Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Head-Turning Performers
Asiaweek, South China Morning Post, November 1998
Performance art in Bangkok

Residents strolling in Bangkok’s Saranrom Park recently got the shock of their lives. A man, bound and blindfolded, lay in the middle of the path. Another figure stood a few meters away, engrossed in disemboweling a dead chicken. Bangkok’s urban drama had taken a bizarre turn, but not in a way that would concern its police. The men were part of Asiatopia, a regional festival of performance art.

The artists’ unlikely backer: the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Not only did the BMA help fund the festival (the city contributed $21,000), it allowed the park to be used as the venue. That’s all part of its campaign to promote the use of public spaces and make art more accessible. “In times like these, when people can’t afford to go to performances, we need to bring art to them,” explains Nikom Wratpanij, deputy general of the BMA’s social welfare department. So, watched by curious passers-by, the performers slashed, hopped and danced through the evenings of Oct. 24 and 25. Mainly, the event was an opportunity for Asian artists to “perform on their own doorstep rather than go abroad as they have been forced to in the past,” says Chumpon Apisuk, initiator of the collective behind the avant-garde spectacle.

Not unexpectedly, the region’s economic collapse and wounded national pride were common themes, as was environmental destruction. The styles, though, were as varied as the countries from which the 18 participants were drawn. Mangling “corpses” and spitting fake blood, younger Thai artists offered dark, violent takes on their society. The Japanese and Koreans adopted almost Zen-like approaches. Shimoda Seiji twirled a piece of string, then taped Coca-Cola cups over his eyes in a piece called One Communication. Takei Yoshimichi plugged electric bulbs and sensors to his body for a light show even more mystifyingly titled The Big Yawn 98. Indonesia’s bloody May riots and the spread of AIDS in Bangladesh came in more comprehensible forms of traditional song and dance.

As bystanders found out, the entertainment was both novel and interactive. Public participation is key to Chumpon and Sompong Thawee’s projects on travel and poetry. Indeed, that’s the reason many of the artists choose performance art although they are trained in more conventional forms: There’s more scope for individual expression and audience participation. “I am a storyteller. I find that ‘flat art’ limits my ability to tell stories with my voice and body,” says Michael Shaowansai, the performer in bondage. His piece, Site, paid homage to the history of Saranrom – a royal garden which became a popular hangout for local gays.

Still, is it art? That’s a question often asked of performance artists who strain the limits of acceptable expression. “I don’t care if it is or not,” reports Mongkol Plienbangchang, who is known for his often gory performance. “I want to express the feelings of the underprivileged— their rage and frustration— in the language of today.” Of course, you don’t have to shock to make a point. Josef Ng of Singapore says: “You can walk along the boundaries instead of always having to cross them.”

As the artists have learned, being feisty only takes you so far. A number have been briefly arrested, some for indecent exposure, others for voicing political criticisms. Lee Wen, a Singaporean, points out that before staging any performances in his country, artists must obtain licenses which may require large deposits. Often, permission is not granted “until the last minute.” Ng, his compatriot, no longer performs in Singapore after drawing fire from the government and media for explicit pieces on gay rights several years ago. Gallery owners and museums, too, are reluctant to give space to this controversial, non-lucrative and sometimes messy art form.

That may be changing, at least in Bangkok. The BMA plans to build an $8.2 million contemporary art museum, which will include a venue for performance artists. It may stage public performances at busy intersections ahead of the Asian Games in December. What will audiences make of these? Many among the crowds at Saranrom confessed that the sight of a man hopping on one foot had them baffled. Others just laughed. Such reactions do not faze the artists. “It’s a first step,” says Paisan Plienbangchang, who smashed eggs on a telephone directory to emphasize what he calls the process of creation. “They don’t have to understand everything, but at least we have made their heads turn.” For the Thais, who are always ready for a bit of sanuk (fun), that’s a good enough reason. Wouldn’t you rather watch a sack-encased man try to climb a tree than go for a sweaty jog?