Marking the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Thailand, the show purports to focus on intersections between the art and culture of the two countries, even including work by a few Japanese artists with connections to Thailand, and it starts off this way; however, it quickly, and I think fortunately, shifts gears, uncovering a distinctly Thai personality.
Viewing the exhibition chronologically, you start in the room to the right and in this space the relationship between Japan and Thailand is underlined through early pieces from around 1940. A standout piece from this group is by Jitr (Prakit) Buabusaya called Rainy Day in Shinjuku, Tokyo, an oil painting on wood from 1942 that illustrates an interesting confluence – a Thai artist creating an image of Tokyo through the filter of a European impressionist sensibility. After this first group of paintings, the focus shifts to prints, often with work created as a result of residency and scholarship programs as well as recognition through the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale organized by the Fukuoka Art Museum. One striking piece is Keisei Kobayashi’s wood engraving At the Dawn – Gumbu 05.D-. In this ingenious image the left and right sides form a mirror image and feature delicate and extremely detailed renderings of animals that begin to disappear at the outer edges of the piece. It’s easy to get lost in the detail – feathers, scales, fur, antennae – as the complexity of the imagery seems to multiply the closer you look.
After a number of rather dull prints, the themes of social commentary and exploration of identity show up in the more recently made works, spanning a variety of media. The sculptural piece Children and Dog by Deang Buasan is a series of figures curled up in fetal positions and casually placed on the gallery floor. The paint-splattered material leaves an impression of filth and the little dogs are touching companions to the human figures who look like perversions of cabbage patch dolls. Dirt, kids and dogs serve as potent symbols and for me start to evoke the atmosphere that I remember from Bangkok. A series of black and white photos by Manit Sriwanichpoom from 1997 examines and satirizes the effects of the economic crisis in Thailand at the time.
There is a palpable, uneasy humor exhibited in these works, as seen in This Bloodless War #5; two theatrically nefarious figures in dark suits stand beside a car, behind which lies a man, unconscious and still clutching his designer shopping bags, having apparently been dragged over the ground. Chatchai Puipia’s large oil on canvas from 1995, the striking and borderline grotesque Siamese Smile: May I Come In?, is an in-your-face challenge to the ubiquitous “Thai smile.”
The examination of national character and identity continues in the final gallery with work from the last decade, but here the focus is on interactivity. Montien Boonma’s Breathing House invites the viewer to step under and “enter” abstracted Thai houses on stilts. If you have time, you can lounge on a mat and leisurely make a paper doll Thai garland seller. Multiple sheets with sections of the doll pattern are provided by the artist, Wit Pimkanchanapong, and each piece is also printed with lines of text such as “Don’t turn into a homeless child,” “Don’t scratch customers’ cars if they don’t buy” or the more philosophical “Don’t regret about own fate.” Another work by Sutee Kunavichayanont is a deflated White Elephant that requires viewers to blow into long tubes to animate this omnipresent symbol of Thailand. Especially in the second half of the exhibition, Show Me Thai provides a rich tapestry of work and an engaging introduction to Thai contemporary art and culture.