Atikom Mukdaprakorn

photography , media arts , management , writing

From Dust Till Dawn

The vast human-less scenery painting of Paphonsak La-or completely engulfs our visuals. The greyness of the road juxtaposed with the greenery of the trees, grasses and leaves. The penetrating vegetation above the surface of the road and the fields covers all the visible expanse. Though, the not so surrealistic quality of the scenery reminds us of its existential being, but nothing in there indicates its exclusive nationality. In any territory of the world, the human imprints are there to be seen; the power poles and the concrete walls. Such industrialization has given birth to the identical appearances all over the world. But the ambiguity of its being has aroused our uncertainty. The sense of the windy breeze in the painting and its audacity could even be impeded making no voice to be clearly heard.

The suburban scenery from slightly above the human angle is so common, similar to any view that pops up in our eyes upon our wake or when we just drive past the city. The light that was evenly lit all over the image does not seem to render any attempt to portrait any miracle of the nature. This makes it so markedly different from the tradition of painting adopted by most Thai artists who often opt for coloring the shiny and golden paddy fields awaiting the harvest or the dazzling and punchy colors of the forest and flowery field. Given its lack of nationality, it makes one wonder from which tradition Paphonsak has drawn to create such painting. It even makes us uncertain as to which model has inspired his works of art. And our understanding shall continue to be mitigated by our fixation on the locality of his works, even though such instinct may be the preliminary factor that influences our beholding of the views so unfamiliar to us.

Our existentialism cannot be understood separately from how we have attempted to come to term with the world through the media which tend to function as a ‘map’ indicating the geographic coordinate vis-à-vis the boundaries of nation states. Since the industrial revolution, a vast number of innovations have been used to miniaturize the world for us to analyze. The Siamese elite in the latter half of the 19th century were so indulged with topology and had used it to get adapted to the changing perceptions in the modern time. Such topological knowledge had been used for negotiating with the Western powers who had been colonizing the Indochina until the reign of King Rama V whence the territorial survey had evolved into the geo-body. That was the origin of the attempt to concoct our collective historical space, the origin of ‘Siam’, then and further back into our past and perhaps our future as well.

The territorial survey has been cited as evidence for the annexation of territories beyond the colonial rule of the French and the British, the barren land inhibited by people who had nothing to do with the Kingdom of Siam before. The land was annexed to Siam through the use of camera to put the land on the map of the world and to nurture the new awareness of the prerogative powers at the same time. Such powers which used to be illustrated through the ‘visuals’ of ‘mystical power’ permeating the highly revered universe in the Hindu-Buddhist cosmology and the emphasis of the great merits of the Kingship, had been converted into the empirical and ‘scientific knowledge’ which could be conveniently perceiver by people in the modern time.

Within the archive of photos taken by His Majesty during his territorial survey, there exist images of local people. Most images are stamped with the label ‘Siam’ even though the image of persons in the pictures were so blurred or hard to differentiate from the background. All of them were stored negligently in the National Archives. The unique status of the peoples in the geo-body were illustrated not so differently from the background, the earth, the water and the forest which made up the geography of ‘Siam’ in those days. The images from the territorial survey failed to capture the genuine meaning of its bioregionalism. The sense of nationhood made up failed to reflect the diverse realities of various groups of people in each of the geographical settings. It was simply made up on the ‘map’ void of any exclusive meaning. There was no space for neither individual voice to be hear nor the recollection of individual memories. Every memories and imaginations were reduced simply to fit the made-up geo-body at the expense of personal recollections.

In 2013, Paphonsak was so engrossed with the tense political situations, the love and hate that predominated every sphere in Thailand. He could barely create his works then. Things that happened everyday seemed so irrational and hard to understand even though he attempted to listen to explanations made in various public debates. Toward the end of the year, he became an artist in residence in Sweden, a huge leap to a place far from the borders of Thailand. That helped to make him feel less obsessed. The vast distance forced him to learn to use Google Street View to communicate with his people in Thailand to let them imagine where he was and his wellbeing. He also used it to extend his vision beyond the fixation with what had been happening in Thailand. It helped him to connect with the whole world and to explore the vast number of territories, one of which was the city where he used to do his work after the great natural disaster and seemed to have been abandoned by the government.

The government of the country zipped their mouth failing to acknowledge their failure to ensure safety of their own people in the aftermath of the natural disaster. They simply drew the lines on the map marking it an exclusion zone, the swathe of land where no one was allowed to inhabit. Local people have become displaced and had no idea when they could return and there was no clear information whatsoever given to them.

In some areas, given its acceptable level of danger, it was possible for the Google Street View cars to drive into and to take the images from the areas making the viewers feels as if they were in there, even though the cars could not cover all the roads that existed prior to the disaster (the areas shall be marked with the phrase ’This Image Is No Longer Available’) This is not dissimilar to the off-limits areas excluded for national security reason including military zone or monuments in different countries. This is of course contrast to the desire of human beings to explore every bits of the land as per the attempt by Google. Paphonsak embarked on his journey to the exclusion zones through Google Street View. He got to see the scenery of the city which seemed to be normal, though he could not see human beings on the street like in other cities. Without any prior knowledge, no one would realize the intensity of the danger that made those places so inhabitable. He collected thousands of still images from the explorations of such ordinary scenery in his computer.

Living far away from what happened in Thailand, he had the time to spend on the video clips documenting public discussions on various social issues, many of which he could have time to listen to while in Thailand. He had the video clips played every day while he was engaged with his works in his studio. Things that used to be so far-fetched seemed to become more understandable and respond to the realities. Things that seemed to be so perplexing seemed to become more rational as if the ghosts the emerged in the midst of the red sky and the cool breeze. The verbal expression in the public discussion and the venting of feelings among people who were so grossly affected by their own sufferings have brought the untold stories in the past beyond the present time and the geobody, and it helped him to start to visualize the human faces of small people.

Upon his return to Thailand, the situations did not get any less murky. He decided to delve into the collection of digital images of the exclusion zone and started to paint the pictures from them in order to put his mind to a rest. Toward the end of May 2014, another military coup took place within a decade, out of the blue. It has led to the creepy silence under the yoke of the dictatorship. All the dissent has been stifled and only one stereotypical idea was tolerated. It was like some images with no real essence awaiting some new labels (?). The whole interconnected world has been reduced to the deplorable geo-body. Under the cloak of modernity lied the collective of people who were treated as simply dots on a map and who were denied the right to show their real human faces.

“Don’t let me speak, I shall type, don’t let me type, I shall write, don’t let me write, I shall think, if you don’t let me think, you’d better not let me breathe” The saying sums up very well social changes in almost the past two decades in Thailand which has seen the increased intensity of censorship and the murder of its people. After all, those who have emancipated themselves from the geo-body discourse shall never again succumb themselves to the same old confinement. The new cultural horizon has emerged, the old language has been communicated in a new platform. In spite of speaking the same language, we might not be able to communicate with people who cling on to the same old horizon. Silence under dictatorship is not the kind of silence without human voices. Rather it is a pandemonium that has become more and scratching to one’s ears.

“The fictions shall gradually and silently become accepted as real. It shall give rise to the creepy confidence of the community amidst the absence of identity. It has become unique characteristic of modern nation states.” The scenery painting without nationality exist in such pandemonium. The dusts that stack up and form the words underneath each image are different from the dusts that disperse all over the scenery paintings hung idly in many homes. They shall represent the statements that are hard to understand for many. But their voices shall be heard louder and beyond the stacks of the dusts. Eventually, the voices shall dismantle the boundless and nationalistic tradition of painting.


to be distributed at the ‘Silent No More’ Exhibition by Paphonsak La-or
23 December 2015 - 14 February 2016

Text Translation: Pipob Udomittipong

Feb 28, 2016

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Co-founder of mute mute, which emphasizes mutual discussion about society in order to expand the boundary of perception through art, cultural performances and social activities in different forms. He is personally interested in media/art culture, especially domestic photography, freedom of expression and the state of art in Thailand. These form the basis for many of the conditions used in his media/art performances. Currently, he has been collaborating on the project "Chiang Mai Art Conversation" which originated in Chiang Mai. The purpose of the project is to facilitate a connection of art with discussion and Thai society to gain greater knowledge through all kinds of management and media.

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