The 1990s was a significant decade in Thailand with ongoing tensions that had existed since the 1970s between civilians, monarchy and military culminating in the Black May protests of May 1992. During Black May, or Bloody May, the military government cracked down on protesters, leading to over 3,500 arrests, dozens of deaths and an unknown number of disappearances. At the same time, in the face of globalisation and the growth of the Thai economy, the question of Thai-ness (kwampenthai) emerged for artists with the rise of neo-traditionalism in art.
Problem-Wisdom: Thai Art in the 1990s at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) displays the works of over six Thai artists from the gallery’s collection in order to showcase this crucial moment in the development of contemporary art in Thailand. The name of the exhibition is derived from the work of Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s installation Problem-Wisdom (1993-1995), shown in the back space of the galleries designated to the exhibition.
Lertchaiprasert’s installation is an assortment of small, handmade papier-mȃché objects constructed over two years. Displayed on a narrow panel, it dominates the space, allowing visitors to walk around the installation. Lertchaiprasert selected a newspaper article each day that discussed a societal issue, continuing to do so for 366 days. Tearing that article out of the newspaper, he then soaked and sculpted the remaining page of the newspaper into an object onto which he then pasted the article, identifying this as ‘the problem’. The following year, the artist returned to every object and wrote a solution onto each object’s surface—he called this ‘the wisdom’. As Lertchaiprasert says:
"'Problem’, in my opinion, is something whose cause we do not understand, thus [we] do not know how to control the situation. And that causes suffering, both physically and mentally. I believe problems can be solved by wisdom, and that process has to start in one’s own mind first… ‘Wisdom’ in my opinion, means insight into the elements of truth. Wisdom rises from right and reasonable thinking. To obtain wisdom, we should have good purpose and the right way. Good purpose intends to exterminate passion and to be of benefit to all human beings. The right way should be on the path of moral so it does not cause problems to ourselves and to others.”
Hence Problem-Wisdom embodies the exhibition’s two-pronged approach—exhibiting artists’ reactions to the socio-political context of Thailand,whilst often (but not always) documenting their personal, introspective responses vis-a-vis spirituality and Buddhism, positing how these two concepts were formative in shaping Thai art.
"Problem-Wisdom" (1993-1995) by Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Image courtesy of the artist and QAGOMA.
The two works on either side of Lertchaiprasert’s installation similarly comment on problems and wisdoms: the issues facing Thailand and Buddhist meditations on these issues. To the right is one component from Montien Boonma’s Manual activities: Handprints and Straws (1989). In 1989, Boonma returned to Thailand from Europe (having completed a masters degree in Rome and Paris in 1986-1988), moving to Chiang Mai where he became interested in rural culture and the challenges that modernisation posed for agrarian societies. Here, Boonma transforms banal agricultural objects into sculptures incorporating materials from rural life. The straw and cement object ostensibly resembles a broom, but one may see the imprint of hands and fists in the cement, reflecting the way labourers use their tools. The object simultaneously recognises farming’s alignment with the cycles of nature and its symbolic role in Thailand as the work of Buddhist people. Parallels are then drawn between agrarian labour and the cleaning of Buddhist temples as attempts to attain spirituality.
Adjacent to the work, and reiterating his exploration into Buddhism, are Boonma’s Candle Paintings (1990), a series of works that explore the state of impermanence established during meditation. Created after the tragic news of his young wife’s breast cancer, Boonma found solace in ancient Buddhist teachings and meditation techniques. Using an essential part of many Buddhist rituals, a candle, Boonma experimented with the melting wax in a meditative drawing practice. The constellation of wax drops reflects the cycles of death, healing and recovery, also reminiscent of solar and lunar movements.
It is possible to walk through the entire exhibition following Boonma’s works, as in the next room, a visitor is greeted by another one of his works. Boonma’s enigmatic, graphite-coated steel structures as part of Salas for the mind (1995) stretch across this central space. Boonma was influenced by Buddhist ruins in Cambodia and has designed the constructions to accommodate one person each, describing these works as spiritual spaces, with two of the metal towers emitting audio of soft chanting to enhance their meditative quality. Each construction has been engraved with rows of question marks, which the artist explains as representing unknown possibilities that are only visible and recognisable through meditation. When one enters inside into this secluded space, the viewer is incorporated into the sculpture itself.
Boonma's salas are accompanied by another one of his works, Black Altar (1995). The surface of the sculpture has been inscribed with the symbol for ‘om’, a sound chanted and used in meditation. On the top is a pile of herbal powder used in traditional Thai medicine, dusted on the surface in such a way that stencilled marks are created underneath. Over time the marks disintegrate, creating a visceral visualisation of the Buddhist concepts regarding ephemerality and transience.
"Sinners are weapon merchants; who profit from suffering and devastation. Their heads will be hanged down in cave of conflagration; hitting each other to death (from 'Inferno' series)" (1991) by Vasan Sitthiket. Image courtesy of the artist and QAGOMA.
These works contrast starkly with Vasan Sitthiket’s The Inferno Series (1991), comprised of nine paintings which scale the walls of the room. The nine paintings were created during the turbulent period after the 1991 military coup of Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon. Inspired by Traiphum Phra Ruang: The Book of Three Worlds, an important Thai Buddhist manuscript that describes the suffering of sinners, Sitthiket’s bold canvases portray frightening, apocalyptic visions of the greedy and the hateful, representing the rising corruption amongst Thailand’s authorities.
Sitthiket's large-scale paintings also act as counterpoints to Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s poetic and refined sculptural installation, The shadow in white (1993). Rasdjarmrearnsook had originally been rejected from studying sculpture after beings advised that it was not a suitable occupation for women. Perhaps in response to this, her earlier works are imbued with a feminist ethos, commenting on gender hierarchies. A plaster female face is hung high up on the wall, looking down at another below, so that the two are facing one another. Their serene visages are equal parts ambiguous and compelling, exemplifying Rasdjarmrearnsook’s complex visual vocabulary.
Her work echoes that of Pinaree Sanpitak who is exhibited elsewhere but similarly comments on the female body and the female form. Her spatial installation Womanly Bodies (1998) showcases her expert use of traditional paper-making methods. Suspended tubes made from rattan and saa paper float in the space, spinning gently. Through the modulation in the tones and shapes of these works, Sanpitak celebrates the diversity of the female form, mimetic of the complexity of women’s lived experiences.
"Womanly Bodies" (1991) (back) by Pinaree Sanpitak. Image courtesy of the artist and QAGOMA.
The fact that two of the few female artists who gained international attention in the 1990s are exhibited is significant, and both works highlight that the exhibition goes beyond its initial dualistic programme. Whilst all the works shown are protean, the inclusion of those that do not recognisably or immediately belong to the two categories of politics and/or religion counters a restrictive and problematic view on Thai art. Instead, the exhibition displays the inventiveness, the initiative and creative impetus of these artists.
Hence, the exhibition is structured as a sophisticated and nuanced journey through numerous lines of investigation. This is exemplified by the opening section of the exhibition, a wall in the central space of the entire gallery, where a number of contrasting works are shown side-by-side. Here Boonma’s three canvases in Trio (1991) depict three individual vessels which Boonma considers vehicles for spirituality and mysticism. Collecting perishable items found in pagodas in Thailand such as charcoal, earth and ashes, Boonma has glued them onto the surface of the work, illustrating his strong Buddhist belief in the vessel as occupying the liminal space between permanence and impermanence. Conversely, Chatchai Puipia’s oversized canvas Siamese Smile: Siamese Intellectual (1995) is a satirical self-portrait which depicts a more ambiguous perspective on Buddhist religion in Thai society. Puipia subverts and manipulates the celebrated Thai smile as both a cliche and a duplicitous facade for exploitation and greed which contradicts Buddhist values of kindness and morality. However, Puipia fills the entire composition with his own inflated face (perhaps reflecting the inflation of the human ego), cleverly and humorously implicating himself and the art world into this meretricious display of virtue and rectitude. By contrasting these works, a more complex dialogue emerges around religion, hermeneutics, identity and the self.
"Siamese Smile: Siamese Intellectual" (1995) by Chatchai Puipia. Image courtesy of the artist and QAGOMA.
Finally, Natee Utarit's intimate portraits in Mother (1998) highlight the multi-faceted and multi-layered artworks emerging from Thailand in the 1990s that were not necessarily socio-politically or geographically bound. Utarit depicts his mother from three different angles, sharing insight into this filial relationship. Inspired by British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s theories on perception, Utarit poignantly explores the ways in which the relationship between viewer and object shape our conceptions of each other, and how even close family members may ultimately be unknowable. His unconventional approach to portraiture comments on visuality, exteriority and interiority with perspicacity and poeticism. The inclusion of such works challenges and problematises the notions of grand national narratives, the myth of the nation-state and the fixity of ethnopolitical affinities that the very exhibition initially seemed to support.
It is noted that these works became part of the QAGOMA collection through the gallery’s flagship contemporary art series, The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT). Since its inception in 1993, the series has fostered the development of one of the world’s most significant collections of contemporary Asian art, having drawn over three million visitors. The exhibition highlights the value of such events in presenting important and prominent work from the Asian region and the exigency of promoting and generating greater scholarship and interest from the curatorium, academe and the general public around Asian and specifically South East Asian art.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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