When we talk about animals in Thailand, the undisputed star has to be the elephant, which is the kingdom’s national animal. In fact, white elephants are considered to be sacred and according to legends, at Buddha’s birth his mother dreamt of a white elephant offering her a lotus flower. The elephant has also been featured in several past versions of the Thai flag, as well as many artworks, murals, tourist souvenirs and yes, even beer bottles. My recent trek across the concrete jungle of the Bangkok art world was not a voyage to seek out the mythical white elephant, but I serendipitously encountered some other animals along the way – animals which offered a whole new way to look at Thailand and its culture.
Save Thai Buffalo and New Mosaic Series
My first adventure took place at the Yenakart Villa, nestled within a quiet neighbourhood near Silom/Sathorn. Within the unassuming villa compounds, I was greeted with ten pictures of buffaloes wonderfully adorned with Western art works painted over their bodies, almost as if they were getting ready to head to a Mardi Gras celebration. Full of surprises, this solo show by Maitree Siriboon, titled Save Thai Buffalo and New Mosaic Series, certainly changes the way one looks at buffaloes.
Maitree grew up in the Ubon Ratchatani Province in Northeastern Thailand, known also as the Isan region, and moved to Bangkok for studies when he was 15. Returning later to his hometown, he found that the buffalo, an animal which he had loved growing up, was losing its importance in the fields. Unfortunately, these animals, traditionally used for hard labour or as a source of food, are also considered to be stupid (the Thai word for “buffalo” is sometimes used as a derogative term).
In this series of works, Maitree tries to recover the perception of these animals by using their bodies as canvases on which works of art are replicated, thereby transforming their value from utilitarian to aesthetic. Completely unaware that world famous images are on their bodies, the buffaloes go about their business as usual, making for quite amusing sights to behold.
By hiding their natural skin colour, Maitree raises the question: “If buffaloes don’t have their original identity, will our perspective of them change? Will we view them more positively like the popular paintings?” Deeper issues of identity can undoubtedly be probed here. Even for humans, different costumes and make-up often evoke associations with specific groups. We can even attempt to change our identities simply by dressing a certain way or putting on make-up. Consider how, within our own country, we can sometimes identify tourists simply by the way they dress, or how some of us attempt to dress in a different way when we are overseas so as to blend in. In this case, can our (the Thais’) perspective of the buffalo change simply by slapping on a coat of Western art on their bodies?
Interestingly, in a video documenting the production of these works, one can see the amused looks on the villagers’ faces as the buffaloes make their way along the roads. They are definitely looking at the buffalo in a different way, but are they further alienated from the animal with its strange and unfamiliar look? Or perhaps the humour in these works can only be fully appreciated by audiences who can recognise the paintings on the buffaloes?
This brings us to the other issue of why Western art works are chosen. Maitree explains that these are works of art that he admires and he has chosen them because they are not visually difficult to appreciate. Hence, the works can reach people of all educational backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. The paintings are indeed aesthetically pleasing with their bright colours and patterns. One hardly needs art historical knowledge of van Gogh, Miro or Warhol to appreciate the works. Yet if we dig deeper, this can be examined from both sides of the coin. Is this a nod to the universality of art, that it can be appreciated regardless of its origin, even if it is painted on a buffalo instead of a canvas in a world-famous museum? On the other hand, is the use of Western art works, instead of Thai traditional art, an implicit affirmation of the superiority of Western art traditions? Extrapolating even further, can this be read as a commentary of how Asian or Thai people (signified by the Asian buffalo) don the Western dress (taking on the culture and values from the West)?
[Sidenote: on this point, it is interesting to think about fellow Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s series of video works depicting the reactions of Thai villagers when they encounter canonical works of Western art. The complexities of East-West interactions and the question of what art is and whose art it is are raised amidst entertaining and candid dialogues on art, stripped of all the jargon and theories that often suffocate art appreciation.]
Of course, there is no need to crack our brains trying to find answers to all the questions raised above. But it would be intriguing to consider our own reactions to the pictures – we find the scene incongruous and yet instead of being bewildered, we are pleasantly entertained by its humour (of course we all know that humour can work on many levels, alluding to deeper ideas in a seemingly harmless and superficial manner).
If you are interested to know how Maitree painted and photographed the buffaloes, you can visit his Youtube channel for some videos. The paints that you see are natural colours from India, where there is a tradition of painting sacred cows. Maitree is probably not trying to sacralise the buffalo, but the similarities make us think about how we attribute importance to, display our affection or show reverence towards animals by painting on them. Ironically, this act of “marking” them (a more benign form of livestock branding?) is a way to exert power over the animals, even if we may not be consciously aware of it (food for thought the next time you try to dress your dog in funny costumes).
Before we leave this pasture to explore other lands, you may wish to look at Maitree’s earlier series Dream of Beyond, which also prominently featured buffaloes.
[Together with these photographs, the exhibition also featured Maitree’s new mosaic works inspired by the beautiful lands and his memories of Isan.]
[Maitree’s interview was taken from BK Magazine Online.]
Leaving the buffaloes to continue grazing in their resplendent art-inspired couture outfits, we now head to a venue where 12 animals have gathered in a party of neon lights. Literally titled Animal Club, Sutee Kunavichayanont’s exhibition at Number 1 Gallery is a congregation of animals from the Chinese zodiac, presented in bright and colourful tubes of light.
Painted first on the circular wooden surfaces, neon tubes are then twisted to form the shapes of the animals on top. When lit, the animals come to life, each uniquely representative of their species. While trying to keep it simple, Sutee had the challenge of making sure that each one is distinctive, with the dragon being the hardest to create. For him the rooster “was the most fun” as he could “play with different colours and fluid lines.”
While it is tempting to read political undertones into this series of works based on Sutee’s past works, he denies any such associations. For him, it was simply an endeavour to create fun pieces. He says: “art has different dimensions, and this series is one of my most enjoyable.”
These light sculptures, “reminiscent of those oldfashioned neon signs,” sit well within the wooden house of Number 1 Gallery, reminding visitors of “Bangkok 50 years ago, when neon advertising signs were everywhere.”
These works are also inherently inviting because the Chinese zodiac is well-known and most people know what their signs are. Hence, it is natural to hunt for your own sign and see how it has been rendered. This sense of engagement is characteristic of Sutee’s other works, albeit in a different way.
Consider his other animal work The White Elephant, which is a latex elephant, lying deflated on the ground and requiring visitors to breathe life (literally) into it. Sutee’s sharp commentary on the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s is amply demonstrated in the Sisyphean task of trying to give shape to an animal which would eventually deflate again.
As such, Animal Club presents a refreshing invitation to join the artist in forgetting about those weighty issues and just to have fun with art. The entire setup of the exhibition, inviting you roam around looking for all 12 animals in their vivid, multi-coloured representations, is itself a party which you could easily lose yourself in.
[Sutee’s interview was taken from the Nation’s website.]
Seeing animals, being human
As I left the animal party of Number 1 Gallery and stepped into the humid reality of the Bangkok streets, I encountered a real animal, a street dog, and was reminded of yet another Thai artist’s work involving animals. Sakarin Krue-on’s Cloud Nine is an installation of street dogs with wings, alluding to the social inequalities within the Thai society and the emptiness of the Thai people’s aspirations to take flight and soar.
It is rather curious how animals are being used in contemporary art to examine issues which are many times deeply human. The use of animals which have specific connotations within the Thai context (Sakarin’s street dogs, Maitree’s buffaloes and Sutee’s inflatable elephant) also adds deeper layers of meaning to the works.
Perhaps animals are used simply as the front to broach taboo or sensitive topics which would otherwise be too difficult to talk about. Afterall, we all approach animals with inquisitiveness and fascination (remember your last visit to the zoo?) and these are the attitudes (instead of suspicion and biasness) that one should adopt when approaching art.
Lest this animal trek ends on too serious a note, let us come back to the elephants of Thailand. Rather than being objects of art, some Thai elephants have taken it upon themselves to be artists. Whether or not this is an exploitative abuse of the good-natured giants is a subject up for debate, but it just goes to show how art (if this falls within your definition of art) may not be a uniquely human enterprise.
Coming up next in this series, I will bring you Bangkok Boogie: The Digital Edition. Stay tuned!