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Chulayarnnon Siriphol on Finding Ways to Express Opinions

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
Bangkok, 31 July 2020

Chulayarnnon Siriphol. Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol. Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

In 2004, Chulayarnnon Siriphol made Hua-Lam-Pong, a short documentary tracking an old man in a bustling Bangkok train station setting up his camera on a tripod. Created while Siriphol was in high school, the film was awarded the Special White Elephant Award at the 8th Thai Short Film & Video Festival that year. It is shown in university film classes in Thailand today.

The gaze in Hua-Lam-Pong is inconspicuous. The viewer's perspective takes on Siriphol's crouched view, unseen by his subject. That same angle appears in parts of Sleeping Beauty (2006), a portrait of the artist's elderly grandmother, which Siriphol made as a film student at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, where he started making experimental short films that blurred the boundaries between fiction and documentary.

In these early years, the artist's ability to move from moments of pathos to subversive wit became somewhat of a hallmark. In the comedy Golden Sand House (2005), Siriphol's family reality becomes enmeshed with a popular Thai soap opera, while his thesis film Danger (2008) is a standard murder mystery created in accordance to the dictates of his teachers, which was re-cut after he graduated, interjecting the film with text echoing his teachers' instructions and concluding with a burning self-portrait. To quote Kong Rithdee, 'It was a mockery of himself and of the system.'[1]

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Danger (2008) (still). Courtesy the artist.

Much of Siriphol's work is reflective of the post-2006 landscape in Thailand, following a military coup that deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Planetarium (2018) is a short film about a cultish military regime run by a dolled-up matron dressed in regimental pink, who controls an army of cadets with a smartphone. The work formed one fourth of the 'Ten Years Thailand' anthology, an official selection at Cannes Film Festival in 2018, which also featured shorts by Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, and 2010 Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whom Siriphol cites as a key influence in showing him the possibilities of film.

'Ten Years Thailand' was based on the 2015 dystopian science fiction anthology 'Ten Years', which imagined life in Hong Kong in 2025 (and whose ban in China must extend into the city by now). 'Acquiescence and hopelessness prevails' in 'Ten Years Thailand', writes Maggie Lee in Variety, 'exacerbated by an undercurrent of distrust and hostility.'[2]

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Planetarium (2018) (still). Courtesy the artist.

Motifs in Planetarium link to other Siriphol works. The snail gel that splashes across the faces of the regime is featured in Golden Spiral (2018), which explores the deeper desires behind an anti-aging beauty craze. The planking figures diverging from a public standing to attention first appeared in Planking (2012), a reference to a memetic social media craze in which people basically mimic a plank of wood, with Siriphol and a friend laying prone as the national anthem plays in different public settings.

Pyramids made from light tubes are central to Myth of Modernity (2014), a mockumentary connecting the Buddhist 'three worlds' cosmology that centres around Mount Meru, whose form appears in conical and pyramidal shapes in ancient and modern Thai architecture, with the contemporary Thai politics. What connects all these works is an interrogation of ideological and political doctrines in order to unmask their dangerous absurdities.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Golden Spiral (2018). Video installation. Sound, colour. 18 min. Courtesy the artist and Ghost Foundation. Photo: Miti Ruangkritya.

Siriphol's latest exhibition at Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Give Us A Little More Time (21 June–9 August 2020), was selected for the Discoveries sector at the cancelled 2020 Art Basel in Hong Kong. Four video screens dramatically installed like a giant scroll that rolls down the gallery's back wall and onto the floor host an intricate web of images: collages the artist created out of Thai newspaper clippings every day since the May 2014 coup, when the military junta seized power (again).

The artist describes Give Us A Little More Time as a virtual war between military, protesters, artists, and cyber warriors—'a manifestation of disparate ontologies of media, and how the sense of the worlds is being made through different views.' In this conversation, he discusses the work's construction, connecting its themes with his broader practice.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (21 June–9 August 2020). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

SBGive Us A Little More Time at Bangkok CityCity Gallery centres around an animation built from collages you made daily between the first day of the 2014 military coup in Thailand until the announcement of national elections. How did this project start?

CSOn 22 May 2014, the Thai military took power from the elected government in order to 'solve' the problems and conflicts among Thai people, and started controlling media outlets, including television and newspapers.

As an artist, I thought about how I should respond to this unstable political situation. The day after the coup, I went to protest the military government. When I read the news on social media and in the papers the next day, I found that the newspapers didn't present the news as I experienced it. So I started to create a collage from newspapers in response to the situation and vowed to keep making these collages until national election day. For me, newspapers communicate information in the same top-down manner as the military. By using scissors to create the collages, I positioned myself as a citizen cutting the power of the military, just as the coup represents scissors for the military government.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time (2020). Four-channel animation video, sound, colour. 12 min. Edition of 3 + 1AP © 2020 Chulayarnnon Siriphol. Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

The title, Give Us A Little More Time, comes from the lyrics of the propaganda song that was created after the coup. The full lyrics are, 'We will keep our promise, give us a little more time', which relates to the military government's promise to restore happiness to the Thai people. Over the years, I have learned that the military government is very powerful, and the power of the people is minimal. Elections were announced every year, but that day was always postponed, until 24 March 2019, when there was finally a national election. In total, I created 1,768 collages, representing 1,768 days—almost five years—when Thailand was under a military government. Sadly, the election was neither free nor fair, and the military government won.

SBWhat informed the composition of the animation, both in terms of its narrative and its form as a four-screen 'scroll'?

CSNowadays, communication has shifted from print to digital media, and physical presence is not really necessary anymore. It's not only newspapers or magazines that have shifted to digital, but people, too. From the tracking of people's activity on social media and the use of popular hashtags to mobilise political change, digital media is the new battlefield of information between governments, corporations, and people. But how should people respond to the control of this information?

In response to these shifts in the world of communication, I decided to transfer my collages into the digital format. I selected some from my archive of 1,768 collages and re-collaged them as animations, which gave them a new spirit.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (21 June–9 August 2020). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

In the exhibition space, this animation is presented as a four-channel video installation with eight speakers. Each screen shows the same animation, but delayed by five seconds. Audiences can see the past, present, and future at the same time, as if we are in an echo chamber or scrolling through social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, where there is a repetition of information. Audiences can walk through the installation, so that it feels as if the information is floating in space, overwhelming them like the dust of a great war. The experience of video art in the physical exhibition space is still important, because we cannot appreciate this experience online.

The last part of the animation is a virtual time tunnel, which was created through repetition of the animation itself. The work refers to my previous video series, 'Black Hole' (2015), which consisted of a site-specific video installation presented in many places, including Chulalongkorn University, for the exhibition Through the Place and Image (17 August–10 October 2015), and at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre for the 20th Thai Short Film and Video Festival in 2016. In those videos, which were made specifically for those locations, I created fictional spaces resembling endless holes.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, 'Black Hole' (2015). Courtesy the artist.

SBThere is also a text-based element to the animation; a poem presented in the exhibition leaflet. Could you talk about that?

CSAfter I finished all 1,768 collages, I looked for certain words and sentences in them and created a poem. The poem presents a narrative that is not directly related to the political situation in those five years, but relates to a pixel that can transform into many characters that fight each other in an ongoing war of media and time. These characters are based on people in the physical world: a 'war veteran', 'proliferating reptile', 'scum-of-the-land artist', 'cyber warrior', and 'idol of light'. The 'proliferating reptile' is a political prisoner whose political ideologies can expand rapidly without control.

For the animation, I invited actors and actresses who have worked with me in previous video works and short films to create the voice-overs for each of these characters, and the text from the newspaper collages are synchronised with the voice-overs in the animation.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (21 June–9 August 2020). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

SBLike the poem, the sound composition for Give Us A Little More Time is sutra-esque. Could you talk through the aural layers in your films? The soundtracks seem just as important as the visuals, from the sound of electric static in space in Myth of Modernity, or the music in Planetarium and Paradise.

CSI am interested in religious or ritualistic sounds that can elevate viewers to a feeling of sublimation, as if they are floating in space. The sound elements in many of my works create a spiritual sound, like chanting. I don't use human voices. For Planetarium, I worked with sound designer Viveka, to refer to futuristic electronic sounds of the 1980s. For Give Us A Little More Time, I worked with another sound designer, Marmosets, who creates electronic music for night clubs. These sound designs make connections between the past and future, and human and universal spirit.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (21 June–9 August 2020). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

SBAcross your works, there are strong visual connections, like the LED light pyramids in Myth of Modernity, or the LED windmill installed on the gallery's façade that appears in Planetarium. Could you talk about these?

CSElectricity is a symbol of modernisation. On the other hand, light is a symbol of enlightenment or faith in many religions, including Buddhism. Nowadays, most Thai people are still influenced by Buddhism. For me, Buddhism in Thailand has changed and adapted to fit modernisation and globalisation, so I use electric light to symbolise modern Buddhism.

In my works this light takes a geometric, graphic form. In Myth of Modernity, for example, I transformed traditional forms from Buddhism such as the pagoda, palace, and temple, into a simple, pyramid shape. In Planetarium, I transformed many Buddhist symbols into graphic windmills to create a scientific universe based on ancient Buddhist cosmology.

I am interested in religious or ritualistic sounds that can elevate viewers to a feeling of sublimation, as if they are floating in space.

In Give Us A Little More Time, the 'idol of light' character is represented as a cult figure in Thailand. On the façade of Bangkok CityCity Gallery, I placed a huge windmill from Planetarium, which appears like a huge clock expressing endless time. It has the spiritual power of a big brother figure, floating in space, making an offer that we can't refuse.

These light sculptures create a visual connection between my works, representing cults, supernaturalism, and Buddhist faith in modern Thai society, which holds an invisible and untouchable power. Although it looks colourful, energetic, and fascinating, it is also powerful, harmful, and dangerous. Faith can transform to rancour. In Planetarium, the colourful windmill transforms into a killing machine that cuts humans into pieces.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Planetarium (2018) (still). Courtesy the artist.

SBYes, the windmill in Planetarium basically turns into a human meat grinder! Thinking about your critique of modernity and contemporary Buddhism in Thai society, could you elaborate on how Give Us A Little More Time connects with themes in your previous works about 'paradise' being a 'total' or 'totalitarian' construction?

CSI don't define myself as an activist artist, but as an artist who focuses on politics. For me, art should be presented in public, to enable debate of contemporary issues. Give Us A Little More Time confronts the idea of a utopian democracy. In the digital collage that I put forward, physical media, absolute power, and the physical body have been cut, deconstructed, and decentralised.

I see the political conflict in Thailand as a battle for absolute and centralised power. We had a big debate about democracy for 88 years until the revolution in 1932, when Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Since then, we have had many political crises, protests, and movements against dictatorships. Many people have died fighting for democracy, yet it has not yet been fully achieved. The coup d'état on 22 May 2014 marked the 13th since the revolution in 1932, and once more, the voice of the people was silenced.

I don't define myself as an activist artist, but as an artist who focuses on politics.

Totalitarianism has been very present in this country. The military would like to shape Thailand as conservative and nationalist on every level, in order to maintain a concept of authentic 'Thai-ness'. This means that they want to freeze Thailand as a beautiful, peaceful country as pictured in tourist postcards, where there is no conflict, debates, protests, or progress. We have limited freedom of speech under the lèse-majesté law, with nation, religion, and the monarchy the core values that are being preserved. In the age of the internet, young people represent a new hope to liberate the country from these conditions.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Give Us A Little More Time, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (21 June–9 August 2020). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

SBWhile your works refer specifically to Thailand, they also speak to general currents in the world in terms of information overload, propaganda, questions of history and democracy and what it means to be free. Planetarium perhaps draws the most direct global link, forming part of a series referring to an anthology of films about Hong Kong.

Could you talk about how your works speak to a wider discourse around politics in a world?

CSAlthough my artworks are related to Thailand, the world is now so connected. We cannot say that Thailand is not related to other countries. In my artworks, I talk about conflicts in Thailand, but I also generalise those conflicts for international audiences in order to find the connection between the local and the global.

In Planetarium, I present a dystopic vision of Thailand in the next ten years, but to some maybe it looks like a utopia. The story is set in a school under the Ministry of Communication, where boys are trained to be cyber boy scouts or cyber warriors, and can legally kidnap people who have a radical political attitude. Those who are kidnapped are brainwashed and killed in the virtual universe, and the boy scouts are blessed as good guys despite these killings.

In my artworks, I talk about conflicts in Thailand, but I also generalise those conflicts for international audiences in order to find the connection...

The story of Planetarium can apply to the current and future Thai political situation, yet it can also apply to international themes of propaganda, digital surveillance, and brainwashing through education, revisionist histories, and belief in supernaturalism. We can see these themes in the politics of many countries. Recently, we have seen a movement of shared politics called the Milk Tea Alliance between China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand, expressed through sarcastic memes that speak against authoritarianism on social media.

But in my works, I don't talk about politics in these specific countries directly; I use the political situation in Thailand as a platform to connect with international audiences on these common themes.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Planetarium (2018) (still). Courtesy the artist.

SBIn thinking about connecting the local and the global, I wonder if you could talk about Centre of the Universe (2017), a restaging of Charles and Ray Eames' Power of Ten. What drew you to remaking this piece, and how does it reflect on your relationship with the history of moving images more generally, thinking about the influence of filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul on your practice?

CSCentre of the Universe is a video work projected on the floor, which starts by showing Thai people wearing yellow shirts, picnicking and waiting to worship and celebrate on the King's birthday in the centre of Bangkok. The image moves upward, from the ground to the universe, which transforms into an image of modern Buddhist cosmology.

Charles and Ray Eames' Power of Ten shows that we occupy a very small place in the universe, but at the same time, we are the universe. The film reflects on the relationship between human life and cosmology. Centre of the Universe is not only about cosmology, but the relationship between contemporary life and ancient Buddhist beliefs. This is the link between local and global. We are in the same universe, but we share different visions.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Centre of the Universe (2017) (still). Courtesy the artist.

One of the biggest problems for me is how international audiences can appreciate my works. Looking back at the history of moving images, there are many filmmakers and artists whose work I admire. When I was in high school, I was inspired by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's early works. His films are very mysterious, sarcastic, and romantic at the same time. I also like the film Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar. Shūji Terayama's film, Pastoral: To Die in the Country, and Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain still inspire me. These are all artists and filmmakers who have created unique visual languages and ideas on an international platform.

I like many of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films and video works—they are pioneering of a new film language. Weerasethakul was already a successful artist and filmmaker when I started making films in early the 2000s. Though his films are not popular among the masses, they are famous among film students and film lovers.

This is the link between local and global. We are in the same universe, but we share different visions.

The success of Thai independent filmmakers internationally inspired many groups and movements to produce independent films, and I was one of them. Through analysing their films, I learn how to transform local content into global content through film language. A curator has said that we, as young independent filmmakers, originated in the post-Weerasethakul age, which I agree with, though I have different experiences and come from a different background. I can learn from successful filmmakers, but I also have to create a new film language of my own to talk with international audiences.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Myth of Modernity_ (2014) (still). Courtesy the artist.

SBThere is this blending of truth and fiction in your films—a kind of mythologising of daily life. Given your portrait of the 'big data of traditional propaganda' in Give Us A Little More Time, perhaps this mythologising is closer to reality. Do you see your films as works of realism in that sense?

CSIn the world of moving images, there are many different forms, including fiction, documentary, experimental, animation, advertisement, and music video; materials, including celluloid film, magnetic tape, and digital; and genres, such as romantic, drama, comedy, and thriller. Recently, moving images have expanded to social media. We can see people broadcasting themselves or creating their own content. In recent years, we have also seen virtual and augmented reality.

Moving images are slowly expanding their boundaries; they are present in our daily lives, providing new tools of expression and constructing new realities and languages. In many of my works, I mix different forms and materials to represent this reality, and to show the illusion of moving images at the same time.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Myth of Modernity (2014) (still). Courtesy the artist.

When I learned about history in school, I believed it constituted historical facts. Growing up, however, I developed questions on how history is established. I tried to get more information from underground books, through talking with friends, and reading shared comments on the internet. I found out that the history I learned is only one side of history, or so-called propaganda.

In the age of the internet, information has been cracked down on but hidden histories have also been revealed. As an artist, I feel a duty to express personal feelings and opinions on public issues through my works. For example, Myth of Modernity questions the contemporary political ideology of conservative nationalists and Buddhist fundamentalism through the form of documentary and science fiction.

Moving images are slowly expanding their boundaries; they are present in our daily lives, providing new tools of expression and constructing new realities and languages.

In Give Us A Little More Time, I deconstruct traditional media in the age of the internet, and in particular during a time of totalitarian power. Since I cannot present my political ideology directly in the work, due to law and censorship, I have to find ways to express my opinion, and one tool that I always use is parody, which blends truth and fiction together to go beyond censorship. I can hide what I really think behind laughter or colourful visuals. In that sense, many parts of my works are realist, but also uncanny and absurd. Magical realism may be a good term to define the works in this contemporary political situation.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Planetarium (2018) (still). Courtesy the artist.

SBWith magical realism in mind, there is a connection between your early student film Golden Sand House, in which your family's obsession with a soap opera affects their perception of reality, with later feature films like Forget Me Not (2018), inspired by the Thai novel by Sri Burapha, Behind the Painting (1937).

CSTV soap operas are part of Thai popular culture. Sometimes, the characteristics of soap operas come out in real life, and we cannot define the boundary between reality and fiction. In 2005, I asked my family to perform each one of the characters in the famous Thai novel and soap opera, Golden Sand House. I also performed as one of the characters.

Golden Sand House is a novel by Ko Surangkhanang about a new maid who starts working for an elite family. The maid is pressured to work too hard but surprisingly, at the end, she falls in love with the house's owner. I adapted this novel so that every member of my family performed each character, and the maid was performed by my family's maid, who belongs to the Tai Yai ethnic group, from Myanmar. The house's owner was played by my father, and I performed a handicapped boy in a wheelchair. This short film reflects on social classes and the migration of people around Thailand, who transform themselves to be workers in the big city.

Since I cannot present my political ideology directly in the work, due to law and censorship, I have to find ways to express my opinion

Thirteen years later, in 2018, I adapted another novel: a famous tragic love story called Behind the Painting, about a young Thai student, Nopphon, who studies in Japan and encounters an elite Thai lady called Kirati, who is already married to an old man. Their love cannot be realised because of age, class, and political ideology, and Kirati finally dies because her love for Nopphon cannot come true. The novel was written by Sri Burapha in 1937, before World War II and five years after Thailand had changed from an absolute to constitutional monarchy. In Thailand, the novel is represented as a tragic love story, but I wanted to re-present it in the context of political history.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Forget Me Not film poster (2017). Watercolour on paper. 111 x 76 cm. Courtesy the artist.

I started remaking Behind the Painting as a film at Aomori Contemporary Art Center in Japan in 2014 as part of the group exhibition, Politics of Humor and Play, where I completed the first half of the novel. Then, in 2015, I completed the second half of the novel in Thailand and presented the two parts as a solo exhibition, Behind the Painting at Silpakorn University in Bangkok.

In 2017, I created a fictional museum at Bangkok CityCity Gallery for the show Museum of Kirati. This 'museum' was founded by Nopphon in honour of Kirati. Although this exhibition was created by me, it appeared as a real museum, composed of a temporary exhibition, permanent collection, museum shop, and library. On the last day of the exhibition, I screened the feature film Forget Me Not, composed of a remake of Behind the Painting, based on the original novel and set in Japan and Thailand in the first half, with an extension of the original story in the second half. This film explored the blurred boundary between visual art and film.

Exhibition view: Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Museum of Kirati, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok (11 November 2017–21 January 2018). Courtesy the artist and Bangkok CityCity Gallery.

SBCould you expand on the way you navigate that space between art and film in your practice?

CSFor me, visual art is experienced in physical space, whereas film is a time-based experience presented on screen. In Forget Me Not, I used my solo exhibitions at Silpakorn University and Bangkok CityCity Gallery as the locations in the film, to create an expanded cinema where film and physical space are connected with the audience and other art objects.

My physical artworks can be transformed into films, while the physical space can be transformed into time-based space, film, or another physical space, as was the case with the gallery-turned-fictional museum. The physical space can also be transformed into digital space. Moreover, thinking about my body as a container or a kind of hardware, it can also be transformed into a fictional character. The performer in this sense is a kind of worker who transforms invisible energy into a visible artwork.—[O]

[1] Kong Rithdee, 'The (sur)real world', Bangkok Post, 11 March 2015, https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/493988/the-sur-real-world.

[2] Maggie Lee, 'Film Review: "Ten Years Thailand"', Variety, 17 May 2018 https://variety.com/2018/film/asia/ten-years-thailand-review-1202807160/.

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