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Supachai Areerungruang: Sound of Silence in Thailand

Expressing the unvoiced in art.24–07–2019Words by Sam Location Thailand

To an outsider, we read about the coups that happened in Thailand throughout the past decade, the elections that were held earlier this year, and how the rise of new political parties seem to be creating more rifts within the civil society than in reconciling bruised sentiments about politics.

As citizens, we are inevitably impacted by the environment we are in. In Sound of Silence in Thailand: Drawings by Supachai Areerungruang, Ajarn Supacha offers his artwork as images of honest communication on social, political and cultural issues.

Supachai Areerungruang’s art practice embodies creative expression in diverse ways, especially of feelings that cannot be voiced.

At stake is the ongoing migration and miscibility within Southeast Asian communities across geographical boundaries for economic and other reasons. Sound of Silence in Thailand presents the contemporary context of Ajarn Supachai’s life, his observations, thoughts, interpretations and their vital role in presenting ideas and messages to society at large.

“Our purpose for this exhibition was to invite Ajarn Supachai to exhibit a project of his personal concern that reflected the aegis of contemporary Southeast Asian art. I had met with him in Thailand, and felt strongly that his works would be important for us. Drawings, which are fundamental academic exercises and skills; a topos of global concern coupled together with an unlikely methodology in production and installation. These are all interesting elements I knew an exhibition by Ajarn Supachai would bring to NAFA.” Dr. Bridget Tracy Tan, Director, Institute of Southeast Asian Arts & Art Galleries shared about the beginnings of this exhibition.

B-Side speaks to the artist himself to find out more.

How would you describe your body of work?

Let me explain about my work first.

I have a degree in Thai Painting; an artistic field of study that focuses on depicting the story of Buddhism, Thai way of life, Thai culture and tradition, and so on. This is the creation of art in the traditional genre with stories from literature, or Thai traditions, illustrating such narratives in the art forms and patterns. Above all, this type of art must be depicted in an exquisite way and with a high level of detail defined by rules and restrictions from its own graphic lineage.

This seems totally different from the work that I have exhibited here at this time, both in the art form and the presentation of story. Thus, it might appear that the work isn’t like my own creations from my original field of study.

What inspires you as an artist?

What inspires me is the long-time question in my mind about the creation of Thai art. I have been painting the image of Lord Buddha, drawing angels, Himavanta mythical creatures, when really, I have never seen them with my own eyes. It doesn’t touch me much now when I look at my earlier paintings, even though I recognise the skills that make them beautiful.

However, one morning, 6 years ago, as I drove along the road from my home to the university, I saw a shuttle truck full of multinational workers; probably Burmese or Cambodian or those from other neighbouring countries.

They were being ferried to work at the construction area close to where I myself was working.

This was a truck, carrying young workers who had left home, to sell their labour in Bangkok. When I looked into the eyes of those people, I saw the signs of hope, frustration, the struggle with life. Yet, these are the same people who are sometimes overlooked, in the eyes of the Thai people.

Instead these workers are like foreign objects that come into the society of the middle-class in Bangkok that contribute the value of humanity, to a community that reaps this value, though they (the Thai community) themselves forget about or neglect to treasure such value.

I have seen with my eyes every day; it’s like these foreigners come to live in a society that is not really equal.

I then raised a question in my mind…

why do I draw pictures of figures I have never seen?

What I saw on that road was the problem of the Thai society, and perhaps even of the world. Why should I not use the work of art to convey these things to the public? This is really a problem that affects many aspects of Thai society and of course, it is a problem that has resulted in part from Thai politics.

What role do artists, and art, play in a society?

In my opinion, “artists”, “art” and “society” are all inseparably connected as every field of art originates from social phenomena. Because of this, the meaning of art in any society may be different from cultural roots or history, such as that of Thai society and Singapore society.

However, they could still share a common phenomenon or social problem in the era of globalisation.

Recently, artists have acted as contemporary socialists with both the eyes of creators and the eyes of critics at the same time, using their powerful - but - gentle tools as a medium.

Art actually is indeed their gentle tools, to reflect their ideas employing various strategies including and not limited to symbolism, comparison, metaphors, interpretations and, of course, social criticism.

Oftentimes, an artist may not be able to speak all the things they want, because it is necessary to have a self-censorship to protect himself from certain established rules of law and rules of the government. As with all authorities, governments and public institutions for example, do not want you to speak of them in unlawfully or overly critical ways, or even criticise them with public art for instance.

Tell us more about this exhibition, Sound of Silence in Thailand. Have you exhibited these works in Thailand before? If not, why Singapore as the first stop?

I have been interested in the issue of transnational migrants and politics for years. I had exhibited  works in a group exhibition with other artists at Khonkaen Manifesto 2018. The original work I exhibited there is also shown here in the NAFA too.

My work had been inspected by local curators from the military who indicated that my work must be removed or deleted. If I refused to do so, not only my work, the works of the other artists would also be disallowed for the exhibition. This event was not the first time in Thailand artists were controlled by the government that was established by the revolutionary coup 5 years prior.  I also used to have solo performances, two times with groups of artists. As always, those performances and works talked about the issues of migrant labour and politics.

In 2014, the first year of the coup, at that time, all the artists were highly restricted in the presentation of art in public places. For example, whenever there was a drama show, it was mandatory for a military officer to be in attendance. Whenever there was a forum, a military seat had to be allocated for appointed military attendees to observe, and so on. This work now, shown at NAFA in Singapore, is like getting myself to work out loud, beyond the quiet and freezing voices I have experienced in Thai society.

In this exhibition, there are both works that reflect the awkwardness of the Thai people who can't speak, reflecting the condition of human beings whose rights to speak are a given once they are born in a country. Yet sometimes, they are left only with the reflection in their eyes when they are forbidden to speak or to perceive. Their option is to become a cold document that is similar to clinical record of national events and such things.

Which work within the exhibition speaks to you the most? And why?

For me, the work that speaks to me the most is the “Coup” as I believe it should not have happened in a democratic society. As a matter of fact, ever since the change of the government regime in 1932, Thailand has had 13 coups, so this work is an event on record that I want to shout out loud so everyone can hear, for when it mattered that cry out loud then had seemed impersonal and meaningless.


Sound of Silence in Thailand: Drawings by Supachai Areerungruang

21 June – 21 July 2019

11am – 7pm

Lim Hak Tai Gallery, NAFA Campus 1, 80 Bencoolen Street, Singapore 189655

credit : B-Side Singapore

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