….yeah, pink it’s not even a question
Pink on the lips of your lover, cause
Pink is the love you discovah
Pink as the bing on your cherry
Pink cause you are so very
Pink it’s the color of passion
A-cause today it just goes with the fashion”
— “Pink,” by Aerosmith
If you’re wondering what this rock song has to do with Southeast Asian art, we have two words for you: Manit Sriwanichpoom. This powerhouse of Thai contemporary art recently brought his iconic Pink Man series of photographic works to a close, with a knockout exhibition in New York City. The works involve Manit’s long-time friend and collaborator Sompong Thawee donning a flashy pink suit and being photographed in or superimposed against, incongruous situations (for example, while pushing a lurid pink trolley in a rice field, or juxtaposed against historical events such as the 1976 Thammasat University massacre).
We chat to Manit about this much-beloved hallmark of his practice:
The show Shocking Pink Story is a 20-year retrospective of the Pink Man series of works – why did you think it was time for a retrospective and is this the end of the Pink Man for your practice?
It was a coincidence when Tyler Rollins Fine Art, a gallery representing Southeast Asian art from Chelsea, New York approached me for a solo show. I had decided that maybe this was the right time to wrap up the series since it was created in 1997. The series has been dealing with many issues: consumerism, capitalism, globalisation, terrorism, neo-nationalism, tourism, narcissism.
It’s like a rock band, after many years together, members of any band would reach the point of quitting. Although the series only involves the two of us; Sompong Thawee and me, I feel the time has arrived as we both are getting old and tired. Other people might think differently and tell us to keep the project going, as the world’s problems politically, socially and spiritually haven’t subsided. On the contrary, they’re getting worse and worse. This could be the time for Pink Man to act, to do something. However, I’m not sure how much Pink Man can do in a world that is full of lies, distortions, manipulations and divisions.
The level of social decadence has reached the point where the situation is almost mocking of itself, so satire with sarcasm doesn’t work anymore.
We note that in this 2001 interview, you mentioned that you might consider creating a Pink Man in America series. Was that ever done? Why or why not?
I dreamt of creating a Pink Man in America for a long time, but never had the chance to do it. When plans were underway for this exhibition to open in September 2018, I didn’t realise that September was also the month of 9/11 commemoration events, until I arrived in the city. My original ideas about using a pink body bag and pink trolley were conceived to reflect the unsettled issue of gun control in the United States (US), as I had seen endless news reports of school shootings over the years.
The level of violence in the country has gone up, as if sponsored by entities like the NRA, to the point that non-violent people might even need to protect themselves by keeping rifles at home. To make the ending of the Pink Man series more meaningful, I decided to shoot a pink body bag and pink trolley on 11 September 2018 and titled the work Pink 9/11: The End of His-story and The Last Man:
The initial idea about the Pink Man was premised on pink representing the colour of tastelessness and of Sompong being “fat and Asian-looking” – presumably all of these things connote a sense of excess and vulgarity. How do you think the Pink Man series is relevant to the world today?
As long as US President Donald Trump’s looks continue to appeal to voters, my Pink Man’s appearance remains topical and relevant.
What is Sompong Thawee up to these days, and what does he think of this retrospective?
He’s been quite active in his own arts projects from painting and poetry to performance. He was so happy to put the pink suit on again after being away from it for many years. This time I had to ask him to put on a grey wig and a false grey moustache as his own hair and moustache had thinned. It was fun this time to see an old Pink Man looking like Albert Einstein.
You’ve described the Pink Man as a kind of cartoon character like Batman – as the works have evolved over the years, did you or Sompong ever find yourselves being recognised by the public when the later works were being performed?
People have always been confused, thinking that I’m the man in the pink suit. I like that. The Pink Man is every man, not an individual. Actually, when I wanted to replace Sompong with a new guy I just couldn’t find anyone to match his character. Maybe, this was one of the reasons which made me want to end the project.
How would you like the Pink Man to be remembered?
As a man of the 20th century who was born to consume.
Name one place where you wished you’d photographed the Pink Man, but which you never had the chance to.
I would have liked to bring him to Egypt, to stand right in front of the great sphinx of Giza, to pay homage to an ancient civilization, and the beginning of man.
What’s next for you, after this show?
To wrap it up with a book, Pink Man: Born to Consume.
Thanks, Manit, we can’t wait to read it!
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All images are courtesy of the artist)