26 June 2021

The L/Royal Monument

The L/Royal Monument
Intersection of Wills
Captain Justice
The Masterpiece
Prior to 2014, Wittawat Tongkeaw was known primarily for his landscape paintings, though since the coup his art has become increasingly political. The works in his new exhibition The L/Royal Monument (นิ/ราษฎร์) at Subhashok Arts Center in Bangkok, displayed in four themed sections, provide a commentary on modern Thai politics expressed through coded metaphors and symbolism.

The exhibition’s first room, Interlude, draws on Wittawat’s background as a landscape painter, though these landscapes have political subtexts. Two of the paintings refer to the 2010 massacre of red-shirt protesters: Intersection of Wills (ราษฎร์​ประสงค์) shows Ratchaprasong, the focal point of the protest, and Interregnum (สิ้นสุดพุทธาวาส) depicts a relief sculpture from Wat Pathum Wanaram, a temple sheltering six protesters who were killed by military snipers. Like Pachara Piyasongsoot’s Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ), these paintings represent politically-loaded locations; to use Dutch painter Armando’s term, they are ‘guilty landscapes’. The theme of this first room is transition, symbolised by expansive sunsets and tiny details (a traffic light about to turn green). The political significance of this transition is suggested by the exhibition’s other rooms.

The second room, Imagining Law-abiding Citizens, features paintings of four pro-democracy campaigners, all of whom have been charged with lèse-majesté. They include Captain Justice (ทนายอานนท์), a portrait of Arnon Nampa, who led protests last year calling for reform of the monarchy; and The Unforgiven Blues (หมอลำแบงค์), a portrait of Patiwat Saraiyaem, an actor who was jailed for his performance in the play เจ้าสาวหมาป่า (‘the wolf bride’) and later appeared in Ten Years Thailand. Each portrait has a blue background, in an allusion to that colour’s idiomatic and symbolic meanings: blue indicates the artist’s sadness at the persecution of the four subjects, though it also traditionally represents the monarchy, as in Wittawat’s previous exhibition, 841.594.

The other two rooms, Memorabilia and The Artist’s Trial, feature installations and projections. In the latter room is Jojo and the Bookstalk (โจโจ้ผู้ฆ่ายักษ์), a precarious pile of books and journals, the texts that led to Wittawat’s political awakening, known in Thai as ta sawang. Two other installations in the same room are especially provocative Creation-Conclusion (เริ่ม-จบ) is a painting of the sky on an upturned easel, and The Masterpiece (มาสเตอร์พีซ) is a weather-beaten painting hung back-to-front. The Thai word for ‘sky’ (fah) is a metaphor for the monarchy, and the upturned easel resembles a contraption more commonly associated with the French Revolution. The subject of the back-to-front portrait can be guessed from its propagandistic original title, พระเกียรติคุณ กว้างใหญ่ไพศาล (‘his honour spread far and wide’), which is still faintly visible on the reverse.

The L/Royal Monument opened at SAC Gallery in Bangkok on 22nd June, and runs until 18th September. Its opening coincides with the anniversary of Thailand’s 1932 transition to constitutional monarchy and, as Wittawat writes in the exhibition brochure, the “physical components—names, plaques, monuments” commemorating this have been systematically removed from public spaces.

21 June 2021

Reincarnations III

Reincarnations III
Reincarnations III
Reincarnations III
Ruangsak Anuwatwimon’s exhibition Reincarnations III: Ecologies of Life is part of his ongoing research into mankind’s detrimental impacts on plant and animal life. With Monstruous Phenomenon at 1Projects, he examined the genetic mutations caused by nuclear radiation in Japan, and Reincarnations III focuses on animals driven to extinction by hunting.

Two of these extinct creatures were native to Thailand: Schomburgk’s deer—a life-sized sculpture of which is the exhibition’s centrepiece—and a subspecies of the Bhutan glory butterfly. The exhibition includes a mounted butterfly specimen, alongside a drawing of it on a postage stamp and a description of it in a textbook. The effect is similar to Joseph Kosuth’s installations demonstrating the principles of semiotics.

Reincarnations III opened at Warin Lab Contemporary in Bangkok on 12th May, and runs until 10th July. Ruangsak’s sculpture Transformations was included in ห้องเรียนวาฬไทย (‘Thai whale classroom’) at HOF Art Space, and his similar Ash Heart Project installation was part of the Dialogues exhibition at BACC.

15 June 2021

C+nto and Othered Poems

C+nto and Othered Poems
Joelle Taylor’s poetry collection, C+unto and Othered Poems, was published last week. Cunto is an inflection of the Italian verb cuntare, meaning ‘narrate’. As the title of Taylor’s seven-part poem, it may also be a pun on ‘canto’ (and, of course, ‘cunt’). For publication, the title is printed as C+unto, and in her poetry Taylor sidesteps the c-word in favour of its etymological origin, the Latin cunnus.

11 June 2021

The Art of Thai Comics

The Art of Thai Comics
The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes, by comics scholar and collector Nicolas Verstappen, was published this week. This is the first book in English on the history of Thai comics (also available in a Thai edition: การ์ตูนไทย ศิลปะและประวัติศาสตร์), and it provides a definitive history of the subject, from pioneers such as Prayoon Chanyawongse (“The King of Thai Cartoons”) to contemporary comic zines.

The Art of Thai Comics is both a coffee-table book with beautifully-reproduced illustrations and a meticulously researched, comprehensive survey of Thai comic history. In both aspects, it surpasses the leading Thai-language book on the subject, A 140-Year History of Cartoon in Thailand from 1874 to 2014 (140 ปี การ์ตูน เมืองไทย).

Scot Barmé discusses early Thai satirical cartoons—including Sem Sumanan’s caricatures of Rama VI—in Woman, Man, Bangkok. For more on Asian comics, see Mangasia (by Paul Gravett). Comics: A Global History (by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner) covers American, European, and Japanese comics since 1968. The World Encyclopedia of Comics (by Maurice Horn) features biographies of hundreds of comic artists. Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels (by Roger Sabin) is an introduction to the entire field of comic art.

10 June 2021

A 140-Year History of Cartoon
in Thailand from 1874 to 2014

A 140-Year History of Cartoon in Thailand from 1874 to 2014
A 140-Year History of Cartoon in Thailand from 1874 to 2014
A 140-Year History of Cartoon in Thailand from 1874 to 2014 [sic] (140 ปี การ์ตูน เมืองไทย: ประวัติและตำนาน พ.ศ. 2417-2557), by Surrealist artist and photographer Paisal Theerapongvisanuporn, was published in 2018. Paisal’s book was the first comprehensive historical account of Thai comics. (Nicolas Verstappen, author of The Art of Thai Comics, praises it as “the first complete overview of the history of Thai comics”.)

The opening chapters deal with the early history of Thai cartoons, followed by a decade-by-decade examination of Thai comics since 1957. (The authoritative text is accompanied by black-and-white illustrations, some of which appear to be photocopies.) An epilogue discusses political cartoons in Thai newspapers, including a 2014 example depicting a tank chasing a pencil around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, highlighting military intimidation in the aftermath of the coup.

Scot Barmé discusses early Thai satirical cartoons in Woman, Man, Bangkok. For more coverage of Asian comics, see Mangasia (by Paul Gravett). Comics: A Global History (by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner) covers American, European, and Japanese comics since 1968. The World Encyclopedia of Comics (by Maurice Horn) features biographies of hundreds of comic artists, and Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels (by Roger Sabin) is an introduction to the entire field of comic art.

06 June 2021

Battle for the Soul

Battle for the Soul
Tim Alberta’s American Carnage detailed the Republican Party’s radical transformation in the Trump era, and Edward-Isaac Dovere’s new book Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump examines the Democratic Party’s regrouping during Trump’s term of office. Whereas Trump led the Republicans down a path (or cul-de-sac) of extremism, the 2020 Democratic nominee—Joe Biden—was aligned with his party’s moderate wing (though his presidency has been more progressive than many predicted).

Battle for the Soul’s title is adapted from an article Biden wrote for The Atlantic magazine in 2017, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally: “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.” The book features Biden’s first Oval Office interview as President, in which he draws “a direct line” between Trump’s endorsement of the Charlottesville white supremacists and the 6th January storming of the Capitol.

Although Dovere covers the Democratic Party after Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s Obama who provides the book’s juiciest quotes. At off-the-record fundraising events with Democratic Party donors, he called Trump “a racist, sexist pig”, “that fucking lunatic” and, for good measure, “that corrupt motherfucker”.

03 June 2021

“Do you hear the people sing?”

Reform
The Commoner
Ta Lu Fah
Paeng Surachet
In 2018, Rap Against Dictatorship’s single My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี) encapsulated the frustrations of anti-coup protesters. In 2020, when the protests expanded to include calls for reform of the monarchy, the band released Reform (ปฏิรูป), a song whose lyrics address Prayut Chan-o-cha and King Rama X directly. (Lines such as “pawns have a king captured” in the song’s official English translation are even more blunt than the Thai original.)

The video for Reform—blocked by the government on YouTube—was filmed at Siam Square in Bangkok on 16th October 2020, and includes footage of riot police using water cannon to disperse the protesters. The music video for Elevenfinger’s เผด็จกวยหัวคาน (‘get rid of the dickhead’) was also filmed during the protests, and is even more confrontational than Reform. Elevenfinger hurls insults at Prayut and others, and lyrics such as “ละควรรีบๆตาย” (‘hurry up and die’) are as subtle as a brick through a window.

The lyrics of another recent song are addressed directly to Rama X: Paeng Surachet’s กล้ามาก เก่งมาก ขอบใจ (‘very brave, very good, thank you’). Its title is an ironic appropriation of a comment made by the King to one of his supporters during a walkabout on 23rd October 2020, and its lyric video features animated yellow ducks in reference to the inflatable ducks used by protesters to protect themselves from water cannon.

Paeng’s song takes the form of a breakup message to an unfaithful lover, with lines such as “ประนีประนอมได้ไหม ไม่ compromise นะถ้าทำตัวเเบบนี้” (‘Can we compromise? No, I won’t compromise if you behave this way’). ‘Compromise’ is a reference to a comment by the King on another walkabout: on 2nd November 2020, he told a reporter that “Thailand is the land of compromise.” Paeng later released a music video for the song, featuring protest leaders Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul and Parit Chirawak in angel costumes.

Panusaya and Parit also performed guest vocals on a new version of The Commoner’s track Commoner’s Anthem (บทเพลงของสามัญชน), released last month with a music video featuring footage of pro-democracy protests. (Parit was recently hospitalised after going on hunger strike for forty-six days, and was released on bail on 11th May; Panusaya was bailed on 6th May.) The Commoner’s video คนที่คุณก็รู้ว่าใคร (‘you know who’) also features protest footage, and Parit and Panusaya are name-checked in the lyrics of Hockhacker’s song Pirates (โจรสลัด).

Protesters have also reappropriated existing songs. Do You Hear the People Sing? (from the stage musical Les Misérables) was sung at several of last year’s protests in place of the national anthem. Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan performed his hit single 12345 I Love You at a protest near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on 14th November 2020, leading the crowd in chants of “ai hia Tu” instead of “I love you” during the chorus. (Ai hia is a strong insult, and Tu is Prayut’s nickname.) Chaiamorn was released on bail on 11th May, after burning a portrait of Rama X outside Bangkok’s Klongprem prison on 28th February.

Chaiamorn also performed 12345 I Love You outside Thanyaburi Provincial Court on 14th January, with Phromsorn Weerathamjaree, leading to lèse-majesté charges being filed against both of them. Whereas Chaiamorn usually sang Prayut’s nickname during the chorus, at Thanyaburi they used a nickname for the King instead. Phromsorn was also charged with lèse-majesté for singing three traditional royalist songs at the same event—สดุดีมหาราชา (‘praise the King’), ต้นไม้ของพ่อ (‘father’s tree’), and ในหลวงของแผ่นดิน (‘the king of the land’)—which he performed with altered lyrics.

Ai hia Tu” also appears in the lyrics of Rap Against Dictatorship’s latest single, ทะลุฟ้า (‘through the sky’), and another line—“Burn this image”—is also a reference to Chaiamorn. The ‘sky’ in the title is metaphorical, and the lyrics refer indirectly to “someone in the sky. Fuck knows he’s alive.” (This is a reference to a recent rumour that went viral online.) The music video, directed by Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan, includes footage of recent REDEM protests, which also feature in the lyrics (“Gunshots from the police as REDEM marches in line”).

02 June 2021

American Carnage

American Carnage
Tim Alberta’s American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump reveals how Republican Party factions battled each other and Donald Trump for the soul of the party. (Edward-Isaac Dovere’s new book Battle for the Soul offers a similar account of the Democrat Party’s internal divisions in the Trump era.)

American Carnage covers a decade of intramural conflict, from the rise and fall of the Tea Party to the Republican Party’s gradual embrace of Trump’s disruptive populism. Sources include former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and an Oval Office interview with President Trump. (The book was published in 2019.) Its title is taken from the key soundbite of Trump’s inauguration speech: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” (a speech that George W. Bush described as “some weird shit”).

Alberta sets out his stall on the very first page, writing that Trump “spent his first two years as president conducting himself in a manner so self-evidently unbecoming of the office—trafficking in schoolyard taunts, peddling brazen untruths, cozying up to murderous tyrants, tearing down our national institutions, weaponizing the gears of government for the purpose of self-preservation, preying on racial division and cultural resentment”. And all of that was before the double impeachment and attempted insurrection.

In his most evocative and alarming passage, Alberta describes Trump revelling almost maniacally in the adulation he received from (in Hillary Clinton’s words) the deplorables at his rallies: “Preparing to take the stage, the president seemed to feel it all—the crowd, the music, the energy, the media glare—coursing through his veins. “I fucking love this job!” he howled into the November night.”

01 June 2021

Democracy.exe

Untitled for Us / Untitled for Them
Democracy.exe
White Bird
Aomtip Kerdplanant
The Untitled for Film group held a screening of short films on 29th May, providing a platform for young, independent directors to respond to seven years of Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government. The event, Democracy.exe, was originally to form part of the Untitled for Us / Untitled for Them season at the RDX Offsite gallery in Bangkok. The season was scheduled to run from 3rd April to 24th May, with the Democracy.exe films to be shown from 2nd to 8th May, though the screening ultimately took place online (streamed via Facebook Live) due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The programme began with Panya Zhu’s White Bird, in which an origami bird (representing a dove of peace?) is seen at various locations around Bangkok, including Ratchaprasong, the 14th October 1973 Memorial, Democracy Monument, and Thammasat University. These are all sites with histories of political violence and are thus, to use Dutch painter Armando’s term, ‘guilty landscapes’. (Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s short film Planking and Pachara Piyasongsoot’s painting What a Wonderful World feature similarly ‘guilty landscapes’, silent witnesses to past traumas.) Prayut’s announcement of his coup is heard on the soundtrack, and the film ends with the lowering of the Thai flag, symbolising the country’s political regression.

Democracy.exe also featured four short documentaries by Ratakorn Sirileark, filmed at anti-government protests last year. 21 October 2020: The Event Nearby the Government House and 8 November 2020: The Unintentional Mistake (8 November 2020: มือลั่น) were, like the others in the series, filmed in black-and-white. In 17 November 2020: Tear Gas and Water Canon [sic], Ratakorn documents the grossly disproportionate use of tear gas and water cannon by riot police, with Paint It, Black by the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack. (This is also the subject of Sorayos Prapapan’s short film Yellow Duck Against Dictatorship.) The title of Ratakorn’s 26 October 2020: The Owner of the Mutt is a reference to King Rama X, who has a pet poodle.

The final film in the programme was Aomtip Kerdplanant’s 16 ตุลา (‘16 Oct.’), a drama in which three student protest leaders debate their tactics in the aftermath of the 2014 coup: should they apply for a protest permit, or not?; should they organise a flashmob, or a large-scale rally? The three students could, of course, be substitutes for Arnon Nampa (released on bail today), Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul, and Parit Chirawak; they also resemble the protagonists of Sunisa Manning’s novel A Good True Thai.

16 ตุลา shows how the students’ lives have changed in the years since their initial campaign, indicating how seasoned protesters can become disillusioned, and how Prayut has become entrenched in Thai politics. The title is a conflation of two massacres, on 14th October 1973 and 6th October 1976, which have been whitewashed to such an extent that many people believe they are synonymous. The film ends with a written caption endorsing the three demands of the real-life student protest movement: Prayut’s resignation, a democratic constitution, and reform of the monarchy.

Cunts

Cunts
Cunts, the Los Angeles punk band who began playing live in 2018, released their self-titled debut album, Cunts, in 2019. The album is available on vinyl and CD. Cunts are by no means the first band to use the c-word in their name: there is also a band called The Cunts, and others include Anal Cunt, Selfish Cunt, Rotten Cunt, Cuntsaw, Märy’s Cünt, Cunt Grinder, Filthy Maggoty Cunt, and Prosthetic Cunt.