– Autumn/Winter 2016

Images Without Bodies: Chiang Mai Social Installation and the Art History of Cooperative Suffering

Simon Soon

Sunthorn Meesri, bot bat sommut (role play), 1993, performance at Tha Pae Gate, Chiang Mai. All images courtesy Uthit Atimana and Gridthiya Gaweewong

Our story begins with a photograph that Mit Jai Inn, one of the organisers of the Chiang Mai Social Installation (CMSI), shared with me. The image shows a line of people receding diagonally into the dark. It is night, and the mood seems festive and buoyant. Smiles are etched onto faces that are consciously posing for the camera. Many of the figures are carrying a piece of rock, and a rope seems to bind them to each other. Fleshing out the story behind the photograph, Jai Inn told me:

I organised a participatory walkabout around Chiang Mai on the last day of the Week of Cooperative Suffering in 1995, which took place from midnight until six in the morning. Everyone who joined the tour was made to carry a large object and participants were bound together for the duration of the walk by a rope.

  1. Conversation with Mit Jai Inn, 2 February 2014.

  2. See Thasnai Sethaseree, ‘Overlapping Tactics and Practices at the Interstices of Thai Art’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai University, 2011, p.193. Sethaseree dates this event to 1992, although the Week of Cooperative Suffering was not held until January 1995.

  3. Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Photography’ (1927, trans. Thomas Y. Levin), Critical Inquiry, vol.19, no.3, 1993, p.429.

  4. See Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013; Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (1998, trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods and Mathieu Copeland), Dijon: Presses du Réel, 1998; and Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012.

  5. Conversation with T. Sethaseree, 3 February 2014. Doctoral theses by Sethaseree, cited in note 2, and Pandit Chanrochanakit (‘The Siamese Diorama and Thai National Imaginary in Contemporary Thai Art’, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, 2006) contain the most extensive readings of CMSI to date.

  6. See T. Sethaseree, ‘Overlapping Tactics and Practices at the Interstices of Thai Art’, op. cit., p.8.

  7. See Chit Phumisak, Sinlapa Phua chiwit, sinlapa phua prachachon (Art for Life, Art for the People, originally published between 1955–57), Bangkok: Samnakphim Nokhuk, 1997. For an introduction to the life of Chit Phumisak, see Craig Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse: The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, pp.9–40.

  8. See Phapsinlapa khatao kanmueang duean tula (The Images of the Cut Out of the October Politics), Bangkok: 14 October Memorial, 2003.

  9. See Chaitri Prakitnonthakan, ‘Memory and Power on the Ratchadamnoen Avenue’, prachatai.com [online newspaper], 15 January 2008, available at prachatai.com/english/node/484 (last accessed on 2 January 2016).

  10. For a detailed reading, see Apinan Poshyananda, Modern Art in Thailand: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.41.

  11. See Sitthidet Rohitsauk, Klum sinlapawathanatham nai prathet Thai: bot samruat sathanaphaplækhwamkhl a nwainaichuangpiphuthatsakrat 2516–2530 (Art and Culture Groups in Thailand: The Exploration of Status and Movement from 1973 to 1987), Bangkok: Srinakharinwirot University, 2009.

  12. See Sinlapa 2522 gaansadaeng sinlapakam haeng prathetthai khrang thi nueng (First Open Art Exhibition of Thailand 1979) (exh. cat.), Bangkok: Art Exhibition of Thailand, 1979.

  13. For example, the late Montien Boonma joined the university at this time, following a stint in Europe where he was exposed to arte povera and Joseph Beuys. Boonma began revisiting some of the unquestioned legacies of Silpakorn University.

  14. See Anna Tsing, 'Inside the Economy of Appearances', Public Culture, vol.12, no.1, 2000, pp.115–44.

  15. There are suggestions of this in Sethaseree's thesis: 'In this regard, for "Thai Modernism" (khuam kid samaimaibabthaithai), the value of assets that the Thai nation state gains are made quietly possible by forces of two major institutional logics – the monarchy and Buddhist monkhood (sangha). ... Faced with such a situation, Thai contemporary artists after the 1990s onwards have attempted to set themselves free from the restrain of the artistic practices [embedded] in the domain of national imaginary and culture'; 'This dialogue can be understood in terms of the process of cultural hybridity that gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable – a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation taking place in a third space.' T. Sethaseree, 'Overlapping Tactics and Practices at the Interstices of Thai Art', op. cit., pp.3, 5 and 253.

  16. See P. Chanrochanakit, 'The Siamese Diorama and Thai National Imaginary in Contemporary Thai Art', op. cit.

  17. For example, Benjamin Buchloh has commented that Beuys 'dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp's readymade by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naïve context of representation of meaning: the idealist metaphor.' B.H.D. Buchloh, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, 'Beuys at the Guggenheim', October, no.12, Spring 1980, p.39. See also B.H.D. Buchloh, 'Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for A Critique', Artforum, January 1980, pp.35–43. Critics such as Jan Verwoert have also spoken of the authoritarian nature of Beuys's staging of pedagogy. See J. Verwoert, 'The Boss: On the Unresolved Question and Authority in Joseph Beuys' Oeuvre and Image', e-flux journal, no.1, December 2008, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-boss-on-the-unresolved-question-of-authority-in-joseph-beuys'-oeuvre-and-public-image/ (last accessed on 13 February 2014).

  18. This contrasts sharply with the way in which the event has been presented retrospectively by certain successful participating artists, who have focussed on their individual contributions in the context of their own art practice. See, for example, Navin Rawanchaikul, Comm, New York: Phillip Galgiani, 1999.

  19. Conversation with U. Atimana, 3 February 2014.

  20. Conversation with M. Jai Inn, 2 February 2014.

  21. The first year, for instance, focussed on science, art and philosophy, and tried to combine these different fields.

  22. For instance, 'Contemporary Art in Asia: Tradition/Tensions', Asia Society, New York, October 1996–January 1997, curated by Apinan Poshyananda; and the Singapore Art Museum's inaugural exhibition 'Modernity and Beyond', January–April 1996.

  23. Tokyo Biennale (1952–90, eighteen editions), Triennale-India / The Triennale of Contemporary World Art (1968–2005, eleven editions), Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh (1981–2006, twelve editions) and Jakarta Biennale (1974–2015, sixteen editions).

  24. Biennale Jogja (1988–present, twelve editions), Osaka Triennale (1990–2001, ten editions), Taipei Biennial (1992–present, eleven editions), Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1993–present, seven editions), Gwangju Biennale (1995–present, nine editions), Shanghai Biennale (1996–present, nine editions), Busan Biennale (1998–present, eight editions) and Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (1999–present, four editions).

  25. R. Langenbach, video recording, 1995. Langenbach's collection of video documentation is held by Asia Art Archive. Langenbach also observes in this video: 'Interesting that [CMSI] attracted Western artists who spoke primarily on new age themes of art and life [and] still carry some form of exoticism, such as the male Western artist who talked about unity between art and life in Bali earlier in the discussion; whereas the Thai artists were trying to debate on questions of the practical and social use of art versus the utopianism of art.'

  26. See, for example, Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

  27. Some contemporaneous examples from the region emerging in the late 1980s and early 90s include Baguio International Arts Festival in the Phillipines, The Artists Village in Singapore and Binal Experimental Arts in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

  28. Conversation with U. Atimana, 3 February 2014.

  29. See Kenneth Frampton, 'Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance', in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. Frampton's concept, which was first applied to architecture, resonated with visual art in Southeast Asia as well, particularly Ismail Zain's thinking. See I. Zain, 'Towards a Utopian Paradigm: A Matter of Contingencies and Displacement', in Delia Paul and Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (ed.), Traditional Aesthetics in Visual Arts, 1st ASEAN Symposium on Aesthetics, Proceedings of Symposium held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia National Art Gallery, on 24–27 October 1989, Kuala Lumpur: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information 1989, p.23.

  30. Ahmad Mashadi, 'Moments of Regionality: Negotiating Southeast Asia', Crossings: Philippine Works from the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore and Makati City: Singapore Art Museum and Ayala Foundation, 2004, pp.25–39.

  31. See Keith Moxey, 'Art History's Hegelian Unconscious: Naturalism and Nationalism in the Study of Early Netherlandish Painting', in Mark Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey (ed.), The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.25–51.