Monday, February 28, 2011

BLACK HOUSE - WHITE TEMPLE: Visions of Two Artists in Chiang Rai

The Black House or Baan Si Dum has been a work in progress for over thirty years. The vision of renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee is said to express traditional Thai arts in a contemporary way, each building of the sprawling compound being a display case for the artist's collection of skulls, shells, hides, feats of woodcarving, sculpture and basketweaving among other things.
The black paint of the architecture is striking against the surrounding lush green landscape. While the woodcarvings are exceptional I found that the combination of furniture and decorative objects is what creates its overall raw and powerful impression of virility. The bold silhouettes of black buffalo horn furniture, rugs and partitions made of hides and fur, massive metal blades, oversized thrones, skulls, and numerous phallic sculptures appear as elements of a oneness with nature and also of masculine dominance- two qualities that seem to express traditional Thai idioms. The common tiered bed pillow may have Buddhist origins.
The Black House compound has been my favorite experience of Thai art-And it's definitely off the beaten tourist track. Dramatic and dynamic, Baan Si Dum would make an excellent space for a retreat, a photo shoot, or a wicked good party!
Duchanee's friend Chelermchai Kositpiphat created this wat to embody his vision of heaven. Sculptures of creatures are from the magical Himaphan forest while others express the belief that suffering is necessary to reach heaven, especially in the sea of desperate hands reaching up from the water near the entrance.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Portraits of Asia" At Central World

~The caption beneath the baby boy's portrait on the left discusses China's controversial 1 Child Policy (1978-2015?).~

Eric Lafforgue is a French photographer who became famous on flickr for colorful portraits of people throughout the world. His photographs and notes from far removed places are especially exciting to see and read. "Portraits of Asia" is his exhibit running currently outside Central World mall in Bangkok. There's a lot to do here. 'Can't wait for the Fulbright conference mid March!
With crowds of shoppers and other passersby attending a nearby festival, the exhibit attracted a lot of attention when I visited. Each beautiful, arresting photo measures about 1 meter in length. Labels in English and Thai share a few brief facts the artist felt were relevant. ~Muslim school girl in Java, Indonesia~

At times, the cheerful smiles of Lafforgue's portrait sitters contrast with mixed messages in the provided text. They highlight his subject's stark realities. He expresses a slightly pessimistic view of modernization's threat to diversity and the cultures he photographs. Of course one would be mistaken to think the world is going to stand still for someone to take a picture and freeze time. He acknowledges that his work has a globalizing effect on the more remote places he visits. ~Long neck woman in N. Thailand. The reality is that some villages have become pay-to-see attractions.~

To his credit, Lafforgue is a passionate, life-long traveler. Photos of his journeys stream continuously on Flickr. To the benefit of viewers, his portraits are breathtaking testaments to the world's diverse and ever changing community. Here I've posted a few that stuck with me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

1950s Chiang Mai Beauty Contest?

The photographs above and below came from one of Chiang Mai's less well-known flea markets on Bamrungrat Road behind Prince Royals College.
The seller said very little about them other than they may date to the 1950s. Believing they must be younger due to their decent condition and the girls' western apparel, I thought they were an interesting puzzle about fashion history. Clues lie in their clothing, the tiered platform on which they stand, the square runway, and the stage in the background.
Shy expressions on most of their faces suggest they are amateurs in front of the camera. It appears these are young, northern Thai ladies dressed up for a photo-shoot, a runway show, or small town beauty competition.
They wear A-line skirts or dresses to the mid calf that are high waisted with belts and blouses or alternatively dress suits with matching jacket and skirt. All the ladies wear open toed sandal pumps with an ankle strap.
Each girl is pinned at the waist with a numbered ribbon. They hold the same accessory that reflects Thai cultural influence: the parasol or sun umbrella.
It rests lightly over each girl's right shoulder and the handle is in her right hand. The underside of the umbrella catches the sunshine and shades a bit to create a kind of halo behind each girl who holds it in this way.
The photographs' subtle differences have kept me guessing who the girls are and what was the occasion for the shoot.
Parasol image from, item featured by seller at
Whether they are made of fabric or painted saa paper, traditional Thai parasols make handsome decorations and shade from heat of the sunshine or strong indoor lights. However, synthetic versions function better in rain or shine, and protect from sun damage in Asia where light skin is highly attractive. Many Thai women use all kinds of lightening lotions these days to achieve this look, even if darker skinned American singer Beyonce is a popular beauty icon here too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Photo Exhibit in BKK for New Breast Cancer Center

Soft Power is more than a photography exhibit or art installation. It is an evocative space in which fashion photography, soft and hard sculpture, furniture, and lingerie meld together seemlessly to express an essence of femininity and enrapture those who enter it. Soft Power is sensually inviting and creative. The lighting is dramatic and well placed. What I enjoyed most are the elements adored by women, of flowers, books, butterflies, bathtubs, even a dining table! and the colors. The effect is fun, magical, and bold. Darkness envelops visitors as they enter the exhibition by a sloping hallway, and the sense of being enclosed is very strong for a moment. A single painting on a wall provides a frame of reference. Suddenly, a white bookshelf appears under a spotlight. As if by magic the shelf slides to the left to reveal a hidden room. One enters and the motion-sensored door closes quickly behind. The space inside is open but dark like the night and navigable only by staircases. I include a photo below of the camera flash-lit space so you can see.
One reaches four galleries at regular intervals by moving up the stairs and down.
The first room features two freestanding white bathtubs on pieces of garden slate. A thick swarm of blue, purple and white butterflies appear to fly from one tub into the other through a giant silver picture frame. Elements of nature and electric shades of blue are calming and refreshing. Each of the photographs tells a story. The women model innerwear that fits the personalities they express. Imagining a soak in the bath, one wishes all her cares would fly away like the butterflies! The pair of girlie bathtubs bring to mind the good company of sisters or girlfriends.
The second rectangular gallery is furnished with a giant black dining table. The table top supports a beautiful black and purple trunk with white flowers growing from the center of it and into the ceiling! Organic foliage hangs from the tree for a jungle effect. Contrastingly bright white and pink images of blossoming flowers on flat screens nested into the table top appear next to more floral arrangements and a set of lingerie. I interpreted this piece as a dining table, infused with women's traditional gender role of preparing meals for the family. Instead, this table represents more about her inner self. A third room is very bright in contrast to the others, and features a shiny catwalk that you walk onto. See the photo below. Sterile white surfaces display photographs in black and white. As I walked in university students were taking funny pictures with the photographs. The song playing low was Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s Scream! which is so amazing. A large flat screen displays moving psychaedelic shapes. The room seems a teeny bit like the white spaceship of the Jacksons' Scream music video. The photos express some of the same great energy and reminded me of the spaceship's "Gallery" of art too. (Never forget the best of MJ!) The sensuality and white minimalism reminded me a bit of Bjork's All is Full of Love music video I viewed in college that amplifies the physical building blocks of attraction through two white robots who fall in love. However, the tone of this gallery is more about anger and the fighter inside a person rather than romance. My favorite room is one in which an impossible staircase made of sheer red fabric leads toward the ceiling and a tiny light in the distance casts shadows off it over everything. A generous pool of red flower petals cover the floor beneath it. A set of intimates lie on the stairs as if they were recently cast off, Cinderella slipper-like. With the staircase, painted frames and wall trimmings give the playful illusion of a grander, whimsical space that a photograph simply can't capture. The elegant composition of this space reminds me of that beautiful Dior commercial for j'adore Dior perfume in which Charliz Theron walks powerfully toward the camera, removes her earrings followed by her hat and the chunky jewels about her neck that, in one fell swoop, she throws carelessly to the floor. She slips off her dress and moves forward like a lioness, leaving all her material things behind. She says"Don't pretend, Feel what's real." Quotes painted on the wall at the entrance of each space tap into female desires and instincts including the drive to love, to nurture, to protect children, to adapt, to make peace, to transform, to fight when needed, and to survive. The following quote comes at the beginning of the exhibition.
In retrospect, I realize that additional wall text would be a distraction and detract from the success of the psychological and emotional impact through its visual components. The quotations can be interpreted together with the artwork. Music playing matched the mood of each room tastefully.
I wonder if the effect of this beautiful exhibition is empowering enough to women with varying ideas of what Soft Power is. Images of extremely thin models in most of the galleries make it clear what kind of beauty is being celebrated. I’m content to say my ample curves aren't defined by the ideal imagined here. It's a shame that the exhibition is not handicap accessible since the four main rooms are reachable only by a labyrinth of dimly lit stairways that, while adding interest to the space, are not practical for many visitors. As someone with some experience styling fabric, I thought a few of the display boxes needed my expertise. The intent of the exhibition is to generate interest to market the lingerie so that proceeds benefit the National Institute's future Breast Cancer Center. I have some ideas that could've improved its effectiveness. For example, the message could have reached a more mature audience with not much effort.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Three Beautiful Museums in Singapore

The National Museum of Singapore
Last fall at the Thailand-United States Education Foundation or TUSEF seminar we discussed the growing importance of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Since its formation in Bangkok in 1967 among Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN has grown to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In the expansive and rapidly developing region of SEA (short for Southeast Asia), it's apparent that public education and art appreciation enhance the efforts of leaders to encourage an international perspective for collaborations, to achieve desired unity (initially with the goal of defeating communism), and to address shared economic challenges and growth.
One of the wonderful benefits of Fulbright is the opportunity for travel! Toward this end, I am learning more about ASEAN by visiting Thailand's neighboring countries. My recent trip to Singapore was full of fun and surprises especially in the art. Singapore is a small island south of Malaysia (which is south of Thailand). It’s a teeny, cosmopolitan country with a little of everything; shopping malls, gardens, interesting architecture, markets, fun nightlife, fresh seafood, outdoor activities, and a small beach. Singapore is surprisingly clean, friendly, walkable, and green. Trees line the streets and multi-colored lights illuminate the bridges, while cameras monitor safety throughout. The community is extraordinarily diverse with large populations of Chinese and Indian families. Most Singaporeans are multi-lingual and conveniently for me, everyone speaks English. Pictured above, the Singapore Art Museum houses beautiful exhibitions of contemporary art in a bright white school building founded by a Jesuit missionary. Natural sunlight shines throughout it, spilling into the courtyards. In one sunny courtyard is The Glass Gallery filled with works by contemporary Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. Nara is widely popular for his endearingly quirky animation of wide-eyed kids with disturbingly violent or humorously pissed off countenances. Sometimes whimsical, the children almost always appear aware, emotive, and innocent. One of his installations is a lime green tree house sprinkled with drawings and crayons within, effectively evoking the creative space of a child's imagination. His paintings are usually humorous, but this one made me tear up with nostalgia for my own childhood and thoughts of a secret design club dreamed up by me and my best friend. Individual drawings within the house reflect more of the artist’s imagination and his childhood. Another of his works in the same glass gallery is one black-outlined cartoon of three girls on white washed wood. It reminds me of of my little sister's musical disasters on her red playskool microphone and portable speakers years ago. The present exhibition of Thai contemporary artist Natee Utarit: After Painting demonstrates an inner dialogue about national identity in the face of westernization. Easily recognizable and sometimes familiar objects appear brightly rendered and unhindered on large canvases. Their visual clarity belies tension inherent in their symbolism. For example, the above painting of a white buddha statue depicts a face of complacency rather than divine essence, implying that Buddhism is not giving followers the kind of security it once did. Natee's other works relay messages of discontent, doubt, and dissatisfaction with long-held beliefs, the present government and national leadership. In paintings of crowded, disorganized barnyard animals Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind. Earlier works of Utarit’s seemed to reflect the experience of a Thai artist absorbing western art mediums, and recreating it with Thai elements. One painting of a black and white photograph of a simple Thai landscape absurdly mounted on top of a painting of sixteenth century Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians in Celebrate to the Truth and Nothing (2000) is important for this reason. In some ways, it represents a forced recognition of celebrated works of art that actually reveal the artist's disconnect with western art history. I especially enjoyed this black and white painting of Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. It depicts an image from a postcard, copied by a monk who never visited Italy. There is a series of images from this collection, all of famous landmarks on postcards. How poetic! To depict a place one's only ever seen through postcards. However, this piazza in particular has personal significance for me- the location of a first date! An eery art installation in a dimly lit gallery on the second floor features five wax sculptures of notorious communist leaders. Titled SUMMIT, this controversial work is a commentary on capitalism and the legacy of communism. Extremely lifelike sculptures of Mao, Lenin, Hussein, and Ho Chi Minh appear lying on their backs on red velvet, clothed in uniform. Hard plastic encasement gives them a funerarial effect like an open casket. The fifth sculpture of Fidel Castro lies in a hospital bed instead, and -gasp!- appears to be breathing with the help of a hidden mechanism beneath his shirt, signifying his impending death. The exceptional execution of these works is what makes them so moving and disturbing. What’s odd is that these men appear grandfatherly. The portrayal is one of dignity that is unsettling to me, yet wrinkles and hairs on their faces blotched with the marks of old age reveal imperfections and their mortality. What does cross one’s mind is the power of one person to change the world, and then to leave it without any effort. It makes me think somewhat morbidly of the fleeting nature of time. Writing this entry I learned that another exciting contemporary art fair is coming up in Singapore this month! Rani by artist Subodh Gupta. The brightly colored cow represents India, where cows are sacred, and the color expresses the excitement and anxiety caused by the changes taking place in a country with a rapidly growing middle class. The National Museum of Singapore is a gorgeous building at the base of Fort Canning Park. The most exciting galleries for me were the History of Singapore exhibitions. Walking through with a headset, one has the option of listening to experts about the history of trade in the region and the personal stories of people in the vibrant communities of Singapore since ancient times when Fort Canning Park was still seen as the sacred mountain of buddhist cosmology. The photos above and below come from the Living Fashion Gallery. The history of Singaporean women's fashion is marked by strong Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and American influences. Centered in the photograph above, a shiny, dotted choengsam is a Chinese woman's dress created in the 1950s. Later made of synthetic fiber mimicking silk in combination with a slim-fitting cut, the choengsam represents changes in technology, ideals of beauty, the Asian silhouette, and also, a burgeoning era of advancements in women's rights.
Singpore has the exciting history of being the main hub for SEAn trade. During the time of east India companies, worlds collided here in the interest of progress and empire. Photography from this period reflects the diversity of the clothing, people, and fluid nature of a community where businessmen, immigrants, prostitutes, and coolies carved out lives for themselves in a land far from home. Opium provided a means of escape and recreation that proved fatal to some. Beautiful pipes and bowls remain well-preserved from the heyday of this pastime, alive today in some regions of SEA where the climate is perfectly suitable for growing poppies.
Happy Chinese New Year by the way! Check out what's in store for you ahead in the year of the rabbit.
I finished off my day with a trip to Fort Canning Park just behind the Museum. This is a view from inside the old convent? in the park. Loved every minute at the Asian Civilizations Museum, and dinner outside at the restaurant IndoChine along the river. Admiring the historic Raffles Hotel gave me an idea of where I should stay on my next visit to Singapore!