Before midnight: new exhibition tells stories of Thailand in transition

On 24 June, the 89th anniversary of the 1932 revolution which ended the absolute monarchy in Thailand, artist Wittawat Tongkeaw launched a new exhibition at SAC Gallery on Sukhumvit.

Wittawat Tongkeaw

Titled “The L/Royal Monument,” Wittawat’s latest solo exhibition tells stories of “Thailand’s political crossroads.” It features photographs of life on the streets, installation art, landscapes of locations such as Sanam Luang, Ratchaprasong intersection, and a section of the wall of Wat Pathum Wanaram.

The second room of the exhibition features portraits of Anon Nampa, Patiwat “Mor Lam Bank” Saraiyaem, and a teenager known as “K,” and a painting of Bundit Aneeya’s belongings.

Anon, Patiwat, Bundit, and K have all been charged under Section 112, or the lèse majesté law. The pieces are also accompanied by poems by former Prachatai reporter Mutita Chuachang, who has spent most of her career covering stories of political prisoners and lèse majesté cases.

The portrait of Patiwat Saraiyaem

Wittawat said he went to court hearings to meet his subjects, which he said allowed him to “truly answer whether what I’m suspicious about is true.”

“The right said we’re stupid, that we misunderstood, that this side is fake news. Our side also said that you’re fake news too. It’s going back and forth like this. The only way to prove it is to do fieldwork,” he said. “I went to court. I’d never been to court in my life. I went and sat and listened in on the hearings. Some of the reactions that I’ve seen and was told by people that this is how it’s going to be. I saw it myself and proved it with my own eyes, and when I believe, I’ll believe from reason, from the evidence that is in front of me. I found that it answers what I used to question, and I got the true answer about what it’s like by myself.”

What stayed with him from the lèse majesté hearings was how the defendants are treated as if they were already guilty, even though their cases have not been proven, and how they have to prove their innocence, which he found absurd.

“It’s strange that is there such a thing that where you’re suspected, you’re guilty, and then you have to prove that you’re innocent. It’s laughable. Nowhere in the world does this. When you have not yet been proven, right up until the end, you must be innocent. This is why we have to demand that Anon or Penguin (Parit Chiwarak) be released. It’s not that they’re right, but you should wait until the end of the court trial is over to make a judgement. But why did you put them in jail? The intention is obvious. Every action shows what the intention is. If you’re not blind, you must see that there is something unusual or unfair happening to the judicial process,” said the artist.

A photograph of a street musician, printed on a glass plate, is on display in the third room of the exhibition 

The exhibition, according to Wittawat, brings up memories often buried under mainstream narratives.

“One memory in Thai society is the mainstream memory, and it’s going very strong,” said Wittawat. “I’m just trying to make another set of meanings to go alongside it, so ‘Loyal monument’ for me is not ‘Royal,’ like the mainstream. It’s a different set, which I think is something that still doesn’t have enough space. I do what I can, and I try to raise the ceiling as much as possible, so that there is gradually more room for what we can do.”

In a society where there are many taboos, Wittawat said that art is one of the best ways to allow these topics to be discussed, as symbolism allows for meaning to be hidden, and the symbol can be interpreted in numerous ways.

“We can hide it or change it from something that is straightforward to something that is not straightforward, so that it can’t be seen as a problem or be straightforward so that the state can do something to us,” he said.

However, for Wittawat, the limits for artists wanting to work on progressive political themes are the boundaries set by the state, while conservative artists can do whatever they want as long as they do not criticize the status quo.

“One side can do anything. They can do it all, but they know that doing anything for them means that they won’t criticize. They won’t curse. They will only admire,” Wittawat said. “But the opposite side, they can’t even question things. This is very strange.”

Nevertheless, he said that even though each gallery has different political identities, he is lucky in that he has not had issues finding exhibition space for his work, something he said might be because he has been part of Thailand’s art scene for a while. Wittawat said that artists early in their careers might have a harder time finding space, but for him, artists no longer require gallery space in the age of social media, as online space can now act as exhibition space.

Asked whether he is concerned about intimidation from state officials, Wittawat said that he is not afraid, even though he recognized that artists who worked on political themes in the past faced challenges due to their subject matter. For Wittawat, the 2020 pro-democracy movement has lifted the limits on what can be discussed in society.

“I spoke to (former political prisoner and writer) Prontip Mankhong. She said that if you’re doing this work, you’re already got one foot in jail. She said, why do you have to be afraid? It’s like why do we have to protect ourselves so much? What do we have to be so afraid of to work? If that’s the case, then we won’t be able to do anything, but we have to do it if we can, and we have to use as much of our intelligence as we have to do it so that it communicates with people and at the same time in a safe way. But if you ask whether I’m afraid, I’m not that afraid,” Wittawat said.

Wittawat sitting in front of his portrait of Anon Nampa

For Wittawat, the creativity seen in the 2020 youth-led pro-democracy movement gives him hope, as it shows what the younger generation is capable of, and that young people have experienced a wider world than the older generation. Although he said that this is a hopeless fight, his teaching experience gave him the opportunity to see that the old ways of thinking are not passed down to the younger generation. Young people no longer follow their parents and are able to form their own beliefs from the information they have.

“The state knows this. It’s not that it doesn’t know. The state knows, so it has to deal with them,” Wittawat said.  “But people who don’t know that the kids have this capacity are people who have stayed with the state for a long time and become its tool. Those people will think that the kids can’t think for themselves and may get easily manipulated. That’s stupid, to say it frankly. You don’t understand what the situation is like at all. Everyone is capable, and the kids know this because they have the media in their hands. They have social media in their hands […] They have a much wider world than we do.”

Wittawat said that the four rooms of the exhibition get progressively darker because he sees twilight as a time of transition, and for him, the country is at a crossroads, but change will not come if the people do not come together to push it forward.  

“I don’t know when we’re going to get to midnight, because once we get there it’ll start to get lighter. Personally, as an artist, I think that Thai society should be nearing midnight, but in fact I said this three years ago at my last exhibition. I hope that it’s going to be bright soon,” he said.

“The world absolutely has to turn to follow the younger generation, because in the end, the older generation has to go, and the younger generation will come up. They know this, so they try to keep this memory going, but the younger generation is going to arrive. The world has to move through the younger generation. They won’t change no matter what, so it must change someday in the future, but it’s a question of how long they can stall it, and we are helping to accelerate it so that it happens within our lifetime, because I want to see it too.”

“The L/Royal Monument” will be on display at SAC Gallery from now until 18 September 2021.

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