10 May 2023

Betrayal:
The Final Act of the Trump Show


Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show

In Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, Jonathan Karl covers Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the insurrection by Trump supporters who believed his lies about the 2020 US presidential election. This is the eighteenth Trump book reviewed on Dateline Bangkok (or the nineteenth, if you count the audiobook The Trump Tapes). The others are: Confidence Man, Fire and Fury, Too Much and Never Enough, Fear, Rage, Peril, I Alone Can Fix It, A Very Stable Genius, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, The Room Where It Happened, Team of Five, American Carnage, TrumpNation, and The Cost.

Trump’s last year in office was reported more extensively in I Alone Can Fix It and Peril. But Karl’s book—which is partly a memoir of his experience as an ABC News correspondent—does contain some new details. He writes about his “strangest ever meeting” with Trump, an off-the-record Oval Office discussion in March 2020 during which Trump kept Vice President Mike Pence waiting while he traded political gossip.

Karl interviewed the former president at Mar-a-Largo and asked him to confirm an extraordinary quote first attributed to him by The New York Times in 2021. Did he really tell Pence, in a phone call on the day of the insurrection: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy”? “I wouldn’t dispute it,” is Trump’s remarkable reply.

09 May 2023

I’m the One Who Gets to Decide


Rap Against Dictatorship

Rap Against Dictatorship’s single 250 Bootlickers (250 สอพลอ)—criticising the 250 subservient senators appointed by the junta—was released two days before Thailand’s 2019 election, and now their new single I’m the One Who Gets to Decide (คนที่ตัดสินใจคือฉันเอง) has dropped six days before the next election. The song encourages people to vote and make their voice count, reminding us that the choice we make at the ballot box is entirely our own. (They’re preaching to the choir here, because many young people are already politically engaged.)

In the music video for the single, directed by Skanbombomb, the band play candidates for the fictional Rhyme Reform Party appearing on a political talk show. Their previous singles include My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี), Sunflower (ดอกทานตะวัน), Homeland (บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน), Burning Sky (ไฟไหม้ฟ้า), Budget (งบประมาณ), กอ เอ๋ย กอ กราบ (‘k is for krap’), Reform (ปฏิรูป), Ta Lu Fah (ทะลุฟ้า), and 16 ปีแล้วไอ้สัส (‘it’s been 16 years, ai sat’).

Free My Friends


Free My Friends

Of the many Thai musicians releasing songs commenting on politics, the military, and the monarchy, the rapper Elevenfinger is definitely the most uncompromising. On his track Thalugaz (ทะลุเเก๊ซ), he leads a crowd in the same chant that resulted in charges against Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan. His new single Free My Friends (ปล่อยเพื่อนกู), released yesterday, is so excoriating that quoting from it would violate the lèse-majesté law. (The lyrics include insults in both Thai and English.) The video for the song, directed by Fook Yosthi, features murals—including a royal portrait by FD7—superimposed onto Chiang Mai’s city wall using CGI, and multilayered clips of riot police clashing with student protesters. The title refers to protesters jailed for lèse-majesté.

08 May 2023

Finist the Brave Falcon



A playwright and theatre director were arrested in Russia last week, on charges of glorifying terrorism and promoting radical feminism. The charges related to the play Finist the Brave Falcon (Финист Ясный сокол), directed by Zhenya Berkovich and written by Svetlana Petriichuk, in which a Russian woman marries an Islamic State fighter in Syria. Berkovich and Petriichuk were arrested in Moscow on 5th May, and denied bail. They face up to seven years in jail if found guilty. The award-winning play, whose title comes from a Russian folk tale, was first performed in 2019.

07 May 2023

This Is Thailand


This Is Thailand

Thai rappers Bigboat released the video to their new single This Is Thailand (ที่นี่ประเทศไทย) today. The video, directed by journalist Cod Satrusayang, begins with a TV set showing clips from the announcements of the 2014, 2006, and 1991 coups. The band perform in military uniforms, and the first line of the song addresses the coup leaders directly: “คุณรู้มั้ยว่าทำประเทศบอบช้ำไปตั้งเท่าไหร่” (‘don’t you know how much you’ve hurt the country?’). Other archive material includes footage of riot police clashing with student protesters on 16th October 2020.

This Is Thailand is partly a state-of-the-nation song, with lyrics such as “ที่นี่คือประเทศไทยมีอำนาศไว้ใช้กดขี่แต่ผู้คน” (‘this is Thailand, where power is used to oppress people’). It’s also a call-to-arms: “ใครเห็นด้วยจงยืนขึ้น ต่อสู้เพื่อเสรีท่าวันนี้เพื่อลูกหลาน” (‘whoever agrees, stand up today and fight for freedom for your children’). Ultimately, the message is: smash the system, as the video ends with a sledgehammer smashing the TV screen. Just as Rap Against Dictatorship’s 250 Bootlickers (250 สอพลอ) was released two days before the 2019 election, This Is Thailand has dropped a week before the 14th May election, when coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha is again on the ballot. (Rap Against Dictatorship will release another single later this week.)

Election Through Poster


Election Through Poster Wasin Pathomyok

Thailand will hold a general election on 14th May, and advanced voting took place today. (More than a million voters have signed a petition calling for the resignation of the Election Commission, following various administrative errors.) The election looks set to be a de facto referendum on the royalist military establishment, with coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation party facing challenges from the progressive Move Forward and the populist Pheu Thai.

To encourage people to vote and make their voice count, iLaw and Bangkok Through Poster organised the Election Through Poster exhibition at the Kinjai Contemporary gallery in Bangkok. The exhibition featured pro-democracy posters by artists such as Uninspired by Current Events alongside submissions from design students. One of the highlights was a poster by Wasin Pathomyok, which summarises the last fifteen years of Thai politics in a single comic strip.

Two weeks before the 2019 election, the Thai Raksa Chart party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court, following its nomination of Princess Ubolratana as a candidate for prime minister. No such bombshells have occurred in the run-up to this year’s election (at least not yet), though the military sent an ominous signal on 4th May with a Facebook video of an army band playing หนักแผ่นดิน. This hateful propaganda song denounces anyone not pledging loyalty to the nation, religion, and monarchy as traitorous ‘scum of the earth’, and the army also played it before the 2019 election.

Election Through Poster opened on 23rd April and closed at the end of the month. Graphic design has always played a key role in Thailand’s pro-democracy movement, from the United Artists’ Front of Thailand (แนวร่วมศิลปินแห่งประเทศไทย) billboards in 1975 to the ‘vote no’ campaign posters from the constitutional referendums of 2007 and 2016.

03 May 2023

Life and Death:
Art and the Body in Contemporary China


Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China

Think of a shocking or scandalous work of art. An artwork that’s provocative, controversial, or offensive. Whichever painting, photograph, or installation you have in mind, its shock value almost certainly pales in comparison with the art in Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China. Silvia Fuk’s book, published in 2013, is the first to examine the use of human remains, ashes, and blood by contemporary Chinese artists who “challenge the boundaries of art, morality and law to the extreme.” The book features rare photographs of some of these artworks, though they’re all black-and-white.

Yang Zhichao used a mould to create dice made from his own congealed blood, in a performance titled Macao (澳門). Sun Yuang and Peng Yu collected unclaimed ashes from crematoria, and mixed them with plaster to sculpt One or All (一個或所有), an architectural column. They also transfused some of their own blood into the bodies of Siamese twins, for a performance titled Link of the Body (連體). For Ruan, Xiao Yu grafted a baby’s head onto a bird’s body. (Ruan, which also appears in The Museum of Scandals, is a Chinese neologism that the artist coined to represent this chimera.)

Ruan

Zhu Yu is China’s most extreme contemporary artist. He suspended a human arm from the ceiling for his installation Pocket Theology (袖珍神学 图片; not included in Life and Death). For Intellectual Brain (全部知識學的基礎), he puréed six human brains and sold the resulting paste in jam jars labelled ‘do not eat’. Infamously, he ignored his own advice with Eating People (吃⼈), photographs of him apparently eating a foetus. Even more offensive was Sacrifice (献祭), for which he artificially inseminated a surrogate mother and seemingly fed their aborted foetus to a dog. (Did Zhu Yu use real foetuses in his work, as he claimed in the Channel 4 documentary Beijing Swings? This is difficult to verify, though Fuk takes him at face value.)

Art such as this, transgressive to the point of illegality, has very few equivalents. Perhaps the only comparative example is Rick Gibson, who was convicted of outraging public decency after exhibiting two tiny foetuses as earrings at a London gallery. Fuk doesn’t cite Gibson in Life and Death, though she does discuss other less extreme artists in relation to the Chinese works in question. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s morgue videos are examined in detail, and she suggests Marc Quinn’s Self (a cast of the artist’s head made from his frozen blood) as an inspiration for Macao. Ruangsak Anuwatwimon’s sculpture Transformations, made—like One or All—from human ashes, is not included.

02 May 2023

Beyond Red and Yellow:
A Thai Politics Primer



Thailand has been in a state of political crisis for almost twenty years: a cycle of protests and military interventions, dominated by a populist politician (Thaksin Shinawatra, who won an election landslide in 2001) and a military dictator (Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led a coup in 2014 and remains Prime Minister). A new exhibition—Red, Yellow and Beyond—provides a photographic record of the last two decades, and the following is a concise guide to the major political events of this turbulent and polarising period.

Thaksin won an unprecedented second election victory in 2005, though protests against his administration began when he sold a stake in his Shin Corp. company to Singaporean company Temasek in 2006. His government had increased the legal limit on foreign ownership of telecom firms to enable the Shin sale, and changed the tax code to avoid paying any duty on the deal, a manipulation of the law for personal gain. The anti-Thaksin campaign disrupted the 2006 election, which was invalidated by the Constitutional Court.

From Thai Rak Thai to the People Power Party


Thaksin was deposed by a military coup in 2006. The junta drafted a new constitution, which was endorsed in a referendum. Whereas the previous 1997 ‘people’s charter’ had created a democratically elected Senate, under the new constitution only 50% of senators were elected and the remainder were appointed. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2007, and he was later convicted of corruption.

If the coup had been designed to eradicate Thaksin’s political influence, it was unsuccessful, as he formed the People Power Party as a proxy for Thai Rak Thai. The PPP won the 2007 election, though its leader Samak Sundaravej was disqualified from politics by the Constitutional Court on a technicality in 2008. Thaksin installed his brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, as PPP leader to replace Samak, leading to a revival of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy anti-Thaksin campaign. The PAD occupied Bangkok’s airports and government buildings, and the Constitutional Court dissolved the governing PPP to appease the PAD protesters.

Democrats and Pheu Thai


The court’s verdict created a power vacuum, and the military brokered a coalition between the opposition parties, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrats, to form an unelected government. This prompted violent protests by the pro-Thaksin, red-shirt United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship in 2009. Thaksin’s assets were frozen by the Supreme Court at the start of 2010, triggering UDD protest rallies. UDD protesters were brutally massacred by the military, and almost 100 people were killed.

Pheu Thai, another of Thaksin’s proxy parties, won the 2011 election, and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became Prime Minister. Yingluck announced plans for an amnesty that would have quashed Thaksin’s corruption conviction. This sparked protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which—following the PAD playbook—quickly gathered steam. The PDRC blocked candidates from registering for the 2014 election, and sabotaged the election itself. The election was nullified by the Constitutional Court, and a rerun was scheduled for later that year. Yingluck was removed as PM by the Constitutional Court after an investigation into nepotism charges (and subsequently fined, impeached, and convicted of dereliction of dutyin absentia—in relation to her government’s rice subsidy scheme).

Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Coup


After Yingluck’s removal from office in 2014, the military imposed martial law and launched another coup two days later. Progressive politicians, including Yingluck, were detained, and protests were suppressed. After coup leader Prayut was appointed Prime Minister, sporadic anti-government demonstrations by young protesters began. Martial law, which had deterred widespread protests, was repealed in 2015. The junta rewrote the constitution in 2016, increasing proportional representation (to prevent another populist landslide) and reverting to a fully appointed Senate. The new charter, which was endorsed in a referendum, also gave senators a vote on who would become prime minister.

After numerous delays, an election was finally held in 2019. Another of Thaksin’s proxy parties, Thai Raksa Chart, audaciously nominated Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister in the election. On the same day, King Rama X issued a statement forbidding her from running for office. After this dramatic royal intervention, Thai Raksa Chart was dissolved by the Constitutional Court. Although Pheu Thai won the most seats in the election, Prayut was reinstated as Prime Minister.

The current student-led protest movement began in 2020, following the dissolution of the Future Forward party by the Constitutional Court. Protest rallies organised by Free Youth and the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration were held at Democracy Monument and Thammasat University, and riot police used water cannon to disperse protesters at Siam Square. In 2021, more radical protest groups such as REDEM (a rebranding of Free Youth) and Thalufah organised regular demonstrations near Victory Monument, and riot police began firing rubber bullets at the demonstrators.

Future Forward, previously led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was relaunched as Move Forward. As a popular alternative to the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai, it may split the opposition vote in this year’s upcoming election, though a progressive coalition is also a possibility. Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat is currently being investigated for ownership of shares in iTV, even though the TV station ceased operations in 2007. (Thanathorn was disqualified as an MP for ownership of media shares in 2019.)

A constitutional amendment in 2021 slightly reduced the impact of proportional representation on the election results; this may benefit larger parties such as Pheu Thai, which has nominated Thaksin’s daughter, Paethongtarn Shinawatra, as a prime ministerial candidate. A few months before the election, Prayut joined a new party, United Thai Nation, after a rift between him and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan (thought to be the mastermind behind the 2014 coup).

30 April 2023

Red, Yellow and Beyond


Red, Yellow and BeyondRed, Yellow and Beyond

Photojournalist Vinai Dithajohn’s exhibition Red, Yellow and Beyond is on show at two adjacent Bangkok galleries: Red and Yellow at VS Gallery and Beyond at Cartel Artspace. Vinai’s photographs cover more than fifteen years of political polarisation in Thailand, from 2005 to the present day. Red, Yellow and Beyond opened on 22nd April, and runs until 2nd July.

At Red and Yellow, which visitors enter through red and yellow curtains, photos of yellow-shirt and red-shirt rallies are hung on opposite walls of a corridor, so that the two opposing groups face each other. This echoes Vinai’s exhibition last year—ทางราษฎร์กิโลเมตรที่ 0 (‘the people’s road, 0km’)—which featured images of student protesters opposite a photo of a soldier. Beyond is dominated by a portrait of a student protester at twilight, which occupies an entire wall of the gallery. One of the most striking photos shows Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul delivering her taboo-breaking speech calling for reform of the monarchy.

Another photojournalist, Nick Nostitz, also covered the red-shirt and yellow-shirt movements, and the red-shirt protests were documented in two books published by Same Sky and Read Journal. The recent student protests are the subject of a handful of photobooks: No God No King Only Human, End in This Generation, There’s Always Spring (เมื่อถึงเวลาดอกไม้จะบาน), EBB, and #WhatsHappeningInThailand.

29 April 2023

Shit:
An Investigation


Shit: An Investigation Piero Manzoni

Andres Serrano’s Shit exhibition, held in 2007, featured mural-sized images of feces excreted by various animal species (and the artist himself, titled Self-Portrait Shit). The feces in question appears in close-up, photographed against brightly coloured backdrops. The exhibition catalogue, Shit: An Investigation, reproduces all sixty-six shits.

This is not the only controversial and potentially offensive subject tackled by Serrano. In fact, his work has broken all kinds of artistic taboos, with self-explanatory photo series such as A History of Sex, The Morgue, and Bodily Fluids. He is arguably the world’s most provocative photographer, and an image from his Immersions series—Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in urine—is the most famous artwork to be accused of blasphemy. His subject matter may evoke shock or disgust, though his glossy, vibrant images are also visually appealing; in fact—as is the case with Piss Christ, for example—their transgressive nature is often not apparent until the title is revealed.

The use or depiction of shit is rare in modern art, though there are a few examples besides Serrano. Piero Manzoni sold cans apparently containing 30g of his own feces, Artist’s Shit (Merda d’artista). Chris Ofili affixed balls of elephant dung to his Upper Room paintings (and, controversially, The Holy Virgin Mary). Gilbert and George photographed their feces for The Fundamental Pictures and The Naked Shit Pictures. Santiago Sierra’s Anthropometric Modules installations were blocks of dried human excrement, collected and moulded by scavengers in India.

A handful of artists have also used excrement as a paint medium. In 2015, New York artist KATSU painted a portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg using his own excrement. This year, British artist Dominic Murphy painted a portrait of Vladimir Putin with a dog turd. Werner Härtl has been painting with cow dung in Germany for more than a decade. Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter Diana Widmaier has claimed that he used his daughter Maya’s feces to paint an apple for a 1938 still life.

The work that’s most similar to Serrano’s Shit catalogue is Cacas: The Encyclopedia of Poo, a photobook credited to Oliviero Toscani though in fact photographed by his sister, Mariosa Toscani Ballo. Like Shit, Cacas also features close-up images of the excrements of various species, though they are photographed against clinical white backgrounds.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (blu-ray)


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sergio Leone’s epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) is the greatest ‘spaghetti western’ ever made, though it has a long and convoluted editing history, with three different cuts supervised by Leone and numerous revisions by MGM. The most recent 4k restoration rectifies most of the problems with previous releases, though the only completely authentic presentation of the international theatrical version is on laserdisc.

When the film premiered in 1966 in Italy, it included a sequence set in a grotto, which was deleted by Leone for pacing reasons before the general theatrical release. Then, in 1967, Leone removed more than ten minutes of footage for the international version. VHS and laserdisc releases were direct transfers of the original theatrical versions, but later DVDs, blu-rays, and UHDs are restorations and reconstructions, all of which are compromised to some extent.

MGM first attempted to reconstruct the international theatrical version for a 1998 DVD release, though some sequences were sourced from Italian prints, leading to inconsistencies with the 1967 version. In 2002, MGM created a new, extended version utilising all extant footage, including the grotto sequence that Leone himself had removed before the Italian theatrical release. This 2002 version also featured new foley effects and newly looped dialogue in some scenes.

For blu-ray and DVD releases in 2014, MGM remastered their extended version and altered the colour grading, adding an incongruous yellow tint to the image. The extended version was remastered again for new blu-rays and DVDs in 2017, when the yellow tint was removed. 2017 also marked MGM’s second reconstruction of the international theatrical version, though this followed the flawed template of their 1998 attempt.

The film was released on 4k UHD and blu-ray in 2021, and this time MGM created an almost flawless reconstruction of the international theatrical version (the only inconsistencies being in the title sequence). Reconstruction credits were added to the end credits sequence of this release, and to all UHD, blu-ray, and DVD editions released since 2002.

27 April 2023

Patchwork:
A World Tour


Patchwork

Patchwork: A World Tour, by Catherine Legrand, was originally published in French as Patchworks: Une mosaïque du monde. Patchworks is the second recent French-language survey of international patchwork textiles, though this translation, published by Thames and Hudson, is the first book on the subject in English. (Caroline Crabtree and Christine Shaw’s Quilting, Patchwork and Appliqué: A World Guide, a previous Thames and Hudson publication, also covered international patchwork, alongside other textile techniques.)

Legrand’s book, like patchwork itself, is a colourful collection of material, assembled and juxtaposed. The scope is truly global: there are chapters on all continents with native populations, with the exception of Australia. (Therefore, Aboriginal patchworks are unfortunately omitted.) Patchworks from more than thirty individual countries are included, with China and the US receiving the most extensive coverage. The patchworks photographed for the book—most of which are quilts and items of clothing—are sourced from an impressive variety of museums and private collections. The full-page, close-up illustrations are superb, and there’s a comprehensive bibliography.

26 April 2023

Thai Queer Cinema Odyssey


Thai Queer Cinema Odyssey

The Thai Film Archive at Salaya will screen a season of gay films thoughout May and June, under the Thai Queer Cinema Odyssey (การเดินทางของหนังเควียร์ไทย) banner. This will be a rare chance to see the pioneering films of the 1980s—The Last Song (เพลงสุดท้าย), Anguished Love (รักทรมาน), and I Am a Man (ฉันผู้ชายนะยะ)—that constituted the first wave of Thai queer cinema. Also, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (อินเซค อินเดอะ แบ็คยาร์ด) will be shown on 17th and 30th June. The highlights of the season, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (สัตว์ประหลาด) and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก), will both be screened in 35mm. (Tropical Malady will be shown on 24th and 30th June, and Mundane History on 20th and 28th July.)

Insects in the Backyard


Insects in the Backyard premiered at the World Film Festival of Bangkok in 2010, though requests for a general theatrical release were denied, making it the first film formally banned under the Film and Video Act of 2008. When the censors vetoed a screening at the Thai Film Archive in 2010, Tanwarin cremated a DVD of the film, in a symbolic funeral. (The ashes are kept in an urn at the Thai Film Museum.) Tanwarin appealed to the National Film Board, which upheld the ban, so she sued the censors in the Administrative Court.

As Tanwarin explained in an interview for Thai Cinema Uncensored, the censors condemned the entire film: “When we asked the committee who considered the film which scenes constituted immorality, they simply said that they thought every scene is immoral”. When she appealed to the Film Board, they were equally dismissive: “we were told by one of the committee members that we should have made the film in a ‘good’ way. This was said as if we did not know how to produce a good movie, and no clear explanation was given.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the Administrative Court ruled that Insects in the Backyard could be released if a single shot was removed. (The three-second shot shows a hardcore clip from a gay porn video.) Although the film was censored, the verdict represented a victory of sorts, as the court dismissed the censors’ view that the film was immoral. Following the court’s ruling, it was shown at House Rama, Bangkok Screening Room, Sunandha Rajabhat University, ChangChui, and Lido Connect. It was shown at the Thai Film Archive in 2018 and 2020.

Tropical Malady


Internationally, Tropical Malady is one of Apichatpong’s most acclaimed films, though it had rather lacklustre distribution in Thailand. In a Thai Cinema Uncensored interview, he discussed its disappointing domestic theatrical release: “I think, from Tropical Malady, there’s this issue of releasing the film, and marketing, that I don’t like. And also the studio was not interested in the film, anyway, because there’s no selling point: there’s no tiger, there’s no sex, so it’s very personal.”

Tropical Malady: The Book, a deluxe coffee-table book published in 2019, raised the film’s Thai profile. It was previously shown in 35mm at Alliance Française, and it has been screened several times at the Thai Film Archive, including in 2009 and 2018.

Mundane History


Mundane History was the first Thai film to receive the restrictive ‘20’ age rating, though similar content has since been passed with an ‘18’ certificate. One of the greatest of all Thai films, it was previously screened at Warehouse 30 in 2018 and at Bangkok Screening Room in 2017. Anocha’s Krabi, 2562 (กระบี่ ๒๕๖๒) will also be shown at the Archive, on 15th and 26th August.

20 April 2023

Siti Nuramira Abdullah



Malaysian comedian Siti Nuramira Abdullah has been fined 8,000 ringgit (equivalent to $1,800) for offending religious sentiments. On 4th June last year, as the opener to her set at the Crackhouse comedy club in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, she announced that she was a Muslim and then removed her Islamic tudung headscarf and traditional Malaysian baju kurung dress, to reveal a short skirt and low-cut blouse.

Siti Nuramira was held in custody for ten days following her arrest last year. If she had not paid the fine, she would have been sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. The Crackhouse audience cheered and applauded her routine, though she pleaded guilty to avoid the more serious charge of disrupting social harmony (the offence for which she was originally arrested).

The Malaysian government has banned dozens of books over the past decade, most famously Faisal Tehrani’s novel Perempuan Nan Bercinta (‘the beloved lady’) and cartoon books by Zunar including Sapuman. An exhibition of Zunar’s cartoons was also closed by the authorities.

18 April 2023

Hoon Payon / Pook Payon


Hoon Payon / Pook Payon

When the Thai horror film Hoon Payon (หุ่นพยนต์) faced censorship and a restrictive ‘20’ rating, its distributors announced a plan to release it simultaneously in two versions: Hoon Payon—with the ‘20’ rating imposed by the censors—and Pook Payon (ปลุกพยนต์), with a lower ‘18’ rating though paradoxically four minutes longer. Both versions contain the same level of violence, which is much less than that of many other Thai horror films—such as the gory Art of the Devil II (ลองของ), for example, which was passed by the censors before the rating system existed—making the ‘20’ rating seem rather punitive.

Mindful of how monk characters have often been censored in Thai films (as discussed in Thai Cinema Uncensored), the studio had already taken precautions at the script stage. The film stresses that the abbot (Luang Nha) and his accomplice (Tudd), who are ultimately responsible for the black magic at the heart of the plot, are not real monks. As another monk (Gla) tells the abbot: “You are never ordained to become a monk” [sic]. Similarly, the film revolves around a local superstition, not the Buddhist religion. The various killings are carried out—spoiler alert—by a lay character (Tae), a novice (Kun), and a monk (Tee), though the novice and monk are possessed spirits, not living people.

Despite this, the censors initially required edits to several scenes in Hoon Payon before granting the ‘20’ rating: novice monks fighting and swearing while wearing saffron robes, novices bullying another young boy, a novice hugging his mother, and the recitation of one of the Buddhist precepts during a murder scene. They also raised concerns about the actors playing novices all having eyebrows (as monks are required to shave their body hair before ordination), and references to the Wat Teppayon temple were also deemed inappropriate.

After negotiations between the censors and the film studio, some of this ‘unacceptable’ material was cut, though some remains intact (in both versions). The novices—and, indeed, the full-fledged monks—still have eyebrows, as presumably it was too expensive to remove them all with CGI. Novices are shown swearing (“Hia!”/“Shit!”). One novice (Kun) bullies a young boy (Tae), calling him a “retard”. Another novice (Breeze) hugs his mother, comforting and protecting her. The second Buddhist precept (“stealing is a sin”) is recited by Tae while he hangs a monk (Tudd) for stealing temple funds.

Pook Payon

Pook Payon


As part of its marketing campaign, the studio claimed on Facebook: “ไม่ตัดฉาก!!” (‘no scenes cut!!’), and it’s true that no entire scenes have been removed, though some individual shots have been censored. In both versions, the intensity of the bullying scene has been reduced: shots of Kun spoon-feeding Tae, and the protagonist (Tham) raising his fists to fight the bully, have both been replaced with reaction shots. The temple sign has also been changed, using CGI: the original sign, “วัดเทพพยนต์” (‘Teppayon temple’), became “เทพพยนต์” (‘Teppayon’). But although the sign was modified, the soundtrack wasn’t: in both versions, the Thai dialogue (“วัดเทพพยนต์”) and the English subtitles (“Teppayon temple”) use the temple’s full name.

Most of the extra footage in Pook Payon is barely noticeable, even after watching both versions back-to-back. But in the most conspicuous additional scene, clearly tacked on to appease the censors—with earnest, didactic dialogue, out of place in a horror film—a lay character (Jate) resolves to become a monk, and Gla tells him: “Becoming a monk is good... it’s best that we hold onto Buddhism.” Jate answers with equal sincerity: “That’s right. I’ll always support Buddhism.” Amen!

Dominion v. Fox News:
“Lies have consequences...”


Fox News

US cable TV channel Fox News and election technology company Dominion Voting Systems have reached a settlement in their defamation case, with Fox agreeing to pay Dominion $787.5 million. The Wall Street Journal reported at the weekend that a settlement was being discussed, and judge Eric Davis unexpectedly delayed the start of the trial, in a possible attempt to encourage settlement negotiations, though jurors were sworn in yesterday and the settlement was announced only at the last minute.

Dominion sued Fox in 2021, accusing the network of broadcasting “a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies” and “outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions” in the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election: “Fox recklessly disregarded the truth. Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies.” The lawsuit cited false conspiracy theories that Dominion had rigged the election, claims spread by Donald Trump and his lawyers in the final months of his presidency and endorsed on Fox News shows.

Dominion had sought $1.6 billion in damages, which was widely considered unrealistic, even given the egregious nature of the Fox News broadcasts under dispute. Thus, the $787.5 million settlement, which represents almost half of the total damages originally sought, is extremely high. (As a company, Dominion is valued at less than $100 million.) The settlement implies either that Fox feared losing the defamation case and potentially paying more in damages, or—more likely—that the network sought to avoid the embarrassment of a public trial.

The trial was due to take place in Wilmington, Delaware, a city with a largely Democrat population. (Wilmingtonians voted 2:1 in favour of the Democrats in the 2020 presidential election, and President Joe Biden has a house in the city.) This suggests that the jurors were unlikely to be sympathetic to Fox News and its pro-Republican content. Also, in his pretrial ruling last month, the judge wrote that it “is CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true”: an emphatic rejection of the Fox News defence of fair comment.

Once the settlement had been reached yesterday, Fox said in a statement: “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” This acceptance of the pretrial ruling, albeit in vague terms, is an unusual concession, as out-of-court settlements do not routinely include admissions of liability. This, coupled with the enormity of the settlement, suggests that Fox was keen to avoid potentially damaging witness testimony from its executives and prime-time hosts.

Fox’s defence had already been undermined by the release of hundreds of emails and text messages, submitted in evidence before the trial began. Crucially, these messages demonstrate that the hosts gave airtime to the conspiracy theories about Dominion software despite personally disbelieving them, which could demonstrate actual malice (the legal term for knowingly making false and defamatory statements). In a text message on 9th November 2020, for example, Tucker Carlson wrote: “The software shit is absurd.” Conversely, on his show later that day, he said: “We don’t know anything about the software that many say was rigged.” (Fox defended itself in a previous defamation case by arguing that Carlson’s show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”.)

In a statement outside court yesterday, Dominion’s lawyer Justin Nelson said: “The truth matters. Lies have consequences. Over two years ago, a torrent of lies swept Dominion and election officials across America into an alternative universe of conspiracy theories, causing grevious harm to Dominion and the country.” Dominion is also suing another right-wing cable channel, OAN, for $1.6 billion, though OAN lacks the funds to offer a Fox-style settlement. Another election technology company, Smartmatic, is suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

The $787.5 million settlement makes this the largest media defamation case in US legal history. The previous record was the $222.7 million awarded in damages to Money Management Analytical Research in 1997, after The Wall Street Journal accused the company of fraud in a 21st October 1993 article by Laura Jereski (headlined “Regulators Study Texas Securities Firm and Its Louisiana Pension Fund Trades”). In that case, however, the damages were reduced on appeal to $22.7 million. (In the UK, libel damages were at their highest in the 1980s, though the amounts were paltry in comparison to the US.)

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06 April 2023

Kinetismus:
100 Years of Electricity in Art


Kinetismus Kinetic Construction

The publishers of Kinetismus: 100 Years of Electricity in Art—the catalogue of an exhibition held last year at the Kunsthalle in Prague—describe it as “the first comprehensive survey of art forms based on electricity and electronics.” The book explores a century of “plugged-in art”, which it distinguishes from the “unplugged art” (equivalent to acoustic music) that existed before the twentieth century.

The title Kinetismus comes from a term coined by Zdeněk Pešánek, “the father of neon art”, and his kinetic light sculptures were the initial inspiration for the exhibition. The catalogue builds on the work of curator Frank Popper, whose books include Origins and Development of Kinetic Art and Art of the Electronic Age. Peter Weibel, who co-edited Kinetismus with Christelle Havranek, previously co-edited the monumental Light Art from Artificial Light (Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht) catalogue.

Kinetismus is divided into four broad categories: cinematography, kinetics, cybernetics, and computer art. Cinematography is represented by early abstract ‘absolute’ films such as Hans Richter’s Rhythmus ’21 (‘rhythm 21’), Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (Diagonalsymphonien), and Walther Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus I (‘light show I’). Kinetic sculptures include a replica of Naum Gabo’s groundbreaking Kinetic Construction.

05 April 2023

Aquatint:
From Its Origins to Goya


Aquatint

Aquatint, by Rena M. Hoisington—the catalogue of a 2021 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—is the first general history of aquatint printmaking for more than a century. The only previous work on the subject, S.T. Prideaux’s Aquatint Engraving, was published in 1909.

The full title of Hoisington’s book is Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya, though the origins of aquatint are a matter of debate. As Prideaux put it: “There seems to be no one person to whom the actual invention of aquatint can definitely be assigned.” Writing 112 years later, Hoisington agrees that “the designation of an artist as the “first” to invent or use acquatint is often complicated”.

The earliest potential aquatint pioneer is Jan van de Velde, whose circa 1653 portrait of Oliver Cromwell has an aquatint background. In The Art of the Print, Fritz Eichenberg argues that the technique “may have been used” by van de Velde, though Prideaux dismisses this, believing that “it is more likely that the attribution is mistaken and that the background was added later.”

Oliver Cromwell XII Views in Aquatinta from Drawings Taken on the Spot in South-Wales

Arthur M. Hind’s A History of Engraving and Etching notes that Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, working more than 100 years after van de Velde, is “generally regarded as the inventor of aquatint.” Prideaux concurs with this view, though Hoisington credits Le Prince as aquatint’s populariser rather than its creator: “Le Prince himself fully acknowledged that he did not invent aquatint, but he proudly took credit for perfecting it.”

Hoisington seems to support the case for van de Velde, writing that aquatint “was invented in the Netherlands in the 1650s,” though she relegates van de Velde’s name to a cursory footnote. As it omits any details of the van de Velde attribution and instead skips forward a century to Le Prince, Hoisington’s book cannot be described as a comprehensive study of aquatint’s origins.

Regardless of who invented the technique, it flourished throughout Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Hoisington covers this acquatint ‘golden age’ in unprecedented detail, though most illustrations are from the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection. Aside from Le Prince, there are chapters on several other artists, including Paul Sandby, who coined the term ‘aquatint’ in the title of his series XII Views in Aquatinta from Drawings Taken on the Spot in South-Wales. The book culminates with a chapter on Francisco Goya, the artist who “harnessed aquatint’s tonal darkness to his artistic vision like no other.”

03 April 2023

Home


Home

Canadian band Numenorean caused controversy in 2016 by using a post-mortem photograph of a two-year-old girl as the cover for their debut album Home. (On the CD version, the exploitative cover is inside a slipcase.) Kristen MacDonald was killed by her father in 1970, in a well-documented murder case, and the band explained their use of her image in the album’s liner notes: “Perhaps what we are really searching for is the innocence that we once had as a child. However, since we are incapable of ever getting that back, the only place we can perhaps find this comfort once more is in death.”

The first photograph of a dead body on a record cover was perhaps the Dead Kennedys’ single Holiday in Cambodia, released in 1980. The 12" single appropriated Neal Ulevich’s image of a public lynching after the 6th October 1976 massacre. Another notorious lynching appeared on the cover of the Public Enemy single Hazy Shade of Criminal in 1992: Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 photograph of the hangings of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith in Indiana. (This photo also inspired the writing of Strange Fruit, one of the most powerful protest songs in popular music history.)

There have also been at least three examples of severed heads on album covers, released in consecutive years. Pungent Stench’s 1991 album Been Caught Buttering used Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Le baiser (‘the kiss’)—a decapitated head sawn in half, appearing to kiss itself—as its cover image. This was followed in 1992 by Naked City’s Grand Guignol album cover, which features a photograph of a decapitated head from the Stanley Burns archive of medical imagery. Then, in 1993, Brujeria bought the reproduction rights to a photo of the head of a murder victim from the Mexican tabloid magazine ¡Alarma! (‘warning!’), for the cover of their album Matando Güeros (‘killing whiteys’).

UK goregrind band Carcass used montages of autopsy photographs as the covers for their albums Reek of Putrefaction in 1988 and Symphonies of Sickness a year later, both of which were seized when police raided Earache Records in 1991. The raid was prompted by the earlier seizure of cover art for the Pain Killer album Guts of a Virgin. That image—an autopsy photo of a woman with her intestines exposed, in a tasteless pun on the album title—was destroyed by customs as potentially obscene. (The uncensored photo was used for the Japanese CD release.) Clearly, goregrind record sleeves are as gross as their titles, and Last Days of Humanity’s albums, such as Hymns of Indigestible Suppuration from 2000, are particularly nauseating examples.

01 April 2023

PTSD


PTSD PTSD

PTSD, a new exhibition at Cartel Artspace in Bangkok, features paintings and a video installation by Petchnin Sukjan and an anonymous artist who is currently facing a lèse-majesté charge. The exhibition is bookended by Break Your Silence, crowdfunded performances by the Unidentified Theatre group.

PTSD, in this context, stands for “Parliament / Treacherous / Sedition / Dictators”, and the exhibition is an artistic response to state violence and authoritarian politics. The paintings include images of yellow rubber ducks (symbols of the recent anti-government protest movement), which also featured in Jirapatt Aungsumalee’s exhibition Dark. In one painting with a potential symbolic meaning, a blue figure sits in a comfortable chair while another man languishes under his foot.

The five-minute video installation begins with footage of King Rama X being interviewed while on a walkabout in 2020. Journalist Jonathan Miller’s question about the protesters is audible, though the answer—“We love them all the same”—is heavily distorted. Co-curator Tanatorn Kongseng’s artist’s statement could be interpreted as a reply to that comment: “Don’t say you love us if you are still against us”.


The video footage is pixellated, as were images of King Rama IX in Neti Wichiansaen’s documentary Democracy after Death (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย) and Natthapol Kitwarasai’s short film Coup d’état. It ends with a caption, “THE LAND OF COMPROMISE”, accompanied by the sound of a rubber bullet being fired by riot police. Again, this refers to a comment during the royal walkabout, as does the title of Elevenfinger’s single Land of Compromise. Elevenfinger’s music video and the PTSD video installation both also include footage of violent police suppression of protesters.

PTSD opened on 25th March and closes on 10th April. The first Break Your Silence durational performance took place on 30th March, and another will be held on 8th April.