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For Thailand, the year 2006 was full of activities related to the preservation and reinvention of traditions. The occasion of the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was marked by a veritable patriotic fervor among the citizenry. Portraits of the Monarch were accompanied by a sea of yellow as Thais donned clothes in the color of the King’s day of birth. There were fabulous light-and-sound extravaganzas and a Royal Barges procession to mark the joyous event as royalty from around the world attended. These pageants re-enacted a wide range of cultural activities that interwove and cultivated concepts of nationhood and Thai-ness (khwampenthai). Their goal was to fortify the notion of stability and security through the spectacular promotion of Nation, Religion, and Monarchy – the three pillars of nation state ideology in Thailand. By their symbolic affirmation of these beliefs, Thai people are expected to experience their affirmation of national identity.
Nationalist discourse has been generated to establish
the concept of a collective imagination, to distinguish the “national
self” from the “national others.” In Thailand, the national discourse
has been designed to foster notions of the “right” and the “good” and
to perpetuate the rich and revered traditions that have been passed
down from ancestors. Culture (watthanatham) has always been seen as
a distinctive characteristic of Thailand, essential to the stability
and integrity of the nation. The Phibun Phibunsongkram government (1938-1944,
1948-1957) inaugurated many ambitious projects to disseminate and reiterate
Thai culture through influences from Europe and Japan. The Ministry
of Culture (active 1952–1958) was founded with the mission to promote
Thai identity through the encouragement of etiquette, art, music, performance
and fashion. Culture and art were seen as tools to promote nationalistic
and modern ideas. In 1979, the National Culture Commission was established
to oversee the preservation and promotion of Thai culture. The National
Identity Board and its Subcommittee for the Propagation of Thai Identity
also sponsor countless programs, publications, and events intended to
provide examples of culture for Thais to follow. In 2002, the Ministry
of Culture was re-established by the government to promote and propagate
Thai culture to serve the public.
In addition to promoting the creation of public monuments in the 1930s and 40s, the Department of Fine Arts, under director Luang Wichitwathakarn (1898–1962), sought to inculcate national consciousness through the development of art curricula and art contests. Desire for a unified Thai character and sentiment was stressed by Silpa Bhirasri, formerly Corrado Feroci (1892-1962), an Italian sculptor who settled in Thailand in the late 1920s and became known as “the father of modern Thai art.” Modern art was created using symbols of the Thai nation. This is a type of consensus art, a stylistically formulaic art, using traditional subject matter, screened by official committees, and disseminated in the form of public monuments. In sculptures by Silpa Bhirasri, Piman Moolpramuk, Sitthidet Saenghiran and Sawang Songmangmi, subject matter is generally portrayed in an academic style that strives for verisimilitude and technical virtuosity. Heroic realism, particularly as immortalized in the monuments and portraits of national heroes, was essential to the glorification of nationhood and national identity in Thailand. Heroes and heroines from the past personify the deep love of nation and desire for national security. This mode of realism served as a crucial part of cultural engineering in the development of Thai tradition.
In 1949, the National Exhibition of Art was initiated by Silpa Bhirasri and became an important platform for dissemination of Thai-ness and modern art. Khien Yimsiri’s Musical Rhythm (1949) and Land of Smiles (1950), inspired by Sukhothai art and Cubism, reflect an attempt to express dynamic forms through bronze technique. Prasong Padhamanuj’s Wat Phra Kaew (1950) shows cubist technique combined with traditional Thai painting in depicting the famous Thai temple. Fua Haribhitak, Jitr (Prakit) Buabusaya, Chamras Khietkong, Banchob Palawongse, Chalerm Nakiraks and Misiem Yipintsoi displayed their virtuosity in portrait and landscape painting in impressionist and post-impressionist oils on canvas. Fua continued to develop his painting style in impressionist-cubist manner during his sojourn in Italy. Bhirasri wrote that Thai artists should evolve by adapting modern styles, namely impressionism and post-impressionism, with local subjects and techniques. He felt that Thai artists were experiencing a transitional period brought about by the abrupt end of traditional art practice and the introduction of new ideas and forms, namely post-impressionism, cubism and surrealism.
In the 1950s and 60s, many Thai artists adopted a nostalgic sense of the countryside and a revival of Thai tradition as ways to express national identity. The artists’ choice of materials such as tempera, gold leaf, mahogany, teak, handmade paper, and bronze, indicated an emphasis on the local and the indigenous. Chit Rienpracha’s Ramana (1951) captures the rhythmic beat of folk music while Sitthidt Saenghiran’s Cycle (1952) depicts a game played by Thai children in the countryside. Scenes of fishing villages, rural landscape, women working in the fields and local festivals became favorite subjects for artists such as Sawasdi Tantisuk, Chalood Nimsamer, Tawee Nandhakwang, Damrong Wong-Uparaj, Prayura Uluchadha, Prayat Pongdam, Inson Wongsam, Prapan Srisouta, Noparat Livisiddhi, Tawee Rajneekorn and Manit Poo-Aree.
Thai form or Thai-ness became a significant factor in cultural production. Thai-centrism was applauded by artists and art teachers as a necessary means to distinguish national characteristics from the influence of Western art styles. The division between Thai art and non-Thai art produced a dramatic confrontation in 1964, when a painting, Festival No. 2 (1964) by Prapat Yothaprasert depicting a folk festival was awarded the gold medal at the National Exhibition of Art. A group of young artists who preferred avant-garde, nonfigurative abstraction boycotted the most prestigious art contest in Thailand, as a protest against its conservatism. The controversy was resolved when King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who regularly participated in the National Exhibition of Art as an invited artist, held a tea party at the Chitr Laddha Palace to mediate an agreement between the opposing sides. But the King’s intervention brought only a temporary truce between the Thai traditionalists and the avant-garde.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej completed a series of oil paintings during the 1960s. His Majesty painted portraits of members of the Royal Family with lively and expressive brushstrokes. In semi-abstract and abstract paintings, textural marks and vibrant colors can be compared with the sound of jazz music that the King played regularly with bands and musicians in court. Jazz, painting, sculpture and photography became favorite mediums for the King’s artistic creation. In 1963, the King gave an audience to Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian painter, during his visit to Europe. In Bangkok, artists and musicians including Silpa Bhirasri, Raden Basoeki Abdullah, Manrat Sriklanont, Paiboon Muangsomboon, Piriya Krairiksh, Sompot Upa-In, Lawan Daorai and Khaimuk Xuto were given audience at Chitr Laddha Palace for discussion and sessions on art and music.
During the 1960s and 70s, Thai artists became more exposed to international art through exhibitions, publications and scholarships that allowed them to study in Europe and the United States. Questions regarding differences between internationalism and Thai identity became more pronounced as many artists felt the urge to seek ways to create modern Thai art as part of an avant-garde movement. There was a dichotomized view of the problem: what is modern in modern Thai art? For instance, Damrong Wong-Uparaj, Chumruang Vichienket, Anand Panin, Pricha Arjunka, Prawat Laucharoen, Itthi Kongkakul, Decha Warashoon, Nonthivath Chandhanaphalin, Somsak Chaotadapong, Sone Simatrang, Viroj Chiamchirawat and Ithipol Thangchalok felt that their goal was to achieve pure aesthetic forms as part of the vocabulary of international art. They could be inspired by Thai identity but those elements didn’t need to be explicit in every work. Aree Soothipunt and Piriya Krairiksh, who studied in America and Europe respectively, focused on lively, expressive brushwork rather than Thai identity as their trademark. Conversely, Chang Tang, a self-taught artist whose series of black and white abstract paintings were inspired directly by Chinese calligraphy and philosophy, proved that abstract and non-representational Thai art need not be influenced by international art defined by Western standards.
Many Thai artists felt the necessity to maintain Thai identity as a compromise so that remnants of Thai-ness could be recognized. Eclecticism became the tool to assimilate techniques and styles that defied conventional methods and artistic development as understood by the West. They felt free to shift and combine various influences or change styles as they worked. Sawasdi Tantisuk, Chalood Nimsamer, Manote Kongkananda, Suchao Sisganes and Sompot Upa-In painted Thai ways of life using varying styles and techniques including post-impressionist, cubist, and semi-abstraction. However, the impact of surrealism on modern Thai art was phenomenal. Thai artists could have been inspired by images of paranoia and fetishism in the works of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Ren? Magritte without appreciating the writings of Sigmund Freud and Andr? Breton. Instead they could relate surrealist inspiration to local meanings of myth, ritual, animism and fantasy. Like many art terms, surrealism became abbreviated to ‘surr’ among Thai artists. This term did not always apply to the concept of surrealism because it also covered the indigenous beliefs, ritualism, dreams and animism that play an enormous part in Thai life and psyche. ‘Surr’ art became widely practiced by Somchai Hatthakitkosol, Princess Marsi Paribatra, Kiettisak Channonart, Virote Nuibutr, Kham-Ai Dejdoungtae and Tuan Trirapichit.
In the early 1970s, painters such as Thawan Duchanee, Angkarn Kalayanapongsa, Paiboon Suwannakudt, Pichai Nirand and Pratuang Emjaroen began to incorporate Buddhist themes into their work. Thawan’s use of indigenous subjects with themes related to Buddhist teaching was a major step toward the revival of traditional Thai art. Thawan incorporated hyper-realistic pen drawing techniques and fast brushstrokes that became his trademark. Pratuang and Pichai integrated concentric abstract forms with the Buddhist symbol of the turning wheel. Angkarn created intricate charcoal drawings and murals inspired by mythological and Buddhist motifs. Angkarn, who was taught by Fua Haribhitak in the revival of traditional Thai art, became an inspirational figure in both literature and visual arts.
The internal political strife that rocked Thailand during the mid-1970s led to a coup d’?tat, student uprisings and massacres. A military dictatorship clashed with demonstrators and students who demanded freedom in the name of democracy. The aftermath left the nation in turmoil and disillusionment as the meaning of Thai-ness came under scrutiny and doubt. Art for the people through writings of Chit Phumisak and the translation of Communist ideology became widespread among Thai artists. Chang Tang’s 14 October 1973, a self portrait with his eyes gouged out and hands decapitated, and Pratuang Emjaroen’s Dharma Adharma (Days of Disaster) (1973-4), became symbols of the fractures and instability as the nation faced schism and ideological crisis. Pratuang, the founder of Dharma Group, painted the Buddha decapitated and riddled with bullet holes to remind viewers the uncertain times and tragedy. Thammasak Booncherd developed a series of posters and political satires against the military dictatorship and American imperialism. The concept of a ‘pure’ Thai-Buddhist society central to creating feelings of homogeneity and harmony in Thailand came into question.
After escalating events in October 1976, many artists who supported the ideology of art for life joined the insurgents in the provinces. Those who remained with the Artists’ Front began to organize art events and activities in support of democracy. In 1979, the Open Art Exhibition of Thailand, organized by The Artist Society of Thailand led by Kamchorn Soonpongsri, Pratuang Emjaroen, Sompot Upa-In, Lawan Daorai, Wiroon Tungcharoen, Amnat Yensabai and Santi Isrowuthakul, became an important highlight as exhibitions by art teachers and artists were displayed in Bangkok and many provinces. In 1980, the Thai Independent Artist Group was founded to support freedom of expression and transparency in art selection and contests. These members favored socially-conscious art, social satire, themes taken from human injustice, and class discrimination. Their definition of Thai-ness differed enormously from those who practiced art for art’s sake in the styles of non-figuration and abstraction. Loke Sinlapa (Art World) journals gave space for writers and scholars to publish on art and criticism.
Neo-traditional Thai art embraces characteristics related to allegory and fiction, but it has been a most effective catalyst for arousing patriotism and creating a sense of Thai unity. This revivalist style has benefited tremendously from the fact that it conforms to national cultural policy and values and that it reinforces a desire to return to the roots of Thai civilization. Neo-traditional Thai art can be separated into three categories: the representation of an imagined indigenous space through neo-traditional art, the depicting of rural scenes related to a nostalgic yearning for a lost past or cultural heritage, and the glorification of monarchical leadership and the accomplishments of the Royal Family.
Typical of neo-traditional Thai painting are scenes of Traiphum Phra Ruang relating to the three worlds of traditional Theravada Buddhism: the paradise of deities separate from the underworld; the four continents of the human world; and Mount Meru, the earth’s central peak, surrounded by oceans and other mountains. In these invented scenes of ecstasy and delight, the viewer confronts the Buddhist world at the center; Europe, America, Africa, and the rest of the human sphere are subsidiary and peripheral. Paintings with Buddhist subjects, such as Lotus Blooming in the Triple World, Toward Nirvana, Bhuddabhumi, (Celebrating the Holy Relic), indicate a desire to embrace the fundamental values of the Thai Buddhist tradition. Scenes of the Lives of the Buddha (tosachat) are favorite subjects among neo-traditional Thai painters.
Buddhist faith and Thai-ness are fully displayed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, Panya Vijinthanasarn and assistants at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, London. Contemporary scenes and events are integrated with Buddhist meanings, so that old and new as well as time and space are collapsed into a coherent cultural context. Images of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are represented in the Lives of the Buddha and the Victory over Mara, for instance, while scenes depicting King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit imply royal/divine activities that recall the cult of devaraja. These murals extend the space of Buddhism and Thai-ness far beyond the national borders as they serve as a tourist attraction and promote Thai culture in London.
Serene and contemplative scenes in an indigenous environment became popular in paintings by Charabhand Posayakrit, Preecha Thaothong, Plaiwan Dakliang and Sompop Budtarad, while mixed-media works by Thavorn Ko-Udomvit related to rituals and ancestor worship through layers of symbols. Nostalgic yearning for the joy of rural life became a favorite theme as artists revived scenes of festivals, rituals and rites. In artistic representations, Thai national culture is orchestrated to suppress evidence of discontent, discrimination and repression. These works tend to assert the abundance of joy, fun and happiness most typical of the Thai people. Most notable artists include Prasong Luemuang, Wijit Apichatkriengkrai, Netikorn Chinyo, Den Wanjing and Pornchai Jaima.
The most potent signifier of passionate nationalism is the insatiable demand for historical paintings related to icons of the Chakri Dynasty. On special occasions to celebrate royalty, such as the birthday cycles of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit and Crown Princess Sirindhon, banks and corporations sponsor painting contests that are both ambitious and highly competitive as they supposedly reflect the sponsor’s loyalty and patriotism as well as the national character. In these competitions, Thai consciousness is constructed and promoted through historical interpretation by artists such as Somyos Trisenee, Surasit Saowakong, Keatisak Plitaporn, Jumnan Sasaruk, Teerawat Kamana and Warawut Shusangthong.
The doctrine of Thai-ness has been so ingrained in the national art system that even the art market was forced to revolve around the idea of Thai art as instruction of the highly revered and uncontaminated values of nationhood. Corporate patronage began to take an active role in art sponsorship. Venturing into the role of art patrons, financiers encouraged the trend of patron-client relationship as modern Thai art found a niche as a product of wealth and recognition from commissions, art contests and sponsorship by TISCO, Bangkok Bank, Thai Farmers Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and other corporations. Thai artists found a clientele whose aesthetic preference ranged from serene landscapes and abstraction to Buddhism and Thai consciousness. By fostering appreciation and prestige in the corporate world through modern art, new meanings of Thai-ness became evident. Buddhism and the banking business seemed to merge well. Mural decorations with Buddhist stories, which earlier were adapted for hotel suites and lobbies, have now become fashionable in corporate headquarters. For instance, the mural painting titled Land of Universes (1995-96), at the head office of Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok, unites Buddhist art with the material space of corporate business. The unacknowledged shift from the materialism domain of stocks and monetary funds to the celestial realm of Buddhist universes signals the sorts of contradictions that typify displaced images in Bangkok
The Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art became the most vibrant place for artists to meet and display their work without discrimination. Debate on what is modern in modern Thai art extended to the limit of the death of modernism and what is post-modern art in a Thai context. Many felt that modern Thai art was dominant but dead. Thai artists who spearheaded the concept of post-modernism in Thai art were Vasan Sitthiket, Chumpol Apisuk, Kamol Phaosavasdi, Santi Isrowuthakul, Surapone Panyawatchira and Paisan Plienbangchang. Topics such as social discrimination, deforestation, gender, sexual abuse and AIDS were included in the vocabulary of Thai-ness. Seminars and workshops on art and environment were held as artists from Germany, Japan and Australia were invited to share their views with Thai artists.
Numerous sculptors turned to nature for inspiration through forms and materials as is seen in delicate carvings by Inson Wongsam, Cheewa Komolmalai, Saravuth Duangjumpa and Chumpon Utaophat. In painting, Charoon Boonsuan, Niti Wattuya, Sa-Ngad Pui-ok, Warariddh Riddhagni Surapon Saenkum and Kanya Charoensupkul focused on bucolic scenes of nature and landscape.
Environmental art, happening, performance, video art and installation became alternative means of artistic creation that signified a shift from the status quo of consensus art. Wethi Ruamsamai (contemporary arena) was an open alternative space for artists to experiment in performance, music, poetry and the visual arts. To them, Thai identity had no restrictions as artists were encouraged to extend their boundaries to the fullest. The Khon Derndin Group and the Kanghan Group led by Paisal Theerapongvisanuporn and Chirasak Pattanapong took an interest in indigenous and socially conscious art while Chalood Nimsamer, Montien Boonma, Thammasak Booncherd, Vichoke Mukdamanee and Amarit Chusuwan experimented with environmental art.
The military coup d’?tat in 1991 and massacre of civilians in 1992 caused concern with the idea of Thai-ness as many Thai artists reflected the people’s lack of faith in the government and the military. Intense love of country in the form of patriotism through paintings, posters and billboards were evident in the revitalization of icon worship. Thai people craved for transcendental and psychic forces. For example, the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn became the focal point for the cult of Sadej Poh Ror Ha (the Royal Father King Rama V), whose worshippers believed that faith in their spiritual father could bring miracles and safety of the nation. In contrast, Vasan Sitthiket’s Inferno paintings were completed at a time when faith in Thai-ness had reached its lowest point. In his re-interpretations of the Traiphum, the stories of the Three Worlds, Vasan created an indigenous Buddhological space in which all hell seemed to break loose in apocalyptic landscapes.
Despite political upheaval and bloodshed in the early 1990s, Thai artists rapidly came to international attention as the economic boom in Asia meant an increasing number of art events and exhibitions in the region. Globalization, which implied the dissolution of borders, gave Thai artists the confidence that the new internationalism would encourage freedom and opportunity. Art exchange programs, residencies and prestigious exhibitions allowed Thai artists to flourish. Selection by foreign curators, who had developed an appreciation for cutting-edge Thai artistic expression, demonstrated differences in taste and criteria from consensus art by Thai standards. Contacts with artists in Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia gave Thai artists fresh impetus to express identity and indigenousness. As global culture became dominant, the reaction for local culture to assert itself appeared through the theme of Thai-ness in transition.
Installation artists drew audiences into a specific space where issues related to identity and location were considered. Montien Boonma emerged as a leading talent whose assemblages richly combined indigenous contents with concepts of arte povera and readymade objects. Montien’s installations are deeply involved in meditation, confrontation with death, and faith in Buddhism, themes which allow his evocative works to precipitate various associations. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Pinaree Sanpitak and Kamol Phaosavasdi confront issues of gender and discrimination through the use of body and anatomical parts. Performance artists led by Chumpol Apisuk, Vasan Sitthiket and U-gabat Group held live art events that developed into Asiatopia International Performance Art Festivals. Angst-filled self-portraits of Chatchai Puipia became the icon of Siamese Smile turned smirk and grimace in an age global turmoil. Manit Sriwanichpoom’s black-and-white photos comment on the economic crisis, called the tomyum koong syndrome that spread throughout Asia in 1997. Wounded but bloodless citizens dressed in brand name outfits are symbolic of neo-colonial conquest through the control of media, fashion and financial enterprises. Rirkrit Tiravanija whose Pad Thai installation became renowned abroad, raised pressing issues at home regarding the borders between art and the everyday. Navin Rawanchaikul, Surasi Kusolwong and Sutee Kunavichayanont became recognized for art projects that invite the viewer’s interaction and participation in game shows, massage and breath donation
Gender issues emerged as Thai female artists created works that challenge the male-dominated art scene. Prior to this period, Misiem Yip-Intsoi, Pranee Nimsamer, Princess Marasi Paribatra, Saowapa Vichienket, Kanya Chareonsupkul, Luxami Tangchalok, Boonying Emjaroen, Pharbtawan Suwanakudt and Revadee Chaichum made their marks at prestigious art exhibitions. Discussions on feminism and femininity in society gave attention to Thai women artists whose work ranged from painting andperformance to poetry and video installation. Araya Rasdjarmreansook and Pinaree Sanpitak, whose work focused on the female body and psyche, drew enormous interest at home and abroad. The non-government organization, Empower, held art events related to gender and human rights by artists including Khaisang Phanyawatchira, Nitaya Euareeworakul and Nopparat Chotchaichutikul. Exhibitions by emerging female artists included works by Toeignam Srisubut, On-Anong Glinsiri, Surojana Sethabutra, Duanghatai Pongprasit and Busadee Laomanacharoen.
A connection through international networks allowed Thai artists to appear frequently on the global art scene. The 1990s saw Thai artists taking part in prestigious art events including the Asia-Pacific Triennial, the Sydney Biennale, the Asian Art Triennale, the Istanbul Biennale, the Lyon Biennale, the Liverpool Biennale, the Johannesburg Biennale, the Havana Biennale, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, the Taipei Biennale, the Osaka Triennale, the Kwangju Biennale and the Sao Paulo Biennale. Traveling exhibitions included Contemporary Art from Asia: Traditions/Tensions, New Art from Southeast Asia, Asian Modernism, Southeast Asian Art: A Glimpse into the Future and Cities on the Move. At home, the lack of a contemporary art museum raised heated debate as the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) postponed the city’s art and culture center project due to disagreement on the building design. In 2004, the BMA Art and Culture Center restarted with the original design plan by Robert G. Boughey, while the central government began preparation for the expansion of the Thailand Cultural Center that will consist of a concert hall, theater, library and a contemporary art museum
Social critique through contemporary Thai art was prominent in works by Navin Biedklang, Paritas Hutangkul, Santi Thongsuk, Kraisorn Prasert and Dang Buasan. The exhibition Neo-Nationalism at Chulalongkorn University raised pressing issues regarding nationalistic fervor in Thai-ness. Provocative artists including Chatchai Puipia, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Vasan Sitthiket, Sutee Kunvichayanont and Sakarin Krue-On adapted politically-engaged art to comment on the all-powerful Thai Rak Thai government and the definition of nationalism and Thai-ness.
In the past six decades, the paradigm shifts of the values of Thai-ness expressed through political and social changes have been reflected in modern and contemporary Thai art. Thai artists have played different roles in the creation and reinvention of Thai identity according to varying degrees of supply and demand in the interpretation of Thai-ness. The pendulum has swung constantly between Thai and non-Thai, depending on the obsession and infatuation with the We-self that is refracted through art works, revealing a complex series of perspectives on patriotism, identity and love of Thai nation.