[ Looking Glass Reality ]
Thai artist Manit Stiwanicbpoom is a determined
social activist. Since the early-1990s his photographs bave captured the
covetousface of contemporary Thai society.
His ail reveals an unique world rich in contrasts and tensions, sometimes
coarse, sometimes extraordinarily moving.
By Steven Pettifor
In the wake of Thailand's rapid rise and fall within
the turbulent world of global economics, domestic artists and social campaigners
alike have understandably become obsessed with gauging and commenting
upon how severe the long term social and psychological affects will be
on the Thai people.
While creating a nouveau ricbe middle class, hasty economic prosperity
noticeably benefited only a small percentage of society, but the desire
for materialistic wealth and all its trappings spread right through society.
The country's dramatic transformation most noticeably
manifested itself throughout the sprawl of the capital Bangkok.
In the 1980s and the early 1990s gleaming office towers and mega-malls
sprang up across the city.
Outrageously expensive, imported luxury items became the new barometers
of status as people appeared to consume indiscriminately.
The economic catastrophe of 1997 brought with it the abrupt burdens of
Growing up in this clamitous economic situation,
Manit Sriwanichpoom documented the excesses and consequences of the times.
"After boom followed the bust, financiers were speculating against
an unstable baht and I sensed vibrations of fear and trouble stirring
among the people," says Sriwanichpoom. " With our history of
military coups, I felt the worst was about to happen. I netvously kept
waiting, trying to make sense of this mood through my art."
With participation in numerous international events
including the XXIVSao Paulo Bien ale (1998), First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale,
International Photograpby Biennale in Mexico, and Cities On the Move (1999),
Sriwanichpoom is the leader of a small but growing group of young Thai
conceptual photographers. His focus-as a conceptual, rather than commercial,
photographer-however, happened around the mid-1990s.
Schooled in the visual arts, the change for Sriwanichpoom occurred in
line with philosophical clarity and maturity, which had already become
clear in earlier works,
but as yet without a defined agenda.
Published in 1999, his collection of photographic prints Bangkok in Black
& White includes many works from the mid1980s onwards, capturing the
extremities of daily existence in an emerging megalopolis.
The series is a melange of urban scenes that evoke the unabashed uniqueness
of the Thai capital: the dichotomy of rich-poor, urban-rural, traditional-modern,
East-West, for example. Sriwanichpoom captures inequality and exorbitance,
melancholy and mirth alongside the bizarre.
Although many shots appear staged as with the innocent hilarity of Dinosaur
with Handbags (1991), or the juxtaposed emblems of cultural identity in
Tilbal Woman with Colonel Sanders (1991), the photographer shot the entire
catalogue purely as an opportunist bystander.
Although advertising and promotional photography
are still his main sources of income, Sriwanichpoom views all forms of
photography as beneficial to his artistic development, helping him to
keep abreast of popular trends as well as honing his technical craft.
"Everyday commercials must be successful if they are to sell,"
he says. "Whether advertising or fine art, it's still delivering
a message and the methods of conveying are constantly being refined.
People are force-fed with a bombardment of consumer visuals, so getting
noticed and being remembered is what it boils down to."
Amidst the present international enthusiasm for
conceptual photography, Sriwanichpoom's diversions into pure art themes
were, and to some extent still are, pioneering for Thai photography.
Domestic artists such as Kamin Lertchaiprasert had manipulated photographic
techniques within their work, but by and large these were brief flirtations.
Sriwanichpoom appreciates his chosen visual apparatus, for "Generally
people believe what they see in photographs-whether reality or illusion,
it's a convincing as well as deceptive medium."
A round the middle of the 1990s, Sriwanichpoom
embarked upon a period of experimentation that included two short films
and a series of still lifes.With tensions rising over loss of cultural
integrity for the price of capitalist advancement, his deliberately contrived
gaudy collection Thai Dreams was included in the inner city site-specific
installation Huay Kwang Mega City Project in 1996.
The group exhibition evolved around a derelict plot of urban wasteland,
with Sriwanichpoom's series of photographs being unsurprisingly pilfered
after just a day.
However, this was a fledgling attempt to take his art outside the exclusionary
and sterile gallery environment, something he attempts again with the
This Bloodless War (1997), Pink Man (2000), and Paradise@the mall (1998).
Carrying Sriwanichpoom's art to the public is an
important part of his methodology. In fact he does this quite literally
in the 1997 series This Bloodless War, which was 'hung' on the shoulders
of a group of fellow artists and transported by foot around Bangkok's
This manner of delivery, along with the theatrical dramas contained inside
the frames, were clear indicators of how Sriwanichpoom's work was becoming
more directorial in order to portray subjective concepts and symbolism.
This Bloodless War refers to the Thai government's
futile and disastrously reckless defense of the baht at a time of intense
speculating from foreign market players.
Subsequent intervention by the IMF only heightened a mood of external
interference and left Thais bitter with globalization, as well as dismay
at their own policymakers.
Sriwanichpoom draws infamous imagery from the Vietnam War, using their
recognizable graphicness as a basis for his stinging black-and-white imitations.
The choreographed adaptations highlight yet another failed Asian incursive
Rather than mere finger-pointing at so-called "Western
commercial imperialism," he hopes that the work provokes internal
"It's too easy to use the West as a scapegoat, it's the whole system
that's at fault. Greed swallowed us up from both inside and out,"
"Having never survived under colonial rule, we were inexperienced
and incapable of protecting ourselves in such a climate. But the biggest
doubt has to be whether we've (Thailand) actually learnt from our mistakes."
Sriwanichpoom expands the Thailand scenario against a universal uncertainty
over the lasting affects of globalization.
In 2000, he presented an equally morose, yet less
staged, sequel to this metaphoric war, in a collection of bleak black-and-white
architectural studies titled Dream Interrupt s (2000).
The stark ruins of incomplete skyscrapers litter Bangkok's cityscape,
abandoned like a post-apocalyptic graveyard. For Sriwanichpoom this is
"concrete proop' of the [economic] war and it's accumulative devastation.
Desperately hoping for economic revival yet having to stare up at monolithic
rust-ridden skeletons, what will be the lasting scars on Thailand's urban
Originally conceived before the bubble burst, Sriwanichpoom's
Pink Man incarnation is arguably his most imaginative and potent work
This can be attributed as much to colorful role-playing by collaborator
Sompong Thawee as the garish icon.
It is the charismatic presence of this performance artist-poet impersonating
a melee of emblematic caricatures from Thai hierarchy-Golfing Pink Man,
Socialist Pink Man, Pink Man the Siamese Intellectual-which imbue such
Sriwanichpoom explains his inspiration, "After
moving home I went shopping to deck out my new place, venturing into a
hyper-market for the first time.
I couldn't believe my eyes, the scale and excess was overwhelming, I felt
lost, alienated and insignificant.
People were piling up mammoth trolleys with supplies for a lifetime! I
asked myself when had life stopped being so simple and how much did they
need to buy to fill the void? Pink Manwas born out of this insanity."
Once more taking art out to the people, Pink Man
silently parades the city streets. Pushing a cart or carrying balloons,
pedestrians are immediately confused by-and later intrigued byhis aimless
In bitter irony a few even ask, "What is he selling?"
In later divergences of Pink Man, the jester's
escapades carry him round the country and even to European shores.
Coinciding with the Tourist Authority's hugely publicized Amazing 7-bailand
campaign of 1998-1999,
Sriwanichpoom parodies the claim of his country as 'amazing'in the debris
of economic disaster, with postcards of a solitary Pink Man on Tour wheeling
his garish cart through remote paddy fields and unpopulated dusty markets.
Where have the tourists migrated to as he stoically stands in front of
Tourism is one of the nation's largest grossing
industries, and dressing up new promotions or reinventing old ones to
increase tourist revenues is a relentless pursuit often to the detriment
of the Kingdom's natural resources.
Conversely, the Amazing Tbailand campaign of packaging and selling its
cultural heritage proved hugely lucrative with the lure of a weak baht
attracting millions of first time visitors.
As it lambasted foreign forces for its economic demise, the government
was also welcoming external intrusion through the tourist dollar.
For the millennial exhibition Paradise@the.mall,
Sriwanichpoom peers inside the concrete megaliths of shopping malls to
witness close-up shoppers' stultifying behavior as they languish vacantly
in the lure of their supposed artificial idyll.
Glossy and bright, retouched negatives of plastic flowers are interspersed
with blackand-white shots of Bangkokians surviving eating, drinking, playing,
and sleeping-in air-conditioned Eden.
Exhibited through a shop-front window on dusty street sides, the series
asks the viewer: where does reality end and illusion begin?
Pink Man is revived yet again for the most scathing
finger-pointing of his nation's values. included in the trio exhibition
Histo & Memory held at Chulalongkorn University last year, Sriwanichpoom
serves up his repugnance via a set of grizzly photo manipulations entitled
Horror in Pink. Bolstered by paintings from partner Ing K and interactive
installation from Sutee Kunavichayanont, the threesome critically exposed
media censorship of historic atrocities in the fight for Thailand's democratic
freedom, as well as the collective amnesia and apathy towards this search
In the provocatelir's most startling and controversial
work to date, he superimposes his colorfully blase champion of greed-fuchsiagarbed
into large black-and-white photographic archive reproductions of pro-democratic
crackdowns. in one brutal scene a dead, blood-sodden student hangs from
a tree while his body is battered by a gleeful mob of spectators,
Pink Man gloating onward.
Through such vivid oppositions, Sriwanichpoom asks
why they sacrificed themselves for a cause that 991. has been forgotten
at the bottom of a shopping cart.
The accompanying manifesto vilifies the capital's present stalwart headman
as an emancipation saboteur, "How shocking when, last year, more
than a million voters elected Samak Sundaravej their new governor of Bangkok.
I was flabbergasted," he says. "Was this not the same Samak
who back in October 1976 went on radio to urge that brute force be used
against pro-democracy protesters, in the events that clilminated with
the most horrifying massacre in Bangkok history?"
Although Pink Man and consumption have yet to exhaust
Sriwanichpoom, he has diverted his castigations to a mellower focus in
portraits of fellow artisans.
Reinvigorating and expanding a set of black-and-white photographs he began
in the early-1990s, the latest subjects are raw and stimulating in their
Showing at Bangkok's Numthong Gallery later this year, Sriwanichpoom codes
each shot with traits pertaining to an individual's artistic style, like
kindred cynic Chatchai Puipia with his foot rammed in his mouth-the outrageously
disrespectful action (in Thai society) mimics an older Puipia painting.
An ardent social activist, Sriwanichpoom has also
been involved in several significant demonstrations, the most publicized
of which was the ecological wrangling with Fox Studios and their star
Leonardo di Caprio over the environmental destruction caused during filming
of The Beach.
Sriwanichpoom's art is a part of a social crlisade
by a small yet passionate outspoken section of Thailand's intelligentsia
that includes fellow artists Vasan Sitthiket, Chumpon Apisuk, Paisan and
The limitations of art as a political weapon are generally accepted and
their goals realized as somewhat optimistic, yet complacency and silence
In a nation where complaint equates loss of 'face' and the general attitude
is one of sabai sabai (relax) or mai pen rai (it doesn't matter), these
activists refuse to be trampled on.
It could be argued that the path of evolution has
enabled Western art to leave such issues behind and concentrate on concepts,
aesthetics, and practice.
"Political engagement is no longer a driving force in Western art.
The militancy of the past has disappeared. Understandably.
The main points of dispute have largely been resolved," wrote the
critic Rutger Pontzen as part of a European Union-sponsored expos on Thai
Yet this lack of contention or conflict amidst stable comfort has sucked
the marrow and bite from its supposed protagonists-sensationalism and
For art of this nature, the West now looks outside
itself to "lesser developed regions" and repressed peoples clawing
for equality, quietly deeming it almost exotic or even nostalgic compared
to art emanating from their own secure democracies.
Asian artists are utilizing international trends like interactive, digital
or video art, and infusing it with pertinence derived from genuine malaise,
giving this media a heightened vitality and effervescence.
Much of what underpins Sriwanichpoom's art isn't
unique to Thailand or even other parts of Asia, but has become the accepted
norm for more industrialized nations.
The affects of globalization have woken international youth to some of
the pitfalls of ceaseless consumerism.
However, it is Sriwanichpoom's proximity to, as well as firsthand experience
of, Thailand's rampant development and the vociferous materialism it has
spawned in the name of progress, which imbues his art with particular
vehemence. it is this no Surrender placard that keeps his art alive.