- Queering Postnational Tendencies in Contemporary Art from Thailand
Any number of different approaches to Thailand as an object of study and general interest can be said to intersect at a recognition of the pre-eminence given to surface appeal within the range of Thai societies. Peter A. Jackson coined the epigrammatic term "regime of images" to discuss how appearances are widely monitored and policed within the country; among others, he quotes the earlier scholarly work of Rosalind Morris, who wrote of Thai modernity's "overinvestment in appearances" and Penny Van Esterik's claims for "The real is hidden and unchallenged. The surface is taken for real."1 To this we can add more recent references such as Koompong Noobanjong's The Aesthetics of Power: Architecture, Modernity, and Identity from Siam to Thailand and Philip Cornwel-Smith's Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.2 Koompong traced the way in which historical meanings of Thailand's major architecture have been inscribed and re-inscribed by successive administrations and military juntas as a means of avowing authority rather than the coherence of political ideologies these forms would otherwise serve. Philip Cornwel-Smith's populist account of Thailand's famed capacity to appropriate and hybridise influences—across the range of visual and material culture—perceives the [End Page 131] resulting patina as indicative of a distinct cultural essence. Here we can also acknowledge Maurizio Peleggi's noting that the Thai tourism industry, that has grown exponentially since the 1990s, flattens real aspects of a country into instantly recognisable images; in the example of Thailand, the particularly compelling visual qualities of the gilded and the exquisite are common.3 And the writer Lawrence Osborne observed: "It is constantly remarked that the Thais are rather formal and proper in their day-to-day lives (…) but it could be said that it is this very surface reticence which frees the deeper, more private self (…)."4
How might this recognition of the pervasiveness of intensely visual experience be explained for Thailand? Jackson traces the centrality of aesthetics to historical practices within Buddhism and animist beliefs, and forms of power that emerged with the local expediency of projecting "civilised" images to the world during the colonial era.5 As is so often reiterated, Siam shook but officially remained free of the imperial hands of Britain and France. The characterisation of the "regime of images" as a significant form of Thai power finds succinct reflection in, for example, Benedict Anderson's observation that contemporary political turmoil in the country caused the Thai Royal Court to create "[a] media campaign that would have made Kim II Sung blanch".6 Lawrence Chua has written of the historic relationship between the appeal of ethereal aesthetics and fascism in Siam/Thailand, exploring a cultural exaltation of the "spiritual" and "beauty" as rooted in the earlier popularity of Mussolini's ideas among political elites here.7 Here we could recall how Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag shaped the pleasures of surface effects as disarming and depoliticising.8 However, and furthermore, the gendered qualities of aesthetics as a means of representational stereotypes and social regulation have been highlighted by Rachel V. Harrison's studies of Thai literatures.9
From the social impact of historical contingencies to political and also market economies, the wide reach and very mobility of a valorisation of image-appearances in Thailand is demonstrated by this survey of writings. In summary, we can note a determined move from material to immaterial. That is, perceptual engagement or recognition is powerfully instrumental for trumping structural understanding, whether to do with an abstracted palliative to material conditions or questions of the politics of forms (Koompong, Peleggi), the potential incoherence of diversity and contradictions (Cornwel-Smith) or the repressions surely entailed by public uniformity and conformity (Osborne). With this in mind, I want to ask: what role do, or can, contemporary Thai visual artists play in this pervasive culture of image-appearances that is so socially instrumental? [End Page 132]
At the time of writing this article in 2016, Thailand was under military rule since General Prayuth Chan-o-cha seized power in 2014 and appointed himself de facto leader...