Fractured, embittered, polarised… these are some of the words that come to mind when we talk about contemporary Thai politics. The same words can be applied to the Thai art scene, too, given how the spoken or unspoken political positions of artists have caused rifts in the art community.
How have artists responded to this state of affairs? Disappointingly, in general. In the past decade, while there is an evidently ideological turn in the work of many artists, many of whom are labelled ‘progressive’ or ‘avant-garde’ internationally, the art produced is either blandly reconciliatory or, worse still, alarmingly silent on the issues of human rights, freedom of expression and political justice.
While most Thai artists stay silent on activist causes, Thai activists, by contrast, have become more creative and ‘artistic’, incorporating directly theatrical and performative elements into their protests. In this essay, which is excerpted from a lecture I gave at the Gwangju Museum of Art in July, I will give a brief outline of the ways artists and activists have responded to Thai politics.
While most Thai artists stay silent on activist causes, Thai activists, by contrast, have become more ‘artistic’ in their protests
Before I begin, some background on the political situation in Thailand. Broadly speaking, there are two groups. The first is the Yellow Shirts, a royalist group backing King Bhumibol and hostile towards Thaksin Shinawatra, a business tycoon-turned-politician who won two landslide elections in 2001 and 2005. He had been accused of widespread corruption and is now in exile after a military coup in 2006. But his parties, under different names from 2001 to 2014, keep winning elections. Yingluck, who won the 2011 election, is his sister.
Many Red Shirts, but not all, are pro-Thaksin and want free and fair elections. The first major exhibition that exposed the position of Thai artists was Imagine Peace at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) in June 2010. After the April–May 2010 crackdown, when government troops killed at least 91 Red Shirt protesters and left thousands injured, the ministry of culture organised Imagine Peace as part of the Strong Thailand Operation Project, featuring more than 50 artists who showed works on the theme of peace. For example, the performance (on 24 June 2010) Hug by art collective Slow Motion features a man in a red shirt hugging a man in a yellow shirt. Sakchai Guy’s Untitled (2010) is an image of red and yellow flowers in a harmonious formation. Apinan Poshyananda, at that time deputy permanent secretary of the ministry of culture, stated that the exhibition was intended to ‘heal the mind’.
Two months after Imagine Peace, Rirkrit Tiravanija, an internationally recognised Thai artist, staged (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green) at 100 Tonson Gallery. The centrepiece of the exhibition was the artist’s live cooking of three curries in three colours: red curry stood for the Red Shirts, yellow curry stood for the Yellow Shirts and green curry stood for the army. The cooking performance was accompanied by massive wall-drawings of scenes from key moments in modern Thai politics. In a local television interview, Tiravanija, who was also one of the curators for Imagine Peace, said that he would like Thai people to love each other, to forgive and forget.
These toothless works are feeble and vague in their desire for ‘peace’, and often pandering to the status quo, aka the traditional ruling elite – royalists and the military – who are happy to sweep all political injustices under the carpet, telling everyone to shut up and get along according to their terms.
In stark contrast, the direct theatricality and performativity of the actions of protesters are more powerful and invested. While the artists are mostly keeping silent, activists are getting artistic. An example is Sombat Bunngamanong, aka ‘Bo Ko Lai Jut’ (Polka Dot Editor), a political activist who started an organisation called Red Sunday to commemorate the deaths of the Red Shirt demonstrators. He staged a ‘dead body’ performance, comprising a group of people wearing red clothes and some wearing ghostly makeup lying down in the street. Garlands of flowers were placed on their bodies. Appearing on the signs was the message ‘people have died here’.
Activists have also protested the lèse- majesté law, or Article 112, creatively. Article 112 outlaws defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent
Activists have also protested the lèse-majesté law, or Article 112, creatively. Article 112 outlaws defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. Punishment is up to 15 years in prison. It is basically an excuse for censorship. When the sixty-one-year-old Amphon Tangnoppakul, also popularly known as Akong (‘Grandpa’ in Thai), was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four SMS messages defaming the queen and the monarchy to the personal secretary of then Prime Minister Abhisit in late 2011, activists responded quickly with campaigns and projects. These efforts included an online campaign called Thailand’s Fearlessness: Free Akong, initiated by the political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun in 2011; a public sculpture at the Democracy Monument titled Thaeng Appalak (‘Hideous Bars’), by an activist group called We are Akong, in the same year; and the video Loud Silence (2012), by an artist and media-activist group called Nitimon. Thaeng Appalak provided information on the number of lèse-majesté cases from 2005 to 2010 to raise awareness of this draconian law. There were also bars that formed the word ‘Akong’ and the number ‘112’. Loud Silence showed images of people holding a white- board with the number 112 written on one side and the opinion of the holder about the lèse-majesté law on the other.
Some artists have responded to the lèse-majesté law over the years. A group of seven artists led by Chiang Mai-based Mit Jai-in performed a 112-hour hunger strike called 112 Hunger Strike (2012). Bangkok-based artist Prapat Jiwarangsan staged an exhibition called I will never smile again (2010), addressing censorship and the lèse-majesté law as conditions and limitations of artistic activities in the country. During the exhibition period, he organised a talk, ‘Fear in Thai Art Community and Thai Society’, to discuss censorship and art, where he invited Wanrug Suwanwattana, a lecturer from Thammasat University, and me as speakers.
Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of Thailand’s leading photographic artists, joined the discussion. He stated that because artists do not wish to end up being unwitting tools in politics, they should not take sides until the political situation becomes clearer. He said there were also more important matters to discuss than the lèse-majesté law. Then he mentioned that his film Shakespeare Must Die (2012), an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, would be banned in Thailand. One of the main characters in his film was a dictator who bore a resemblance to Thaksin; another character, a murderer, wore a red hood cloak. The censorship board eventually banned the film. Many who attended the talk and disagreed with his views on the lèse-majesté law signed the petition to protest the censorship.
About a year later, when two theatre activists, Patiwat Saraiyam and Pornthip Munkong, who had staged Wolf Bride (2013), a play about a fictional monarch, were charged with lèse-majesté, Manit kept quiet. The activists were released in August 2016, after nearly three years in jail.
I don’t believe in keeping silent. That’s why I questioned the inclusion of Sutee Kunavichayanont’s politically themed work in an exhibition in the Gwangju Museum of Art. The curator, Jong-young Lim, had selected four of Kunavichayanont’s works, including Thai Uprising (2013–14), an installation comprising posters and T-shirts displaying messages such as ‘Reform Now’, ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ and ‘Seize Thailand’ for the exhibition The Truth To Turn It Over. Two days after the opening, I wrote an open letter to the curator, asking if Lim was aware of the current Thai political situation and Kunavichayanont’s involvement in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the successors to the royalist Yellow Shirts.
Thai Uprising had been part of fundraising efforts by Art Lane, a network of artists and cultural workers who donated money to a movement in 2013 and 2014 that sought to remove a democratically elected government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. Their actions, together with the protests, led to the 22 May 2014 military coup, which left Thailand with an unelected government run by generals. I found the inclusion of Kunavichayanont’s antidemocratic work in an exhibition surtitled 2016 Asian Democracy, Human Rights, Peace Exhibition, purportedly to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising, a popular uprising against military dictatorship in May 1980 in South Korea, perplexing to say the least.
My letter was followed by a series of open letters issued by both Kunavichayanont’s supporters and the Cultural Activists for Democracy (CAD), which involved more than 200 artists, activists and cultural persons, including me.
In response, Gwangju Museum later displayed their own statement, as well as letters from both sides, in the gallery. The curator’s statement said that Thai Uprising was included because the museum was interested in the field-readiness of the medium, and it did not intend to support any Thai political faction or leader. The museum also invited me, as a representative of CAD, to give a lecture on 26 July.
In my lecture, I talked about how Thai politics has been ideologically polarised for about ten years, and how this has spread to the art scene. I also argued that Gwangju Museum’s justification – that Kunavichayanont’s ideologically charged work was chosen for its visual qualities – was weak and insensitive, given the political context.
This is a potted and very abbreviated account of Thai art and politics of the past ten years, which as you can see, is a decade marked by in fighting, silence and hypocrisy. And yet it is still one of the most interesting periods in Thai art history. The Italian neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks (1929–35), ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Amid its own ‘crisis’ in the face of political conflict, Thai art has raised the question of what it really means to be avant-garde, and what the role of art might be in society. But if art has the potential to hold a mirror up to society, to react and to criticise, the first thing it might want to look at is itself.