Sunday, April 24, 2011

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.

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