Friday, June 17, 2011

Following Henri Mouhot, A Frenchman in Southeast Asia in the Early 19th Century

At the BACC I purchased an E-book, the historic journal of missionary Henri Mouhot, so called re-discoverer of Angkor Wat among other remarkable accomplishments. Literature and images document his travels in "Le Tour Du Monde nouveau journal des voyages. Voyage dans les Royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos et autres parties centrales de L'Indo-Chine" published in 1863. As I made trips north to Laos and east to Cambodia in recent months, the art history of the region came alive for me. For this entry, I've reproduced a few Siamese portraits from his journey, interesting historical documents of dress and, well, hairstyles!
Mouhot was laid to rest in Luang Prabang, a beautiful small town in Laos along the mighty Mekong River. Mouhot sounds like mohot, the name given to an elephant trainer. You can visit the site via elephant if you choose, the former's preferred mode of transportation forging through the jungles of Southeast Asia. Baguettes and pastry shops in the town are some remnants of early French influence. More photos from my own journey from Laos and Cambodia to come. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Movie Series, Asia Society NYC

After a quick look at the write-ups for Asia Society's present movie series, "Blissfully Thai," I am more hopeful about enjoying Thai movies than before. It's happened that I've seen too many scary movies in the theatre! The selection looks excellent, representing Thai cultures in different ways. All directed and produced by Thai people, they introduce viewers to aspects of Thai life including beliefs in superstitions and ghosts, transexualism, the dialogue about "hi-so" or high society, northeastern Thailand, Burmese immigrants, long bus trips and complex relationships. Despite the title, I wouldn't expect these films to be "blissful" like a Thai massage for a number of reasons related to Thai humor and entertainment.
However, after reading through the descriptions I see how they could be entertaining and enjoyable. The cheezy "Pad Thai" western "Tears of the Black Tiger," or story of the inspirational lady-boy volley ball team legend "The Iron Ladies" look like fun and seem even popularly American in appeal via the cowboy romance and championing the underdog themes. On the other hand both "Ploy" and "Mon-Rak Transistor" seem more Thai to me in that they are described as meditative, bittersweet, and tragic. "I-san Special," "Hi-So," and "Uncle Boonmee who can Recall His Past Relatives" seem very Thailand-specific and very good in a way I would expect higher quality films to be.
I'm on the lookout for them here now.. If I can play the devil's advocate, I wonder if I can find them cheap at Pantip Plaza (10 min walk from Ratchatewi BTS station) where bootlegged copies of everything are sold?!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Kid-Inspired Art at BACC*

A young Thai female university student designed the giant gangly teddy bears above. Wouldn't these soft sculptures make an imaginative seating area for a little kids' playroom?! Her artist's statement describes a childhood memory of waking up early with her mom to prepare flowers and food for monks.
One gallery exhibits lithographs and paintings made by kids to raise funds for a school in their community in Southern Thailand. Photo albums illustrate their agricultural livelihood, so patrons know where the proceeds from their purchases are going!
"The Classroom" is a multimedia work evoking the familiar space from elementary school education.
For some, this is/was a place where talents would shine or where one would struggle to keep up - a place where class clowns have an audience and rebels challenge the teacher's authority. The anxiety of finding your place in "the classroom" at school is supposed to help you find your place in the world... But it's not the ideal learning environment for everyone!
The artists pose the questions: How does this room compare to the classroom of life, where there are more ways than one to ace a test? But also, how do we all share the same common and even predictable triumphs and struggles as adults?
*The Bangkok Art and Culture Center is a huge, gray-white cylindrical building across from the National Stadium at the BTS station there. It looks a bit like the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, only bigger. At BACC, the city provides free gallery space for artists and design shop owners to display their creations! The most recent exhibits I've seen feature things including recycled accessories, artwork made by children with Autism to support awareness, among other work with undertones of social and environmental responsibility.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bangkok International Trade Fairs 2011 : Housewares, Leather, Gifts, Fashion

This past weekend, The Bangkok International Fashion Fair and Bangkok International Leather Fair BIFF & BIL 2011 ran concurrently at the massive Impact venue at Muang Thong Thani 30 minutes from downtown.
Bangkok International Gift Fair and Bangkok International Houseware Fair BIG & BIH 2011 also showcased textiles and design among many other products from toys to stationary.
I attended to see and purchase wares from Thai designers, as well as textile and leather manufacturers from Southeast Asia and Japan.
As part of ASEAN integration the international trade fairs promoted ways that Southeast Asia's diverse countries can collaborate in their creative industries too. See also the TIFF 2011 , or Thailand International Furniture Fair for designs with the theme "Finding Green Piece."

Men, Boys, Controversy & Ohm Phanphiroj

With my first look at Ohm Phanphiroj's photos, my immediate realization was how rare the effect of his artwork is compared to other artists' in Thailand. While themes vary widely from fashion to landscapes, his reputation has grown considerably for a small, controversial group of photographic erotica and photo-essays that document pressing social issues in Bangkok. Instead of adding to the dialogue about Buddhism, mythology, politics, or tradition as much Thai artwork commonly draws from these things the artist achieves contemporary portraits of highly sexual and personal moments -or conversely- of public and socially relevant but unpopular subjects. Stark impressions of poverty and prostitution for example, that one encounters daily in the city but is not comfortable to talk about.

In series titled Fashion and Nighthawks, photos depict seemingly unedited sexual poses or small, private scenes that in fact take a whole team to stage properly with lights, reflectors, stylists, etc. for the desired effect. The artist focuses on the nude male physique and at times captures tension and emotions in the subjects, the viewer or both. Ohm's photos of nude men and flowers in bedrooms appear among everyday things and at intimate angles, creating portraits described as raw and sensual. Although I'm not a frequent viewer of homoerotica (that's probably not a surprise considering), I remembered the famously controversial, powerful and beautiful photographer in NYC from the 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe. However, there are certainly other artists of the genre whose work has more in common with Mr. Phanphiroj's.

In sharp contrast to the work discussed, Ohm's other Fine Art portfolios illustrate under-represented communities in Bangkok. He draws attention to big issues the city needs to address including underage prostitution, failed infrastructure, and the unmet needs of specific groups of citizens including the disabled and the poor. "Underage" is his documentary video showing his interviews with young boy prostitutes, which is especially moving and beautifully done to shed light in a heartbreaking but hopeful way on the reality of many young boys on the street at night. On a lighter note, I enjoyed his video "True Beauty" that expresses his belief in the purity of the soul. Ohm has received numerous awards for his books on photography. He has also fought accusations of exploitation of his subjects that his artistic license can undermine. When asked how he feels about his success Ohm remarks that recognition isn't as important to him as it was in his youth. He says, "You get an award. Then what? You move on to the next thing." I met with Ohm for a smoothie at the cafe at Bangkok University where he teaches Social Media and Responsibility. He hopes class assignments particularly documentary projects will encourage his students to take risks and think critically but also more openly about the society in which they live. He believes Bangkok is an artist's treasure trove-- There's so much to inspire here. Also a fan of the Bangkok Art and Culture Center or BACC, Ohm is presently exhibiting at No Space Gallery.