It may be interesting to note that while modern usages of the term “white elephant” may not refer to actual elephants any longer, it was, once upon a time, really used to denote these smart pachyderms.
The term was derived from the practice of keeping and gifting white elephants for ceremonial reasons and showboating, by Southeast Asian monarchs. The popularity of the expression grew enormously in the 19th Century after, according to an apocryphal account, the legendary showman P. T. Barnum attempted to acquire a famed white elephant only to (disappointingly) find that the beast was actually grey and pink.
From then on, the term has gone on to denote objects of great apparent value that require significant effort and capital to upkeep, but do not have an equivalent utility or function, and are thus, in a manner of speaking, very expensive paperweights.
Thai artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s The Ground, the latest work to join the D/SINI lineup, features a white elephant too, alongside a meditating man and a bare-branched tree. (See our overview of the broader D/SINI project here). Underneath its decorative nature, the work offers a greater meaning:
Made using papier-mâché created entirely from a two-decade-long collection of the artist’s own personal paper waste, the work is an installation comprising three papier-mâché sculptures housed in three separate glass-and-polycarbonate cases. It towers over its viewers with its imposing 8m height. Standing next to the work, one can feel a sombre austerity wafting off that seems to drown out the noise which pervades its surroundings. One calms down and is held in awe by the sheer scale and clean construction of the works, almost like a spiritual cleansing of sorts.
No stranger to the ascetic and the spiritual himself, Lertchaiprasert’s artistry has always engaged with an extensive interrogation of the spiritual condition of modern humanity, and the relentless pursuit for harmony by people dogged with weary worldly concerns. Educated in printmaking at Silpakorn University as well as having been awarded the institution’s Young Artist of the Year title in 1987, Lertchaiprasert’s preoccupation with spirituality started after he briefly became a Buddhist monk in 1990. Since then, his focus on art has become “a ritualistic practice aimed at the achievement of a greater understanding of oneself, nature, and the world as a whole,” as noted by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Armed with a keen perception of medium, Lertchaiprasert’s usage of papier-mâché has always been one of the signature flourishes of his corpus, both as a material and as a reference to a greater framework—starting with Problem–Wisdom (1993-95), for which he made 366 small papier-mâché sculptures out of leftover newspaper after he had clipped articles of significance to him from the pile. In the work, Lord Buddha said, “If You See Dhamma, You See Me” (2010), which showed at the Singapore Art Museum’s Thai Transience exhibition in 2012, he made a papier-mâché sculpture of a standing Buddha out of decommissioned Thai bank notes. By engaging with materials at their most fundamental level, Lertchaiprasert poses questions of identity and the transience of desire: be it for money, for objects, or even for knowledge.
Here in The Ground, Lertchaiprasert draws attention to the idea of agency and personal responsibility in consumption as it relates to the environment; humans and nature need each other, but what they do are often opposites of what they seek. Humanity wants the fulfilment of their worldly wants, but to satiate such wants, they disrupt the ways of nature, for example through logging, overfishing and polluting. Through this work, Lertchaiprasert invites viewers to look within themselves to understand the consequences of individual habits and actions at a collective level that can disrupt the material world, and in so doing, disrupt humanity.
As part of D/SINI, The Ground offers welcoming respite from the overactive buzz of commercial art galleries, providing visitors with another avenue to reconsider the space and the human interactions it fosters both within and without. Surrounded by jungle in isolation, The Ground is physically removed from the presence of other works and allows some peace of mind for visitors to relax and contemplate their own participation in the wider Gillman Barracks space.