A short trip from the centre of Chiang Mai to Ne'-Na Contemporary Art Space in Mae Rim calls to mind Basho's haiku poem Narrow Road To The Deep North. As we rolled down the pleasant path towards the gallery, we realised how art can be ironic: as it tries to get closer to ordinary life, it insists on its extraordinary quality. When it works, it leaves an impression.
Ne'-Na Contemporary Art Space opened earlier this year, an extension of its original space in the suburbs of Chiang Mai, which was established in 1998 by a group of Swedish and Thai artists led by Shukit Panmongkol in collaboration with the Monfai Cultural Centre.
Ne'-Na held an open house last Saturday, and guests were impressed by the well-designed wooden houses in its compound, the feast of authentic northern fare and some typically sweet northern receptionists dressed in traditional costume. Besides culinary delights there was also an audio treat.
Recently nominated national artist Buason Thanomboon (or Maekru Buason Maungpraw) performed traditional northern opera music. Interestingly, it was a constructive synthesis of ancient melodies, improvisation and contemporary inspiration _ an escape from the predictability which characterises even so-called experimental music today.
While our gustatory and auditory senses were lulled, our visual sense was challenged by works by two artists _ Miranda Whall from the UK and Mark Swartz from Australia, who both joined the residency programme at Ne'-Na Contemporary Art Space.
Hospitality is usually viewed as an impressive and "inviting" characteristic of the North _ with an emphasis on sweetness, slowness and quietness. Like it or not, they are represented as part of northern Thai identity. Whall said that "quietness" made her want to do something subtle. The video and sound installation titled The Quest: Lost Kingdom is a collection of images and sounds gathered during her time at Ne'-Na Contemporary Art Space.
The Quest is the series funded by the Arts Council of Wales. Whall travelled from Wales to Istanbul and Mexico before reaching Chiang Mai, and along the way she has created works in response to each location. Here in Chiang Mai, "the lost kingdom of Lanna" was her subtext, a theme inevitably redolent with nostalgia and romanticism.
When darkness descended on Saturday, people were invited to see the work in a dark white cube. There were plenty of green paddy pots placed in a circle in the middle of the gallery; then images of yellow flowers, fish and butterflies were projected on to the walls, objects and viewers _ creating a floating, dreamy effect for all.
Paddy fields are a typical feature of rice farming in Southeast Asia, and they typify a tropical country: monsoons, sunshine, fish, butterflies and colourful flowers. All of these are fairly predictable, and yet the artist's composition has transformed ordinary images into a new visuality that is mixed with her fictional story.
The Quest is like Whall's secret pursuit of something elusive and will fulfill the image in her mind. Lanna _ the ancient kingdom of the North _ is still here; it has never been lost, it has simply changed. A narrative of any lost city is usually a psychological issue. The language and the songs that she cannot comprehend have become a myth that creates new meanings.
Set in an open space in the middle of a large wooden house, Swartz's bamboo sculptures were hung over the viewers' heads, casting shadows that beautifully occupied the space. The Australian artist applied to Ne'-Na's residency programme specifically to work with bamboo. His work focuses on material-based design such as recycled tyres, wire and now bamboo. He explores low-tech media and methods, going back to the basics and bringing a craftsman-like approach to contemporary art. His bamboo sculptures of two flying objects look like an amalgamation of a fish and a bird, and even a local fish trap (or sai) which in turn also looks like the prototype of an airplane. In all it can also be seen as either a form of freedom or a trap.
These bamboo sculptures remind me of the work by Sopheap Pich, perhaps Cambodia's most internationally famous artist at the moment. His work mainly uses bamboo and rattan to create organic open-weave forms that are representational and abstract. Both Sopheap and Swartz seem to be delving into the possible transformation of bamboo and realising its nature as a breathing and living material. Sopheap's works also represent a journey of the old craft _ the use of bamboo _ to the definition of art. More importantly, he doesn't exploit nostalgia or exoticism.
The impact of Swartz's work may grow with time, as the material-based artwork requires a thorough contemplation of its natural mechanism which slowly reveals its artistic capacity.
The works by the two Western artists, mixed with the traditional setting of the event, produced a multi-flavoured outcome, and this reviewer felt that the atmosphere was not as stuck-up as most exhibition openings in Bangkok. The unfamiliar range of language, food, sights and sounds under the same roof was a crucial aspect. It is refreshing to interact with different perspectives, and Ne'-Na made sure such interaction happened.
Ne'-Na Contemporary Art Space, Annex site, 205 Moo 5 T. Mae Ram, A. Mae Rim, Chiang Mai. Call + 66(0)892 666 547.
Mark Swartz's work is on show until
Mar 18 by appointment only.
About the author
Writer: Judha Suwanmongkol