Fifty shades of gay

The perennially flamboyant Michael Shaowanasai returns with a new exhibition

In two years the sassy, flamboyant Michael Shaowanasai will turn 50. Before reaching the Big Five-O, the US-born Thai artist has decided to put on a new show about his past, reflecting on the sexual journey that has played a major role in shaping his thinking _ and fabulousness.

Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but Michael Shaowanasai isn’t taking any chances.

"I just turned 48 last week, so it's about time for me to start afresh. A new chapter," says Michael in his notoriously high-pitched, slightly sarcastic and altogether endearing tone.

The implication is that "Radu Die 1. Dawn of the Evening: Entering Act V" is a colourful farewell to a passing phase of his life.

Opening last week at H Gallery and H Project Space, the exhibition is the artist's first solo show since 2010. Radu in Thai means a woman's period. So radu die implies the death of the last period the artist life and works _ it could also suggest menopause. Each selected work represents the artist's character and ideas that have been manifest in his 16-year career. Dubbed as an enfant terrible of the Thai art scene, Michael, bald, plump and piquant, is one of the few artists who have represented his homeland twice at the vaunted Venice Biennale.

At the opening night last Thursday, Michael was at the door to welcome guests, dressed in a causal buttoned shirt and cargo shorts _ probably against the wishes fans who have fond memories of seeing him in glamorous dresses during his heyday as a drag queen.

"I like it when people expect me to do something, and I will surely do the opposite," Michael said, followed by infectious laughter.

Near the entrance is a corner where a stack of recycled papers is placed. Michael explained these are copies of pages from art history books or sheets of piano music. On the opposite side of each page the artist has printed gay pornographic pictures, and visitors are urged to take as many as they want.

"There is an academic article on one side, and a nude photo of a man on the other. I like to play with the idea that people have sides: who they are and who they present themselves to be. We can never judge others to be a certain thing, there are parts of them that we don't know."

Dominating the gallery is a quirky, colourful installation work that reminds us of a spiritual shrine usually seen under big trees where people worship a guardian spirit or goddess with plastic flower garlands and bright-coloured cloths.

Instead of a goddess, we see Michael's portrait from The Adventures Of Iron Pussy, an internationally-known film featuring Michael's cinematic avatar: Iron Pussy, the transvestite secret agent who battles the baddies with a healthy mix of charm and ferocity.

Michael’s fist in black rubber glove on top of an illustration book by French artist Tomi Ungerer.

Iron Pussy, her hair perfectly coiffed, appeared in several of Michael's short films in the early 2000s. In 2005, Michael co-directed the feature-length film with Cannes-winning Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and The Adventures Of Iron Pussy became quite a success showing in film festivals around the world.

In the film, Iron Pussy, played by Michael of course, works at a 7-Eleven during the day (he's bald), and becomes a super spy when the nation asks for his service (he transforms to she and has a nostalgic beauty to boot).

"It is an homage to the character of Iron Pussy, the one that has made me who I am today," says the artist. What he offers at the so-called shrine in the gallery ranges from satin scarfs and high heels to fake eyelashes.

Easily catching viewers' eyes is a light box on the wall in a shape of conversation bubble with the word "Putain" in the centre.

"Putain _ I learned this word when I had sex with a French man," he says unashamedly, which is how he says everything. "It literally means 'whore' but in sex, it means 'awesome'. I put the word in a bubble, and the chosen font is commonly used in restaurant signs. Basically, I am talking about something good, something delicious."

Behind the shrine are three frames, containing an 8mm film reel, a VHS tape and a DVD, respectively. They contain pornographic movies, but instead of playing the films, Michael only shows us the reel, the tape and the disc and provides a written synopsis of each story.

Audiences will learn about his sexual preference through his writing and enjoy his talent as a witty storyteller. Michael says that, for the past 15 years, writing synopses has been one of his jobs.

Across the hall is an installation work _ a tower stacked with several Attitude magazines, the Thai version of a UK gay lifestyle magazine in which Michael once gave an interview. Each layer of the tower shows an image of male models, the unknown to Thai stars, and the edition on top features his interview and portraits. Michael named the work Michael's Attitude.

Most of the works are photography. Each photograph captures a single item on a white background. There is an image of a black item in the shape of tick or check mark; look closely, it is actually a black dildo. Another wall is dedicated to a collection of bottles in different shapes and colours. They are "poppers" _ inhaled to enhance sexual pleasure, available in sex shops in many countries.

Next to the poppers collection is a series of photographs showing a hand wearing a black rubber glove in different postures, including placed on a book by French illustrator Tomi Ungerer. If S&M is your cup of tea, you know what this glove is used for.

The rest is memorabilia from his erotic adventures in Europe and the US _ from tickets to a defunct gay club in Paris to a lubrication sachet from a famous Bangkok gay bathhouse.

"Each item has a story. The glove is what I collected from a sex club in Berlin. These bottles of poppers travelled with me. This one is San Francisco. That is Berlin and Barcelona," he pointed and explained. "These are objects that you know, or even use yourself, but you never talk about it. Lubrication, sex toys, they are parts of our sexual activity."

The showcase could never be Michael's without the artist in drag. Four images of Michael as four different types of women are strikingly seductive. For his fans, Michael is a living art _ he is his own piece. And from his early work until his Iron Pussy persona, the chirpy, honest, flamboyant artist never fails to attract audiences when his work involves impersonation.

In the four pictures, we see Michael as a blonde, Marilyn Monroe-esque lady wearing specs and carrying the book The Prince, as a Latina with a cigarette in one hand and showing a hairy armpit, as a Chinese girl carrying a high-tech gadget and as a dashing Black diva in an afro grabbing a microphone.

"These pictures are called Four Faces Of Eve, as I play with the name of the movie, Three Faces Of Eve. Besides four different looks, each female character holds something in her hand, and it is an important detail of each character," he explained. On the gallery's second floor is a work that allows audience participation, a piece that seems to be a summary of his overall idea. Hanging on a wall is a canvas painted black with a hole encircled with white neon light. Visitors can look through the hole into a locked room, in which hangs another painting with the words "it tastes like f*** candy".

"It's a sculpture/painting. If you want to buy this work, you need to build up a wall where the work can be seen from both sides," said Michael.

"We don't usually interact with painting, so I decided to create a painting with dimension, a painting with a hole where it needs the viewer's interaction. By instinct, men or women, when we see a peephole, it usually gives us an urge to look through it.

"However, this is not an installation. Both works can stand alone, but when put together, they suddenly have an interaction."

At the opening of the show, his exhibition was warmly welcomed by attendees. Each art piece sparked a different reaction: viewers were smiling, laughing, giggling or whispering to each other when looking at some of the more provocative pieces. And that's what makes his show exciting: how the artist unveils his personal stories to speak to audience members' experiences.

At almost 50, this is a story of Michael's life, a part of it, at least. And the artist bares all in front of the audience's eyes, even without an actual naked picture of himself.

He leads us to follow his wild journey that has shaped him into who he is today, or who he wants you to think he is. Everything has two sides, as he said himself. So true.

About the author

Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer