WHAT IS THE VALUE OF CULTURAL EXCHANGE?

LINKED AND OVERLAPPING EXHIBITIONS AT THE NATALIE AND JAMES THOMPSON GALLERY AND AT WORKS, SAN JOSE

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Sittichai Prachayaratikun and Tongchai Srisukprasert have been given ridiculously short visas in the USA. With the help of a cadre of students, faculty and technical assistants, they are working against time to produce a complex installation in the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery at San Jose State University. Their two works merge in the space – Sittichai’s work uses two vertical walls that connect at a corner and Thongchai is creating a horizontal cross that connects to each of the four walls slightly above the mid-point. Both works refer to death in some way. The entire installation is overwhelmingling red, as is the ceiling of the Buddhist Temple, and which forthe Thais is the color of death. The concepts are, for both artists, responsive to concerns for “world environment”, yet iconographically very personal, and an extension of previous work done in Thailand and elsewhere.

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Sittichai and Tony May confer during installation activity.

For Sittichai Prachyaratikun, the concepts of Buddhism that permeate Thai culture from top to bottom are a source of continuous questions and fascination. Although he professes to be less than devout, Sittichai’s work still asks questions such as “What is it like to be in the head of an angel?” and probes the implications of femininity that are associated with the angelic. He refers frequently to the invisible, the infinite, and the unknowable. Repeating a context that he has used in his two most recent installations, the walls behind his installation are solid red. Against the left hand wall is the black silhouette of the head of an enormous Thai angel. She appears to be hovering protectively over the scene of the gallery. On the right hand wall, on floor-to-ceiling shelves, are slabs of wax in varying natural shades of gold – an enduring material from the organic processes of earthly creatures. Each unit that leans against the wall has a small portal in the center that is in the simple shape of a house – a welcoming passage for a spirit in transit from finite life to the infinite universe.

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Thongchai pauses in the flurry of activity in the Thompson Gallery.

Folk art and the customs of Northern Thailand around Chieng Mai inform the work of Thongchai Srisukprasert. Northern Thailand is the source of the finest Thai silk and sophisticated weaving of exquisite fabrics. When an individual suffers a tragic or violent death, it is customary to offer the family a piece of red string to protect them from evil spirits and further suffering. Thongchai looks, as well, at the world wide presence of the Red Cross organization and symbolically extends a red cross out infinitely in four horizontal directions over the suffering earth. Four mirrors are placed against the four walls. The continuous red string is stretched and wound around closely positioned hooks on the frame of each mirror from one side of the room to the other until a transparent three-dimensional red cross is formed. The reflections of the strings in the mirrors stretch out beyond the walls forever. Visitors to the gallery must duck below the arms of the cross to access the four quadrants of the gallery, and stretch upward to see the cross disappearing into the distant space created in the mirrors.

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The final installation by Sittichai Pratchayaratikun and Thongchai Srisukprasert of Silpakorn University, in the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery at San Jose State University

In the meantime, at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Sone Simitrang and Surasak Rodproabun are also working on an exhibition that brings the contemporary art and artists of Thailand to California. Again, in their individual artistic language they address the broad question of “world environment”. Before they depart, the Thai artists address their host schools to talk about their art and answer questions in English and Thai that sometimes needs translation.

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Sone Simitrang’s installation Tsunami 1 at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo

How did these events transpire? Earlier, in August of 2007, this writer along with a group of eight more artist/professors from San Jose State, Loyola Marymount University and Cuesta College in Los Angeles traveled to Thailand in August of 2007 for the first time. David Middlebrook, Tony May and I are from San Jose State. Being in the company of Cal Poly faculty – George Jercich and Michael Miller – who have participated in this cultural exchange previously offered only some very small buffer against the surprises and challenges awaiting us.

Ostensibly, our assignment was to create art on-site at Silpakorn University for an exhibition to be entitled “Artists and World Environment”. We have brought some tools and materials, and artworks already in varying states of completion. Some of the artists struggle to get their art to conform to the theme. Some of us find that our work fits the theme without adjustment. Others appear to ignore the assigned theme and do what they do as artists anyway, perhaps because participating in a group show is routine for most of these seasoned artists. Artists are pretty liberal in their politics. As much as we enjoy artful poking at human indifference, foolishness, and the corporate interests that are eroding our world environment, our theme seems really to serve the need to begin where artists have common ground. We first-timers to this exchange did not realize it at the beginning, but all this is only nominally about the art and the exhibition. What it really is about is still distilling in our minds months later.

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A tuk-tuk, open-air taxi, gets a citation in front of Silpakorn University

Cultural exchange probably goes somewhat hand in hand with culture shock when anyone from California first sets foot in Southeast Asia. For the Thais coming to the USA, it must be the same in reverse. Our mission to share ways of making and looking at art takes a back seat for a couple of days. Jet lag and language differences are just the start. A visitor to Thailand is struck immediately by the ubiquitous, richly-adorned and colorful temples, their abundance of gold and high-relief tiles, their particular architecture. The lights, the signage and elaborate archways on major thoroughfares, the giant photographs of the King and Queen in baroque frames! How gray and bland cities of the United States must seem to the Thais. In Bangkok, we soon encounter the challenge and fun of navigating through the subtleties of a taxi and tuk-tuk culture and the literal navigation of a river and canal system. For Thais in the USA, especially in California, our dependence on the private car must be stunning. The hot humidity of the tropics is an adjustment for us, as is the chill of Fall for the Thai artists in the United States.

For Californians in Bangkok, the contrasts accumulate, and many of our observations have profound implications. For the first time in my life I see a wealthy Muslim man traveling with an entourage of women, covered, but with beautifully flowing black garments that are embroidered in gold and faux jewels. He is wearing the traditional white robes. Later, I read about Islamic fundamentalism in southern Thailand, and violent incidents in the schools. As we prepare to move on in Southeast Asia, after the workshop, our travel agent subtly advises us against travel in Malaysia and Singapore.

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George Jercich, our guide and advisor (far right), takes us on a river boat trip on a long-tail boat. David Middlebrook, Tony May and Erin Goodwin-Guerrero are seen l-r.

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Our transportation, the ubiquitous “long tail” boat, navigates the rivers and canals.

Cal Poly’s George Jercich, our informal guide, shares his wealth of knowledge on Thailand and the Buddhist culture accumulated through twelve years of the exchange program. This beneficent King is beloved by the Thai people. Politeness is paramount in Thailand. Public displays of affection are avoided. We learn that the human head and the feet have special status drawing from Buddhism, and there are ritual taboos and pitfalls therein for the casual Californian. Not unlike the Renaissance churches of Italy and Spain, some temples deny entry to tourists showing too much flesh. One kneels facing the Buddha. It is disrespectful to turn up the bottom of your feet toward the Buddha.

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The Green Buddha in Chieng Mai, in Northern Thailand

Tony May has begun a novel – Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett – that takes place in notorious Pat Phong, the red light district of Bangkok, but he cannot finish it. He loans it to me. I greedily devour it and move on to Off the Rails in Phnom Penh by Amit Gilboa. I am left with a startling impression of and fascination with the contrasts that encompass devout and mystical Buddhism and wild sexual liberty in one culture. I realize that we too, in the United States have this strange conflict between Puritanical and fundamentalist resistance to sexuality and our youthful displays of flesh, explicit sexuality in literature and film, and the growing porn world of the internet.

At Silpakorn University, our group of three women and five men meets the all male faculty group that is our counterpart in the exchange. Later, we learn that even as our faculty fails to represent the proportion of women, Asians and Latinos that we see among our students, the Thais are aware of a growing number of women as art students that are not part of the teaching ranks.

At our first meeting, we learn the details of where we will work, what our itinerary will be. They photograph us outdoors in the patio for a large poster that will be printed later. The Thais begin to give us copious catalogs of previous exchanges and catalogs of their own recent exhibitions – all very beautifully designed and printed on high quality paper and with excellent color photography. We shudder at the financial impossibility of affording similar documentation of our own work in the USA. We wonder how we will match the Thai hospitality that has put us up for three weeks in a nice hotel. They are buying us materials for our studio work. We worry because the California State University system has not yet endorsed this level of investment in the program.

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Thavorn Ko-Udomvit (center) hosts an elegant buffet in the patio of his contemporary Bangkok gallery. L -R are Thongchai Srisukprasert, George Jercich, Kung, Thavorn Ko-Udomvit, Micheal Miller, Sittichai Pratchayaratikun, and Tim Anderson.

With so much to ponder, we attempt to focus on our loosely defined challenge in the only way we can have any impact – by making new friends and producing some art that merits exhibition and discussion. We all take our art seriously. Still, at this critical point in history and with the sense of urgency I feel, I wonder about the effectiveness of art. Its significance in the world wide controversy over global warming and waste of the earth’s resources seems marginal in my mind.

For many participants in the exchange program between Silpakorn University, in Thailand and the California schools – Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, San Jose State University, Loyola Marymount University and Cuesta College – some sort of a cultural exchange between artists in not a new experience. Commonly, two groups of artists from two countries trade exhibitions allowing both groups the opportunity to see their work exhibited internationally. Usually there is a theme or media that unites the exhibition. If the artists have the resources, they travel to the other country, attend the opening of the show, and make some new friends in the international art scene and further their careers a bit. It can be a pretty self-serving approach, but with a good independent curator, the public gets to see something new on their home turf. It can be a great way to show that local artists are every bit as sophisticated as the artists in another far-flung exotic venue, since it’s always a struggle for artists to be “prophets in their own land”.

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Tim Anderson draws on the wall at Silpakorn

The Silpakorn-USA artists’ exchange has added any number of twists to this experience of cultural exchange. With groups of artists serving as ambassadors-in-residence for varying periods of time, working on-site to produce the art, in the company of resident artists from the host university faculty, the intensity of the interpersonal exchange is much greater, indeed. Student assistants have the experience of making international friends in the art world, as do the faculty. Artists from two universities such as Silpakorn and Cal Poly, who have extended this exchange for several years, form bonds of friendship that allow cross cultural understanding to go well beyond a superficial impression of cultural differences.

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Thavorn prepares his photographic installation in the Silpakorn galleries.

Professor Michael Miller of Cal Poly says: “Cal Poly has a twelve-year history of academic exchange and ten-year history of exhibition exchange with Silpakorn University. Over the last ten years, we have participated in eight exhibitions and hosted seven cultural exchange exhibitions with Silpakorn University. Since each participant is both an accomplished artist and committed educator, the exchange projects have produced several engaging lectures. The lectures allow a forum for direct address between the artists and the public. This has given art viewers a sense of accessibility and intimacy with the theory and practice of artists on both sides of the Pacific. As teachers, we believe in the fundamental role of diversity in the educational experience to broaden understanding and create new pathways in understanding art. Through exchange the visual arts provide an arena for understanding cultural difference.” Miller is so right! The understanding of cultural difference proves to be a much more rewarding and significant experience and than discovery of common ground.

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Michael Miller at work in the Silpakorn galleries

George Jercich tells some of the history of the exchange program. “I have my own history with Thailand dating back to 1977. At that time a student named Anusak (Art) Arthakhan left my classes at Cal Poly and returned to his native land near Ayuthaya, Thailand. He impressed me with his unique insights, humor and artistic talent. Over the years, Anusak and I both married our school sweethearts, and shared the joys of having raised two lovely daughters and seeing them through their college years. Anusak and I have remained friends for most of our adult lives and have shared our interests in artistic creativity over that time.”

“Artistically, we are both primarily sculptors. My original opportunity to meet with Art again (in person) presented itself, when I volunteered to travel to Thailand as part of a scouting group of Cal Poly Faculty. Our mission in 1995 was to seek out a school in Southeast Asia to act as a service provide for classrooms and logistical support. Silpakorn University was targeted. The intent was to bring American students to South East Asia to live and study there in order to help familiarize those in the USA with the diverse cultures of the Southeast Asian diaspora. Thailand also seemed a good buy for students when Thai Baht was compared to the US dollar.”

“As it turns out, Silpakorn University was the premier Fine Arts Institution of Thailand, originated by Corrado Ferroci (an Italian Sculptor who arrived in Thailand in 1934) who westernized the Thai’s approach to visual art. Thai Buddhist Art was primarily monastic in origin and teaching, deriving its stylistic trends from India, China, and other countries bordering Siam. Silpakorn University, at in the latter end of the 20th Century, produced a plethora of artist practitioners who became painters, sculptors, teachers and scholars. The Thai professors I met in 1995 at Silpakorn University seemed most interested in me for some reason. Of all the faculty that came from Cal Poly, as I was the only art faculty member attending from the USA. Also, by coincidence or destiny, I look a little like a reincarnation of Corrado Ferroci (this is an observation not made solely by me, but by some of my Thai friends, as well).”

“Overall, my experience has brought me to Thailand eight times in the past twelve years. The American/Thai art exchanges of faculty from California and the cross pollination of artworks from the ensuing workshops have been enlightening from both Asian and American perspectives. My current goal is to help foster a larger community of artists from around the USA, to participate in exchanges with Thai artists. Globally, it is Thailand’s turn to be recognized for the interest and enthusiasm that they demonstrate for visual art. It is one of their most cherished cultural resources.”

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The Thais arrive in Los Angeles to complete the exchange: L-R, Sittichai Pratcharatikun, Sone Smitrang, Maggie Tennesen, Kung, Tony May, Thongchai Srisukprasert, Surosak Rodproabun

As we move toward a comprehensive exhibition of the entire exchange, scheduled for Works Gallery in San Jose, there are practical challenges for presenting a show that is so diverse, and not officially sponsored (with funds) by any of the host schools. Likewise, there are diplomatic issues to be considered. Works wants the exhibition to be a vehicle for outreach to the Thai and/or Southeast Asian community.

Joe Miller has designed an invitation that features a profoundly male three-headed elephant charging past a miniscule Mickey Mouse. Immediately, flags go up. How will this be received in the Thai community? George Jercich fills in my scant knowledge of the sacred elephant. In general, the elephant as a sacred symbol draws from the Hindu traditions of India (as does so much of Buddhism), and refers to Ganesh (or Ganesha), a warrior prince, who lost his head as a young man. When his head was replaced by that of a baby elephant, he grew up into a great invincible fighter. The white elephant is associated with the King of Thailand. The three-headed elephant was a great teacher and fighter named Airavata or Erawan in Thai. He worships the lingam. Sometimes shown with as many as 33 heads, he is the most powerful of the elephants supporting warrior deities at the eight cardinal points of the compass. One of his many names means, “One who knits or binds the clouds”, as he is reputed to have the power to reach into the heavens and draw down water to spew as rain.

I am aware that the image of the Buddha is so sacred that tourists are forbidden to export his image, precisely to prevent its use as a decorative pattern on wallpaper or as any sort of promotional logo. Is the elephant symbol the same? Still, I take the position that it is the common pursuit of artists in the West to irreverently appropriate and deconstruct the signs and symbols of religions, government and any kind of oppressive entity of power such as the military or the G-8. We should celebrate the freedom of speech that allows Joe Miller to look at the exchange through the lens of cultural symbols, trading the companion mouse, commonly seen at the feet of Erawan, for Mickey Mouse. Is such deconstruction an insult? Will devout Buddhists be offended? A flurry of emails ensues between several California artists, Thai artists and the designer. Many new possible interpretations or subtle variations of the original are disclosed.

Further conversation with George Jercich, brings him to reflect on the great variety of personalities he has met in the course of the exchange program, some of whom are devout and some of whom live a very secular life, while still professing great faith in the wisdom of the Buddha. He reminds me that the musical, “The King and I”, is banned in Thailand. The life and good works of the King are not appropriate subjects for film and Western amusement. One of the senior artists in the exchange has suggested to Jercich that the problems of Islam stem from their lack of guidance by a wise king. As usual, Jercich puts everything in perspective and leaves a clear implication of the diplomatic direction to go. Joe Miller makes a small concession by obscuring the male organ of the elephant in shadow. Yet the card design stands.

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The elephants of Chieng Mai learn to paint – portraiture, flowers, and the erotic!

Tony May and I begin to plan the installation of the Works exhibition. There are so many diverse statements made by the art. Maggie Tenneson’s delicate geometric abstractions and Tim Anderson’s organically growing, suggestive, fantastic drawings will be shown with Komol Tassananchalee’s earthy symbolism and Sky Bergman’s photographs of the Tokyo subway. The styles are so different. Some of the art represents a great deal of time in its creation and a lifetime of development, artistically. Other works are like a sketch or an experiment, done under the strict constraints of time that a one to three-week long workshop allows. The definition of “world” ranges from the entire earth to the personal, local ,or mental worlds artists live in from day to day. It becomes clear to me that what ties this exhibition together more as anything else, is its history within the exchange program.

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Maggie Tennesen’s Twist of Fate

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From the series: The Japanese Subway by Sky Bergman

I think about how little recent attention I have paid attention to the Eastern religions that once fascinated me as an undergraduate. I reflect on the contrasts between a secular state such as the USA, and the relatively homogenous culture of Thailand, where there is basically one spiritual truth as opposed to many (the presence of Christians and Muslims in Thailand notwithstanding). These thoughts have implications in understanding the clashes we experience with Islamic states. Cultural difference occupies my mind much more than art.

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The contemporary skyline of Bangkok, Thailand, and the ruins of Angor Wat, Cambodia

After our stay in Bangkok, my husband and I went on to Chieng Mai, in Northern Thailand, then Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Riep in Cambodia. We met so many people that smiled and maintained an upbeat outlook even under stress – a national characteristic of the Thais. We saw so many beautiful handcrafts in Thailand and Laos, the stunning ruins of Angor Wat in Cambodia, gorgeous views of the mountains and the long, wide, navigable rivers from the air, and exotic plants and animals on the ground. We saw countless Buddhas, motorcycles and moto-taxis, and rapidly moving, industrious people. The signs of Westernization/globalization of Southeast Asia are everywhere. And I must conclude that coming to a greater understanding of the history, customs and cultures of Southeast Asia is an imperative in our course of globalization in the West.

Works Gallery <gallery@workssanjose.org>, SJSU galleries: <tbelcher@email.sjsu.edu>

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