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Science looks at art

Science looks at art

MONDAY, August 29, 2016
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Aspiring anthropologist Kamolwan Boonphokaew clears up some of the mystery behind conceptual art

Contemporary art meets venerable anthropology in the remarkable exhibition “Human AlieNation” at the Silpakorn Art Centre in central Bangkok. The curator is Kamolwan Boonphokaew, an anthropology PhD candidate at Thammasat University. The four participating Thai artists are all internationally acclaimed but have never before shown their work at the country’s leading art institute.
Kamolwan, who spent eight months preparing the exhibition, challenges viewers to take a fully documented anthropological look at 18 videos, sculptures and mixed-media works by Chitti Kasemkitvatana, Nopchai Ungkavatanapong, Nipan Oranniwesna and Wantanee Siripattananuntakul, and the results are often surprising.
While some of the pieces are site-specific – made for the art centre – others have earned praise abroad and yet are being seen in Thailand for the first time.
“For viewers who aren’t especially familiar with art, seeing contemporary art can be particularly difficult,” Kamolwan acknowledges. “But once you become used to thinking critically and reading the inherent messages, you can appreciate it more easily and understand the meanings, both tangible and intangible.”
The show’s theme is the current condition of Thai society amid social and political transition. Kamolwan notes that society has been deeply polarised ever since the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with the opposite sides of the political divide regarding each other as “aliens”. We are a society of self-alienated aliens, the “alien nation” of the show’s punning title.
Even within the Thai art scene, she notes, there are groups of artists that are estranged from one another. She deliberately sought out “non-mainstream artists” to interpret the meaning of “alienation” in their own way.
They themselves became anthropologists, undertaking their own socio-cultural surveys, synthesising the results and creating visual cultural objects based on that.
Kamolwan takes her primary cues from Australian anthropologist Caroline Turner’s book “Art and Social Change”, which examines contemporary art across Asia.
“As an anthropologist in training, my approach has to be that of an outsider in an unfamiliar world,” Kamolwan writes in the show’s catalogue. “My interest in fine art stems from my realisation of its potential and the artist’s role in shaping society. Turner wrote that artists and their work can ‘transcend and perhaps even change society, as well as reflect its tragedies’.
“I think the visual arts and anthropology, despite the different working processes and approaches, share one fundamental commonality – their ability to reflect situations and movements that are occurring in society. Anthropologists typically explore small groups of humans and compare them with the larger society. Artists endeavour to reflect situations and how they impact individuals, and those reflections can be connected to society as well. They then transform the reflections through the form of either a tangible or intangible object.”
Whereas exhibitions of contemporary art usually let viewers draw their own interpretations, “Human AlieNation” is presented with copious explanatory material from Kamolwan’s research. She interviewed the artists at length about their methodology and inspirations and photographed them at work. “Interviewing and documenting are the key tools in anthropology studies,” she says.
Wantanee is screening three videos. “III” (made in 2014) depicts a farmer searching for something, his eyes watering because he’s peeling onions. “When she sings a voiceless song” (2015) has a middle-class woman waging a lonely fight for survival. “The Conductor” (2016) features an orchestra conductor without an orchestra.
The videos portray people of different social status “in accordance with the changing chapters of Thai history”, Kamolwan explains. They’re engaged in three different actions – searching, struggling and finding order in the dark.
“In both society and the art world there’s now an effort to revive the peer-group mechanism based on political ideology,” she says. “The act of social labelling, categorising and delineation as ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ is experiencing a resurgence. The consequence is the promotion of the voice of the in-group to be heard louder, while that of all others is increasingly ignored.”
Nopchai is showing his signature neon sculptures. The installation “Re-touching the negatives” lets visitors play with film negatives that show people of all ages in silhouette when projected with the help of a “magic lantern”.
“For Nopchai, stories, statuses and perceptions towards surrounding objects (and possibly also people) are the results of social production,” the catalogue says. “Being an object, in his view, engages not only the matter of physicality, but also hidden significance.”
Chitti examines ordinary people who are disenfranchised from mainstream history, incorporating his personal experience at a northern monastery and references to cities, art institutes and history. He reinterprets historical events, some of which are widely dismissed has having never occurred.
“One Moment into Another: An Atmosphere Immersion” comprises three works on paper attached to the poster for the Silpakorn exhibition. 
“Bringing an historical incident that happened in one place to another place (such as an art gallery) is a form of rewriting the history of people in the past,” Kamolwan explaines.
Nipan explores the actual space at the Silpakorn art centre with a travelogue that reflects on how art is created. His journey follows the route that a gallery janitor took back to her hometown in Myanmar for a visit, beginning on Koh Song in Ranong. 
“These people are referred to as migrant labourers, foreign labourers, aliens and so on,” Kamolwan observes. “This status of ‘other’ derives not from their own self-definition but through the imposition of others’ definitions. By attempting to experience an existence on this border between two states, Nipan’s feelings of fear and of being estranged from the familiar have been evoked. This reflects the imprinted images of things.”
Chitti and Nipan’s complicated conceptual art is difficult to comprehend and they prefer that viewers make their own interpretations. That might be partiallywhy viewers feel alienated from modern art. What Kamolwan has done with her extensive documentation is to try and bridge the gap between artist and viewer. 
It thus becomes easier to understand the running man in Nipan’s video “Signal” as representing a dialogue between the gallery space and its history. And what emerges from the interview with Chitti – one of the key shapers of contemporary art – provides insight into how the art form developed in Thailand.
  •   The exhibition “Human AlieNation” ends this Saturday with an academic discussion at 1.30pm involving Kamolwan, Silpakorn University art historian Thanavi Chotpradit and anthropology lecturers Boonlert Visetpricha and Rachod Satrawut from Thammasat and Prince of Songkla universities, respectively.
  •  Fore information visit |www.