Four galleries give Manit Sriwanichpoom full freedom of political expression
In life, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is highly unlikely to ever come face to face in a showdown with his predecessor, Yingluck Shinawatra, but in art, anything is possible. Manit Sriwanichpoom, in yet another potentially controversial show called “Fear”, has brought them face to face.
In fact his portrait of Yingluck stares directly at the five military chiefs who led the coup that removed her government in 2014.
The exhibition is shared among Manit’s own Kathmandu Photography Gallery in Silom, H Gallery and Tang Contemporary Gallery also in Bangkok, and the Yavuz Gallery in Singapore.
The “fear” of the show’s title refers to the trepidation that living in military-ruled Thailand involves, in such a sensitive time of transition. Manit addresses that fear in artful photographs and a pair of videos depicting the political turmoil and its impact on the monarchy.
Cautious, he has let the Singapore show handle some of the more politically risky elements, but is still taking chances mounting his first solo show in Thailand since the coup just ahead of Sunday’s referendum on the draft constitution.
“Like many Thais, I live with fear,” Manit says. “I’m afraid of violence and the absence of peace in our country. But, since we’re not allowed to speak aloud about our greatest fears, I’m expressing mine and what Thai society thinks about the situation through these shows.”
The notions presented in “Fear” are conceptual and self-censored, but nonetheless powerful in their evocation of the bloody years before the coup, the paralysing street rallies and the demise of the Yingluck government. Symbolic images – the flag, royal monuments – stand in for overt statements.
Solar eclipses provide another metaphor for uncertainly. At a dimly lit H Gallery on Sathorn Soi 12, the grey shadow of an eclipse signals uncertainty as visitors study the monotone photo series “Royal Monuments of the Chakri Dynasty”. You see statues of the eight kings from front, back, side and below, with nothing but grey in the background.
A two-minute video, “Siam Eclipse 1868”, can be viewed on a light box, edited from still images captured by Frenchman Francis Chit, who served as court photographer to King Mongkut, Rama IV. Nearby is “The Last Photograph of the King of Siam, 1868”, made by Manit, combined with Chit’s picture of the monarch, courtiers and diplomats assembled in Hua Hin to watch the solar eclipse of August 18, 1868, an event the King, a keen astronomer, had accurately predicted.
This was indeed the last photo taken of King Mongkut. He contracted malaria on that journey and was dead just over a month later. His 15-year-old son, Prince Chulalongkorn was also infected, but survived to assume the throne as King Rama V and continue his father’s mission of leading Siam into modern times.
King Mongkut’s untimely death prompted many Siamese to regard eclipses as harbingers of bad luck, a belief that persists today, and Manit takes note of the latest solar eclipse, on March 9 this year, as if wondering whether there was some political meaning to it.
A broad composite photo titled “Queuing for Happiness 15 July 2014” lies on the floor. It shows Bangkokians lining up at the military junta-sponsored Festival of Reconciliation, aimed at “returning happiness to the people”. A statue of King Anand, Rama VIII, is in another photo on a wall, coated in the same grey.
At the Kathmandu, a disturbing image of wrecked, upended cars with the Thai flag sprayed on them instantly brings to mind the street chaos. Its glib title is “Rajadamnoen Motor Show February 2017 Organised by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee”. The pictures were taken at the forced eviction of protesters camped on that road in February 2014.
Upstairs in ghostly blue is the picture of Yingluck, “Haunting Memory 2011” – created from one of her election posters – facing down the generals and admirals who plotted against her. Yingluck looked beautiful before her election, her digitally altered portrait seems to say, but now, hounded by corruption scandals, she’s become spectral, haunted.
Its opposite numbers are collectively titled “5 Generals Who Returned Happiness to the People 22 May 2014 Coup d’Etat”. You see their chests alone, no heads, although their identities might be guessed from the captions.
At the Tang inside Silom Galleria, Manit returns to Rajadamnoen, this time to 2013 for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee initial challenge to the Yingluck regime. The mournful recorded sound of Aunyawan Thongboonrod, Manit’s music teacher, playing “Spanish Cello” echoes through the gallery.
Four photo panels, each five to six metres in length, are held in place on their stands by sandbags, recalling another scene of protest. Yingluck reappears with hateful graffiti sprayed across her face in “Wall of Defiance 1 December 2013”.
The original wall was erected as protection against drive-by snipers and grenade attacks.
“Wall of Conscious 14 October 2013” depicts the thick barrier of concrete raised around Government House to keep out those same protesters as they marked the 40th anniversary of the October 14 Uprising.
The Thai flag flutters again in “Fading History: ‘Bangkok Shutdown’ 31 October 2013-22 May 2014”. Demonstrators are depicted wearing the tricolour on their clothes and accessories, donating money to help farmers impoverished by the government’s rice price-pledging scheme.
Manit’s take here, implied in the title, is that the smiles of those in the photo have faded following the military’s seizure of power, which abruptly ended nearly eight months of street protests in Bangkok and elsewhere.
On a television, in a video called “Primitive”, can be seen abstract images in blood red, glimpses of Rajadamnoen, handprints and footprints and implications of a never-ending tragedy.
In Singapore, where speech is at least relatively free compared to present-day Thailand, “Fear” is much more outspoken.
“The Parliament of Happy Generals 31 July 2014” features computer-generated likenesses of high-ranking military and police officers who are members of the National Legislative Assembly. Unlike in Bangkok, the portraits there are complete, with faces shown.
FOUR EYES TO SEE
- The exhibition “Fear” is at the Kathmandu Photography Gallery (www.KathmanduPhotoBkk.com), H Gallery (www.HGalleryBkk.com) and Tang Contemporary Gallery (www.TangContemporary.com) in Bangkok until September 10, and at the Yavuz Gallery (www.YavuzGallery.com) in Singapore through September 18.