Expressing the unvoiced in art
We’ve read about the coups in Thailand throughout the past decade, the elections held earlier this year and the increasing rifts within the civil society as a result of the rise of new political parties.
As citizens, we are inevitably affected by our environment. In Sound of Silence in Thailand: Drawings by Supachai Areerungruang, Ajarn Supacha offers his artwork as images of honest communication about social, political and cultural issues.
Supachai Areerungruang’s art practice embodies creative expression in diverse ways, especially of feelings that cannot be voiced.
At stake is the migration and miscibility within South East Asian communities across geographical boundaries for economic and other reasons. Sound of Silence in Thailand presents the contemporary context of Ajarn’s life and his observations, thoughts and interpretations, and their vital role in presenting ideas and messages to society at large.
Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, the director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Arts and Art Galleries at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, has this to say about the inception of the exhibition.
“Our purpose for this exhibition was to invite Ajarn Supachai to exhibit a project of his personal concern that reflected the aegis of contemporary South East Asian art. I had met with him in Thailand and strongly felt that his works would be important for us. Drawings, which are fundamental academic exercises and skills, a topos of global concern coupled together with an unlikely methodology in production and installation. These are all interesting elements I knew an exhibition by Ajarn Supachai would bring to NAFA.”
B-Side speaks to the artist to find out more.
How would you describe your body of work?
Let me first explain my work.
I have a degree in Thai painting, an artistic field of study that focuses on depicting the story of Buddhism, the Thai way of life, culture, tradition and so on. This is the creation of art in the traditional genre with stories from literature or Thai traditions, illustrating such narratives in the art forms and patterns. Above all, this type of art must be depicted in an exquisite way and with a high level of detail, as defined by rules and restrictions from its own graphic lineage.
This seems totally different from the work that I have exhibited here at this time, both in the art form and the presentation of story. Thus, it might appear that the work isn’t like my own creations from my original field of study.
What inspires you as an artist?
What inspires me is the long-time question in my mind about the creation of Thai art. I have been painting the image of Lord Buddha and drawing angels and Himavanta mythical creatures, when really, I have never seen them with my own eyes. It doesn’t touch me much now when I look at my earlier paintings, even though I recognise the skills that make them beautiful.
However, one morning six years ago, as I drove from my home to the university, I saw a shuttle truck full of multinational workers. They were probably Burmese, Cambodian or from other neighbouring countries.
They were being ferried to work at the construction area close to where I worked.
This was a truck, carrying young workers who had left home, to sell their labour in Bangkok. When I looked into their eyes, I saw signs of hope, frustration and the struggle with life. Yet, these are the same people who are sometimes overlooked by Thai people.
These workers are like foreign objects that come into the society of the middle-class in Bangkok, and they contribute the value of humanity to a community that reaps this value. But they (the Thai community) themselves forget about or neglect to treasure such value.
I have seen with my eyes every day. It’s like these foreigners come to live in a society that is not really equal.
I then raised a question in my mind:
Why do I draw pictures of figures I have never seen?
What I saw on that road was the problem of Thai society, and perhaps, the world. Why should I not use the work of art to convey these things to the public? This is a problem that affects many aspects of Thai society and, of course, it is a problem that has resulted, in part, from Thai politics.
What role do artists and art play in a society?
In my opinion, artist, art and society are all inseparably connected, as every artistic field originates from social phenomena. Because of this, the meaning of art in one society might differ from that in another, depending on its cultural roots or history. However, different societies could still share a common phenomenon or social problem in the era of globalisation.
Recently, artists have been acting as contemporary socialists, with both the eyes of creators and the eyes of critics, using their powerful, but gentle, tools as a medium.
Art is indeed their gentle tool to reflect their ideas, employing various strategies, including and not limited, to symbolism, comparison, metaphors, interpretations and, of course, social criticism.
Oftentimes, an artist may not be able to speak about all the things he wants because it is necessary to have self-censorship to protect himself from the rule of law and the government. As with all authorities, governments and public institutions, for example, do not want you to speak of them in unlawful or overly critical ways, or even criticise them with public art for instance.
Tell us more about this exhibition, Sound of Silence in Thailand. Have you exhibited these works in Thailand? If not, why Singapore as the first stop?
I have been interested in transnational migration and politics for years. I had exhibited works in a group exhibition with other artists at the Khonkaen Manifesto 2018. The original work I exhibited there is also shown here in the NAFA.
Local curators from the military had inspected my work and indicated that my work must be removed or deleted. If I refused, not only my work, but the works of the other artists would also be disallowed from the exhibition. That was not the first time that the government, established by the coup five years earlier, tried to control Thai artists. I also used to have solo performances and group performances. As one might expect, those performances and works talked about the issues of migrant labour and politics.
In 2014, the year the coup took place, all artists were highly restricted in the presentation of art in public places. For example, whenever there was a drama show, it was mandatory for a military officer to be in attendance. Whenever there was a forum, seats had to be reserved for military attendees to observe, and so on.
This work, now shown at NAFA in Singapore, is like getting myself to work loudly, beyond the quiet and freezing of voices I have experienced in Thai society.
In this exhibition, there are works that reflect the awkwardness of Thai people who can’t speak, reflecting the condition of human beings whose rights to speak are a given once they are born. Yet sometimes, they are left only with the reflection in their eyes when they are forbidden to speak or perceive. Their option is to become a cold document, similar to a clinical record of national events and such things.
Which work from this exhibition speaks to you the most? And why?
The work that speaks to me the most is the one titled Coup, as I believe coups should not happen in a democratic society. Since 1932, Thailand has had 13 coups. So this work is an event on record that I want to shout out loud so everyone can hear, for when it mattered, that cry out loud then had seemed impersonal and meaningless.
Sound of Silence in Thailand: Drawings by Supachai Areerungruang
21 June-21 July 2019
Lim Hak Tai Gallery, NAFA Campus 1, 80 Bencoolen Street, Singapore 189655
Closed every Monday