Since the May 22 military coup, Thailand has entered a time when an opinion can send you to prison. All for the happiness of the country, the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the military junta is formally called, has forbidden reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” eating sandwiches in public and advised the public not to criticize the ruling institutions.
Those affected by this situation include not only dissenting academics and activists who were summoned to military camps, charged or fled the country, but also those in art and culture whose freedom to expression is threatened. Here’s a look at the work of some artists voicing concerns over the country’s politics and democracy.
Back in July, six local artists came together at alternative art space Speedy Grandma in Charoen Krung Soi 28 for “Heat Wave,” an exhibition that reflects upon the moment of oppressed social freedom. In response to the NCPO’s happiness campaign, one of the works in the guerilla exhibition had one side of a concrete pillar in the middle of the display room painted black, with “I WILL BE HAPPY” written in white cursive all over it.
Another imperative, “Get out,” often used in Thai protest camps in recent years to offend those with a different ideology, became the name and inspiration of the exhibition at Gallery Soap in Japan (on display from Oct 14-25) by pro-democracy artist Pisitakun Kuntalang, who has always been a discerning critic of Thai politics. With “Get Out,” the Thai artist puts the Japanese audience in Thais’ shoes through an installation site that features Thai political and cultural symbolics such as a headdress, a smiley face sprayed above Thai flags and a mural of temples.
Also the same week in Bangkok’s Chinatown, political cartoonist Stephff, known for his work in The Nation newspaper, mocked Thailand’s erratic pursuit of democracy in the “Frankenstein-ocracy” exhibition at newly-founded art space Chow Why.
The Bangkok movie scene has become even more active following the coup, thanks to the junta’s efforts to promote patriotism, which include giving out free tickets for Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol’s war biopic “King Naresuan 5” (also starring NCPO spokesperson Col. Winthai Suwaree) and, more recently, commissioning 12 filmmakers to make 12 short films based on the junta’s 12 core values. More independent filmmakers have also managed to bring their work to the public through events like a screening of works by 15 emerging directors at “Thai Aurora at the Horizon,” a movie program that aims to document and propose ideas about the future of Thai politics.
One of the featured directors was video artist Chulayarnon Siriphol, known for his cheeky work like “Planking” (also currently on view at The Jewish Museum New York), a video capturing a man planking on the floor at 8 am and 6 pm in the midst of people who stand straight as the Thai national anthem plays; and “Myth of Modernity,” in which a pyramid made of neon lights floats above political mobs.
At the program’s third screening at contemporary art library The Reading Room, there were rumors that undercover officers were present, disguised as audience members to observe the activity. The Reading Room has also hosted various activities to tackle social issues since the coup, including hosting a monthly series, “This is Not Fiction,” which discusses controversial books such as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace.”
In addition to art spaces, small independent theaters in Bangkok have been showcasing a number of politically-charged works as well.
A week after the coup, at the fittingly-named “Democrazy” theatre in a small alley on Rama 4 Road, director Thanapol Virulhakul introduced his stellar piece “Hipster the King.“ The seemingly-apolitical pop-dance satire asked the audience to give round and round of applause to “hipster” versions of ideological icons such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong (Prayuth didn’t make the cut), who lifted heavy items in strange poses for the audience’s entertainment. The highlight of the show, though, was the moment after the interaction gradually died down: as the audience grew tired they stopped clapping — even though they were repeatedly instructed to continue — and the whole hand-clap activity became awkward, if not downright farcical, for the audience.
In July, Sasapin Sriwanij, a core member of Bankok’s leading physical theater troupe B-floor, celebrated the 50 days of the NCPO’s rule by turning small gallery-cum-café GOJA in upper Sukhumvit into a little summit where attendants mingled and questioned Thai identity while they danced and moved to traditional Thai music.
Last week, another effort from another B-floor thespian also brought the establishment under scrutiny with the new solo piece “Satapana” (Establishment) by Ka-ge Mulvilai. The title of acclaimed first episode “Red Tank,” in which Ka-ge climbs up and tumbles down a mountain of red barrels, inevitably brought back memories of the infamous event in Thai history in the late 1960s, when authorities in southern Thailand hunted down people who were suspected communists, tortured and finally burned them to death in red barrels.
The second episode, “Iceberg,” is set to premiere on Oct. 30 – Nov. 1 at the Sodsai Pantoomkomol Center of Dramatic Arts, Chulalongkorn University. More performances about power play and freedom are also expected to appear at the upcoming annual Bangkok Theater Festival, taking place at the same time.