Lost inside the rainbow

FRIDAY, MAY 29, 2015

The eye-popping art installation at Central Embassy is loads of fun, but it also has its spiritual side

SAMUEL BORKSON and Arturo Sandoval III form the collaborative art duo Friends With You, but – given their cheery inflatable pieces now on irresistible view at Central Embassy – they could be friends with anybody.
Kids go gaga at the sight of the multicoloured toy-like installations of Rainbow City that will be on display all through June to celebrate the mall’s first anniversary. And adults – well, they absolutely must take some selfies, right?
It’s like a theme park, lighting up the senses and fully engaging the imagination, with each giant artwork begging to be entered and explored. “Rainbow City is nothing without people inside it, interacting,” says Sandoval. “They make it come alive and all the colours and patterns become magical. 
“We call this ‘experiential art’ because actually experiencing art personally is much more memorable than just passively looking at it. We also want to get our viewers involved, not say, ‘Hey, this is an awesome thing – look at it but don’t touch it!’”
Admission is free and Central is holding draws for “birthday gifts”, such as airfare to choice destinations. It’s also donating part of the proceeds from every purchase in the mall to underprivileged children under the auspices of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Foundation.
Drawn to the exhibition by a giant tube from which “smoke” is pouring – not in an alarming way at all – shoppers can’t resist wandering inside and can’t avoid having fun and making new friends with fellow explorers. “It’s ‘living art’,” says Borkson, “so it doesn’t matter that it’s experiential art or sculpture – the unifying theme is that there is metaphysical life inside, the same as in all living beings.”
Originally commissioned for the Luminato Festival of the Arts in Toronto, Canada, eight years ago, Rainbow City has since been rebuilt at Art Basel Miami and High Line Park in New York City. Bangkok is the fourth stop on a tour of Southeast Asia.
The inspiration, though, is Indian – the annual Holi festival during which Hindu celebrants douse one another in coloured water and powder. Similarly, Friends With You have “ritual” in mind for their air-filled sculptures, of the sort that onlookers create themselves while meandering through. 
The duo was formed in 2002 to work in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, printed work and these large-scale “experiential” installations, as well as venturing into public playgrounds with live performances. Their stated mission is to “affect world culture by cultivating special moments of spiritual awareness and powerful, joyous interaction”.
Specifically for the Central Embassy anniversary, they created Papa Panda as a companion for their touring mascots the Rainbow King and Buddy Chubb. Papa Panda personifies the mall’s character, says Borkson. He’s a happy guy always ready to play with people. 
“The Rainbow King is the loving, kind king, similar to Thailand’s King, who is so beloved by the people. People in much of the rest of the world think of a king as being set apart from the common people, but the Rainbow King is not. He’s very humble and sweet. And Buddy Chubb represents the idea of two characters coming together, almost like how Arturo and I work together – friends who go outside their egos and come up with new ideas.”
Missing from action in the Bangkok installation is another popular “character” named Cloudy, but the show’s grand intention is intact – to “use the world as an art gallery, versus being inside a gallery”, as Borkson puts it. “So we can take it anywhere and make the art pop up in all these different places, like a flower blooming in the city, even in the middle of Manhattan. It’s a way for people to easily access contemporary art.”
Borkson points out that there is abstraction to their particular form of “animism” by which colour and shapes are given life, “but it’s also not so abstract because it can be understood by people. People can easily relate to it. We’re really interested in the idea of animism, spiritually – something really important in Thailand, and part of the Eastern philosophy we hold very dear to our hearts. So we want to spread this idea that everything has a soul.”
Thought-provoking words, but come on, these guys have a ball making this stuff. “It’s lots of fun!” laughs Sandoval, “because the art is really fun and whimsical. But we have to be serious and diligent when we’re thinking about how to make it more accessible. It’s kind of like negotiating with our brains to rethink our ideas. When you have an idea that’s awesome, you have to figure out how to manifest it.”
They consider the exhibition space and what new concepts they want to play with, Borkson explains. “It comes down to what’s important to us at the time. ‘Light Cave’ is another installation we did in New York using architecture and spiritualism in an even more abstract way. 
“The more we do together, the less we have a definite formula,” he says. “It’s really fun when you don’t have to start from reality. We start from whatever we dream of, whatever we want to see, and then figure it out how to make it a reality. We’re always learning about new kinds of media and technology and finding new ways of making art for the people.”