Art/Culture  •  In Convo with

In Convo with Arin Rungjang and Ou Bhaholyothin

As the international art exhibition Documenta 14 is taking place in Kassel, Germany, 2Mag looks back at our conversation between Arin Rungjang and Ou Bhaholyothin on the notion of home and how it contributes to their artistic creation.

July 31, 2017
Founded by Arnold Bode, the 14th edition of Documenta, the quinquennial art event featuring international artists, is being held in Kassel, Germany until September 17, 2017. In light of Arin Rungjang’s inclusion as the only Thai artist participating in the event, 2Mag revisits our conversation with Arin and Thai designer Ou Bhaholyothin. Although their mediums are so different, they are both internationally acclaimed. Their work, almost impossible to find in their hometown of Bangkok, can be seen internationally: Ou’s designs in New York and Parisian showrooms and Arin’s solo works at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and currently at Documenta 14 in Kassel. As the two luminaries live, work, and create in Bangkok, 2Mag’s Chomwan Weeraworawit was interested in knowing what the city means to both of them and, ultimately, what role Bangkok plays in the creation of their work.
Ou Bhaholyothin: To have a solo exhibition at the Jeu de Paume is no small feat. You must be so proud.

Arin Rungjang: You know; I just do my thing as an artist. (Laughs) The programme that I am part of is for emerging artists and each year the curator puts together four such artists to show at the Jeu de Paume. Mongkut is a replica of the Mongkut [a crown] that was offered to Napoleon by King Rama IV in 1861.

OB: I have not seen it. Is it in the style of a Thai crown?

AR: Yes it is. King Rama IV’s idea was to create a replica of the [original] crown and other royal regalia, and offer them to foreign dignitaries.

OB: It must have been difficult, today, to find the artisans able to recreate the crown.

AR: Funnily enough, the person whom I found to make the replica of the crown [Khun Woraluck] is the great, great granddaughter of King Rama IV. I found this lady in Ayutthaya who makes chadas and whose house is a community-learning centre for this type of craft. It is a family tradition that has been passed on for generations and it was a complete coincidence that I found her.

The original crown was commissioned by King Rama II for King Rama IV, but it has been locked up in the Chakri Mahaprasat for years and no one knows what it looks like. In order to create my replica, I took many pictures of the replica that was given to Napoleon (which is on display at Fontainebleau) in order to create a 3D scan of the crown. Sadly, thieves have since stolen that replica and it has created this crazy layer to Mongkut. I came back to Thailand and gave all the photos to Khun Woraluck to make the “fake” replica crown for the show.

What I find so interesting is how this single object became a symbol used to reinforce international relations and how King Rama IV was able to manipulate international relations with it.  This part of Thai history is not often mentioned but I look at it from the point of view of art and aesthetics and how symbols such as an exotic beautiful object can have on international dialogue.
OB: I think it was interesting how King Rama IV’s attitude toward the West was so different from King Rama V’s. Although King Rama IV admired western civilisation, he made an effort to communicate Thainess by sending this crown and various other royal regalia. It was almost as though the message he was sending was what you do is great but what we have is awesome. Then we get to Rama V and there was a shift from just admiration to one where we will become equal to the west, we will modernise by building roads, railways, and buildings resembling what was seen in western capitals. There was a feeling that what was Thai was old-fashioned and it needed to modernise in order to become civilised.

AR: I see this other thing too during that time; there was repression of the West. Japan had closed off its country.  Our neighbour Vietnam was assassinating missionaries. So there was this kind of backlash against western powers and influence, and Southeast Asia was anti-the West except Thailand.  So I am interested in how King Rama IV was willing to compromise with the West: for example, during the Opium War, no royal regalia was sent to China but we signed the Bearing Treaty with England. And then there was France and the USA. We chose to align with the three great powers of the time. A replica of Mongkut was sent to Queen Victoria and soon after a replica of the same crown was offered to Napoleon.  We even tried to send elephants to President Abraham Lincoln to assist him with the Civil War but he declined the offer. There is correspondence between the King Rama IV and President Lincoln about these elephants. So that will probably be my next project: those letters that were sent back and forth about the elephants!

OB: Will you send elephants too? It is possible in this day and age?!

AR: (Laughs) The King used symbols to reinforce his idea of Siam as a nation state whether it was a symbol like a crown or an animal like an elephant. The flag of Siam had an elephant [on it] and it was seminal to the idea of Siam, so much so that during the World Expo in 1864 we built a sala for an elephant called Sala Chang with a real Siamese elephant. What an interesting piece of art that was! But really, it was the wisdom of King Rama IV to form allies with the West by using these objects, be it royal regalia, animals or, later, replicas of temple murals to reinforce international relations and strengthen the Siamese identity.
Chomwan Weeraworawit: So where do you think we are today, bearing in mind our place in the world during the reign of King Rama IV and Arin’s Mongkut?

OB: I think today, as Thai people, we are a lot less proud of who we are than we used to be; we used to appreciate our own culture. Now if you look around, 99% of the money is used to build new malls, multi-billion baht malls like Central Embassy and Emquartier, and so many are coming up and so many of the boutiques are western. LVMH, Kering, super brands; it’s what we aspire to and, very much continuing along the same lines that Rama V instigated, this drive to be modern, to be western, at the cost of losing ourselves and our identity. It is a shame that the work that I create for Jim Thompson sits in showrooms and shows in Paris and New York but there is very little interest for it in Thailand.

People like us, the artists, designers, we don’t work in the western way; we are the modern diplomats, we are the elephants and crowns that are sent abroad, and we are taking what we call a brand identity today. It’s what Rama IV did with the royal regalia, which was probably the first instance of creating a national brand identity. Nowadays, we have new ways, like artists and designers who are the flag carriers.

AR: I think it’s this paradigm that has shifted throughout, whereas before, when it was about nationalism, we used to believe in creating a whole new world. The colonial powers coming into to civilise or modernise a country and the reaction against it were the World Wars. Then it was Capitalism vs. Communism, which led to the Cold War with those two powers pitted against each other. Today, I think we are in a capitalist world that is almost complete; the Communist Bloc is dead and China is a capitalist communist country. As for Thailand, there is no economic sustainability in the world of art, as you said P’Ou: wealthy people will buy Louis Vuitton or, in the realm of art, will buy a Picasso. So being realistic, it comes back to funds and how capitalism moves the market, that’s where we are.

So for me, the reason that I don’t show my work here is that the power to buy my work is used on other sectors, such as agriculture or education, but not focused on art and culture. So it’s not that we are less than anyone else but if we look at the entire world as a company and Thailand as a small branch, what we produce does not serve our own country that wants to consume other things.

OB: I think what we want now is honesty, truth, respect, not Asian-inspired but Asian in its meat, in its core and what I bring in our collections to the world is going back to the roots of what Jim Thompson first started 60 years ago.  He wanted to bring hand-weaving to the world as it is and not as some western colonial power exploiting our resources, but rather to revive and show to the world what beauty we have in our country.  So to me, what artists and designers look for is always honesty, and we try to keep our patrons and customers along this honest path.  I think that’s why it’s so hard for artists and designers to make a living [and] a little bit easier for designers.  You can’t sell your soul and honesty for any price, and for many artists they would rather starve and die then sell their souls!

AR: P’Ou, my next show is actually something to do with fabrics. I went to this village in Cambodia where they make this fabric with the most unique patterns. Their designs are about power that descends from the sky like lightening. During the war there were bombs, and they used these bombs to make patterns on Ikat. They didn’t see them as bombs but rather as a phenomenon that was brought by God: it was about destiny. So as an artist, I see myself as a mediator to bring this point of view to the world, post-nationalism. So in this way, it is not about being Thai at all. But you know Mongkut is really Thai, more Thai than thou!

CW: I think it’s interesting how you said you now function as a mediator, not as just a diplomat.

OB: I think we can also help – I remember going to Africa, to Lhasa with Barber Oskopie and Tom Dixon and it was so poor and the idea was that we would use design to help improve their lives. After a couple months we got some letters back from the community thanking us, like this woman was grateful that her son now has shoes to wear. I felt so sentimental about this. This is what makes me think about Bangkok: how lucky we are!
CW: On Bangkok – you are both based here – what are feelings towards it? Where is Bangkok?

OB: For me? Bangkok is HERE (takes out his iPhone and points to it). When I show my work elsewhere, there is not this general nonchalance towards the work: people are interested in engaging with the work, to discuss the concept and engage with each other. Here, I really don’t think that is the case. There might be someone who comes along and says, “P’Ou can I have a fie?”  [selfie] –Snap. So it’s not about the content, it’s kind of shallow really. I mean, you might go have dinner at Robuchon and before you even savour the food, before you even smell it, you snap a picture of the dish and it goes into your Instagram feed. There is not feeling; it’s an instant update. I’m eating here. I’m going to this exhibition and hanging out with the artist, with this designer. The real world, where you actually talk and relate to the people you are with, where you touch and feel them, is gone.

AR: I’ve been travelling loads and this entire year I have only been here for one month so the Bangkok that I know when I am here is about home. Nothing else. The reason I am here is because my mum is here and she is sick so when I am here I don’t really do much except stay with her. So P’Ou, it’s interesting because that Bangkok that you talk about, I know it exists but I’m just not part of it, as I don’t have many social obligations here. So I work from home and then I show my work abroad and Bangkok is truly my home. I don’t think I could live anywhere else; it’s my mother tongue
CW: So this notion of home is pretty interesting: Bangkok can take on multiple roles.  P’Ou you split your time between Bangkok and the South? And you only moved back here eight years ago. Is this still home?

OB: Yes, it absolutely is home. I am living in the same house where I was born, where I grew up.

AR: There is this new generation of kids who want to become members of society over there, and I always say to them, no need, stay home, they will come to you! This curator from Documenta I am meeting with in a couple of weeks is in Bangkok; if I were in Paris, he would not come meet me!

CW: I love how we can function as ambassadors to the world by being at home.  Bangkok is an amazing city in that way, a paradox; it’s not perfect yet we call it home.

AR: I don’t think you can use the word perfect. There is this notion of home that nothing compares to – there are the spirits of our grandfathers and grandmothers here. Some things that you can’t see, that can’t be revealed. There is so much here for us to use. In this context, Bangkok is not modern. It’s not about objects and things, nor is it minimal. Today, conceptual art is at its peak but conceptualism destroys itself as it is cold and without feeling. The great thing about being Thai and calling this place home is the source of inspiration that I draw from it as an artist: it has feeling, emotion, and the spirit it is alive.

OB: I don’t think it’s something we have a choice in and it’s certainly not about Bangkok being perfect or imperfect; it’s in our blood. It’s not about having a checklist that says, beach-tick, mall-tick. I mean, we are born here and it’s in our veins. You can take the guy out of Bangkok but you can’t take Bangkok out of the guy. It’s stuck. Like me, I escape every month to the countryside but it’s too late. I still come home. My soul is here.