised for months, and we keep following monthly royal news bulletins about his health. That’s why Thai people are worried about what happens next.  

 

What are some of the challenges you face working as an artist in Thailand, and what advice would you give to young artists?

Be honest. Be courageous. And ask yourselves whether your art is of benefit to society or just yourselves only. If you have confidence that you’re doing the right thing with your art, and there is no other way to do it, then just do it but don’t forget to prepare for the consequences as well.

 

 Installation view of Ratchadamnoen Motor Show
Courtesy of Yavuz Gallery

You've faced issues of censorship in the past within Thailand, and now your works are showing in Singapore, a country with a strong history of censorship. Do you see any similarities or differences between the arts communities in the two countries?

Censorship in any country or society has one thing in common. It’s the act of fear by people in power. They are insecure in their own power. They cannot be criticised or challenged by powerless opponents.

 

This particular exhibition is focused on the political turmoil in Thailand in recent years, yet there seems to be a portrayal of the general Thai population as spectators, and not as active participants. Do you find that this is the case, or do you see the Thai population becoming more involved and actively engaged in socio-political issues?

In contradiction to your comment, I think my exhibition reflects how Thai people are more politically engaged than ever before. Shutdown Bangkok was a good example. It was possible only because millions of people in Bangkok and the provinces came out to occupy the capital for over 7 months. Thai people no longer tolerate corruption and power abuse by politicians.

Manit Sriwanichpoom, King Rama IV #2, 2014, archival print on canvas, 50 x 50cm / 100 x 100cm
Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

Could you share some of your upcoming projects with us?

Right now I’m working on an exhibition project that will spotlight emerging photographers for my Kathmandu Photo Gallery. Besides that I’m organising a retrospective exhibition of a contemporary photography pioneer Pramuan Burusphat for early February 2017. And also I’m trying to help make Photo Bangkok Festival, the second edition, happen in 2018.

 


Manit Sriwanichpoom's solo exhibition Fear continues until 18 September 2016 at Yavuz Gallery (Gillman Barracks, 9 Lock Road #02-23, Singapore 108937). 

Find out more about the exhibition here


Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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