The history of Bangkok’s Front Palace is told through contemporary artworks and performance
The three-part project “The Study of the Front Palace (Wang Na): A Digital Revitalisation of the Palace’s Past” has reached at its final episode and has returned to the National Museum Bangkok – the site that was formerly part of the Front Palace.
“Wang Na Naruemit” sees seven contemporary artists and 13 experts in fields varying from linguistics, music, architecture, botany, textile design and cuisine creating works in response to the layers of time and space for the exhibition “In Situ from outside: Reconfiguring the past in between the present”.
Suanplu Chorus performs songs specially rearranged and adapted for the historical space Isara Winitchai Throne Hall in the National Museum Bangkok.
“My interest is to transmit the information and history to people in way that’s not academic, but on a deeper level,” says the project’s director Khun Sirikitiya “Mai” Jensen, the youngest daughter of Princess Ubolratana. “History is not something dead; it continues. The artists and experts will create different dialogues across various dimensions and make connections to the site, allowing the movement of history.”
The project’s first phase “The Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na Exhibition” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in June last year translated the historical contexts and magnificent architecture of the Front Palace into an understandable visual language that was easily accessible to the public through Google Maps, 3D models, interactive maps and moving images on double screens.
The second part was the launch of the project’s website (WangNaProject.com) which brought together information and the research references, and is available to the public as an open archive.
The project’s director Khun Sirikitiya “Mai” Jensen stands next to Danh Vo’s work “2.2.1861” – a copy of the handwritten farewell letter of a French missionary in Vietnam.
“The first part was designed to spark the imagination, create an understanding of the history and raise curiosity,” says Sirikitiya, who is an official at the Fine Arts Department’s Office of Architecture. “The second part is the online platform for continuous study and this time, the third, the aim is to drive the history through different perspectives of people, not documents.”
The Front Palace was constructed in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built and was one of the very first structures to be erected at the beginning of the Rattanakosin Era. It served as the residences for five viceroys and one Second King during the reigns of Kings Rama I to V.
The site encompasses the land now occupied by Thammasat University, the National Museum Bangkok, the National Theatre, the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute and the northern part of Sanam Luang. The surviving structures of the Front Palace that can still be seen today are mainly located within the site of the National Museum Bangkok.
Continuing until April 28, the exhibition showcases contemporary, site-specific artworks by seven artists at the museum’s Isara Winitchai Throne Hall while the works by specialists in different fields are on display at its annex called Mukkrasan.
On Kawara’s two–volume book project “One Million Years”
Though the artworks are relatively conceptual and thus probably not easy for the public to interpret, they are challenging to contemplate. Each work reveals the layers of time, space and history by temporally connecting the past to the present in a newly constructed context.
Upon entering the Throne Hall, visitors will encounter a table laid with two books created by celebrated Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara whose works deal with the awareness of places in history and the passage of time.
For this two–volume book project “One Million Years”, he transcribed a list of years that spans one million years into the past and one million years into the future. The first book, “Past – For all those who have lived and died”, covers the years from 998,031 BC to 1969. The second volume, “Future – For the last one”, starts in 1993 and continues on another one million years, to 1,001,992 AD.
For the presentation of his project, male and female participants will sit side-by-side and take turns reading dates, switching between the two volumes. Since 1993, live readings have been performed in cities around the world, with the most recent stop at Museum Macan in Jakarta early this month.
Nipan Oranniwesna removes the mercury ball – an artefact in the museum – for display in the exhibition space and replaces it with a reproduction.
Nipan Oranniwesna plays with real and the reproduced objects within a specific space. He removes a mercury ball believed to have been given in tribute byEuropeans to King Pinklao, who was “second king” to his elder brother King Rama IV. Nipan took the ball from King Pinklao’s residence, the Issares Rajanusorn Mansion within the museum compound, and placed it in a glass vitrine in the exhibition space of the Isara Winitchai Throne Hall. He left in its original place a reproduction of the ball he made.
“At the Issares Rajanusorn Mansion, the mercury ball is always overlooked because it’s displayed amid other artefacts and well away from the viewers’ gaze. Moving it here to a glass cabinet allows people to see it close up and in 360 degrees, and its surface reflects the viewers themselves and the space around them,” says Nipan.
Nipan reinterprets the historical context of the Front Palace by displaying two hanging curved steel circles engraved with lyrics of the song “Lao Phaen”.
Nipan also reinterprets the historical context of the Front Palace by displaying two hanging curved steel circles engraved with lyrics of the song “Lao Phaen”, one in Thai and the other in Lao. The song, whose author remains anonymous, relates the lives of Laotian captives in Siam during the reign of King Rama III.
Also on view is Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo’s ongoing work on paper “2.2.1861” - a copy of an 1861 hand-written farewell letter that French Catholic missionary Jean-Theophane Venard penned to his father before he was executed in Vietnam. Vo asked his own father to transcribe this letter that poetically describes loss and departure.
Danh Vo’s ongoing work on paper “2.2.1861”
“Vo’s father, who has beautiful handwriting, portrays the emotional despair and illustrates the father-son relationship of both the families of the missionary and his own. People may wonder how this work is related to the Front Palace. The original letter was actually written at the same time as King Pinklao was appointed by King Rama IV as both the viceroy and the second King. The work thus depicts the layers of history despite the different sites,” says co-curator Mary Pansanga.
Other conceptual works by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tanatchai Bandasak, Udomsak Krisanamis and Pratchaya Phinthong are also on display.
The 3D model of a demolished building Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavillion) that was formerly located in the compound of the Front Palace
Next to the Throne Hall is its annex Mukkrasan displaying the collaborative works of the experts. Situated right at the entrance is a 3D model of a demolished building Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavillion), which King Rama IV ordered to be built in honour of King Pinklao. It was located next to the palace’s eastern wall, and presently forms the northern edge of Sanam Luang.
Textile designer Jarupatcha Achavasmit creates curtains made out of brass and bronze threads with a patina technique to simulate the look of oxidised surface on metal weaving. Her work is meant to recall the curtains intricately woven with gold and silver threads previously allowed for royal use only, as well as serve as a dialogue with the old cement walls and the gold leaf dharma book chest – a piece of furniture at Mukkrasan – whose surface has peeled off in layers over the years.
Jarupatcha Achavasmit creates a metal woven curtain that has a similar appearance to an oxidised surface in line with the historical site.
Language specialists Pongsit Pangsrivongse, court Brahmin Bhidhi Sri Visudhikhun, Prapod Assavavirul- hakarn and Boonteum Sriworapoj jointly interpret the hidden messages behind the names of the monarchs.
“The royal names of Kings Rama I, II and III reflect the status of Thai monarchs who are highly revered as divine kings – a tradition influenced by Hinduism,” says Sirikitiya. “King Rama IV, who was a monk for 27 years before ascending to the throne, was the first king to choose his own royal name, which he felt reflected humanism and individualism.
“Though King Rama IV bestowed on his younger brother King Pinklao an honour equal to his own, the names of the two Kings imply different status. The term bovorn [excellent] was given to King Pinklao, while the term borom [utmost] was for King Rama IV, indicating his superior rank.”
Visitors wear headphones to listen to a new electronic mix of a song composed by King Pinklao and reinterpreted by musicians Tul Waitoonkiat and Marmosets.
Musicians Tul Waitoonkiat and Marmosets rearrange a song composed by King Pinklao into a new electronic number entitled “Ghosts of Wang Na” to bridge the past with the present.
Visitors can wear the headphones to experience their creation, or scan the QR code printed on the handouts distributed to the public.
“We first borrowed a ranad (Thai xylophone) from the permanent collection of the museum to produce the melody before modulating it with elements of electronic sound for a distorted effect,” says Tul.
The Suanplu Chorus will perform four songs, especially rearranged and adapted to match this historical space. The ensemble will perform three times – today, March 30 and April 20 – at the Isara Winitchai Throne Hall. Visitors can also scan the QR code on the handbills to listen to the ensemble rehearsing.
Chudaree “Chef Tam” Debhakam, the winner of Top Chef Thailand, will recreate old recipes for a chef’s table onsite at the museum on April 27.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
“In Situ from outside: Reconfiguring the past in between the present” continues until April 28 at Isara Winitchai Throne Hall and Mukkrasan in the compound of the National Museum Bangkok.
The museum is on Na Phrathat Road, next to Thammasat University. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 4pm. Admission is Bt30 for Thais and Bt200 for foreigners.