Maybe it’s the ‘emotional truth’ that I try to understand and communicate. Colour does this effectively.
Siam became Thailand in 1939 following a bloodless revolution seven years earlier, which had seen the overthrow of the absolute monarchy established by King Chulalongkorn. Since then, Thailand’s history has been turbulent, swinging back and forth between parliamentary democracy and military rule. The current century has seen a series of bitter political conflicts between the Red Shirts (supporters of the billionaire former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra) and the Yellow Shirts (a citizens’ movement that accuse him of corruption and abuse of power). Thaksin Shinawatra, whose economic reforms were overshadowed by fierce accusations of brutality and corruption, was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and his party outlawed. He went into exile, but continued to influence Thai politics through his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was Prime Minister from 2011 until a further coup in 2014. While a nominally democratic government was elected in 2019, pro-democracy protests began again a year later, demanding changes to the constitution and a reform of the Thai monarchy.
It is against this turbulent socio-political canvas that Manit Sriwanichpoom creates his distinctive work. One of Southeast Asia’s leading artists, he defines himself as an activist who uses photography as a direct response to events as they unfold. A former photojournalist, his practice since the late 1990s has developed around a series of often scathing satirical tableaux and interventions made on news images depicting violent events the authorities would rather see forgotten.
In 2006, he and his wife, the activist filmmaker Ing Kanjanavanit, opened a photo gallery in Bangkok, which they called Kathmandu in memory of a small photo gallery Ing had seen in the Nepalese capital in the 1980s. From this modest base, they pursue a progressive approach to the medium showing work that explores what remain sensitive subjects in Thailand: political dissent, sexuality, religion, and the monarchy. In addition, their visual history projects seek to open up a dialogue challenging the bias towards Europe and North America in western versions of photographic history. For many years, Kathmandu remained Thailand’s only gallery dedicated to photography.
Of all his oeuvre, it is an ongoing series of performative works that have ensured Manit Sriwanichpoom’s international reputation in both the worlds of photography and of fine art. Its principle character is a middle-aged man in a garish suit who pushes an equally garish shopping trolley. Like some bizarre supermarket superhero, he is known simply as Pink Man. And it is with him that we begin this conversation…
How did the concept for Pink Man first arise?
It was two months before the 1997 economic crisis, when I first experienced a hypermarket. I was so overwhelmed, I got lost. I looked at the people piling things into their carts – enough to feed them for what seemed like years – and I thought: “This is our future?” It was scary. So, I decided to create something that reflected those feelings.
Is consumerism a new phenomenon in Thailand?
In 1961, the Thai government launched the first Social and Economic Development Plan that set Thailand on the path of industrialisation, a path pursued by successive governments. In the 1980s, the western powers forced Thailand to relax its regulations on foreign trade and investments. Since then, the Thai way of life and values have become increasingly materialistic – a new normal accepted without question. It is this phenomenon that inspired the creation of Pink Man who was born to ridicule and provoke our consumerist society.
Why is he a man and why is he pink?
For me, this character had to be male, because men still dominate the world and I want this work to reflect that fact.
Pink Man has no identity, he just consumes. He just wants to buy, buy, buy, but is never fulfilled. He wears the ubiquitous lounge suit of the ‘globalised man’, but in florescent pink which, in Thai culture, is a colour associated with vulgarity and poor taste. A fat middle-aged man wearing the cute colours of a pre-pubescent girl. It is the way a low comedian would dress.
Who performs Pink Man?
Sompong Thawee – a well-known Thai poet, performance artist, and Buddhist amulet expert. He was perfect for my Pink Man role: besides being fat and Asian-looking, he had that sense of dissatisfaction and hidden rage that resonates with people today who have everything but happiness. Luckily Sompong is a talented performance artist. I brief him and he improvises exactly what is required.
How did your ideas develop as the project progressed?
Since 1997, I have made more than ten series of photographs with Pink Man. We have touched upon some challenging subjects such as hyper-consumerism, nationalism, propaganda, terrorism, state brutality, and historical amnesia. The trope of Pink Man allows me to explore such difficult themes through a satirical approach.
[Left] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Horror in Pink No.1’ 2001 from the series ‘Pink Man’
[Right] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Horror in Pink No.6’ 2001 from the series ‘Pink Man’
What prompted you to make ‘Horror in Pink’?
In 1976, the right-wing politician Samak Sundaravej incited the massacre of students at Thammasat University who were protesting against the return of a former military dictator. My intention was to criticise contemporary Bangkokians – who, in 2000 in a landslide victory, voted for Samak to become city governor – for their ignorance and betrayal of those heroes who died for democracy.
In these images, I introduce Pink Man into black-and-white news photographs of the brutality inflicted during various political demonstrations for democracy in 1973, 1976 and 1992. For me, it remains one of my most important series. The work is relevant to Thailand’s political crisis even now. People are still weak and easily manipulated by powerful politicians to benefit their own interests. Samak even went on to become Prime Minister of Thailand in 2008, for Thaksin’s party.
[Left] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Pink Man in Paradise No.2 (Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park)’ 2003 from the series ‘Pink Man’
[Right] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Pink Man in Paradise No.8 (Taman Ujung)’ 2003 from the series ‘Pink Man’
Two years later you made ‘Pink Man in Paradise’, which is set on the island of Bali in Indonesia. What ideas are you exploring in this series?
Pink Man’s main theme is the relationship between consumerism and globalisation. Tourism is one of the biggest forms of consumerism. When the attack on New York’s World Trade Center occurred in 2001, we never imagined that terrorism would reach our Southeast Asian region. But, on the night of 12 October 2002, a bomb exploded in front of a Balinese nightclub, killing 202 tourists – mostly Australians – and injuring hundreds more. It was an unprecedented act of terrorism, never before seen in the history of this tropical, tourist-island paradise. Suddenly, it seemed no place on earth was safe anymore. Terrorism had become globalised… and tourism is a fragile business.
[Left] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Pink, White & Blue No.2 (Sentiment)’ 2005 from the series ‘Pink Man’
[Right] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Pink, White & Blue No.5, (Repeat After Me)’ 2005 from the series ‘Pink Man’
What concerns or issues are you exploring in the series ‘Pink, White and Blue’?
Since the early twentieth century, Thai public life and the Thai imagination have been dominated by the cult of nationalism – the overpowering mythologising of the nation state. In recent times, nothing has had more impact on the way we think and live.
In ‘Pink, White & Blue’, Pink Man is expressing great pride in his own professed patriotism. As a New Thai Patriot, he wants Thai children to be smart and technologically savvy, but still to blindly believe everything those in authority tell them. The educational system is manufacturing a new generation of devoted consumers – children who are unquestioningly loyal to the Neo-Thai brand, its products and its vision. Pink Man, icon of consumerism that he is, wants capitalism, not democracy.
[Left] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Obscene No.5’ 2014
[Right] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Obscene No.6’ 2014
What prompted you to make the series called ‘Obscene’?
In 2011, Thailand elected its first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. As every Thai knows well, she only came to office because of her powerful brother, the controversial former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra who effectively continued as PM through her. We saw heavy propaganda from her government and its Red Shirt supporters portraying her as a champion of democracy. With a beautiful woman as Prime Minister, one might think that it would have softened the political conflict of the country, but for me her female beauty became a cynical disguise for violence. The PR spin exploited ‘gender’ to gain political popularity and to avoid lawful scrutiny by making her legitimate accusers look like macho bullies.
Yingluck Shinawatra talked about poverty and justice to her Red Shirt supporters to win their hearts and votes. But, during her premiership, her government was plagued with corruption in many big multi-million projects. In the images above, the communist symbolism of the hammer and sickle are contradicted by the luxury-brand handbag of the daughter of a multi-billionaire family. The sword and scales of justice are held by a figure whose blindfold is selectively biased towards her Red Shirt supporters.
Colour palette plays a significant role in your work, often defining the aesthetic of a whole series.
Colour is culture. It has been part of political activity since ancient times. So, if I want to be successful in reaching out to my audience, I need to use it effectively in my work. But colour has many layers of meaning, allowing for a degree of ambiguity to my work. I like my images to remain open to interpretation rather than have a singular, absolute meaning – and colour helps with this.
I used to be a photojournalist trying to capture the ‘truth’ of an event. But, as time went on, I came to realise that there is something beyond the actual scene recorded by the camera. Maybe it’s the ‘emotional truth’ that I try to understand and communicate. Colour does this effectively.
[Left] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Blue No.4’ 2014
[Right] © Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Blue No.13’ 2014
‘Blue’ continues this theme, but seems much more austere and abstract than your earlier work.
This series is more introspective.
Despite everything – and many people tried – the situation didn’t change. Thailand is so divided. If you express an opinion it gets polarised: either you are pro-red or pro-yellow. No one is seen as an individual human being. Every opinion is twisted out of shape. That’s why the bodies in this series are isolated, awkward, uncomfortable.
Your most recent series is ‘Landscape of Unity the Indivisible’? What is the story behind these partially over-painted documentary images?
I have, for a long time, wanted to talk about the violent incidents that occurred in southern Thailand during Thaksin Shinawatra’s Premiership. In 2004, the Thai army raided the Krue-se mosque in Pattani in which 108 people died, allegedly Muslim terrorists. Meanwhile, in Tak Bai in Narathiwat 85 Muslim protesters suffocated to death while under arrest. Although the government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra made financial compensations to the victims and their families, the people involved in these massacres have never been tried in a criminal court. In 2024, the statute of limitations in these two cases will expire.
I want to critique this official apathy in the pursuit of justice in these cases. The Thai authorities – politicians, military, and civil servants – have an absolute commitment to a notion of national unity maintained by monolithic centralisation of rule. A unity supposedly symbolised by the red, white and blue of the Thai flag. They believe that granting any degree of autonomy to Muslim-majority provinces in the south of Thailand will undermine the country’s sovereignty. This is not only a problem in Thailand. In the twenty-first century, the rise of nationalism is a big issue around the world.
How difficult is it to make (and show) art in Thailand that is critical of the authorities?
It’s impossible to predict official and public reaction. For instance, when I showed my series ‘Fear’ in 2016, no one accused me of lese-majesty, which amazed many people. Yet, in 2012, when Ing Kanjanavanit and I made ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, a faithful translation of ‘Macbeth’ set in an imagined country with Thai-style settings and costume, the film was banned as a national security threat by Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. The film was portrayed by Australian National University’s New Mandala website as a hate speech film that deserved to be banned, even though they’d not seen it, and many international film festivals were afraid to show it. Yet, ‘Macbeth’ is a study of tyranny. It’s about abuse of power. It’s not about Thaksin or any other specific king or dictator, or else it’s about all of them. The banning made worldwide news and damaged Yingluck’s democratic credentials, so this had to be fixed, at our expense. Ing Kanjanavanit has subsequently become not just the most banned filmmaker in Thai cinema history but also blacklisted from international film festivals. The matter of whether, in criticising the abuse of power, you become a hero or a pariah internationally very much depends on who’s banning you at home, the military or a ‘democratically elected government’ with a powerful PR machine and lobbyists in the west. In another case, ‘Citizen Juling’, our documentary on the unrest in the southern provinces during the Thaksin administration, met with a witch-hunt by compromised western academics who demanded that the Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals remove the film from their programs. They did not. But, since then, no one else has dared to make another film on the South Thailand troubles which have cost thousands of lives.
Like many countries where people have lost their moral compass and sense of democracy, Thai society is deeply divided. We struggle in a world that’s full of lies and hatred, full of politicians like Trump, Putin, and Thaksin who know how to use the mass media and PR machinery to control the populace. It’s really difficult to make sincere art in such a situation. No one wants to hear you; they would rather bully you and target you in a witch hunt. They twist your position to place you in one or another polarised camp against your will and against the facts. I don’t see how or when this bitter division of the Thai art scene will ever be resolved while we have this toxic environment. Too many lives have been blacklisted and destroyed by the ‘unofficial’ but very real censorship.
Has this censorship extended to your still photographic work?
With one exception, my exhibitions have never been banned. Domestically and internationally, art is generally below the radar of the censors. Where censorship has occurred, it has mostly been the gallery’s own self-censorship or their unwillingness to defend an artist. The legal reality is that Thai filmmakers do not have the human right to freedom of expression. I’m trying to change this by suing the censors in the Administrative Court (which hears cases of government abuse of power) to overturn the ban on ‘Shakespeare Must Die’. Internationally, cinema is less diverse and free than the world of art, with just a handful of gatekeepers. That makes it easier to destroy a filmmaker than an artist.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these photographs?
My art reflects the times I live in. I would be lost if I didn’t make it; my life would have no meaning. I want my art to create dialogue and inspire people, the way I am inspired by other people’s art that speaks to me.
Manit Sriwanichpoom was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1961. In 1984, he received a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from the Srinakharinvirot University, Bangkok. He has had thirty-five solo exhibitions worldwide and his images have featured in thirty group exhibitions in Thailand and over one hundred internationally. In 2003, Apinan Poshyananda curated his work into the exhibition ‘Reverie and Phantasm in the Epoch of Global Trauma’ presented in the Thai Pavilion at the Fiftieth Venice Biennale.
Manit Sriwanichpoom’s work is held in important public and private collections including those of the National Gallery of Australia; M+ Museum, Hong Kong, China; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, France; the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; H&F Foundation, Netherlands; the National Gallery Singapore; the Vehbi Koç Foundation, Turkey; MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Thailand; and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA. His images have been published in ten monographs including ‘Manit Sriwanichpoom’ (Edition de l’Oeil 2002), ‘Protest’ (Chang Puek Nga Dum 2003), ‘Lost’ (A+ Works of Art 2018), and ‘Pink Man Story’ (Kathmandu Photo Gallery, 2021). In 2007, he received Japan’s prestigious Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Prize and, in 2014, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. He lives and works in Bangkok.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.